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.

Debunk the delusion! Ecologize the economy!

In the wake of last week’s UN General Assembly, the world seems an unscrupulous chaos. The fight against ISIL continues to escalate as the international coalition officially adds Russia (and awkwardness via Syria à la Assad), Hong Kong protests Chinese authoritarianism, Ebola rampages on in west Africa, and—let’s not forget—last Tuesday, NYPD arrested a polar bear. If that’s not a perfect metaphor for the military-industrial complex I don’t know what is. A white man in a uniform, with a gun, putting nature in handcuffs. Volumes spoken.

Photo courtesy of Carbonated

Image courtesy of Carbonated

Meanwhile, the Sept. 5 ceasefire in Ukraine remains tenuous as shelling in Donestk has repeatedly threatened to end the shaky truce between Kiev and the rebels in the east. The official word seems to be that the ceasefire is holding. But have no illusions about it, the Ukrainian crisis is hardly defused. The ceasefire is technically between Kiev and Moscow, not Kiev and the separatists, so the ceasefire has “held” only insofar as explicitly Russian troops aren’t shooting at Ukrainians. Instead, the newly declared republics in Donetsk and Luhansk have consolidated military forces into the United Army of Novorossiya (New Russia) to keep fighting the regime in Kiev and their fighters’ behavior is becoming increasingly flamboyant and barbaric. Despite the official word, people are still dying in Ukraine.

Photo courtesy of ForeignPolicy.com

Novorossiya militant—-image courtesy of ForeignPolicy.com

Media coverage in the US might be dwindling because of ISIL, but under no circumstances should we consider the Ukrainian crisis resolved. NATO is still arming Kiev, the Poland-Lithuania-Ukraine alliance forces are deployed along the eastern European borders with Russia, NATO troops are stationed in the Baltics, and Russian military convoys in Ukraine, while partially withdrawing, are still very present.

Conveniently ignoring Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took the UN GA as another opportunity to call out (@ 10:00) the United States for hypocritically coercing nations and exploiting crises around the world for economic and geopolitical gain under the auspices of good triumphing over evil. Granted, we do do that. We’ve been using moral righteousness to veil economic and geopolitical interests since Theo Roosevelt attacked Cuba and strong-armed Colombia in Panama for sake of bringing civilization to the uncivilized. US foreign policy has been something of a contradiction since then—a strange blend of moral emancipatory agendas and capitalistic imperialism. Accept freedom or die.

Photo courtesy of Vosizneias.com

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov—-image courtesy of Vosizneias.com

Perpetuating the US-Russia dialectical rivalry, Obama fired back on 60-minutes reasserting a narrative of American exceptionalism and moral responsibility to intervene militaristically in crises all over the world (@ 9:34), wherever we happen to see ourselves needed. Indeed, we’ve been patrolling the world since Roosevelt exclaimed US prerogative to police the globe of “chronic wrongdoing” with his 1904 Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine.

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But this US-Russia dialectical rivalry isn’t just a vestige of the Cold War. Ours has been a set of competing narratives for more than a century. In the same year that Teddy declared the US the world police (1904), the Russo-Japanese War over control of Manchuria and Korea was raging. In turn, TR intervened to ensure that there was no decisive winner for sake of regional stability. So began the US-Russia geopolitical contest for supremacy. Only thirteen years later, in the midst of World War I, Russia had its Bolshevik Revolution and the millenarian contest between Capitalism and Communism erupted. The geopolitical rivalry became enshrined in ideological dogmatism of undeniably religious fervor.

Excerpt from the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine of 1904. Courtesy of Ourdocuments.gov

Excerpt from the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine of 1904. Courtesy of Ourdocuments.gov

Both nations came into their “industrial-owns” in the early 20th century, and since the League of Nations and the Treaty of Versailles, the bureaucratic norm among State and international elites has been to disguise and discuss economic and military-industrial interests with moral platitudes. The same kind we hear from leaders today like Putin’s “Plea for Caution”, and President Obama, RFM Lavrov, and Secretary Ban Ki-Moon at the UN. I’d like to think that the people behind these bureaucratic and political offices genuinely mean what they say. But for all their personal sincerity and resonant optimism, the world remains a socioecological mess.

