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On April 10 – 12, UT Knoxville hosts Energy and Ethics: A Conference on Responsibility and the Environment at the downtown Hilton Hotel. John Nolt, professor of environmental ethics and president-elect of the Faculty Senate, is one of the event’s organizers.

John NoltEnergy use is not just an economic or environmental issue; it’s a matter of justice. Questions of justice and energy use arise, of course, between developed and developing nations, as in the current debates over the Kyoto Protocol. But they also arise between us and our posterity. These future-oriented questions are a focus of my research.

I’m an environmental ethicist. Environmental ethics is a philosophical discipline that aims to expand traditional ethical thinking in two dimensions: biologically, beyond the human species, and temporally, into the distant future. Thinking about the distant future raises some novel questions.

There is, for example, the question of whether we ought to count the interests of distant future people as less significant than our own, using a "social discount rate" modeled on economic theory. That question is reminiscent of older debates about whether the interests of Africans or Native Americans or women ought to count as much as those of "we" white males. We now see (I hope) that place of birth or race or even gender is irrelevant to a person’s moral significance. But we have not, I think, clearly understood that the same is true of time of birth.

Such an understanding has profound public policy implications. It implies, for example, that curtailment of greenhouse gas emissions is not merely a good idea for us, our kids and our grandkids; it’s a requirement of intergenerational justice — similar in important respects to the great demands for social justice that have marked our recent past. Environmental ethics aims to trace and define such implications.

As an academic discipline, environmental ethics is a form of applied ethics — moral philosophy aimed at advancing contemporary moral practice. The UTK Philosophy Department has over the past decade broadened its work in applied ethics, added to its long-standing strength in biomedical ethics, and given special attention to business and environmental ethics.

Some of the fruits of this work will be on display at an international conference on energy and responsibility to be held April 10 – 12 at the Knoxville Hilton. The conference will assemble some of the world’s most prominent ethicists, business executives, legal scholars, activists and policymakers for an interdisciplinary dialogue on the ethics of energy use.

Many UT units and departments are co-sponsoring the event, along with such community partners as Alcoa, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Charter of Human Responsibilities, and the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club.

The conference agenda, together with registration information is available online at http://isse.utk.edu/energy_and_responsibility/. Come and learn more!