More than 80 writers, thinkers, leaders, visionaries and activists were asked to answer a single question: “Do we have a moral obligation to take action to protect the future of a planet in peril?” The answers came from around the world; from the most powerful voices and from voices little heard. They were collected as essays in the book Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril (Trinity University Press) and grouped under reasons ranging from “Yes, for the survival of humankind,” to “Yes, because compassion requires it.” (For the record, there were no “no”s.”) President Barack Obama answers the question, as does the Dalai Llama, environmentalist Bill McKibben and author Thomas L. Friedman. Writes Friedman in the essay “Who We Really Are”: “It is not about Earth Day concerts. It is not about special green issues of magazines. It is not about 205 easy ways to go green…It is a survival strategy.”
Many get right to the point: Our greed is killing the planet. Killing the planet is bad for: a) our children and future generations; and b) the multitudes of poor people who will unfairly bear the brunt of our pollution-driven global warming. But for all our information overload and warnings from scientists, there’s still a lot of lethargy around collectively cutting back and living within the earth’s means. That, in the end, is the real point of Moral Ground. “What is missing,” write editors Kathleen Dean Moore and Michael P. Nelson in the book’s introduction, “is the moral imperative.”
The two excerpted essays that follow come from Carl Safina, president of Blue Ocean Institute, who reframes the notion of sacrifice, and Alan Weisman, author of The World Without Us (Thomas Dunne Books), who suggests that the only way to compel people to care about the planet is to appeal to their self-interests. — Brita Belli
The Moral Climate
By Carl Safina
What most distresses me is the 30 years we’ve wasted by asking people to live sustainably. In high school in the early 1970s, having grappled with terrible air pollution, oil embargoes, and the tyranny of Big Energy, we knew we needed more economical and efficient cars, we knew we were vulnerable to unsavory governments, and we knew that real free enterprise in the form of energy competition would mean innovative, diverse, agile, and decentralized energy sources. From then to now, as a country, we’ve sat on our hands.
This, I believe, is our shame. Shame not only because we chose it. Shame because the unborn, who did not choose it, will come saddled with all conceivable consequences. Shame because the poor, who likewise did not choose it, will be hit first and worst.
And because that is not merely “unsustainable” but also unjust. It is wrong. And so it crosses a line and becomes not just a matter of “sustainability,” but a matter of morality.
Dysfunctional values married to catastrophic leadership have led us to the place you go when you are made to believe that solution is sacrifice and that sacrifice for a just cause is not noble but, rather, out of the question. The moral density of this social climate is wafer thin.
This refusal to “sacrifice” is actually a pathological refusal to change for the better. That is the real sacrifice. That refusal is framed and abetted by the disinformation campaigns of companies that would shrink if we realized we would be better off with fewer of them. Think of ExxonMobil; it’s probably the best example. Their fear of us—specifically, that we might accept the consequences of reality—compels them into a rather successful effort to retain power over us by distorting our understanding of what’s real.
Nearly every just cause is a struggle between the good of the many and the greed of a few. But because greed has the advertising dollars to make selfishness fashionable, it sustains itself by turning enough people against our own self-interest. Foremost, our interest in hanging on to our own money. Second, our health. Third, the options of our unborn.
Of all the psychopathology in the climate issue, the most counter-functional thought is that solving the problem will require sacrifice. As though our wastefulness of energy and money is not sacrifice. As though war built around oil is not sacrifice. As though losing polar bears, penguins, coral reefs, and thousands of other living companions is not sacrifice. As though withered cropland is not a sacrifice, or letting the fresh water of cities dry up as glacier-fed rivers shrink. As though risking seawater inundation and the displacement of hundreds of millions of coastal people is not a sacrifice—and a reckless risk. But don’t tell me we need a law mandating more efficient cars; that would be a sacrifice! We think we don’t want to sacrifice, but sacrifice is exactly what we’re doing by perpetuating problems that only get worse; we’re sacrificing our money, sacrificing what is big and permanent, to prolong what is small, temporary, and harmful. We’re sacrificing animals, peace, and children to retain wastefulness—while enriching those who disdain us.