Just look at the Outcomes Report from last week’s UN GA and the Millennium Development Goals Report from 2013. Despite the lofty rhetoric—for all the “just” war and subsequent bureaucracy—the vast majority of what we’ve done over the past 70 years (since the UN’s founding) has accomplished little more than to serve existing neoliberal economic interests. Success in trade liberalization, economic growth, and industrial development has meant some degree of poverty alleviation in developing nations—a worthy goal to be sure—but what progress there has been toward poverty alleviation has come at unprecedented social and ecological cost. Deforestation, climate change, mass extinction and biodiversity loss now define the Anthropocene and income and gender inequities the world over resemble a writ-large global classism reminiscent of Gilded Age America. The richest of the rich have never been richer, and the poorest of the poor have never stood to lose so much for so little in return. This is as true within advanced industrial societies as well as without

Graph courtesy of the World Bank

World Income Gap—-graph courtesy of the World Bank

Image courtesy of FinancialSocialWork

American Distribution of Wealth—-figure courtesy of FinancialSocialWork

While “sustainable development” is in international vogue, nothing about it has proven sustainable in any meaningful holistic sense. The very idea of sustainability has been hijacked by neoliberal elites in powerful States, international regimes and multinational corporations and, despite espousing social equity and ecological resilience goals, has come to emphasize capitalist economic interests above all else while socioecological priorities fall to the wayside. The “green neoliberalism” of the UN, WTO, World Bank, IMF and the like is anything but green.

The joke—the really incredulous thing about all this—is the idea that what we’re doing can be made sustainable without radical, fundamental change; that we can globalize capitalism, universalize hyper-consumer culture, grow economies and populations perpetually and do it all sustainably just by consuming certain types of products made by “eco-friendly” multinational corporations. Duped by hollow “free market environmentalist” advertisement and promotion, consumers in advanced industrial societies have come to conflate the socioecological spirit of sustainability with the economic capacity of existing multinational industries to produce, and we to consume, certain material goods in perpetuity.

But sustainability is not just the perpetual production and consumption of goods, trade liberalization, economic growth, and poverty alleviation—though looking at WTO, World Bank, IMF, UN, etc. sustainable development policy and outcomes as compared to their rhetoric, its easy to understand how so many of ecological conscience could succumb to the rhetoric and unknowingly become complicit in the conflation of sustainability with green neoliberalism and the international economic model of endless growth. It’s time to pull back the wool! Sustainability is actually a much deeper, more robust, holistic combination of socioecological values and principles.

The essence of sustainability means the rational and reasonable ecological orientation of society—that we consume reasonably and justifiably within the planet’s resource extraction biocapacity; the embrace of cooperative socioecological complementarity over market-based competition; the rekindling of social fairness principles like usufruct and the irreducible minimum that underwrote precapitalist cultures; the decentralization of policymaking authority such that decisions are made by the people they affect rather than by bureaucrats living far away; radical direct municipal democracy and the inversion of conventional top-down governance; citizen majorityownership of local industrial means of extraction, production, and consumption; and the non-domination of women, men, and nonhumans by traditional concentrations of wealthy, white, male elites.

The bottom line is this: unsustainability is a crisis of inequitable overconsumption. Global material resource consumption has increased eight-fold in the past century, we’ve long surpassed the Earth’s biocapacity, and our international trajectory remains fixed on a model of infinite economic growth. We must consume less if we wish to live sustainably. But radical, fundamental change doesn’t mean a reversion to Stone Age living or Earth-goddess worshipping Neolithic eco-mysticism. Far from it. We need not sacrifice living well in order to live sustainably.

Krausmann, Fridolin, et al. "Growth in global materials use, GDP and population during the 20th century." Ecological Economics 68.10 (2009): 2696-2705.

Krausmann, Fridolin, et al. “Growth in global materials use, GDP and population during the 20th century.” Ecological Economics 68.10 (2009): 2696-2705.

Capitalism as we know it is not a necessary precondition for industry, technology, and modern standards of living. Precapitalist societies in the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Central America and the Ancient Roman Empire enjoyed wondrous technology and scientific innovation. But innovation was produced through cooperative complementarity rather than the more recent social Darwinist Western mantra of “healthy competition” mangled and abducted from evolutionary biological theory. The creativity and fecundity of nature as produced by evolutionary competition is a descriptive observation of biological phenomena—not a prescript for social organization. Nevertheless, endless competitive growth, rather than cooperative complementarity, has, in turn, led the global community down a path of unsustainable material resource consumption wholly without precedent in historical precapitalist civilizations of comparable science, technology, and quality of life. Granted, these precapitalist societies had their own domestic problems from which we gain the wisdom of hindsight. The point is that capitalism is not the only way to ensure existential resource security, ameliorate the hardships of animal life, and live enriched by science and technology. We need not consume so rapaciously to live well.

