On the morality of extinction

Why the climate movement needs a crash course in philosophy

Greg Harman

The environmental community has long illustrated the seriousness of climate change with intimidating facts and figures. The now-infamous hockey stick graph twining rising heat with rising greenhouse gases defined Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth. And though the science backing up the film’s key assertions continues to solidify, popular communication around the issue hasn’t changed all that much, according to Kathleen Dean Moore, co-editor of “Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril.”

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Moore, Credit: Photo: Gary McCarthy

Dispatches from the front lines of climate change, be they on drying Amazonia or methane bombs in Siberia, are largely presented as technological problems to be fixed with rapid decarbonization across human industry. Yet even as the warnings get more dire, public buy-in needed to press the policity peddle remains limited—and will remain so until we move from a discussion about the facts of climate change to the language of values.

“I think Al Gore’s primary error is he underestimates the degree to which people are motivated by what’s best in them,” Moore says. “People are motivated by visions of justice. People are motivated by principles of human rights. They are highly motivated by dreams.”

The morality of climate change—whether humans have the right to reshape the world in potentially irreversible ways—has been a slow one to evolve. Yet even as it begins to crack the headlines, it largely remains the domain of religious leaders and divinity students. Moore insists we must return the language of morality back to the secular realm, where understanding of its meaning and relevance has largely been lost.

How did you first start pushing to integrate an emphasis on morality inside the climate debate?

My colleague and I were at a conference of philosophers and we were thinking that this isn’t working. Whatever people are doing isn’t working. The scientists have been hugely courageous in trying to spread the word about climate change with the assumption that if people only knew they would act, but that’s a fallacy. It’s a clear argumentative fallacy that goes back to Aristotle with the practical syllogism. Any argument that’s going to reach a conclusion about what we ought to do is going to have to have two premises. The first one is scientific, it’s factual. This is the way the world will be if we continue in this way. But you can’t go from that to a statement about what you ought to do without the second premise. The second premise is a normative premise, it’s about our values. What do we want to seek? What ought we seek? If you know what you value, and you know what the situation is, the context, then you can figure out what to do. So we decided that our work would be the work of the second premise that nobody was doing. Everybody was ignoring the ethics of the situation. And we had to call together the moral leaders of the world to speak for our moral obligation to the future. That is exactly what we did. We sent around hundreds of letters to moral leaders asking them that same question: Do we have a moral obligation to the future? That’s what [“Moral Ground”] is. It’s a collection of responses, from people like Desmond Tutu to, actually, Barack Obama, who wrote about the future he wanted for his daughter. It’s a beautiful piece.

Is there something going on with the language of morality? It seems there is cultural baggage with the concept. Like maybe the folks who embrace the science of climate change the easiest wouldn’t be comfortable addressing it in terms of morality, what’s right for me is right for you. Is that something you’ve had to contest with?

There’s a couple things going on around morality. First of all, let’s be positive. Suddenly, I’d say within the last two and three months, I’d say climate change has become recognized as a moral issue. I’ve been emailed by May Boeve (cofounder and executive director of 350.org), who’s saying this is a moral thing. This is a moral challenge. The pope is issuing an encyclical in the fall and coming to Congress saying this is a moral issue. Suddenly there’s this huge wave of affirmation about the way in which the moral crisis is a violation of what we deeply value and consider right and good. At the same time we have a massive social challenge to speak rationally and youthfully about ethics. Part of that, I think, is that morality has bee usurped by religion. People don’t understand that they’re not the same thing. You can have a moral discourse based entirely on non-religious notions of what it means to be a human being, what is good enough, and what is the best in us. Then we have confusion around morality and moralism. This notion that there is one set of right answers and I’m going to beat them into you or I’m going to condemn you to hell for the rest of your life. At the same time we have people shouting over the TV purporting to use moral words. So we have this degradation of moral discourse, and we don’t know what to do about it, partly because people are confusing it with religion and saying it’s not something that should be taught. Moral reasoning is a skill that people don’t have.

The error in environmental communication that I’ve seen is not that it’s primarily fact-based but that it’s fear-based. And I’ve been guilty of this, too. But I think that what people need to hear or see is something worth changing for—and not just out of fear but out of love. You’ve said that the only story that would be powerful enough to change the current script is a love story.

