Wet and wild weather

Living in Boulder through this week’s historic flood was wild. And I mean that literally. Extreme weather is some of the only wilderness most urbanites are exposed to these days. There’s something exciting and adventure-inspiring about a good storm—the unknown, the uncontrollable. But only to a certain point—only within our comfort limit. Even outdoorsy folks generally don’t opt for true wilderness anymore—the occasional hunting, fishing, and multi-day backpacking trips spent surviving on sustenance food are soon followed by showers, couches, electricity, restaurants, beer, climate control, and all the other comforts of modern life we’ve come to take for granted.

But floods, hurricanes, droughts, earthquakes, tornados and the rest are quick to remind us of nature’s wild power. I’ve personally experienced Tropical Storm Allison and Hurricane Ike—and some indirect effects of Hurricane Katrina—in Houston, extended extreme drought in Austin, Hurricane Irene in New York, and now a 100-year flood in Boulder. For all our sentimentality about Mother Nature’s harmony and plenty, natural disasters tell another story—one of the Earth’s indifference to our troubles. It’s easy to romanticize wilderness—and for a lot of reasons we should—but we should also keep in mind the violence that comes the with it.

Despite some internal disagreement about the meaning and virtue of the idea of wilderness, it is usually a clarion call for environmentalists. But I think the wilderness—the same natural force that drove humans out of the state of nature—could play a slightly different role in the debate over climate change.

In the most general terms, climate change means increasingly extreme weather events. For the US and many other places, it will look like bursts of extreme precipitation followed by extended dry periods. In other words, the flood in Boulder fits the pattern. Of course, to what extent or degree this flood was caused by climate change exactly is tough to say, but it’s hard to reflect on an event like this past week and not implicate climate change in the grand scheme of things.

In essence, some calls for climate action could start to look something like “climate change must be stopped because it’s bringing the wilderness to our doors!” For rhetoric’s sake, it’s probably best not to confuse the term “wilderness” with more than one context or connotation. But it seems important to recognize that by intensifying such extreme weather through climate change, we’re literally bringing the power of the wild into our homes (mostly basements, in Boulder’s case). Supporting climate action because we believe the nonhuman world is inherently valuable is one thing (and apparently not very persuasive to many in politics), but property damage and loss of life from extreme weather might finally drive home the justification for national climate policy with anthropocentrics. A silver lining, at best, but noteworthy nonetheless.

Experiencing wilderness is enchanting, inspiring, and important for developing a sense of place and meaning in secular modernity. But let’s not necessarily invite the wild in for coffee. Radical, home-destroying, life-taking weather exists with or without anthropogenic climate change. It should be obvious that we should do whatever we can to stop exacerbating these natural disasters, even and especially if it means evolving beyond our unsustainable carbon-intensive lifestyles. Maybe something about Boulder—alongside these 10 facts about climate change—will be mentioned in this week’s Climate Change Hearing before the US House of Representatives.


When in RoME…

As expected, the Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress (RoME) in Boulder, CO, which I had the pleasure of attending, inspired some welcome moral pondering. In particular, the keynote address on Thursday of the congress, “What rights may be defended by means of war?” given by Dr. Jeff McMahan of Rutgers University, struck a chord.

McMahan’s talk was one about the permissibility of responding to lesser aggression with force or violence, and what conditions justify such retaliation. His talk was not environmentally related, but naturally, that’s the direction that my own thinking took his conclusions. In the interest of suspense, I won’t go into exactly what I’m thinking about because it will soon become an actual paper, so I’ll preface it with a question:

If the United Kingdom can permissibly defend its territory in the Falkland Islands from Argentine lesser aggression, could the Maldives defensibly wage war (making some generous assumptions about the Maldivian capacity to wage war) against the US, China, India, or other culpable European nations, in response to territorial losses from anthropogenic climate change related sea-level rise?

At this point, I absolutely do not suggest an affirmative or negative response to this particular question (and may never land on a suggestion within that dipole), but what this question fundamentally gets at (whether it’s at all or ever permissible for a state to wage war for environmental purposes) is certainly worth considering and may be increasingly pertinent in the future of geopolitics and moral philosophy.


JM Kincaid