Individually, much of what we consume does little toward improving our wellbeing, so we’d likely live better by living with less. Indeed, individual consumption is frequently coerced by advertising and manufactured needs, and, in cases of addictive, gluttonous, and akratic consumption, leads to vicious and futile recursions of consumption and discontent. Consuming less means liberation—emancipation—from the invisible chains cast by the invisible hand; the cold mechanical market reduction of biodiversity and ecology to mere resource stocks and human life to a nihilistic cycle of labor and consumption. We would live better for living with less. We would live better for being free of capitalism’s vicious futility.

But the majority of global material resource consumption is institutional and systemic: large central States, international bureaucratic regimes, and multinational corporations dictate the terms of material resource exploitation, production, and consumption according to the prerogatives of ownership. We mere serfs own little and so decide even less. If we want to live sustainably, in turn, we need a radical and fundamental change in the basic structures of society: institutional and systemic inequitable overconsumption our targets of revolution.

The 20th century model of neoliberal elite-dominated nuclear-industrial nation-states and international regimes in collusion with multinational corporations that together auto-validate their ownership and exploitation of the planet like an echo-chamber or citation-circle has proven socially inequitable, ecologically destructive, unsustainable, and culturally undesirable. But the current generation in power is too set in its ways to be the revolution.

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It is up to us—we the Millennials—to remake society. Socioecological revolution is our responsibility, because amidst hypocritical, played-out antagonistic rhetoric from the world’s two biggest nuclear powers—all while sociopolitical and ecological crises hang in the balance—the war machine in Ukraine and the Levant rolls on and neoliberal elites continue their reign at the expense and exploitation of you and me and women and people of color and all of the nonhuman ecology of the world around us, now reduced to resources to be consumed by capital society and war.

If this seems hyperbolic, just looks who’s been making an killing off death and crisis since November 2013 (when Orange Revolution tension re-percolated onto Kiev’s streets after former President Yanakovich rejected a trade deal to further liberalize Ukraine’s economy) and before, now intensified by the international coalition mobilizing to fight ISIL in Iraq and Syria. While ten companies in particular are getting rich from war, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon, Northrop Grumann & Airbus Group NV have all seen nearly geometric increases in stock value since last November, and exponential increases since November of 2012. These are all warplane, warship, artillery, missile, armored vehicle, arms, and electronics manufacturers. And all of these are astoundingly resource intensive products and processes, and they’re largely driven and powered by fossil fuels.

Lockheed 2013 stock trendsGeneral Dynamics 2013 stock trends

Where there’s war, there’s oil. Whether we’re fighting for it or not, it’s always a major player. Oil production and exports in the US have skyrocketed since 2006 with the fracking revolution, and global consumption is at an all time high and rising. Much of that increase in global oil consumption is demand-driven by developing countries. Much of the status quo is comprised of consistent demands in advanced industrial nations. But in all cases, it’s driven by institutional and systemic neoliberal constructs never far removed from the demand of war. This inequitable unsustainable overconsumption is a systemic and institutional issue—the problem of our era—the Millennial issue.

Graph courtesy of the US Energy Information Administration.

United States Total Oil Production—-graph courtesy of the US Energy Information Administration.

We must take responsibility. Soon we’ll depose prior materialistic generations and take the seats of power for ourselves and remake society from within, but in the meantime we must work from without and use the tools, however shabby they may be, at our disposal. For now, that means exercising—despite causal impotence objections—extreme justificatory discretion when participating in the market. It also means that we must VOTE. Be knowledgeable of and involved in politics. Be politically active. Take action. Vote. This November and in every election moving forward, vote. Granted, our choice in America between Democrats and Republicans is stifling and unrepresentative. With the exception of a few polarizing social issues, the two US parties are almost identical. Both perpetuate the same model of hyper-centralized nationalism, global capitalism spread by imperial neoliberals and war hawks, clandestine cahoots with multinational corporations, and the disenfranchisement of any and all who don’t contribute financially to campaign mudslinging chests.

Indeed, the two party system, lack of congressional term limits, and campaign finance regulation are among the biggest systemic institutional challenges facing our generation. But problems of that sort seem solvable only from within the halls of Congress, kept largely unreachable by the vast majority of the public because of extravagant campaign spending expectations hidden behind the revolving door of Iron Triangles.

