One of the best interviews I've ever read about Climate Change and how we should be responding to it is in the December 2012 issue of The Sun Magazine. The interview, called If Your House is on Fire, is with Kathleen Dean Moore, a philosophy professor at the University of Oregon at Corvallis, where she teaches environmental ethics, philosophy of nature and environmental leadership.
Professor Moore says that a statement by Gustave Speth, retired Dean of the School of Forestry at Yale changed her life: "The only thing we have to do to be sure we will leave a ruined world for our children and our grandchildren is to do exactly what we are doing now." Moore later wrote, "To imagine [my grandchildren] wandering, hungry, in a barren land changed everything for me. I decided I would never do anything in my working life that doesn't at least try to make the world safe for bog lilies and hooting owls and laughing children."
I'm simply going to quote from this interview to give you a flavor of her thinking. You can read the entire interview here, at The Sun Magazine´s website.
In discussing our personal environmental ethics --- how each of us can change the way we live --- she says:
I love what Carl Safina, who writes about the ocean, says in Moral Ground: "We think we don't want to sacrifice, but sacrifice is exactly what we are doing. . . . We're sacrificing what is big and permanent to prolong what is small, temporary, and harmful. We're sacrificing animals, peace, and children to retain wastefulness." So many of us wake up in the morning and eat a breakfast of food we don't believe in and then drive a car we don't believe in to a job we don't believe in. We do things that we know are wrong, day after day, just because that's the way the system is set up, and we think we have no choice. It's soul-devouring.
Deciding we won't drive to that chain grocery store and buy that imported pineapple is a path of liberation. Deciding to walk to the farmers' market and buy those fresh, local peas is like spitting in the eye of the industries that would control us. Every act of refusal is also an act of assent. Every time we say no to consumer culture, we say yes to something more beautiful and sustaining. Life is not something we go through or that happens to us; it's something we create by our decisions. We can drift through our lives, or we can use our time, our money, and our strength to model behaviors we believe in, to say, "This is who I am."
.... many well-meaning people are blithely destroying the world on which their children's lives depend. Environmental activist Derrick Jensen says that if aliens landed and did to the planet what the industrial economy is doing, it would be considered all-out war. Yet instead of fighting them, we invest in our own destruction. We damage the ecosystem simply because we no longer recognize that we live in an impoverished world. But we also do it because we ask less and less of ourselves. We don't expect ourselves to be generous or openhearted. We think greed is ok. Even our visions of a better life are simplified and denuded and strip-mined.
But she is very clear that personal choice is NOT what drives this destructive system:
The corporations were happy to claim that they were simply responding to public demand. Only recently has it become clear how much corporations have been manipulating public demand. They build and maintain infrastructures that force consumers to use fossil fuels. They convince politicians to kill or lethally underfund alternative energy or transportation initiatives. They increase demand for energy-intensive products through advertising. They create confusion about the harmful effects of burning fossil fuels. They influence elections to defang regulatory agencies that would limit Big Oil's power to impose risks and costs on others. And, whenever possible, they work outside of democracies.
If you own stock in a petrochemical industry, you've got to dump it. If you benefit from a fund that owns stock in a petro-chemical industry — a university fund, a retirement fund — you've got to insist they dump it. No excuses, no delays.
... the worst offenders are happy to implicate and entangle us in every possible way and make us blame ourselves for climate change. We have to do our best to shake loose of that entanglement and never turn our rage against ourselves or allow self-criticism to dissipate our anger toward the real culprits. Of course each of us should be using less oil. But when I hear people piously say, "We have met the enemy, and he is us," I say, bullshit. I didn't cut corners and cause an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I didn't do my best to undermine the Environmental Protection Agency and every other agency that might have limited fracking. I'm not lobbying Congress to open oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean. I didn't cut funding for alternative energy sources. Big Oil is pouring billions of dollars into shaping government policies and consumer preferences. And what do we say? "Oh, I should be a more mindful consumer." Of course we should, but that's only the beginning.
Professor Moore calls on all of us to be more active politically:
I used to think it was enough for all of us simply to live our lives imaginatively and constructively. I don't think that anymore. I think we have to find the time to be politically active. I don't want to cut anybody any slack on that. Are we going to let it all slip away — all those billions of years it took to evolve the song in a frog's throat or the stripe in a lily — because we're too busy?
