The Climate of Our Moral Character

Our moral character should not be run by fossil fuel. How we chose to model the energy economy of the future says much of who we are now.

Energy, capital, and human well-being

The growing climate activism among the world’s youth opens a fresh debate on the moral character of a civilization that would foreclose the future in a last gasp effort to preserve, as Donald Trump sees it, the “wealth underneath our feet.” American wealth, Trump says, is “based on energy” and that he won’t “jeopardize that for dreams and windmills.”

To have a substantive discussion about wealth, dreams, windmills, and morality, we have to go beyond anything Trump says or does, of course. Especially when the discussion revolves around morality. And so we shall.

I will give Mr. Trump this, however: energy is wealth. Certainly in the capitalistic, transactional sense, there is wealth in energy, but limiting our worldview, as Trump does, to the simple equation of wealth accumulation in terms of capital transfer is, as Greta Thunberg so eloquently said at the UN last week, a fantasy of unlimited growth. It is, many argue, an immoral fantasy. One in which most of us live.

We all want energy, in this simple sense, to power the machinery of modern life. Without question, humanity has flourished from the “wealth beneath our feet.” As such, there is an argument for the moral good of pulling up the trapped sunlight in ever more sophisticated methods of extraction. This makes some of us uncomfortable. How can we consider a fossil fuel economy a “good” thing, when we see the environmental destruction, social injustice, unrestrained greed, and existential climate crises that come with it?

I suggest that the “good” we derive from access to fossil energy is not a moral grounding for humanity. Moral good derives from it, just as a moral wrong. Fossil fuel extraction is a method, a tactic, technology. It is not a basis upon which to hang any moral argument. It is amoral. Just like our president.

Moral energy

In order to consider issues of energy and morality, we must think past our current age, even past the totality of human history. Throughout the world, most of us underpin our moral sense in some form of religious ideation. We apply an abstract notion of “God” as an external moral force guiding our behavior.

Indeed, we are a storytelling species, framing our perception of consciousness and reality on personal and social narratives. In one form or another, this is arguably inevitable. Not having a story is not having a life.

The problem with pinning the ultimate nature of morality on any particular myth is that we pin our allegiance, and thus our humanity, on the story, not the underlying principle the story intends to illustrate. We learn to hate those who don’t know or don’t believe in our story. Or at least dismiss them as deluded.

What if morality is rooted in biology?

Evolution, biology, and moral character

Writing in New Scientist, neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland argues against the common notion that our self-interested survival precludes altruism. In Deliver us from evil: How biology, not religion, made humans moral,” Churchland says that it is through the evolution of our mammalian brains and our unrivaled ability of learning and abstraction that we find our moral ground. The plasticity of our brain and flexibility in our social interactions necessitates innate selflessness. Without it, we would never survive. We would have never come to be.

This is generally true of all mammals and even birds to some degree. Care for the other — kin, kith, and beyond. But no other species has climbed so high or developed such complex social interaction as Homo sapiens.

All this is enormously oversimplified, of course. It seems like war, cruelty, dishonesty, gluttony, egocentrism, violence, and greed are all part of the human package. Ages of philosophers have posited the reasons why. It will be on the minds of philosophers when the last breath of humanity flickers out, sooner or later.

If it is essentially the ability of selfless adaptation and learning from which our morality arises, we can then take agency and responsibility, not just for ourselves (though certainly that’s where it must start), not just for the greedy accumulation of wealth, not just to fearfully cling to dogma, but for a better world of our making.

Fossil fuels entrench us in a Faustian bargain. It has corrupted the human spirit even as we have thrived in its heat. It is the cognitive dissonance that isolates us from our moral grounding.

We act morally when learn and adapt to the world around us and in a manner that the moral climate of our character transcends the generations. It is here that we risk losing ourselves entirely. 

This article first appeared on the PlanetWatch channel at Earthmaven.io

Earth Day Without Us: Human conceit, resilience, and finding our place in the Anthropocene

Leaves of a tree

“We are all but recent leaves on the same old tree of life and if this life has adapted itself to new functions and conditions, it uses the same old basic principles over and over again. There is no real difference between the grass and the man who mows it.”
Albert Szent-György

In his 2007 bestseller “The World Without Us,” Alan Weisman expands on a thought experiment published in a 2005 issue of Discover magazine: What if we considered the human impact on the planet by removing the humans?

Everything we’ve built, dumped, dammed, spilt, or pulled up out of the ground remains; but there are no longer any people keeping all those balls in the air. The human endeavor comes crashing down. Earth and its surviving inhabitants are left to digest what remains of civilization, as all the great structures of Man come crumbling back into dust, leaving a scarred but resilient Earth. Continue reading “Earth Day Without Us: Human conceit, resilience, and finding our place in the Anthropocene”

The Failure of U.S. Climate and Environmental Policy and Why There is Still Hope

Writing to a  class of international students “Climate Change Mitigation in the Developing World” about “climate policy where I live”

It is, of course, hard news from the United States with Donald Trump signing his “energy independence” executive order.   Among other things, the order calls for a “rewrite” of former president Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP). The CPP is (was) the cornerstone of the U.S. INDC commitment to the Paris Agreement.

Continue reading “The Failure of U.S. Climate and Environmental Policy and Why There is Still Hope”

World Wildlife Day | Saving Our Own Humanity

The Peace of Wild Things - Photo by Gary Bendig

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
– Wendell Berry

Continue reading “World Wildlife Day | Saving Our Own Humanity”

Wilderness and the Age of Man

nature.

Jason Mark’s 2015 Satellites in the High Country asks an essential question:

What is wilderness?

Is there any wilderness left on earth? If so, where is it?

If it is true that a radioactive haze has settled across the globe, then indeed, there is no wilderness left; no place left untouched by the actions of one species.

The philosophical among us may claim that there is wilderness in every human soul.

That is a debate best left to those smarter than I.

I suspect attempting the self-reflection of our place in the order of things, for which we are given only a momentary glimpse, is fraught with bias. Even if well-intentioned.

All men are liable to error; and most men are, in many points, by passion or interest, under temptation to it.
John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

On the one hand, caution and skepticism are warranted before we assume we are or can impact Earth on a geological time scale. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, to paraphrase Carl Sagan.

Claiming we live in the “Age of Man” may seem antithetical to the beliefs of most spiritual traditions. But many offer a sacred reverence for nature and a sense of place.

And so, on the other hand, is the Precautionary Principle.

If there is any reasonable possibility that the fate of the planet – the world as we know it – rests in our hands, then we are, indeed, living in the Anthropocene – the Age of Man.

I argue that this is the case. There is, I believe, sufficient evidence to suggest current human activity is impacting, at an epochal level, global systems and cycles.

Living within boundaries

 

Living within limits: the nine planetary boundaries
Planetary Boundaries

The only desirable way forward is learning how to manage human activity within the physical limits of the planet. Within that framework cultivate, as best we can, social stability, equality, and human dignity.

If that is the task, then urgency-of-purpose must balance caution of action. Whether we like it or not, we must literally shape a new world. We are shaping a new world. It’s too late to back out now.

The longer we allow short-term accounting, manufacturing of doubt, and willful ignorance to dominate the narrative, the more time is lost. Caution thrown to the wind. Left only for future generations to ask why?

And then there’s figuring out what’s for dinner tonight.

After all, I’m only human.