The lessons of island time

Every year I make a point to roam the planet and get back down to earth; to strip away the ornamentation of modern life, if only for a moment, and reflect on what it means to be human. Last year, I ventured through northern Europe for eight weeks, and then upon my return to the United States, backpacked for two weeks through Nevada’s Ruby Mountain Wilderness with my best friend, David Munson. This year, David and I spent two weeks mid-June living on a small island in the Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve, several miles off the coast of Belize. It was, to say the least, a transformative experience.

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On the island I read a book called Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, which features a dialogue between a man and his teacher, Ishmael, a telepathic gorilla. Ishmael walks the unnamed narrator Socratically through two different stories being enacted by humankind: one – the “Taker” worldview wherein humanity understands itself to own the world and takes it to be our self-evident destiny to absolutely control the human condition and ultimately transcend our animality to be more the gods of old than part of creation – a mythology of progress, as John Gray, puts it. Ishmael leads our narrator to an understanding of Taker mythology that shows it to be invariably destructive of the planet, essentially set in motion over the last 10,000 years of the agricultural revolution beginning with the conflicts between the Semitic and Caucasian peoples in Mesopotamia – the former, pastoralists in lifestyle; the latter, agricultural revolutionaries – in which the Taker Caucasians cannot stand to settle into a modus vivendi with the pastoralist Semites and, rather than peacefully coexist, expand “Taker Culture” by sword and fire, utterly intolerant of any way of life other than their own, and ultimately seeking to remove human beings from the laws of ecology by which nature (the gods) govern “who lives and who dies” on our humble planet.

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The pastoralist Semites represent, not the first, but continuances of the way humankind lived for three million years prior to the agricultural revolution – herders and hunter-gathers – who still survive today in the ever-waning number of indigenous tribes that still exist despite the march of “progress” that has been underway for the past 10,000 years. Rather than believing the Earth to belong to human beings, these “Leavers” understand humanity to be one animal among many, not destined to rule the Earth, but to coexist as part of its great ecology and to carry forward the emergence of sentience with grace and respect for the immutable laws that govern the existence and balance of life. Where Takers, according to Ishmael, lead destructive, discontent, criminal lives, the Leavers knew harmony with the Earth (even despite the harshness of nature, which Takers aim to escape altogether), a deep-rooted sense of purpose and contentment, and lived within the laws of nature – law-abiding Terran citizens.

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Ultimately, it seems to me, the turn-point on which the Taker-Leaver dualism hinges is the idea of purpose. For the Takers, humankind’s purpose is to progress; but “progress is [just] movement for movement’s sake” according to Hayek’s nihilistic dictum, and leaves us restless, insatiable, and discontent in our existence. Only in Taker Society do depression, obesity, addiction, bipolar, ADD, ADHD, mania, insomnia, and suicide really exist – and they are a reflection of the pointlessness of our eternal pursuit of “progress” as we envision it; never content, never sleeping, always seeking to transcend, yet nevertheless unable to ever be more than human – for in plucking ourselves from the forces of natural selection, we will never be able to evolve.

The Leavers, on the other hand, Ishmael says, understand humanity’s original place within nature, as stewards of a Franciscan bent, and do not struggle with nihilism, or the psychological ailments of modernity. They are “down to earth” and so they are happy, locked in step with the rhythms and melodies of the planet; a synchronicity long since forgotten by the Takers. To be part of something greater than ourselves; to have an unambiguous place on Earth; a true sense of home and authentic living in the ancient wisdom of “what works for people” passed down over millions of years.

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It is easy to lament the rapacious destruction of the Leavers that do today remain, to call for our peaceful co-existence, to live and let live, so that their ancient knowledge and ways of living will not be snuffed out for good, and to resent Taker Society for being what it is, accustomed to its ways over ten millennia; to be saddened by the trajectory of the human-nature relationship that dominates the planet; to wish to leave all the taking behind and return to simpler living; to re-immerse ourselves in the laws of ecology (for we cannot fall forever!) sooner than later, and avert our crashing down into the canyon below toward which our flightless jet has been plummeting since its inception (forgotten that we are falling, for falling gives a sensation of flight until one hits ground); to pity the Takers; to judge and to hate them; to blame them and to obsess over the fantasy of abandoning Taker mythology for a return to hunting and gathering and herding. How naïve! How childish! One does not judge, or blame, or pity, or hate a sheep for being a sheep, for they are but sheep, born into being sheep, living and dying as sheep and knowing no other way, convinced they are happy and righteous in their wool; unawares that they are fleecing themselves, even still.