When we stop seeing our relationship with the whole living world as a matter of sustainability and realize that it is a matter of morality—of right and wrong—we might make the moment we need. And when we make that moment, we will begin to loosen the noose we’ve placed around our children’s necks. The world of debt we’ve doomed them to, the upheaval caused by a destabilized climate and the consequent threats to peace, the draining biodiversity. One of the starkest, most telling contrasts between my generation and the one now in high school is that our parents all thought they could leave their children set up to have a better life.
Most people now fear for their kids. And the blame is ours. But since the problems are largely of our making, we have the power to flip them. We just need to create the needed resolve. I know we can, and I think we will.
CARL SAFINA is the founding president of Blue Ocean Institute. He is a MacArthur Fellow and a Pew Fellow and has received the Lannan Literary Award and the John Burroughs Medal, among other awards. His books include Song for the Blue Ocean (Henry Holt & Co.), Eye of the Albatross (Holt Paperbacks) and Voyage of the Turtle (Henry Holt & Co.).
Obligation to Posterity?
By Alan Weisman
Here’s a conundrum for you: If the answer to this question—do we have a moral duty to leave a world as intact as our own to future generations?—turns out to be yes, then future generations may be doomed.
If it turns out to be no, however, there may be a chance for future generations to have a beautiful and functional Earth, even an Earth recognizably similar to our own.
Certain changes that we’ve already set in motion, of course, will have to play themselves out. Fifty years from now, the world will inevitably be somewhat al
tered. Shorelines will have shrunk some—or a lot, in fact, if the best current advice isn’t heeded. Vegetation will have moved around: temperate forests are already edging pole-ward in either direction, and the tropics may dry out for a spell.
But this won’t be the first time that nature has responded to dramatic global reconfiguring. Witness five previous extinctions, some far more devastating than even the one we’re currently perpetrating, due to cataclysmic events like encounters with asteroids. Yet eventually the Earth always comes out looking gorgeous. Gorgeous, but different: An Age of Reptiles gets replaced by an Age of Mammals, et cetera. But if we act soon, a fair amount of what we see around us may remain.
Speaking of mammals, here’s why a moral imperative to save the planet as we know it is likely a deterrent to actually doing so:
First, we’re mammals ourselves. We arguably have no more—or less—right to be here than any other species. But do bears, birds, beetles, and the rest also have an obligation to posterity?
I know, that sounds dumb. But why should it? What’s the difference?
In his posthumous collection, Pensées, Blaise Pascal likened humans to “thinking reeds’ suspended, somewhat miserably, somewhere between angels and animals. (There’s an implicit assumption here suggesting that compared to us, animals don’t think. We really have no way of knowing; an alien appearing on Earth might be far more impressed by the acumen, ingenuity, and equanimity of several species other than our own, ranging from ants to crows to cetaceans.)
But back to the point: When we describe ourselves as thinking creatures, what we mean is that we can imagine the consequences of our actions. Again, I’m not sure that makes us unique—a squirrel storing nuts for the winter seems to know what he’s doing, and why. But fine; I”ll grant that we can do that. Nevertheless, as we’re increasingly reminded, being able to forecast likely results doesn’t necessarily mean that we”ll act on that knowledge. These days, we’re practically swimming in knowledge, bobbing around in a great swamp of the stuff called the Information Age, with more gushing in continually via electronic pipes that are constantly being fed.
Doesn’t seem to help solve anything, though.
It would be nice to kick the Information Age up a notch, into an Age of Wisdom. The problem is, philosophers, sages, and moral leaders—religious and secular—have been trying to do that for several thousand years. Yet as a whole, we don’t pay attention. Lip service, maybe.
Our libraries are filled with literature and histories of great enlightened men and women. But they and their moral descendants have always been in the minority. In the big picture, that’s never really mattered until now: It was a big world, with room for all kinds of opinions, including horrific ones, because even Holocausts eventually pass, and we’ve just gone on repeating cycles of history, as if, like the rising sun, there’d always be another tomorrow and another chance to try to get it right.
