Climate action: the moral dimension

Joseph Romm sounded the theme of moral obligation in a post on Climate Progress this morning as he directed readers’ attention to an opinion piece in the Washington Post by Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosophy professor at Princeton University. Appiah was reflecting on what future generations might condemn us for. He instances practices in the past which are now regarded with abhorrence. Men dutifully beating their wives and children, the execution of homosexuals, the practice of slavery, denying women the vote, lynch mobs, are among his examples. We look back and ask: What were people thinking?

What in our own time are our descendants likely to look back on and ask what we were thinking? Appiah identifies four contenders, some which go beyond the scope of Hot Topic’s focus, but before he does so he suggests three signs that a particular present practice may be destined for future condemnation. What especially attracted my attention was his use of the institution of slavery to illustrate the signs.

“First, people have already heard the arguments against the practice. The case against slavery didn’t emerge in a blinding moment of moral clarity, for instance; it had been around for centuries.

“Second, defenders of the custom tend not to offer moral counterarguments but instead invoke tradition, human nature or necessity. (As in, “We’ve always had slaves, and how could we grow cotton without them?”)

“And third, supporters engage in what one might call strategic ignorance, avoiding truths that might force them to face the evils in which they’re complicit. Those who ate the sugar or wore the cotton that the slaves grew simply didn’t think about what made those goods possible. That’s why abolitionists sought to direct attention toward the conditions of the Middle Passage, through detailed illustrations of slave ships and horrifying stories of the suffering below decks.”

I have often detected parallels between the struggle to get action on climate change and the past struggle to have slavery abolished, but have tended to draw back from pointing to them because the content of the struggles is different and the comparison may seem rather harsh on the opponents of climate change action. However the three signs Appiah nominates seem to me apposite to climate change inaction, and I hope I can point this out in sufficiently general terms to avoid appearing to accuse anyone of gross inhumanity.

First, we have been aware of the dangers of increasing greenhouse gas emissions, not for centuries admittedly, but for long enough for governments to be apprised of the information.  The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change has been in force since 1994 and enjoys near universal membership.

Second, many of the arguments against effective action invoke economic necessity ahead of environmental responsibility.  In the case of the slave trade and slavery the argument was strongly urged that economic ruin and decay would result. Somehow that trumped any humanitarian issues. In the case of climate change the issues are not presented so starkly. We are assured that the environmental questions are not overlooked, just pushed down the list. But the obstinate fact remains that the economy comes first, and moreover the economy as it is presently conducted and understood, not as it might become when greened.

Thirdly, strategic ignorance is deeply involved in the continuance of many of our present climate unfriendly activities. It relates to those in poorer countries already suffering the effects of climate change as well as to our grandchildren and their children who will be struggling with the massive problems we are bequeathing them.  If anyone tries to make a connect between the floods of Pakistan or the wildfires of Russia and our greenhouse gas emissions they are accused of falsely attributing natural phenomena to human causation. If they point to the storms ahead for our grandchildren they are dismissed as alarmist.

The Quakers had an honourable part to play in the abolition of the slave trade and of slavery. I was interested a year ago to read a book by a group of modern Quakers, academics and entrepreneurs, on the kind of changes needed to produce an ecologically sustainable and socially just economy. Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy was its title and I reviewed it on Celsias. Why I mention it here is because the authors deliberately place themselves in the tradition of the 18th century Quakers who engaged in the campaign to end British participation in the slave trade and abolish slavery throughout the British Empire. They see their book as a moral challenge to today’s growth-driven economy, and take inspiration from their Quaker predecessors who “eventually won the day and brought down the economic interests that argued for the ‘natural law’ of profit over all”.

To return to Appiah and the Washington Post. Unsurprisingly, the environment is one of the areas in which he foresees future generations asking what we were thinking.

“It’s not as though we’re unaware of what we’re doing to the planet: We know the harm done by deforestation, wetland destruction, pollution, overfishing, greenhouse gas emissions — the whole litany. Our descendants, who will inherit this devastated Earth, are unlikely to have the luxury of such recklessness. Chances are, they won’t be able to avert their eyes, even if they want to.”

Joe Romm’s complementary comment on that paragraph is just right:

“Also, unlike most other condemnable immoral activities in history, by the time this is obvious to all, there will be no undoing it by passing a law or establishing new social norms. And that’s why we all have a moral obligation to condemn what’s happening now in the strongest possible terms.”

It’s the moral dimension which makes it not unreasonable to see parallels between the obstinate refusal or delay to face up to the consequences of our climate inaction and the stubborn persistence of those in the 18th and 19th century who staved off action on slavery for so long.

13 thoughts on “Climate action: the moral dimension”

  1. Now that a clever bloke like this has said it out loud, it’s hard to miss the parallels between the current arguments about ‘energy costs will bankrupt us’ and the old arguments about the unacceptable increased costs of sugar and cotton.