The sheep will never abandon the herd, for the herd is all they’ve ever known, and the herd is an echo-chamber beating the drum of progress, sure to the deepest level that any other way of life would be nasty, poor, brutish, and short – and so the fruitless dream of convincing the Takers to again become Leavers is, to be sure, a bucket that will not labor to hold water – there is no hope there; only frustration.

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And so, if we labor for hope that we can stem the socioecological crisis of the Anthropocene, we must embrace a new story that inspires a new sense of purpose in the nihilism of Taker Society and reinvigorates living rather than simply being alive; a sense of home and place and meaning in human life as it exists today, for we cannot turn back the clock, forget what we have been up to for 10,000 years and return to the Leaver way of life. Indeed, we are far too many for that to be at all feasible in the first place, and no one would buy it.

Even life on the island was hardly removed from the luxuries of modernity. Indeed, we would forage and fish, but we were never far from agricultural produce brought by gas powered boat, a diesel generator that electrified the open-air kitchen in the “main building,” our Scuba gear, the Internet modem (even if spotty, unreliable, and generally inaccessible), our cell phones, cooking and harvesting tools, the litter washed up and strewn about the island, our mattresses, and solar powered lamps, toothbrushes, sunscreen, bug spray, and head torches were constant reminders that we were never far, never even close to truly removed, from Taker Culture and the luxuries of modernity. Nor, do I think, would we really have wanted to be. We merely sought to go out on a limb, not leap from the tree entirely; for at the end of our stay we hopped on airplanes and whooshed ourselves back to “civilization.”

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But the lessons of the island – of our little limb – we will retain, for its flavor was sweet and its memory powerful – wood labor that one cannot and would not forget; a resonant verse in the new song I will now forever sing; the poetry to onward recite to our Taker kin:

Back down to earth, to embrace the great clod,

To remember and love,

to lay in the grass, and tend to the sod.

For removed we may be, but never too far,

from the ground and the soil that reminds who we are.

Of Takers and Leavers, we humans of terra,

All are of one, as we forge our new era.

For as numbers grow and the planet may groan,

Our task is to labor and spread love for our home.

 

Our ways and our whims are all subject to change,

And our labor of love is to retake the reigns.

Together as people, all one in the same,

Our fate is in common in living’s great game.

Never removed,

in heart or in whole,

In being together we relight our souls;

By ushering in the sentience of beings,

To be first of the teachers is the song we must sing.

 

As time marches on and our place remembered,

Our purpose in life is the being of members

in the tribe of the planet and contentment of living,

As stewards and poets and artisans tending

To the movement of souls through the cosmic abyss,

The meaning we seek is in love and in bliss.

In oneness and many, the plural abounds,

For what works for people is diverse in its sounds,

And melodies change in verse and in rhythm,

We are never too far to bring together the schism.

 

Between humans and cultures and planet and creatures,

All people are set to be leaders and teachers,

But not by our rule, by fire and fist,

For if hubris proceeds we’ll be lost in the mist,

Groping and grabbing at whatever is solid,

But never content,

sordid and squalid.

 

From gorilla to human, to palm leaf and crab,

We can all reinvent the habits we have,

For the better of all and for all in the light,

It is merely the dawn of what life has in sight.

For the cosmos and Earth expresses through us

the sentience, galactic, of which we entrust

the powers of reason, foresight, and love,

the oceans below us and the stars up above.

Our task is each other,

To teach, serve, and write,

Takers and leavers and creatures, alike.

– J. M. Kincaid, 2017

The true loss of Paris

A friend of mine recently asked, “Will there be any tangible impact to the US pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, or is it more of a crummy political gesture without a lot of actual affect?”

I thought I would take the opportunity to publicly respond.