But for the first time in history, something is actually new under the sun, and although the sun itself will go on rising for quite some time to come, suddenly there are grounds for wondering whether our own chances will keep coming around, as they always have until now…
[W]e all know that we humans have rejiggered the atmosphere. Our CFC refrigerants and methyl bromide agricultural fungicides have dug a still deepening and broadening ozone hole, which we can only hope begins to shrink as we gradually replace culprit chemicals with more benign substitutes. However, the solution to chunks the size of Connecticut calving off Antarctic ice shelves, freshwater flooding seaward from beneath Greenland glaciers, and methane bubbling up from thawed permafrost all along the coast of Siberia and Alaska may be far trickier. All the more reason to stop splitting hairs over whether we know enough to act already.
But I suspect the motivation to do so has to be more compelling than morality. Because if history shows us anything, it’s that baser instincts get more of us moving quicker. Rather than trying to appeal to reason or higher values—things that most people either don’t grasp or care about, or too often simply ignore—I suggest we appeal to greed and selfishness. It simply takes too long to change enough people’s minds and hearts to make them act out of obligation to a good greater than themselves. Not that it isn’t worth trying. But if we put all our best efforts into raising the masses’ consciousness regarding the eco-errors of their ways, the planet will likely be destroyed long before we’ve swayed a majority.
Where the environment is concerned, majority rules. Wise leaders throughout history may have been able to steer policies or economies without having to enlighten every citizen, because most citizens had little or no power in such matters. But environmental impact is different. Every person adds his garbage to the pile or her exhaust to the atmosphere. Collectively, the sheer numbers of populations and their demands are the deciding factors in the environment’s fate.
In fact, attempts to impose environmental awareness, even by the gentlest persuasion—such as touching images of children, accompanied by a narration asking what kind of planet we want them to inherit—have regularly undermined themselves by igniting a backlash. The decade following the first Earth Day will be remembered not so much by the raising of global environmental awareness as by the rise of a great gobbling globalized marketplace on a wave of world trade pacts. The unintended response to the message that the planet’s natural resources were limited was a rush by free marketeers to go out and grab all they could while the resources were still around.
So my vote is to stop trying to tap everyone’s highest moral self to persuade people of their obligations to posterity or eternity. Let’s aim for the lowest common denominator that anyone can grasp: self-interest. For purely selfish reasons, everyone alive has a stake in fixing what ails the planet right now, because the future’s already upon us. Forget what our children may face years down the road: Already it’s hotter and stormier, so our own personal survival is at play here. That’s a warning that every organism on Earth is hardwired to hear. And in the same breath, let’s suggest that the surest way to prosperity from here on is by designing and selling new systems, tools, dwellings, and services that mimic nature by turning every waste product into something useful, over and over again.
Let’s show everyone why it’s in our own selfish interest to limit population: not just because it will leave more room on the planet for other species, reduce demand for resources, and lessen the amount of CO2 expelled skyward, but because in every family there”ll be more to go around if there are fewer mouths to feed and bodies to clothe. Let’s tempt them with examples like Italy, a country so charming we all want to visit it, yet also a Catholic country whose growth rate surprisingly vies with Catholic Spain’s for the lowest on the planet, simply because they educate their women. Italy has one of if not the highest per capita number of female PhDs. An educated woman defers her c
hild-bearing until her studies are through, and then doesn’t have so many kids that she can’t exercise the interesting and useful profession she’s trained for. And because she inevitably contributes something meaningful to her society, everyone benefits from her self-interest.
Everyone, but especially posterity: A world with fewer people in it will be that much easier for our descendants to manage and will present that many more opportunities for them. And will be that much more beautiful.
There’s some wisdom in old farmers’ adages and Buddhist koans that equally suggest that the future takes care of itself if we take care of today. Be in the moment. The now.
I wrote that—and you read it—in the past. In a second, it”ll already be the future. Because we’re still part of this little slice of time’s continuum, we selfishly—come on, let’s admit it—dearly wish it to be the best future possible. If each of us Homo sapiens starts to do something about fixing the future for our own selfish pleasure and sustenance, there may be more future to come, a future with others of our kind still around to enjoy and exult in it.