  2. Slavery might be forbidden by Articles 4 & 5 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and it might be illegal in most jurisdictions but, sadly, that does not mean it has been abolished. The Guardian’s review of Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s recent book Half the Sky about the slavery and abuse of women said:

    In it they argue that the world is in the grip of a massive moral outrage no less egregious in scale or in the intensity of despair than the African slave trade of the 18th and 19th centuries or the genocides of the 20th. They believe this outrage is a key factor behind many of the most pressing economic and political issues today, from famine in Africa to Islamist terrorism and climate change. Yet they say the phenomenon is largely hidden, invisible to most of us and passing relatively unreported. At worst it is actively tolerated; at best it is ignored.

    You can see WuDunn speaking about "Our century’s greatest injustice" at TED and you can also see long time anti-slavery campaigner Kevin Bales airing his views about How to combat modern slavery.

    1. Yes. The big problem with slavery in modern Western societies is that it is now illegal, in several ways. And black market means invisible to ordinary citizens.

      The generational indenture and other enslavement in other countries is a bit like looking into a mirror and seeing our own societies as they were several hundred years ago. (People forget that serf was one of several terms used to distinguish between various lower statuses, slave being the lowest. Usually ignored because such people didn’t really count as people. ) And people generally kept quiet about selling their children, whether into slavery or otherwise.

  3. I think the author is entirely wrong on the moral counter-arguments point. I would argue that they’re essential to the institutionalization of such evils. First of all a reliance on tradition is a variety of moral argument, but fundamentally moral arguments are a needed psychological counter-balance. They can be direct (institution X is itself a moral good) or indirect (institution X has its problems, but look what good people we are on the whole).

    It’s a little strange that the author implies that the latter-day practice of slavery in the U.S. didn’t have moral arguments attached to it, because it surely did (e.g. the Christianizing of the slaves).

  4. There were a lot of arguments both ways. But once you accept the very first premise, racial superiority on your own part, it’s very easy to look to the bible.

    And there you find stuff telling you that slaves and women and a few other people who might feel they’re hard done by should just shut up and face facts. After that you’re fully confident and easily convinced by other arguments stemming from those premises. Having established whole economies around that basis, you then have further arguments.

    Logically it’s fairly tightly related to the drugs and prisons thing. Drugs are eeeevil. (The fact that the whole marijuana thing stemmed from the converging interests of cotton growers wanting to eliminate competition from hemp and a whole US bureaucracy with no purpose after the repeal of prohibition is just a side issue.) Having made that first big step, the subsequent steps leading to the huge prison population all seem quite logical and fully justified.

  5. Was it moral argument or shifts in the means of production that allowed the abolition of slavery in the Bristish Empire and US? We can look back and credit those who fought the good fight, but, at the end of the day, raw self-interest is the strongest drive for socio-economic change.

  6. Not just changes in the means of production.

    Britain nearly bankrupted herself patrolling and intercepting slave ships around the African continent. No-one asked them to. In fact no-one thought there was anything amiss, but once they’d made up their minds it should be stopped, they went ahead and stopped all they could,.

    Raw self interest has its place. And so does moral outrage.

    1. Having grown up in the US, my perception of history may be a bit different – not right, just different.

      British naval patrols also served to protect her dominance in sea-going trade. The US fought a second war with Britain (1812-1814) at least in part because of naval interference, that, and the little matter of the US invading Canada.

      Taking the moral high-ground didn’t stop a slave-free Britain from building a dominant textile industry based on cheap cotton imported from the slave-owning states of the southern US before the Civil War.

      My point is that change comes most quickly when circumstances, both economic and moral, are aligned.

      1. Mike, for a really eye-opening look at US and European influences see if you can get hold of Thomas Sowell’s “Black Rednecks and White Liberals”. I really dislike his super libertarian economics, but as a historian he’s terrific. I imagine other historians have other perspectives but I found this absolutely riveting.

      2. You say that "change comes most quickly when circumstances, both economic and moral, are aligned." I’m afraid I don’t understand why you think these forces were aligned in the abolition of slavery. Abolition was obviously contrary to the interests of the slave traders and owners and they fought hard to forestall it. Perhaps you could explain.

        1. I cannot speak further to the British case except to note that the evolving industrial economy of the early 19th century did not depend on maintenance of the staus quo with repect to slavery.

          In the case of American slavery – importation had been illegal for some time before the Civil War. As far as the pro-slavery southern states were concerned, neither moral argument nor economic forces were in their favour. However, for the anti-slavery northern states, the political alignment of new western states – and their resources and markets – were up for grabs. The nature of the American federal elections meant the southern states, in combination with any of the new western states aligned with them, would hold the balance of power. The political and economic forces in the northern states were thus aligned against slavery, albeit indirectly. As it turned out, military defeat of the southern states in the Civil Wars ensured economic dominance by the northern states for a hundred years.

  7. “He who dies with the most toys wins” seems to be the only principle most understand.

    I too enjoyed reading “Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy” The underlying ethic of a just distribution of production and resources and the reexamination of “commons” was in itself heartening. Dr R Howell was the NZ member of the group.

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