Should professional ethics include protecting the planet?

John Steley

Do you ever have an uneasy feeling that maybe something could be missing, or maybe that something more needs to be said? I do.

I have worked as a psychologist for nearly 30 years. This has included time in the Prison Service, an NHS practice and with a medical charity. I now work in private practice in London. The ethics that were discussed before I entered the profession were certainly relevant and necessary. What should I do if someone told me that they were planning a crime? What if I suspected that a child or elderly person was being abused? What should I do if another psychologist, or someone from an allied profession, were behaving unethically?

Time, however, has moved on. We still have problems of crime, child and elder abuse, and occasional unprofessional behaviour by colleagues that need to be addressed, but we now also have problems of a much larger scale. Changes to the earth’s climate will have catastrophic implications for millions of people. The loss of biodiversity and the possibility of environmental collapse threatens us all. What, therefore, should professional ethics encompass at a time of environmental crisis?

What should I do if a client or colleague constantly takes long-haul plane journeys for holidays? This may not endanger anyone immediately but the cumulative impact of this sort of behaviour will be massive. This behaviour is not illegal and therefore cannot be reported as a crime, but should I ever confront the person with the implications of their actions? What if a client or colleague says that they are going to start driving to work rather than using public transport? Should I make mention of the cost to the planet or even the impact it could have on other people’s health? What if the owner of a factory that produces plastic goods wants me to help him be more successful at work? Should I ask about the environmental impact of his products?

If these and similar issues are to be addressed then I would not want this to be done by psychologists working only with others in our profession. I would hope that those in professions such as law and medicine are asking similar questions and that we will be able to dialogue with them.

We will also need input from those in the relevant disciplines such as climatology and biology to inform us as to what the hazards are and what needs to be done about them.
Finally, of course, we must involve the wider community. Do they want the various professions to include environmental considerations as part of their ethical stance?

At a personal level as a practising Christian, I would hope that I could discuss these issues with other Christians both in my own church and beyond.

We will need to work together if we are going to address issues such as these. That will mean listening to each other. I do not agree with everything the twentieth-century theologian Paul Tillich said but I hope we could remember his dictum, ‘The first duty of love is to listen’.

John Steley is a psychologist in private practice in London. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and is a regular contributor for the Church of England Newspaper. His booklet ‘Help! I Need to Know About Narcissism’ is due to be published in April 2019.

Image: Karl Allen Lugmayer, garbage plastic waste pollution.