The environmental movement has been telling us what we should be against, not telling us what we should be for. I think Al Gore’s primary error is he underestimates the degree to which people are motivated by what’s best in them. I think his message is based in fear and self-interest. People are motivated, and again and again history shows this, people are motivated by visions of justice. People are motivated by principles of human rights. They are highly motivated by dreams. “I have a dream.” And there’s nothing of that in the environmental movement that Al Gore is a part of. There’s a difference between the ethics of regulation and the ethics of aspiration. The ethics of regulation has just become what we are. Here’s the oil industry: “How much can I get away with? How much can I do until I am fined, jailed, stopped?” That becomes the standard. What we’re looking for is an ethic of aspiration. What do I dream of? What’s the best in me? What can society become? I think the switch to an ethic of aspiration is so invigorating. When you look at the point in history where we’ve made huge changes, these are paradigm shifts that happen very quickly. They’ve been times when people have risen to an affirmation of something new and better—the human rights movement, the civil rights movement, women’s rights movement, the environmental movement.

But how do we move from a discussion about individual rights to individual responsibilities? A professor from the Haskell Indian Nations University said at a conference a couple years ago that Americans are real good at talking about individual rights, but we don’t talk about our responsibilities.

I’d be a little careful of that. We’re certainly eager to claim our rights, but the rights-based language can serve us quite well if we’re talking about human rights. At the Indian school they’d be talking about the right to the material basis for their culture, which is being rapidly destroyed by climate change. I think what’ s important to be aware of is our culture—I’d say European, North American, capitalist, the industrial growth economy—is in the midst of a paradigm shift. The world view that has been ruling we haven’t been able to notice, let alone question it. It’s the whole individualistic, separatist, notion now giving way or being challenged by a notion of a interdependent, interconnected, resilient, and finite world. And whenever you have one world view challenging another, you have a deeply, deeply unstable time. That’s why I think we’re seeing so much trauma. It’s like tectonic plates grinding against each other, and they build up the tension and then they snap. And when they snap it’s terribly disruptive. That’s the time of shouting and bullies. That’s when you know you’re in a paradigm shift, when the old order (and I just wrote a piece about this on fracking) is speaking so violently on its own behalf, feeling so defensive, so under siege, which is quite right. That’s when people start going to extremes to demonstrate that we can live by that old view. It gets to the point of absolute absurdity. People claim their right to destroy themselves, destroy their culture, destroy the systems that support them in defense of the old way, a repudiated set of ideas.

I’m sure you’ve seen this whole rolling coal phenomenon, where people retrofit their trucks with huge pipes that belch out this thick, oily smoke. It’s the embracing of air pollution as a right.

That’s exactly my point, a kind of insane defense of the old ways. They are so fragile and so clearly giving way to something new.

Then it’s good news, this behavior?

I think we have to be willing to say so, even as we call attention to the absurdity of it.

Is there time to create a new story and wait for the ramifications of that new story? For it to filter through culture, come through our productivity and policy, and shift the planet in some remarkable way?

No. Absolutely not. We have run out of time. I think Joanna Macy has it right. There are three things we have to do. The first one is to stop the harm, stop it cold. Stop the building of the old infrastructure, stop the pipelines, stop the coal train, stop the fracking. The second thing is to invent and build better ways. How can we heat our homes without burning something up? How can we move around? Even as we’re furious at having been denied rational solutions to these problems. The third work is to effect this paradigm shift. It’s a joyous switch. It’s an end to loneliness. It’s the end to our being the lonely kings on this stoney mountain in the midst of all these groups that are probably trying to hurt us. It’s a joyous, community-based, forward-thinking switch.

So what is the story? How to you flesh that out for people?

We know now that all life is interdependent, that you can’t do damage to the part without doing damage to the whole. That is the beginning of justice. It’s the notion that we are all interconnected, we’re all kin. That’s the beginning of compassion. It’s the notion that the earth is finite, that all our efforts should be precautionary. But the primary factor is that it’s a connecting rather than a dividing worldview.

People who are aware of these things happening, who are involved in the fight, there’s a suffering that goes with that we must live through. How do we not get depressed? How do we not give up?

