Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Environmental ethics -- by Hugh G Robertson

Illustration: a course developed by the Baha'i International Community for UN-CSD in May 2009.
Click on it to view clearly.

We thank the New Edinburgh News, where the article reproduced below originally appeared. Hugh Robertson is a member of the Ottawa Quaker meeting.

On July 1st, 2009 the World Wildlife Fund and the international insurance company Allianz declared that Canada stood last among the G8 countries in implementing policies to combat global warming.

By any yardstick, our record is dismal. We have the third highest ecological footprint in the world and our per capita carbon emissions also place us in the top three offending countries. In their annual Greendex report which measures consumption patterns in seventeen countries, National Geographic ranked Canada second last.

Our record and our reputation have strangely not registered in our collective conscience. Do we lack the honesty to face our darker side? Are we opposed to sacrifice because we are so comfortably cocooned against adversity? What has happened to our vaunted “Canadian values”? Have we deluded ourselves by what Jeffrey Simpson of the Globe and Mail recently referred to as “our deadliest sin: an unsinkable moral superiority”?

Why does Canada lack the political will to confront the climate crisis? Why are we the laggards and not the leaders in the international environmental movement? Is it because we cannot muster the maturity that is fundamental to the functioning of a democracy? Is it because we allow our baser instincts, like self-interest, to direct our voting preferences?

We, the voting citizens, are engaged in a dance of deceit with our politicians. Although we demand moral leadership, courage and vision from our elected officials, they know we have split personalities. We tell the pollsters that environmental concerns are a priority but we tenaciously oppose carbon taxes and increased gasoline prices and we resist initiatives to reduce energy waste, such as smart meters. [Harris-Decima poll 30 Nov 09: 62% of Canadians say they want climate action - Ed.]

Party tacticians are astute at reading the tea leaves. They know that it is budget “goodies” that win elections, not tough medicine. If it is primarily opinion polls, not principles, that direct public policy, then we have only ourselves to blame. The lack of political resolve is merely a reflection of the lack of our own moral resolve. We are willing dance partners.

The ecological crisis is a moral crisis. At the core of the crisis are our economic system and our material lifestyles, underpinned by a value system focused on competitive self-interest, excessive consumption, and hyper-individualism.

The argument that humans are innately selfish creatures is fallacious; we are not pre- programmed to be competitive and cut-throat. Early tribal societies only survived against overwhelming odds by co-operating. At heart, we are a caring and compassionate species. It is our altruistic qualities, not the rugged individualism and “rational self-interest” of Ayn Rand’s novels that will enable us to survive the socio-economic turmoil that must surely accompany climate turmoil.

The so-called “selfish gene,” which has evolved through cultural conditioning over many centuries, has bred an obsession with individual rights and freedom of choice. A sense of entitlement has emerged in our society which in turn has spurred a dramatic increase in material consumption. The climate crisis is essentially a problem of over-consumption and because consumption involves both choice and free will, it is, above all, an ethical issue.

We do not need continuous economic growth to maintain our standard of living. If the Canadian standard of living was replicated by all people on earth, we would need another four planets. So, if our standard of living is clearly unsustainable, what is the purpose of “sustained” economic growth that is so environmentally destructive? The mantra of endless economic growth is both ecologically suicidal and spiritually bankrupt.

The “market” has assumed a central role in our economic ideology. Its proponents argue that it is a value-free mechanism that allocates resources efficiently and determines prices and incomes in an equitable manner. The notion that the market operates in a “value vacuum” is a myth – the market is suffused with self-interest. The institution of the market operating in concert with its twin, private property, drives the economic engine which in turn creates problems that have serious environmental side effects.

  • The market distorts the distribution of wealth and income in society. Since the size of our individual eco-footprints is largely shaped by the level of our income, preserving the environment is essentially a socio-economic issue.
  • The market has no ethical vision; “vision” is restricted to forecasting speculative opportunities.
  • The market does not recognize the precautionary principle which focuses on the protection of the rights of unborn generations. It is short term profits and shareholder “value” that are paramount in market transactions.
  • There are no moral constraints in the functioning of the market that curb the exploitation of resources and preserve them for the future. “Drill, baby, drill” is the clarion call of the oil industry and then pump every last drop.
  • The stock market itself has become a barometer of ecological destruction and corporate greed rather than a measure of economic and social well-being.
Some banks and investment houses are advising clients how they can benefit from the ecological crisis. Headlines, such as the following: “Global opportunities of investing in climate change” or “Food for thought—opportunities in agriculture” abound in glossy promotional literature for investors. Ethical investments, such as renewable energy for example, do not seem to merit the same banner headlines. Selling short is a questionable investment strategy, but selling the future of the planet short is lunacy.

Even the media are complicit in hawking opportunities to cash in on global catastrophes with headlines, such as “Canada can profit from the world food-price crisis” – while half the world is starving. The following dubious headline appeared in the business section of a national newspaper recently: “Marketing as a philosophy: How to mine the crisis.”

“Mining” misfortune, capitalizing on crises and selling lifestyles that are unsustainable is hardly responsible journalism and ethical advertising. What has happened to the much hyped initiative, “corporate social responsibility,” promoted by business? How responsible is it for some businesses to fight efforts aimed at climate mitigation only to climb aboard the gravy train of climate adaptation by publicizing potential investment opportunities? Is this what is called moral relativism?