To that effect, we need new parties. We need an end to career politicians, and we need to strictly limit corporate aggregate and per-candidate campaign contributions and expenditures. But first we need to vote. And then we need to ensure that we carry our proud post-materialist values forward into our nation’s future governance. This is not a call for mere reform nor anarchy, but for revolution. A fundamental change to the basic constructs of society. It’s ultimately up to us. Answer the call.

Let’s get it together humans.

Debunk the delusion! Ecologize the economy!

Love your country, question your government.

Love your country, question your government.

Don’t reduce me bro

It’s a refrain ad nauseam in interdisciplinary circles: “the humanities and the sciences don’t communicate”–“humanists and physical scientists don’t collaborate”–“they don’t understand each other.” It’s true, interdisciplinarity is rare and challenging. But the struggle is our own doing. Socially, intellectually–we’ve become methodological dogmatists. We’ve narrowed what we accept as legitimate, rigorous or trustworthy explanation so much so that anything deviant from material reductive methods is automatically dismissed by physical scientists as flimsy, subjective hand-waving. This attitude toward the humanities has proliferated as we as a society expect more and more that science will answer the values-based and ethical socioecological questions of the day. But descriptive knowledge doesn’t tell us what should be done. We cannot reduce our values to mere facts, try as we might.

Our reductive materialist view of the world has developed in a vacuum from humanity. “Complex systems are best understood when reduced to their moving parts and underlying physical laws,” goes the line. But we’ve spread reductive materialism too far. Now we try to explain even our humanity in reductive and materialist terms. We’ve reduced beauty to retinal photon refraction, consciousness to patterns of brain activity, morality to genetic coding, relationships to virtual profiling, our bodies to labor capital, ecosystems to instrumental services, human beings to Homo economicus, wellbeing and happiness to material resource consumption, and LIVING to life in the market. But what makes us human cannot be reduced. Our humanity cannot be separated from natural systems. And so our understanding and conduct of the relationship between human and nonhuman systems must change. We must take the best from and evolve beyond dogmatic reductive materialism. We must understand complexity and complex systems holistically as well and conduct ourselves as a society accordingly. Otherwise we miss the forest for the trees and lose ourselves. We end up in crisis.

The difficulty, it seems to me, is not that there is a problem in linking human and natural systems. The two have no problem linking. Human systems are natural systems; the former presupposes, or is-a-subset-of, the latter. They are fundamentally inseparable—-yet they are distinguishable. Humans are unique in many ways, so we’re right to distinguish “first” natural systems from “second” human systems. The problem arises when we value the distinct systems hierarchically, rather than in complementarity. The “main problem” isn’t that human and nonhuman systems have trouble linking, it’s that the link—-the relationship—-is assumed to be hierarchical.

There are lots of explanations for why we value the two systems hierarchically. One of those explanations is no doubt related to religion, spirituality, and ideology—-“worldview” in the broadest sense. But ecological degradation has always accompanied human civilization—-even when we were all animists and goddess worshipping polytheists. The Judeo-Christian worldview is generally anthropocentric, but there are stewardship responsibilities that come with the idea of Nature as Creation, so perhaps the transition from immanent to transcendental divinity in the West doesn’t fully explain the modern division. Nor do I think that reverting basic social mythology to some sort of Eco-la-la about mystical oneness and Earth goddesses would resolve the tension of the duality.

In other words, spiritual transition from immanent to transcendental divinity is perhaps correlative, but not the cause of the division between human and nonhuman systems. Ecological decline perennially associated with human habitation didn’t dramatically intensify until the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions. Granted, the move from a cyclical worldview of history to the linear progressive reading of history that accompanies Abrahamic spirituality paved the way for modern liberalism, but the “divide” between human and nonhuman systems seems primarily an epistemic one. And while the epistemic division may reflect deeper metaphysical beliefs about the nature of human v. nonhuman systems, one could argue that metaphysical beliefs are fundamentally derivative of epistemology insofar as our understanding of what existence is is a function of what we can know about itBut which is more fundamental is perhaps a trivial point.

My position is this: the division between human and nonhuman systems is an epistemic one, best contextualized as originating with the Scientific Revolution. After Descartes’ reductionist project in the Meditations, intellectual Europe ubiquitously adopted reductionism as the primary explanatory method. Everything from the soul to the nature of matter can be explained in reductionist terms (thinking and extension, respectively, according to Rene), or so the story goes. Eventually Cartesian reductionism merged with Hobbesian materialism and thus was born the modern scientific worldview–that natural phenomena is best explained as a great machine reduced to its moving material parts, governed by universal physical laws; the epistemic abandonment of formal and final causation for sole focus on material and efficient causation in natural science.

