PLANETARY BOUNDARIES, MORAL ACTION, AND THE TRANSITION TO A SUSTAINABLE WORLDA Presentation to the Cerritos College Philosophy Clubby Ted Stolze (4/27/10)
Working Assumptions Today I will be making the following assumptions about climate change: Climate change is human-caused and is the result of releasing excessive greenhouse gas emissions into the earth’s atmosphere. Continuing “business as usual” would threaten the survival of humanity and other species. What is required, then, is urgent individual and collective action. As a result, my focus today will be on the exercise of “practical wisdom” involved in identifying and assessing reasons that can be given to act or not to act in response to the moral problem of climate change.
Planetary Boundaries According to new scientific research, there exist nine “planetary boundaries,” which are interlinked Earth-system processes and biophysical constraints: climate change, rate of biodiversity loss, interference with the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, stratospheric ozone depletion, ocean acidification, global freshwater use, change in land use, chemical pollution, and atmospheric aerosol loading. (*) Crossing even one of these boundaries would risk triggering abrupt or irreversible environmental changes that would be very damaging or even catastrophic for society. Furthermore, if any of these boundaries were crossed, then there would be a serious risk of crossing the others. However, as long as these boundaries are not crossed, “humanity has the freedom to pursue long-term social and economic development.” (*) See Johan Rockström et al., “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” in Nature 461, September 23, 2009, pp. 472-475.
A Working Definition Let us define a sustainable society as “one that satisfies basic human needs without exceeding any of the nine planetary boundaries and so without diminishing the prospects for future generations to satisfy their basic needs as well.”
The Moral Problem 1. One should urgently act to halt any grave threat posing serious harm to others. 2. Crossing any of the nine planetary boundaries would be a grave threat posing serious harm to human beings. 3. Therefore, humanity should urgently act to avoid crossing these boundaries, or, if already crossed, to reverse course and resume social and economic development within them. 4. Dangerous climate change (>2˚C) will result from crossing one of the nine planetary boundaries. 5. But dangerous climate change is caused by releasing excessive greenhouse gas emissions into the earth’s atmosphere (>350 ppm CO2). 6. Therefore, humanity should urgently act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions into the earth’s atmosphere to a safe target (<350 ppm CO2).
Two Levels of Action Individual Collective
Individual Actions Educate yourself and others Create music and art to raise awareness Practice mindful, frugal, and sustainable consumption Calculate, and try to reduce, your carbon footprint (www.myfootprint.org) Reuse and recycle products Buy local and organic Reduce meat intake in diet Walk, bicycle, carpool, or take mass transit Conserve, use alternative energy sources, and insulate your home
Two Forms of Collective Action • From above: states and global treaties • From below: social movements pressuring states
State Actions End militarism Immediately halt the construction of all new coal-fired power plants and begin to phase out the use of coal as an energy source, except when the CO2 is captured and stored Stop deforestation and soil-depleting agribusiness Create incentives for businesses and households to replace unsustainable technologies and to adopt sustainable technologies Move beyond the 1997 Kyoto Protocol by adopting stringent and enforceable targets Establish a World Environment Organization
Social Movement Actions Write letters, make phone calls, or send email to representatives Vote for environmentally accountable candidates Join existing or start new organizations and parties Demand sustainable workplaces Engage in direct action (e.g., marches, sit-downs, and strikes) Transform the socio-economic system from one based on limitless growth to one based on sustainable development (green capitalism vs. ecological socialism)
Reasons for Doing Nothing (1) Ignorance of the problem Skepticism about who caused the problem or how serious it is Willful ignorance or stupidity (“I’m happy not to know more.”) Cynicism (“I know very well, but whatever.”) Apathy (“I don’t care.”) Nihilism (“Nothing matters, anyway.”)
Reasons for Doing Nothing (2) Denial (“I know enough that I don’t want to know more--it’s too painful”) Despair (“It’s too late, there’s nothing that can be done.”) Greed (“I can still make money off this.”) Someone else will do it for me (“Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie…) God wants humans to dominate nature God will take care of everything
Reasons for Doing Nothing (3) Search for a quick technological fix (“Let’s put giant mirrors in space!”) Theoretical or practical ineptitude (“It’s too complex; we can’t pull this off.”) Reject the possibility of a collective solution (“I’ll just fend for myself.”)