It is distressing to note that the Global Climate Coalition, made up largely of the oil, coal and automobile industries, has led an aggressive public relations campaign countering the scientific claim that fossil fuels are a major cause of global warming. Now the American Petroleum Institute is organizing public rallies to oppose President Obama’s climate and energy reforms. In a move reminiscent of the “Scopes Monkey Trial” of the 1920’s, the US Chamber of Commerce is even attempting to put climate science on trial.

Further, Paul Krugman, Nobel laureate in Economics, was moved to write recently in the N.Y. Times that the Congressional representatives who voted against the climate change bill were climate deniers, guilty of both “treason against the planet” and the betrayal of future generations. Sadly, the same accusation of intergenerational treachery is also true of many of our captains of industry.

A newcomer to the ecological scene is carbon offsets. But are they not just another ethical cop-out? We cannot neutralize our extravagant lifestyles by purchasing forgiveness. Offsets are merely a modern equivalent of the mediaeval practice of papal indulgences. Buying offsets may comfort our consciences but they will not fast track us to heaven. A lower eco-footprint offers far better odds for that final journey.

There are few practical economic or technological solutions to the climate crisis. There is only our determination to live lightly with less and to live in harmony with nature. Market panaceas, such as cap and trade credits, and price increases through carbon taxes will not curb our appetites. It is in our hearts where the solution to a sustainable planet lies, not in our bank balances.

Our political culture and economic ideology is firmly focused on short term gain: the long term pain will be our legacy to future generations. Can we not restrain our self-indulgence so that a destabilized climate system and a polluted planet will not imperil both domestic societies as well as international security in the future?

Democracy has never been tested in times of resource scarcity and climate chaos. The Great Depression was a financial crisis precipitated and manipulated by financial interests. Environmental collapse, however, will trigger a breakdown in both our political and economic institutions which in turn will destroy the social fabric, leading to widespread civil strife and dictatorial regimes.

In Climate Wars, Gwynne Dyer describes the possibility of states waging war over water and food shortages. International borders are already being disputed as glaciers melt and Arctic ice disappears. Famines will send uncontrollable waves of climate refugees surging across national borders. And once international security breaks down, there will no longer be the good will and the co-operation essential to stall further ecological deterioration.

Have we not a moral responsibility to ensure that we strengthen the bonds that bind us together as a planetary people and that we ensure the safe and secure transmission of a stable social order into which future generations will be born? From the affluent financier to the landless peasant, we are all shareholders with an equal stake in the natural wealth of the planet. We should remember that we live in a society, not in an economy.

An offshoot – and certainly not a “green shoot” – of an economic system that distributes wealth unevenly is environmental racism. Impoverished communities, usually black, indigenous or Hispanic, are often located near freeways, garbage dumps and oil refineries. The Mikisew Cree of Fort Chipeweyan on Lake Athabasca are experiencing first hand the toxic fallout from the Alberta tar sands with sky rocketing cancer rates. [CBC reports; video interviews with natives, water researcher Dr David Schindler and local medic Dr John O'Connor 13 Oct 07]

The Nuclear Waste Management Organization is seeking a willing community to take spent nuclear fuel for containment in a “deep geological repository.” What a tragedy and an indignity it would be if a struggling First Nations’ reserve was “persuaded” by the lure of money and jobs to accept lethal radioactive waste -- from our wasteful use of electricity -- for burial on their ancestral homelands.

Ecological and social justice for disadvantaged minorities must be an ethical priority in our society. We impoverish ourselves spiritually when we wage war on the weak.

Scientists have clearly established the magnitude of our climate problem, while economists still debate endlessly the costs and benefits of development versus sustainability. But where are the ethicists and the philosophers imploring us to search deep within ourselves for answers to the ecological crisis? At some level -- emotional, intuitive, or intellectual -- we must realize that our lifestyles are out of balance with nature.

We are a sentient species. We have memory and vision, conscience and cognition, imagination and awareness, and yet we are still mired in material addiction and denial. Despite our unique traits, we are inexplicably afflicted with both ethical amnesia and moral myopia. How could we, for example, fish the Atlantic cod to near extinction and now drive the Pacific salmon to a similar fate? [See biologist Alexandra Morton's letter to the Fisheries Minister 8 Sep 09 - Ed.]

Each generation holds the planet in trust for succeeding generations. We act as the custodians of their birthright and the real test of our humanity and, indeed, our spirituality is the state of the world that we bequeath to our offspring.

“Spirituality” is derived from the Latin words “inspirire” meaning “to breathe” and “spiritus” denoting “breath.” The air we all breathe is our shared inheritance; it is essential to life on earth. Given the origin of the word “spirituality,” we must lend it new meaning by recognizing our indivisible union with the natural world and with the air that we, and future generations, breathe in common. If the purpose of life is, ultimately, the perpetuation of life, then preservation of the planet must surely rank as the highest form of spirituality.
For introductions to climate ethics, see Wikipedia, Climate, Resurgence and Orion magazines, the World Council of Churches ecojustice programme, Yale FORE statements from world religions, Scientific American June 2008, a multifaith resource list at; videos and blog of the Baha'i climate ethics workshop for CSD-17 (cover shown above).

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