That’s the question my friends and I ask ourselves as we’re gathering around wondering what we’re going to do next. How do we sustain ourselves? I don’t have a big answer. I have lots of little answers. One is, there is this huge difference between grief and despair. We are well advised to embrace the grief and absolutely refuse the despair. Grief is the beginning of art. We know as human beings how to dance to grief. Despair I think is a black hole, it absolutely sucks everything in. Whereas grief is a wellspring, I think despair is a sinkhole. You find ways to express that grief collectively. Also express it in action. That’s where I think Bill McKibben is right about these things. He says, if you’re in despair you’re not working hard enough. I think the problem is not so much giving into despair, it’s giving into exhaustion. My friend Libby Roderick has written a song called “The Cradle of Dawn.” She was in a situation where she couldn’t ever sleep. She felt her work was never done; she had not yet saved the world. She was killing herself. Then suddenly she had this insight that as the sun was going down on her part of the country it was rising on the other side of the world. Other people were getting out of bed to pick up the work. Even as the earth rotated underneath the sun there was this dawn flow of activity that was happening, people doing everything they could to create a just and lasting world. We’re not alone in this. The problem is the silence. So we feel, ‘Oh, I’m the only one who cares. I’m the only one who is acting on this.’ It used to be on Veteran’s Day everyone would wear a red poppy. We need to be all wearing some analogue of the red poppy so we could look and say, ‘Yes, they’re suffering too. That person is feeling the same kind of suffering I’m feeling.’

I find there’s a very narrow line between grief and anger and that sometimes when the grief is too much I can let it spill into anger; and when the anger is too much I can let it spill into grief. The real problem with grief isn’t among those who are working every day on this. It’s among those who are turning their backs on it and saying, ‘I just can’t deal with this. I can’t think about it.’ That’s a deeper kind of worm-like grieving that is just terrible.

In Mary Pipher’s “The Green Boat,” she talks about action in the same way. If you want to survive, if you want to avoid that kind of despair, just being engaged can be healing.

Not only that, but reaching out to one other person. Or becoming part of a community. A community of caring is the key right there. There’s no reason why any of us should suffer alone. In Joanna Macy’s book “Active Hope,” her point is the same. Get out there and do it. My sister is a kindergarten teacher and she wants to teach her children about climate change and pollution and the carbon cycle, but she has this pact that she will not share a disempowering fact without empowering them in some other way. So even as they’re studying climate and the carbon cycle they’re working on sequestration in the soil. There are so many things we can do.

The pace, the scale, the progress of human-induced climate change seems so irretrievable. Do you ever allow yourself to slip into despair? Do you ever have times where you think that it’s hopeless?

(Long pause.) Well, I think you’d have to define your terms. That’s the kind of response that makes people hate philosophers. Is it hopeless? No. I think this world will be a gorgeous, beautiful place, and we have a sense of what it will look like. Will the humans survive? Yeah, I think some of them will. Will our way of life survive? God, I hope not. Because it is our way of life that is killing the rest of the world. So we have to find some kind of way of changing our life. Am I hopeful? Yes, I’m absolutely hopeful that this change will come. Do I think a lot of what we have around us will be here in a hundred years? No, I don’t.

Featured image: “Aurora Borealis,” by Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900)

4 responses to “On the morality of extinction

  1. This past year I have found myself exhausted with trying to enlighten people on this issue and have just recently begun to feel my energy coming back. This article is good timing for me, the little nudge we all need now and then. Thanks Greg.

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  2. Thank you for this piece, Greg. The idea for a writers’ group inspired by Kathleen Dean Moore’s talk and workshop is still alive — Jim and I hope to convene folks in early June.

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  3. Thanks Greg. This is a great interview although I have to say I like your questions better than her answers sometimes. My hunch (partly from how she answered your question about rights and responsibilities) is that she is a bit dismissive of environmental and climate justice work as well as, for that matter, Climate Reality work–which is an Al Gore initiative. She has been reading but not following up on who walks their talk, or acts their words, perhaps…I had hoped to hear her and missed it though I heard part of a talk online. It is true that we in the places that make 25 or so times the carbon per capita than (that 1 %) need to change, but I don’t think we necessarily need to lead the paradigm shift, and as long as we are expecting that we are missing the true
    “shifters” among us all.

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