Max Wei, via Climate Access
It is often argued that we have an ethical obligation to combat climate change for two related reasons: (1) we must not cause serious harm to future generations, and (2) we have an ethical duty to preserve the natural environment based on notions of stewardship or to preserve and respect animal life.
While these appeals are based on rational arguments and make sense to many people, they are problematic on several levels. First, the appeals are extrinsic or external to our individual selves; second, they refer to people and places distant in time and space, and thirdly, they lack any direct causality. Not to mention that they are tied to global warming and climate change, which some continue to persistently deny.
The problem is that it simply is not in our DNA to act based on the concerns of future generations.
Moreover, the impacts of whatever we do to change our actions in terms of greenhouse gas emissions will be virtually invisible within our own lifetimes, given the global nature of the atmospheric commons and the time-delayed impact of carbon emissions.
In contrast, appeals to traditional ethical systems offer an intrinsic appeal with more immediacy, and can be invoked independently of climate change and global warming arguments.
How might appeal to “virtue-based” ethics spur people to action to reduce their carbon footprint? To attempt an answer this, let’s step back for a moment. When we make appeals to people to change their behavior or lifestyle to forestall global warming, we usually ask two things: change our buying or investment patterns and/or change our daily actions. For example, do we buy a 48” plasma television, or perhaps a more energy efficient option; do we invest in energy efficiency upgrades for our home or live with higher heating bills; do we take public transit to work or drive?
To expand upon this, one can argue that a small set of key individual decisions make a disproportionate impact on one’s cumulative carbon emissions: where we live, what type of housing we choose, how many kids we have, even our choice of profession. For example, the size of one’s lifelong carbon “shadow” in transportation may largely be determined by where one decides to live. Clearly, there is a complex set of factors that determine the outcomes of key life decisions but surely among them are social norms and values, which may be informed by religious or philosophical-ethical beliefs.
The key point here is that traditional systems of virtue ethics are either very much in keeping with low-carbon or lower carbon living and at the least, instill values that do not place materialism or material riches at the front and center of what we value and hold dear. Put another way, rediscovering teachings from the past can appeal to us as individuals as they can offer prospects to make us better, happier, more fulfilled individuals. They are not extrinsic appeals to act or to change on behalf of people we’ll never know in a world that we’ll never live in.
One can hardly hope to do justice to great spiritual traditions here but only trace the faintest outlines. Let us now make a few remarks on the teachings and writings of the three individuals in this blog posting’s title, focused on the following questions: (1) what has primacy; (2) what is the desired end state for individuals or society; and (3) what is the path to that end state? But first a question: what has primacy in society today?
Society’s Figure of Merit
A key problem for the climate today is that society’s figure of merit and key metric is output and consumption, and much output is carbon intensive. As Joseph Stiglitz says, “Metrics matter… if we have the wrong metrics we will strive for the wrong things.”
Problems with the GDP metric (Gross Domestic Product) are numerous and well documented: no accounting for environmental externalities, carbon impacts, and ecological damages; GDP credits inefficiency and waste (think U.S. health care); no consideration of “natural capital,” etc.
Since society’s indicator of success is GDP and income, deciding to sharply reduce one’s personal consumption is very much swimming upstream. Moreover, the U.S. is highly responsive to this metric and outstanding as measured by it: #1 by a large margin in household consumption, orders of magnitude higher than hundreds of millions of people in the developing world.
Surely the gospel of growth and primacy of profit has been a wonderful thing and has enabled much higher living standards over the past decades. And surely it or very similar frameworks are the paths forward for the developing world. Yet the U.S. also leads the developed world by a large margin in income inequality and also in health and social problems including physical and mental health problems, divorce rates, out of wedlock children, drug use, obesity, incarceration rate, etc. The U.S. has also led the way in perhaps the greatest market failure of all time, global warming and with it, the prospect for catastrophic climate change.