The Trump Administration’s withdrawal from Paris is certainly a signal of bad faith to 99% of the world, and compromises the integrity of US leadership in the court of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. But the real tragedy is one about our commitment to climate adaptation, not mitigation. Mitigation is essentially the effort to reduce carbon emissions in order to prevent climate change. Consider that the US has actually been reducing its carbon emissions naturally over the last several decade. Market displacement of coal by natural gas and surges in solar and wind energy generation has been slowly driving down carbon pollution on its own. Nevertheless, that trend will eventually bottom out.

Ultimately, what pulling out of Paris means for US climate mitigation efforts is that the Trump/Pruitt EPA will no longer enforce the Clean Power Plan (CPP) of the Obama era, which used law to restrict the amount of carbon that coal fired power plants could emit. Insofar as coal is going under anyway, it is tough to say how the CPP timeline and our new CPP-absent one would compare. But the CPP would have legally committed us to a 26-28% reduction in carbon emissions by 2026 compared to 2005 levels, which was our promise to the Paris Agreement. Without the CPP there is no mitigation guarantee.

I suspect we will continue to see carbon emissions in the US decline for a while longer because cars are getting more fuel efficient and we’re using more natural gas, wind, and solar for electricity these days. But that will have a soft bottom and likely be subject to some rebound because markets tend to fluctuate non-linearly; and people will see their gas and electric bills go down a bit, and by the Jevons Paradox, react by consuming more.

Abandoning Paris means that the US is relying entirely on natural, i.e. unregulated, market forces for its mitigation efforts, and market forces are generally unreliable, and moreover, our market predictions are often wrong because people aren’t the “rational actors” economic models usually assume.

Paris was a colorful feather in the hat of global cooperation, but as far as mitigating climate change itself goes, we are already well past 400ppm-CO2, and even if we were to cut global emissions to zero today (which we can’t and won’t) we have already locked in roughly another century of warming because the greenhouse effect takes a long time to unfold. That means we are in for even more super storms, drought, famine, exacerbated regional resource conflicts, sea level rise, and human displacement the scale of which we’ve never before seen and to which we will have no choice but to adapt.

The loss of US contribution to Paris’ mitigation efforts is deplorable, to be sure, but what we should truly lament is the loss of US’s international commitment to adaptation. In the 21st century and beyond, adaptation—not mitigation—will be the whole court: king, queen, and jester.

“Re-coupling science and policy” — an elaboration

Hello fellow humans! I hope you are well. My friend, colleague, and co-author Dr. Alexander Lee, and I wrote a short opinion piece, “Re-coupling science and policy” for the Daily Camera–a local Boulder newspaper–earlier this week.

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This short piece is concurrent with the argument in another of our recent articles, “Two problems of climate change: Can we lose the planet but save ourselves?” published in the journal Ethics, Policy, & EnvironmentThere, we argue that the variety of values-based claims central to the climate ethics discussion, from concern with the burdens of harmful climate impacts to the priority of rectifying the wrongdoing of climate change, are given disproportionate emphasis; most emphasis–we think problematically–is put on the harms-dimension of the climate problem, while we believe the latter is closer to the true heart of the immorality and unethical nature of anthropogenic climate change.

In this new short opinion piece, Alex and I consider the recent turns of events concerning The March for Science, Scott Pruitt’s mass-firing of the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors, and the general trend of unreasonable decision-making, silencing of scientists, and dismantling of values-discourse altogether in the age of Trump.

Science, as it were, is being de-coupled from the policymaking process. Why the decoupling? Because science, and our reliance on science in making decisions of public import, ultimately reflects the progressive values central to the age of reason, i.e. the value we place on collaboration, fostering open discourse among even and especially those who disagree, the importance of evidence, the approach of objectivity, the testability of hypotheses and reproducibility of methods, and the centrality of cooperation to social, political, and ethical progress; values which, I think rather clearly, the Trump Administration does not share. And thus its leaders have taken significant steps to decouple science from the policymaking and public decision-making process. Yet another sign that the age of reason is dead. 