This is fantastic for explaining nonhuman systems. But human systems have both material and nonmaterial features, and nonmaterial features are harder to reduce and so harder to explain—-even irreducible and unexplainable. Nevertheless the reductive materialism of the Scientific Revolution has pressed forward, collapsing the nonhuman world into esoteric quantum physical mumbo-jumbo. We’ve reduced the universe to theoretical and probabilistic subatomic particles, but we’re no closer to explaining the nature of consciousness, intentionality, beauty, values, ethics, etc. (despite the laudable efforts of neuroscience). Reductive materialism is insufficient to fully explain nonmaterial human aspects of reality, and so the former has developed separately from the other. Material sciences and nonmaterial humanities rarely communicate, if ever, the gap widening now for three centuries.

The divide between human and nonhuman systems is an epistemic one, now codified and institutionalized as contemporary academic “disciplines.” But disciplinarity is central to the neoliberal university model of knowledge production, and so for the sake of efficiency in commoditizing knowledge, human and nonhuman systems seem inevitably bound to remain at explanatory odds. Or at least so as long as reductive materialism is presumed to be the only legitimate method of explaining the world.

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.

ancient sumer

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.

Biocapacity surpassed_graphic

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.

On top of the world

Antarctica is stunning, to say the least. Though the aesthetics and importance of the Earth’s southern-most continent are easily and often overlooked. I think this is unfair. It’s certainly biased against Antarcticans. But this oversight isn’t necessarily because people think the glaciers, mountains, Archipelagos, lakes, snowy deserts, penguins, whales, and seals aren’t especially beautiful or important. Presumably people think, or at least would think, quite the opposite—charismatic mega-fauna, icy caverns and all.

Mt. Herschel, Antarctica—photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Mt. Herschel, Antarctica—photo courtesy of Wikipedia

However, my concern here is more spatial and cartographical. Or, rather, it stems from lingering frustrations related to the assumptions that underlie our spatial and cartographical representations of the Antarctic, and how those assumptions affect our understandings of what Antarctica is and its importance relative to the rest of the world. Indeed, the typical distorted, flattened, elongated pictures of Antarctica we get from North-Atlantic-centric mapsRobinson and Mercator projections alike—are, at best, disappointing and preclude thorough appreciation for the size, shape, place, value, importance, and beauty of the Antarctic continent.

Map courtesy of NOAA’s National Geographic Data Center

Map courtesy of NOAA’s National Geographic Data Center

I mean—really—who are we kidding? Antarctica does not look like that. Obviously, some degree of distortion is inevitable when portraying spherical shapes on a flat surface—but this is exactly my point. Antarctica is rarely seen for what it “actually” looks like, nor in continuity, because of our typical Euro-centric-map-influenced perception of the world. Granted, world maps look like world maps, not like the world. To that effect, globes are more accurate representations of the planet. But even then, Antarctica is usually at the bottom, mercilessly impaled and obscured by the trinket’s axis of rotation.

Photo courtesy of IrishTimes.com

Photo courtesy of IrishTimes.com

Among the last of the pristine, unindustrialized, non-instrumentalized regions of the planet, the vast, isolated, solitary nature of the Antarctic wilderness is an awe-inspiring holdout of human non-interference, distinctly absent of permanent human habitation, perched unsuspectingly on top of the world. Wait. On top? Indeed. The idea that north is “up” goes largely unquestioned because our spatial orientation and perspective of planetary positionality has been dictated and subsequently assumed by northern-centric portrayals of the Earth created by sea-faring European explorers, navigators, and cartographers that saw Europe as both on top of and at the center of the world. The result is a historical legacy of Euro-Atlantic-centric maps perpetuated still today.

But this presumed directionality and centricism is ultimately fiction. It would be just as correct to portray the South Pole as upward facing. For that matter, the same holds true of the East, West, and everything in between. After all, the Earth is just a sphere(-ish) object floating in space. There is no up or down in the void.

