I’ve recently finished read James Garvey’s book, The Ethics of Climate Change: Right and Wrong in a Warming World, and I must admit I’m a little disappointed to say that, while we probably reach similar conclusions, we disagree in many ways on how we get there. This is very important, I feel, as I suspect the path taken will have a significant role in the potency of our desired outcomes.
Over this week, as I will be undertaking field work and only sporadically able to have much to do with my posts, I will elaborate on these differences (which, if the truth be known, summarise a few points to another ebook draft that I am working on; The Moral Geo-Engineer).
In this one, I will discuss blame and responsibility.
It is an obviously difficult subject, as Garvey illustrates with his referencing various philosophical arguments that have been presented as well as his own thoughts on the subject. We are instinctively motivated by fairness, a trait that is not restricted to our species alone; illustrated in behavioural studies of other primates, for example. With a problem as large, both in range and impact, as climate change, we are quite naturally drawn to questions of responsibility as justifications for assigning debt and/or punishment.
Garvey, indeed, explains just how difficult this becomes as we look further into the problem at hand. Yet, I feel that this meandering is ultimately counter-productive if not pointless.
Historical and current motivators for assigning blame will inevitably lead to unfairness in one form or another.
Firstly, blame for historical impact serves no purpose most importantly because those responsible are now dead. The sins of the father do not cut it. Moreover, historical instigating forces were naïve to the long term damages such activities would eventually lead to and when such impacts were finally addressed, current generations where already locked into carbon intensive practices for at least a number decades in advance.
It was also a historical accident that provided some states with potential to adapt to these carbon intensive innovations in the first place.
Selecting historical preference is thus morally ambiguous as it will lead to unfair conclusions somewhere along the line. Equally, current generations are the result of these historical influences – even the destructive impulses of neo-liberal consumption driven markets – all of which have locked them into carbon intensive practices for many decades from now. These affluent countries would suffer greater in the urban sprawl if, overnight, they were forced to reduce carbon emissions, per capita, to sustainable levels more than developing nations already at, or beneath sustainable carbon emission levels due simply to the development of local infrastructure over the twentieth. The poorer too, in affluent societies, would feel the worst of this impact, where it to occur, having fewer resources at their disposal to assist with change.
Another often ignored dilemma must also be addressed as it is intimately entwined with greenhouse gas emissions. While greenhouse gas emissions are a developed world’s problem, population increase is a developing world’s problem; which already increases detrimental impact and will ever more so as these nations attempt to achieve the same level of personal prosperity as affluent nations.
Thus, I conclude each one of us are at fault and any further discriminators to the fact, in an attempt to assign weight, is likely to serve no functional purpose worth merit. Ultimately, it doesn’t even matter, because we are all equally stuck with the mess that simply cannot be ignored and the longer that we entertain paralysis, the larger the incurring debt that must be repaid will be. Devaluation of our global resource base for greedy, unsustainable individualism should thus be seen for what it is; abhorrent, immoral and counter-productive to prosperity.
So what do we do about it then? We need to work out who can do what in order to develop procedures that ensure we not only clean up the mess, but provide a sustainable and wealthy future for our descending generations.
The only measure truly on offer is capacity. Whom has the capacity to do what?
Each society must have the capacity to change, first and foremost, certain values within their core societal moral code. That much is universal as there is not a developed or developing society that has an ideal package of values that will reach these desired outcomes.
For developed nations, this will mean rejecting impulses towards strong individualism and status seeking behaviour which ensures strong consumerism and thus needlessly excessive resource devaluation.
For developing nations, this will mean adoption of the most important forms of wealth that developed nations can provide; education and healthcare. Universal, high quality education and healthcare, globally (this also includes across the social ladder of developed nations) will provide effective countermeasures against population growth and standard of living that is beneath subsistence.
The next capacity comes from developed nations. While we are largely locked into excessive behaviours for the short term, we must focus our efforts to improve efficiency. This is not to allow for greater conversation – as we often allow for with efficiency as an ends in itself – but instead to ensure we have left overs from our embedded practises.
These additional “free” resources provide capacity to raise the standard of living of all people to a humane level while retrofitting developed communities towards something more sustainable. Coupled with a transfer of education and healthcare to developing nations would allow greatest bang from our buck as they too are likely to reach for equally sustainable societal infrastructure while combating population growth.
Yet, how are we supposed to ensure efficiency works in this way? More to follow…