Decoupling science from the policymaking process is yet another move in the Trump Administration’s course to remove representatives of reason from the public discourse; the scheme to silence reasonable public discourse outright. As Alex and I argue, “silencing scientists silences values” — and the open consideration of values is indispensable to the march of progress. As progress in ethics and social order is non-linear, and certainly not guaranteed or immune to regress, we must be tireless in its defense. And to be sure, where science and values discourse alike are squelched by the Trump Administration, it’s not just the age of reasons that’s under siege — it is the very possibility of progress in society.

Let’s get it together, humans.

Two Problems of Climate Ethics: Can we Lose the Planet but Save Ourselves?

New publication by Alex Lee and myself in Ethics, Policy & Environment, titled above. Access the PDF online here.

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 9.06.28 AMHere’s the abstract for a preview:

Climate change presents unprecedented challenges for the ethical community and society at large. The harms of climate change—real and projected—are well documented (Pachauri et. al, 2015). Rising sea levels, increased drought, warming temperatures and other impacts of climate change will devastate vulnerable communities, the global economy, and the natural world unless difficult choices, behavioral changes, and major policy shifts are made. But the problem we must address is not just the amalgam of climate harms. Climate change also presents a multifaceted problem of moral wrongdoing consisting of the actions that caused or coalesced to cause climate change. The ‘problem’ of climate change is both an issue of harmful impacts and a question of wrongdoing. While certain deleterious effects of climate change are unavoidable, philosophy offers solutions to moral problems that are not contingent on successful mitigation or adaptation. In light of this distinction, Thom Brooks’ criticism that philosophers have ‘misunderstood’ the climate change problem as a problem that is solvable (Brooks, 2016) arises from a conflation of the two climate change problems and not from a shortcoming of philosophy in the climate conversation. Climate harms may not be easily addressed, but righting wrongs is a separate matter.

Let’s get it together humans

Fracking and environmental (in)justice in a Texas City

It’s been a long time coming, but it’s finally here. After more than a year of peer-review, my co-authors, Matthew Fry and Adam Briggle at the University of North Texas, and I have gotten our economic and environmental justice study of shale gas development in Denton, Texas published in Ecological Economics. 

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My infinite gratitude to Matt and Adam for their tireless effort on this project, and everyone who made it possible along the way. You can access the full text for free here until August 22nd. Please feel free to share far and wide. It’s important that we spread our findings with the greater civic body, especially in light of Denton’s strategic repeal of its fracking ban in the fight against HB40.

Justice is largely a matter of distributive equity and procedural fairness. It is also about recognizing the plurality of values and stakeholders that make up our civic world. When it comes to shale gas development, it’s all too often that the freedom of communities to self-determine is undermined by twisted and unjust procedures dictated by corporate and centralized political interests with financial stake in silencing those affected by anthropogenic hazards. The consequent social inequity and ecological decline, some of which we outline in our study here, is staggering. Information-sharing and civic awareness is central to the free and open discourse fundamental to moral public decision-making. It’s up to us to empower ourselves and our communities with knowledge, subject to the scrutiny of credible others (i.e. peer-review), to rectify injustice where it lurks.

Debunk the delusion, ecologize the economy! Let’s get it together humans.

Creatures of habit

It’s been a while! Seven months. But spontaneous hiatus can be good. Gives time to explore the wilderness, refocus on what’s important. Here are some shots!

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Monarch Mtn

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Great Sand Dunes

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GSD

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GSD

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Flatirons Vista

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Huron Peak–14,009 ft.

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Huron

Even though the blog and I were on a breakthe sun god has been steadfast. The same sun, everyday, overhead everyone. Unifying us throughout history, across continents and species. But the reason we exist is not our reason for being. The sun does not unify us in meaning or purpose. Meaning and purpose are left for us to work out for ourselves. The world is not a mystic unity. Nor is “humanity.” We are an innumerable diversity; a spectacular tangle of world views and social orders that stretch back 7000 years to the origins of civilization in Sumerian Mesopotamia.

Human history is a cyclical narrative of social growth and decline, ecological feedback, and political upheaval. Modernity is hardly different from ancient Sumer or medieval Europe in that narrative—except in scale, intensity, and speed. We haven’t changed that much. Society has been ravaged with conflict, inequity and ecological degradation since Sumerians started farming around 5000 BC and population took off–eventually acquiescing Malthusian feedbacks.