Hobo-Dyer Equal Area Projection Map—courtesy of transpacificproject.com

Hobo-Dyer Equal Area Projection Map—courtesy of transpacificproject.com

For better or for worse, we tend to associate size and relative spatial position—i.e. above and below—with importance. Now, relative spatial orientation—that is, where X  is located in comparison to Y—is certainly relevant, especially with regard to the Antarctic, to establishing our perceptions of importance. Often we assume that being “above” equates to being “better” and that being “below” equates to being “worse.” Poppycock. While socially prevalent, these associations are fallacious; they are more a pernicious matter of habit than of justified belief. Writing from Brisbane, Australia at the moment, the idea of being “down under” seems particularly salient, but in no way should being down under be presumed as or used as a pejorative term. Most would probably contend that Antarctica is “below” North America, and that it’s at the “bottom” of the Earth. But Antarctica is neither above nor below any other continent, Australia and North America alike. We just happen, by instrumental and anthropocentric convention, to portray it that way. In turn, we do Antarctica itself and its inhabitants a serious disservice and minimize the perceived importance of the southern-most continent.

With regard to size and perceptions of importance, we also tend to think that “bigger is better” and that we ought to prefer the large. Growing up in Texas, these were simply tenants of the Good Life. But, again, these are specious premises at best. Gargantuan, obnoxious, unwieldy automobiles in a congested urban landscapes, for example, are far from preferable. Imagine trying to park an H2 in Manhattan. To the same point, if the Sun were any larger than it is, life on Earth probably wouldn’t have developed as it has and all of our human shenanigans would have been physiochemically and energetically precluded. Bigger is not necessarily better.

Indeed, Schmacher’s “Small is Beautiful” profundity has been hailed as revolutionary by localists, anarchists, environmentalists, and environmental economists since being published in the 70s. But sadly, others have noted, the idea is slowly being forgotten in context of global industrialization and an ever-growing human population.

It also seems important to point out that while the United States measures in at 3.794 million square miles and Europe at 3.931 million square miles, the Antarctic continent spans a whopping 5.405 million square miles—a difference in size we probably wouldn’t expect given the misleading flat and stretched portrayal of Antarctica we’re used to. Perhaps Europeans are less guilty of associating size with importance, but Americans tend to especially value the big over the small—so maybe noting Antarctica’s comparative largeness could help motivate a shift in the equivocation of size, value, and importance. If size matters, Antarctica matters more than the US and Europe. The Peter’s Map—an area-accurate projection—speaks to this point.

Peter’s Map—Courtesy of petersmap.com

Peter’s Map—Courtesy of petersmap.com

Typical Euro-Atlantic-centric projections disproportionately represent the size of the northern hemisphere and portray the continents of the southern hemisphere as much smaller than the comparative reality. The Greenland Problem is a good poster-child for this disproportionality.

In Mercator projections, Greenland looks to be of similar size to Africa. But in reality, Africa is 11.67 million square miles whereas Greenland is only .8363 million square miles; the former is almost 14-times larger than the latter. Granted, the Mercator projection was created for navigation, not necessarily for proportional accuracy, but if maps are supposed to depict reality in shaping our worldviews, then we’ve been living in a Mercator fantasy.

Mercator projection; the Greenland Problem—courtesy of culturaldectective.com

Mercator projection; the Greenland Problem—courtesy of culturaldectective.com

Regarding the Greenland Problem, the Peter’s Map is certainly an improvement. But it comes with shape distortions of its own, so it’s far from ideal. Moreover, while the Peter’s Map is a more accurate proportional representation of size than the Mercator projection, it still does nothing with regard to the fair treatment of Antarctica. Peter’s Antarctica is still relegated to the bottom of the map, split along its radius, and flattened out.

Ultimately, no map will ever be perfect, nor will every map serve every purpose. Rather than trying to find “the best” map, we might prefer to be cartographic pluralistic relativists and insist that various projections be displayed together, side by side, in every case so that no single worldview is ostensibly portrayed as “better” than any other, and in turn, prevent the disproportionate assignment of value and importance that accompanies visual representation and evaluation of the Earth. Alongside the Mercator, Peter’s, Hobo-Dyer, “south-as-up,” and Robinson projections, so too belongs an Antarctic-centric perspective. If Antarctica is going to get a fair shake in politics, ethics, and the allocation of resources, then we ought also consider and incorporate a worldview where Antarctica is the center of attention. Besides, Antarctic-centricism makes for a beautiful map. And we all know what they say about a picture’s worth in words.

Antarctic-centric map--courtesy of username “Karilyn” of www.forums.xkcd.com

Antarctic-centric map–courtesy of username “Karilyn” of http://www.forums.xkcd.com