Thursday, September 03, 2009

Why bother saving the planet?

I've been pondering that conversation that I linked to a while back. I just want to throw out a line of thought and see what people make of it.

If we accept that Peak Oil and the related limits to growth are real, then our present industrial system is unsustainable - ergo [as the Architect says] it WILL come to an end. I expect that to be quite soon, certainly in my hoped/expected lifetime (I've just turned 39).

There's not a lot that we can do to stop that happening. The processes and mechanisms involved are vast, beyond (probably) everyone's comprehension, and tie in just about every aspect of our existence.

In response to this predicament we might:
- become a survivalist, with the mentality that "I" (or: my family, tribe, nation) will SURVIVE!!!!! I'm sure you're all familiar with that approach;
- adopt a devil-may-care, laissez-faire, apres-moi-la-deluge form of not caring about it (or ignoring it, which is the same thing) - again, I'm sure people are familiar with forms of that;
- adopt a 'we must save the planet' approach and do all that we can to alleviate and minimise the inevitable human suffering.

What I'm exploring is a distinction _within_ the third of these options - although it might look more like the second from some points of view.

Let me bring in some philosophy to take this a bit further, the distinction in ethics between 'consequentialism', 'deontological ethics' and 'virtue ethics'.

A consequentialist understanding of ethics says that an action is right or wrong according to what the consequence of the action is. The worth of adopting a low-carbon lifestyle is that it will minimise the problems of climate change.

In contrast to this, the deontological approach says that there is something inherent in the act itself which constitutes its character as good or bad: the worth of adopting a low-carbon lifestyle is something intrinsic to itself.

The virtue ethics approach says that an action is right or wrong according to how it will affect the character of the person making the choice: the worth of adopting a low-carbon lifestyle is assessed by what sort of person you become when you choose that lifestyle.

What I'm getting at is that arguments that take the form 'we must do X because it will (help to) save the planet' leave me cold - in part because I don't like consequentialism as an ethical theory (I'm much more of a virtue ethicist myself, basically an Aristotelean as mediated by Alasdair MacIntyre).

There are various practical reasons why it leaves me cold. I'm very much of the view that we have to be honest about where we stand - that, to a very great extent it is too late to preserve a very great deal of our culture and habits. I also suspect that, even if per impossibile we succeeded(!) in saving the planet, we'd end up realising that we had missed some rather important things; that is, I'm not inspired to make the world safe for modern industrialism! (I should say, I tend to the view that our environmental problems are ultimately symptoms of a more fundamental social justice problem - and that it is the latter that we most need to address).

What motivates me are arguments that say 'we must do X because it is the right thing to do' (the deontological approach) or, even better, 'we must do X (or even a contagiously enthusiastic "Let's do X!!") because it allows us to be the people that God has created us to be'. In other words, the inner logic of choosing, eg, a low-carbon lifestyle is completely different in the one case than the other. Wittgenstein once used the comparison of two puppets - one being handled by string from above, one being directly manipulated by a hand inside - the actions might look the same but the forces involved are completely different.

There is a spiritual path through our present predicament which involves, I would say, a trust in a greater providence - the counterpart to abandoning our own pride - and walking in the Way of Life. We can never know all the eventual consequences of our actions; we can't know - I would say - whether it is possible to 'save the planet' or not. Yet we can know that choosing a simpler life, more strongly rooted in our particular local contexts and ecologies, more concerned to nurture social justice, more connected to all that makes for meaningful human relationships and vocations - all these things are the right things to do and help us to become the right sort of people. I think we can let God look after the consequences, for what does he require of us, but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly before him?

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