The Real Obstacle: Our Brains? Greg Craven has proposed that the real psychological obstacle is that human brains have evolved to deal most effectively with threats that are: • Intentional and personal • Violate our moral sensibilities • A clear and present danger • Involve quick changes rather than gradual changes Unfortunately, as Craven notes, “global warming has none of these properties. It is impersonal, morally neutral, in the future, and gradual, and we’re just not wired to watch out for stuff like that” (pp. 72-3). (*) See his new outstanding new book What’s the Worst that Could Happen? A Rational Response to the Climate Change Debate (NY: Penguin, 2009).
Reasons for Doing Something Rational self-interest and risk avoidance Precautionary principle = if an action or policy might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public or the environment, in the absence of a social consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who would still advocate taking the action Solidarity with the “wretched of the earth” Concern for future generations God wants humans to be good stewards of nature Reverence for life
Three Kinds of Scenario: Possible Paths that Ecologically Unsustainable Societies Might Take (*) • Barbarization • Conventional Worlds • Great Transitions (*) Taken from John Bellamy Foster, The Ecological Revolution: Making Peace with the Planet (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009).
Two “Barbarization” Scenarios • Breakdown = social and environmental collapse • Fortress World = “a planetary apartheid world, gated and maintained by force, in which the gap between global rich and global poor constantly widens and the differential access to environmental resources and amenities increases sharply” (Bellamy Foster, p.260).
Two “Conventional World” Scenarios • Market Forces = “an unfettered capitalist world order geared to the accumulation of capital and rapid economic growth without regard to social or ecological costs” (Bellamy Foster, p. 257). • Policy Reform = “an expansion of the welfare state, now conceived as an environmental welfare state, to the entire world” (Bellamy Foster, p. 259).
Two “Great Transition” Scenarios • New Sustainability = “a radical ecological transformation that goes against unbridled ‘capitalist hegemony’ but stops short of full social revolution….to be carried out primarily through changes in values and lifestyles rather than the transformation of social structures” (Bellamy Foster, p. 261). • Eco-communalism = “the creation of sustainable communities geared to the development of human needs and powers, removed from the all-consuming drive to accumulate wealth (capital)” (Bellamy Foster, p. 264).
Communal vs. Market Exchange John Bellamy Foster observes that the new Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) emphasizes communal exchange = “the exchange of activities rather than exchange values. Instead of allowing the market to establish the priorities of the entire economy, planning is being introduced to redistribute resources and capacities to those most in need and to the majority of the populace. The goal here is to address the most pressing individual and collective requirements of the society related in particular to physiological needs and hence raising directly the question of the human relation to nature. This is the absolute precondition of the creation of a sustainable society” (Bellamy Foster, p. 275).
James Hansen on “Never-Give-Up Fighting Spirit” “How refreshing, on cold, windy Thanksgiving Plus One Day, which we spend with our children and grandchildren, when I went outside to shoot baskets with 5-year-old Connor. Connor is very bright, but needs work on his hand-to-eye coordination. I set the basket at a convenient height for him, but his first several shots banged off the backboard off-target. Then he said, very brightly and bravely, “I don’t quit, because I have never-give-up fighting spirit.” It seems his karate lessons are paying off. Some adults need Connor’s help…. The most foolish no-fighting-spirit statement, made by scores of people, is this: “we have already passed the tipping point, it is too late.” They act as if a commitment to a meter of sea level rise is no different than a commitment to several tens of meters. Or, if a million species become committed to extinction, should we throw in the towel on the other nine million? What would the plan be then – escape to Mars? As I make clear in “Storms of My Grandchildren”, anybody who thinks we can transplant even one butterfly species to another planet has some loose screws. We must take care of the planet we have – easily the most remarkable one in the known universe…. Are we going to stand up and give global politicians a hard slap in the face, to make them face the truth? It will take a lot of us – probably in the streets. Or are we going to let them continue to kid themselves and us, and cheat our children and grandchildren? Intergenerational inequity is a moral issue. Just as when Abraham Lincoln faced slavery and when Winston Churchill faced Nazism, the time for compromises and half-measures is over. Can we find a leader who understands the core issue, and will lead? (Excerpted from <http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/mailings/2009/20091130_FightingSpirit.pdf>.)