“The Baltic Sea’s environmental problems are essentially an ethical issue.”


Olle Torpman: The Baltic Sea problem – an ethical problem

The Baltic Sea’s environmental problem can be solved, but, if the region’s actors are to be able to agree on practical solutions, we must start to bring more ethics into the debate, writes the philosopher Olle Torpman.

Text: Olle Torpman

Editorial comment: This text is a guest contribution. Any opinions expressed are those of the author.

The Baltic Sea is facing a number of environmental problems: eutrophication, over-fishing, and plastic marine litter, , to name but a few. The solutions can often seem obvious: among other things, we need to fish less and release lower volumes of fertilisers and rubbish into the sea. In spite of this, it is difficult to put any solutions into action.


To understand the reason for this, we need to realise that what we refer to as The Baltic Sea Problem is not just a scientific or a political problem. It is essentially also – at least partly – an ethical problem.

A collective problem requires collective solutions

Firstly, the Baltic Sea’s poor environment is a collective problem, one both caused by and affecting all of the countries around the Baltic; this makes it a difficult matter to resolve. Why should just Sweden (or any other country for that matter) stop fishing, polluting or using fertilisers, when we know that no country acting alone will be able to solve the Baltic Sea problem?

The collective structure is certainly not unique to the Baltic Sea problem, but is also the case for global environmental problems, of which climate change is perhaps the clearest example. But that explains at least partly why the apparently simple solutions fail to come to fruition. Because collective problems require collective solutions, all involved have to both agree on the solutions and be coordinated in their implementation.

The Baltic countries are affected differently by the solutions

Even though there is no lack of understanding of the causes of the Baltic Sea’s environmental problems, or which practical measures could solve them, there is no agreement on which solutions should be implemented. Who should do what, when should it be done, and how? And who’s going to foot the bill? Yes, how should the burdens of the solution to the Baltic Sea problem be shared fairly between the Baltic countries?

This lack of consensus is partly due to the fact that different practical solutions affect people, countries and business sectors to different degrees. A strict fishing ban will primarily hit the fishing industry, a total ban on emissions of nitrogen and phosphorus will primarily hit the agricultural industry, a total ban on plastics will hit, among others, the packaging industry, and so on.

The dependence of different industries also varies among the Baltic countries, and the countries are dealing with different economic circumstances. It is, therefore, not so strange that different actors in the Baltic region are more or less unwilling to undertake various solutions to the environmental problems facing the sea.

Underlying conflicts in values

An additional reason why the Baltic countries have not yet succeeded in solving the Baltic problem is that they (including Sweden) tend to base their approach on different values or ideologies. This breeds a lack of unanimity on the ultimate aims of policy, as well as what the fundamental values are. Which society is the best, and how should it be achieved? What carries more weight, the freedom of individuals and companies to make decisions on their own activities without getting bogged down in bureaucracy, or the well-being of future generations and ecosystems? Or something else completely?

Disagreement on such matters is expressed in the political fragmentation that can be seen around Europe (and all over the world). Some have a more socio-liberal attitude, others a more conservative one, while a few have a stated green policy. 

The Baltic Sea’s environmental problems are therefore essentially an ethical issue. Because they are about issues such as what has inherent value, what do we have moral obligations to protect what characterises fair distribution, who has the moral responsibility to take action, and so on.

If we treat the Baltic Sea problem as an ethical one, we can be better equipped to succeed in agreeing on tangible solutions.

Everyone wins if the problem is solved

So we need to question the values on which we base the society we are building. The only question is whether this is possible. And what would be the result of posing of such a question?

Giving the Baltic Sea problem an ethical dimension could help us to realise that other political issues have unnecessarily blocked potential solutions. Just because different political parties oppose each other on issues relating to, for example, immigration, pensions or EU membership, they do not need to oppose each other on the Baltic Sea question.  

Thankfully, there is no one with anything to lose in the long term if the Baltic Sea problem is resolved.

It would benefit not only the fishing industry and the rest of marine life in the Baltic Sea, but it would also be perceived as valuable in terms of both aesthetics and recreation for those of us who live around the Baltic Sea. When we are even advised against swimming because of excessive algal blooms, it is easy to be aware of our own private benefit from a healthy Baltic Sea. Solving the Baltic Sea problem would also benefit both fishing and tourism industries, and generate new tax revenues in the longer term.

If we discuss the values on which society is built, we should be able to find solutions that benefit everyone!

We must question our values

Introducing ethics into the debate would also help us to take a clearer view of the roles and responsibilities of the various countries around the Baltic for the Baltic Sea Problem. Maybe that would help us to realise that as the problem us been caused by us, mankind, it can also be addressed if we stop our activities that are harmful to the environment. In general terms, these activities are those such as eutrophication, over-fishing, intensive meat production and too much littering.

It is no surprise that if we are unable to bring these activities to an end, we will find it difficult to come up with a solution. Above all, it is our demand for cheap food (not least in the form of energy-intensive meat and fish) combined with our consumption patterns in general that have brought us to the situation we find ourselves in today.

How should we live our lives?

With this in mind, we find ourselves once more facing an ethical question: what kind of people do we want to be and how should we live our lives? This means, among other things, that we must seriously question what we eat and how we consume, as well as how goods are produced and transported. As long as we ignore these fundamental aspects, we will not reach agreement on the solutions. This does not mean that we must achieve a one hundred per cent consensus on all ethical questions. But if we do not even discuss them, we will not achieve any awareness of which political compromises might possibly be identified.


Olle Torpman is a researcher in practical philosophy at the Department of Philosophy, Stockholm University. His philosophical interests relate primarily to ethical issues and his main area is environmental ethics. His dissertation investigated the implications of neo-liberalism for climate change. He has also written about making decisions when faced with moral uncertainty, a highly topical subject in the ongoing debate on the environment and climate.