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Ancient Mesopotamia–courtesy of the Ancient History Encyclopedia

Even then socioecological and political stability was hard to come by in the fertile crescent. Sumerian societies were extremely hierarchical and resource wars between city-states were constant. Eventually the Sumerians fell to the Akkadian Empire, the Akkadians then to the Assyrians, and so began the cycle of regime and revolution. Same story through Bronze Age and Hellenistic Greece; the rise and fall of the Roman Empire; the European Dark Ages and rise of the Islam in the Arabian peninsula, North Africa, and South and Eastern Mediterranean; the Renaissance and Enlightenment; the Industrial Revolution; globalization, and now the centralized military-industrial complex of worldwide neoliberalism. Seven millennia later, civilization is still stuck in the same cycles of social turmoil and ecological feedback as Sumer. The cycle of regime and revolution rolls on like a pumpjack. Social inequity and ecological degradation abound.

Except now we do it global.

Income, gender and racial inequity; climate change; ocean acidification and warmingmass extinctions and biodiversity loss; slavery and human trafficking; agroindustrial monocropping & exploitation of developing countries; NPK fertilizer run-off, eutrophication, and the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico; the privatization of water; unprecedented deforestation; sea level rise; the Great Pacific Garbage Patchthe ozone hole over the Southern Hemisphere; the systematic placement of dangerous manufacturing plants in the developing world; CAFO non-point source animal-waste pollution; extended extreme drought in the southwestern US; distributive and participatory environmental injustices related to energy development in the US, Ecuador, Papau New Guinea, China, and elsewhere; indigenous displacement and inequities; and international geopolitical military conflict in Ukraine and the Levant, now merging via Russia a la Syria.

Courtesy of: http://www.chevroninecuador.com/

Ecuadorian Amazon after ChevronTexaco development—courtesy of Chevron In Ecuador

Global capitalism and the centralization of power and wealth in international neoliberal regimes, large States, and multi-national corporations are remarkable. We enjoy technology and material resource wealth in industrialized countries unlike anything the world’s ever seen–but at cost of exacerbating historic social inequities, military conflict, and ecological degradation the enormity of which can’t be overemphasized. This is the so-referred “socioecological crisis.”

Unsustainable and inequitable material resource consumption is central to the socioecological crisis.

Global material resource consumption has increased eight-fold in the past century, skyrocketing after World War II. We surpassed the Earth’s biocapacity (the amount of material resources we can sustainably consume) in the mid-70s, and now, consuming more than 60 billion tons/year, it would take more than 1.6 Earths to sustain our habit. It’s no surprise that large central powers clash over control of the world’s resources.

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Material resource consumption exceeds world biocapacity around 1976–courtesy of The Footprint Network

But we are a great diversity. People aren’t uniformly responsible for unsustainable overconsumption. And really, while we are each responsible for what we consume, inequitable unsustainable overconsumption is a systemic problem–it’s the doing of large central States, multinational corporations, and international regimes all with neoliberal economic motivations. Global capitalism has created material resource inequity unlike any in history.

Consuming more than ever in advanced industrial societies, billions around the world in subsistence economies still struggle to meet their existential needs.

A great few consume too much. Or rather, too many consume too much while too many consume too little. The ecological crisis is fundamentally a social crisis—a crisis of consumption. Really, overconsumption. But not straightforwardly so. It’s an inequitable overconsumption. A stark minority of wealthy people consume far more than is reasonable—than is fair—while far too many are left in want. Most ecological problems are symptomatic of inequitable social organization, irresponsible central governments, multi-national corporate resource privatization, the systemic oppression of coerced overconsumption in advanced industrial societies, and the procedural disenfranchisement of the poorest in the world often most vulnerable to ecological decline—we must, in turn, equitize in order to ecologize society.