The ransacking of the world is making the top 1 percent of the population very, very rich. As the writer Daniel Quinn points out, the rich are like people who live in a fancy penthouse at the top of a hundred-story building, and every day they send workers down to take some bricks out of the foundation to increase the size of the penthouse. The building has lots of bricks, so this seems harmless enough. But there will come a time when they will have introduced so many holes in the foundation that the building will collapse, and their position at the top of the tower will not save them.
And she identifies a central problem that makes addressing Climate Change very hard:
An economic system that forces the majority to suffer the consequences for the reckless actions of a few is immoral. We're paying the costs of destructive industries with our health and our children's futures while the captains of industry make fortunes. That's not fair. And when that system threatens to disrupt the planetary cycles that support all life on earth — honestly, that is moral monstrosity on a cosmic scale.
Occupy Wall Street is linking climate change, toxic neighborhoods, financial recklessness, job loss, concentrated wealth, and pointless war. The dots all connect to one central social pathology: the buying and selling of elections and elected officials, mostly by corporations. We need to get the money out of politics so we can be a democracy again.
And very importantly Professor Moore exhorts people to stop thinking that moral arguments don't work, that you can only win these critical fights by appealing to economics, that the only thing that convinces anyone about anything is how it affects the bottom line:
I believe that a moral argument is the most pragmatic appeal, for several reasons.
Number one: Moral arguments speak to all people. Economic arguments speak only to a few. When Big Oil violates fundamental, universally agreed-upon principles of justice and human rights, that's something everyone can condemn.
Number two: Moral arguments are trump cards, whereas economic arguments can always be overridden by matters of principle. Yes, you might profit from keeping slaves, but it's wrong. Yes, you can profit from ruining children's futures, but it's wrong.
Number three: Moral arguments appeal to what is hopeful and good in the human spirit. God knows, we haven't done well by appealing to, and even glorifying, self-interest.
We have a chance to focus on the ethics of affirmation. Who are we, as human beings, when we are at our best? But environmental activists often dither about regulation, imposing limits and such. When the climate-change movement frames arguments, it is generally careful not to talk about obligation or duty or morality — all those ethics words. It will talk about patriotism or competing with China or getting jobs or profiting from green energy — anything but ethics. That's a terrible strategic mistake.
If you look at the times in American history when our society changed directions, you'll find that it was motivated by moral principle. Think of the Declaration of Independence, a statement about the rights of human beings. Think of the Emancipation Proclamation, a statement that slavery is wrong. Think of the opposition to the Vietnam War. Think of the civil-rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream was not of profits or material comfort; his dream was of justice for future generations. The question isn't whether we should talk about ethics; the question is whether we can achieve the necessary rapid social change without talking about them.
She ends the interview with these thoughts about how to admit the urgency of the moment, feel both hope and despair but replace them with "moral integrity":
People tend to think that we have only two options: hope or despair. But neither one is acceptable. Blind hope leads to moral complacency: things will get better, so why should I put myself out? Despair leads to moral abdication: things will get worse no matter what I do, so why should I put myself out? But between hope and despair is the broad territory of moral integrity — a match between what you believe and what you do. You act lovingly toward your children because you love them. You live simply because you believe in taking only your fair share. You do what's right because it's right, not because you will gain from it.
There is freedom in that. There is joy in that. And, ultimately, there is social change in that. That's the way we respond to a lack of hope. A person could be at zero on the hope-o-meter and still do great, joyous work. Even — especially — in desperate times, we can make our lives into works of art that embody our deepest values. The ways of life that are most destructive to the world often turn out to be the ones that are also most destructive to the human spirit. So, although environmental emergencies call on us to change, they don't call on us to give up what we value most. They encourage us to exercise our moral imagination and to invent new ways of living that lift the human spirit and help biological and cultural communities thrive.
Over the weekend I sat for an hour in a warm pond in beautiful sunshine with my one-year-old grandson on my lap, splashing and scooping. I've never seen a child so happy. I don't know if I've ever been so happy. That type of immersion in the world is a lesson in responsible caring. We can find the ongoing strength to do this work if we keep in mind that it is powered by love.