Once, pretty much everywhere, beating your wife and children was regarded as a father’s duty, homosexuality was a hanging offense, and waterboarding was approved — in fact, invented — by the Catholic Church. Through the middle of the 19th century, the United States and other nations in the Americas condoned plantation slavery. Many of our grandparents were born in states where women were forbidden to vote. And well into the 20th century, lynch mobs in this country stripped, tortured, hanged and burned human beings at picnics.
Looking back at such horrors, it is easy to ask: What were people thinking?
Yet, the chances are that our own descendants will ask the same question, with the same incomprehension, about some of our practices today.
Is there a way to guess which ones?
I thought this was going to be another just-doesn’t-get-it opinion piece in the Washington Post. After all, the answer to its headline question, “What will future generations condemn us for?” is painfully obvious to anybody who follows climate science (as I discussed here).
But the author, Kwame Anthony Appiah, has in fact written a very thoughtful piece on the “three signs that a particular practice is destined for future condemnation.” And the Post is running an online poll where “Our treatment of the environment” is already easily winning. Here are the three signs:
First, people have already heard the arguments against the practice. The case against slavery didn’t emerge in a blinding moment of moral clarity, for instance; it had been around for centuries.
The case against unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions has been around a long, long time. Remember, the National Research Council’s 1979 review of the science (“Killing the myth of the 1970s global cooling scientific consensus“:
“In this case, the panel concluded that the potential damage from greenhouse gases was real and should not be ignored…. Warming from doubled CO2 of 1.5°-4.5°C was possible, the panel reported. While there were huge uncertainties, Verner Suomi, chairman of the National Research Council’s Climate Research Board, wrote in the report’s foreword that he believed there was enough evidence to support action: “A wait-and-see policy may mean waiting until it is too late” (Charney et al. 1979).
Here’s another familiar sign:
Second, defenders of the custom tend not to offer moral counterarguments but instead invoke tradition, human nature or necessity. (As in, “We’ve always had slaves, and how could we grow cotton without them?”)
Indeed, the standard argument against strong action today from people who almost understand the science (and those who don’t understand it at all) is that humans are simply incapable of doing what is necessary — or that unrestricted burning of fossil fuels is necessary for continued economic growth. In fact, unrestricted burning of fossil fuels is the one guaranteed path to collapse (see “Is the global economy a Ponzi scheme?“) And it is not beyond the capability — or desire — of most Americans to act, it is mainly a failure of leadership, along with a shameful disinformation campaign, which brings us to:
And third, supporters engage in what one might call strategic ignorance, avoiding truths that might force them to face the evils in which they’re complicit. Those who ate the sugar or wore the cotton that the slaves grew simply didn’t think about what made those goods possible. That’s why abolitionists sought to direct attention toward the conditions of the Middle Passage, through detailed illustrations of slave ships and horrifying stories of the suffering below decks.
That would seem to hit human-caused climate change right in the bull’s-eye (see “Attack of the climate zombies!“)
And so Appiah ends his list of “four contenders for future moral condemnation,” which includes, “our prison system” and “Industrial meat production” and “The institutionalized and isolated elderly” with:
Of course, most transgenerational obligations run the other way — from parents to children — and of these the most obvious candidate for opprobrium is our wasteful attitude toward the planet’s natural resources and ecology. Look at a satellite picture of Russia, and you’ll see a vast expanse of parched wasteland where decades earlier was a lush and verdant landscape. That’s the Republic of Kalmykia, home to what was recognized in the 1990s as Europe’s first man-made desert. Desertification, which is primarily the result of destructive land-management practices, threatens a third of the Earth’s surface; tens of thousands of Chinese villages have been overrun by sand drifts in the past few decades.
It’s not as though we’re unaware of what we’re doing to the planet: We know the harm done by deforestation, wetland destruction, pollution, overfishing, greenhouse gas emissions — the whole litany. Our descendants, who will inherit this devastated Earth, are unlikely to have the luxury of such recklessness. Chances are, they won’t be able to avert their eyes, even if they want to.
Indeed, the multiple catastrophes we face on our current path of unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions are not merely grim individually — large and continuous sea level rise, Dust-Bowlification, 9F+ warming, record-smashing extreme weather, and mass extinction, especially of marine life (see “Real adaptation is as politically tough as real mitigation, but much more expensive and not as effective in reducing future misery. They are all but unimaginable when you consider that they are going to hit our children and grandchildren and countless future generations for decades and decades on end simultaneously.
Also, unlike most other condemnable immoral activities in history, by the time this is obvious to all, there will be no undoing it by passing a law or establishing new social norms (see NOAA stunner: Climate change “largely irreversible for 1000 years,” with permanent Dust Bowls in Southwest and around the globe).
And that’s why we all have a moral obligation to condemn what’s happening now in the strongest possible terms.
- Some pundits challenge my statement, “Future generations are likely to view Obama’s choice of health care over energy and climate legislation as a blunder of historic proportions.”
- Real adaptation is as politically tough as real mitigation, but much more expensive and not as effective in reducing future misery: Rhetorical adaptation, however, is a political winner. Too bad it means preventable suffering for billions.