Modernization. Industrialization. Centralization. Globalization. Development. Consumption. This has been Western civilization’s mantra since the Enlightenment, our recipe for wellbeing, for the Good Life—the heralds of modernity: that we are destined to overcome the poverties of the human condition through cumulative advances in science, technology, and the liberalization of central government and the global market; that we will be more free and endlessly better off for our complicity in an socioeconomic model of limitless consumption. Through industrial development and the expansion of “free” trade (as governed by a handful of impenetrable central authorities), neoliberals promise the world a secular deliverance from scarcity and oppression. Free markets make for rich, free people. Or so the story goes.

Instead of spectacular emancipation, global capitalism has exacerbated historical oppressions. Race, gender, and income inequities persist worldwide and ecological degradation perennially associated with human habitation has rapidly intensified since the Industrial Revolution. Three centuries after the great social and political liberalization of the Enlightenment, international neoliberal elites have institutionalized a scaled-up version of medieval European feudalism. The Earth’s resources, the land, the Earth itself, have been parceled and purchased—now “owned”—by a handful of powerful States, international governing regimes, and multi-national corporations—exploitation and commoditization their agenda. For most of us—we serfs—we own little and decide even less. But still too many consume too much while too many consume too little.

Courtesy of UN MDG 2013 Report

Courtesy of UN MDG 2013 Report

Paradoxically, despite enabling unprecedented and unsustainable material resource consumption in advanced industrial societies, people of subsistence economies the world over still struggle to meet their non-contingent needs—all amidst accelerating ecological decline. And usually it’s women and the especially impoverished in subsistence economies who shoulder social inequities and ecological degradation.

But that’s not to say advanced industrial societies are internally equitable themselves. Racial, gender, and income inequities persist throughout “modern” countries as well. Too often women are disenfranchised by social and cultural norms laden with sexism. Too often the poor and racial minorities in the developed world bear the ecological risks and harms of industrial land-use without inclusion in the decision to industrialize, informed consent or fair compensation. Local decisions are made instead from far away by iron triangles of feudal lords: corporate executives, purchased career politicians, and a revolving door of pretentious technocrats in opaque bureaucracies—the inevitable dehumanizing machinations of hyper-centralized government and the privatization of the planet.

Perpetual growth, production, consumption, profit, and power are the agenda of the already powerful, not the vast majority of people. Most of us just want to live fulfilling, meaningful lives—to feel a sense of place, purpose, and existential validation—but have been deluded into mistaking material consumption for human wellbeing by those with an interest in selling it to us.

Consumption is not wellbeing. Existential consumption is obviously essential to basic wellbeing, but marginal returns on material consumption quickly diminish and eventually the consumptive cycle becomes futile and vicious. In many cases—especially in advanced industrial societies—we would live better for living with less. Or rather, we could consume less and still manage to be better off. Wellbeing is only a matter of consumption to a point. Once existential needs are met, living well really means resilient and enriching interpersonal and socioecological relationships: living in a community of social and ecological complementarity, free self-expression, fair distribution of resources and burdens, and equitable direct democratic involvement in political and economic decision-making.

But this diverges radically from everything we’ve been told by our neoclassical and neoliberal politico-economic overlords—they who would have we peasants remain complicit in an unsustainable global system of social organization that has left more than a billion people in destitution, disenfranchised all but the super-wealthy and well-positioned elite, and caused the worst ecological decline since the start of the Holocene.

It’s the same old story really. 7000 years after the birth of civilization we’re still spinning in the same circles as the Sumerians. Constant geopolitical conflict, cycles of regime instability, distributive and participatory social inequities, struggle with natural feedbacks to ecological exploitation—not much changes. Like Sisyphus we are bound to forever push our boulder up the mountain. We are creatures of habit.

But that’s not to say we should resign to nihilism. We must imagine Sisyphus happy and take responsibility for our boulder!

Predictable as the human cycle may be from 40,000 feet, we have local and interpersonal opportunities to find meaning and purpose in socioecological relationships on the ground—in connecting with the people and land around us. We might find that we live better and more sustainably for doing so.

And as long as we’re here, so too will be the sun. Ecosystems change, regimes rise and fall, but the sun is always overhead. Uniting us. Unifying us. Throughout history and across continents and species. We are a vast diversity of world views and societies, but the sun we have in common.

Sunset over the Continental Divide seen from Green Mtn

Sunset over the Continental Divide seen from Green Mtn

Does distance matter?

There is some contention in ethics over the moral relevance of distance—I touched on this to an extent in the ethics of rising sea level (II). In essence, the question “does distance matter?” amounts to asking whether we have greater responsibility to those who are nearer to us than to those who are far away—if we have any such responsibility to those far away at all. In context of catastrophic sea level rise, one might ask: am I obliged to my neighbor who will be affected by rising sea level more so than to someone living in, say, Bangladesh who will likewise be affected?

Some would say, yes—we have some such responsibility to help our neighbors deal with sea level rise, and no such responsibility to help someone in a similar predicament in Bangladesh. Others would contend that we have equal responsibility to both. A third option might be that we have responsibilities to both, but more to one than the other—i.e. we do indeed have responsibilities to sea level rise related climate refugees from Bangladesh, but we have more responsibility to our neighbors. Another might say we have responsibilities to neither, but should assist only if it serves our own interests. The list could go on, but that’s not the point here. The point is to show that it’s not necessarily clear how distance plays into responsibility. It’s not so clear if distance matters.

So let’s construct a thought experiment to clarify things.

Suppose you live in the US and you’re running late for some sort of important engagement—a dinner, perhaps—that requires you wear a shirt. But you had been at the beach (you had accidentally fallen asleep in the Sun) and are utterly shirtless. You have no option except to purchase a shirt, and fast—somewhere on your way to the important dinner you’re running late for. Along your way you come across exactly one place that sells shirts—the only shirt store, in fact. You enter the store and find, to your dismay, that your shirt options here are rather limited. There are exactly two options, no more no less, of exactly the same quality, kind, price, etc. But you notice a key difference, all other things being equal. One was made in an Indonesian sweatshop and the other in a Mexican maquiladora, both of the same deplorable conditions. Your moral sense starts to ache. Whichever you choose, you realize, is an implicit endorsement of the reprehensible labor practices that produced it. You don’t approve of or want to endorse either, but you seem to have no choice about it—suppose you must choose. So you wonder—does distance matter?

If distance matters, then as a person living in the US you have more responsibility to not endorse the closer repugnance. If distance matters, you should buy the Indonesian-made shirt, swallowing the sad endorsement of the unethical practice that’s farther away. But this seems wrong.

If distance doesn’t matter, on the other hand, then you have equal responsibility not to endorse either, and you have come to an impossible choice. The only ethical option, as you see it, is to purchase neither, remain shirtless, and forgo your engagement at whatever sacrifice that entails—because distance doesn’t matter. Neither is morally acceptable.

The thought experiment may seem odd—I’m open to other formulations or suggestions—but perhaps it helps clarify intuition. I think, at least in this case, intuition tells us that endorsing either disturbing labor practice is unethical—that distance doesn’t matter—and that we have equal responsibility to treat people on the other side of the Earth with the same moral considerability as we do those nearby. Of course, an obvious objection stems from the premise “ought implies can.” Distance doesn’t matter only if we are just as capable of treating those nearby and those far away as moral patients. If we literally can’t help those far away—e.g. a drowning person on the other side of the planet—then we aren’t morally responsible for doing so. Ought implies can. We can only be obliged to do that which is possible for us. But insofar as we can help distant people, we should.

The implications of this intuition for how we ought to address global problems like climate change, deforestation, biodiversity loss, sea level rise, world hunger and dehydration, sociopolitical oppression, ocean acidification, rampant poverty and disease, slavery and human trafficking, etc., are vast. If distance doesn’t matter then we all share a global responsibility to solve these problems, or, in cases that involve global commons, to engage and address them in and on equitable and proportional grounds of complicity and capacity.

Depending on the context of the moral question, distance may or may not matter, more or less. Regarding global climate change, perhaps distance doesn’t matter. But regarding exposure to the risks and harms of natural gas development, where proximity is an obvious important factor, perhaps distance does. To say that distance always does or always doesn’t matter is an over-simplification, so it’s important we rehash this question in various contexts. The more often we ask the question, the more often we may find it appropriate or obligatory to expand our spheres of moral consideration. And such expansion, it seems to me, is of supreme importance if we are to live well in our global community.