Illustration by Grace Kirman
At every climate march and Extinction Rebellion demonstration, the messages on protestors’ placards appeal urgently to our values. Consume less or perish. Save our future. Their entreaties address what matters most and how we should prioritise it, or draw on spiritual, even religious vocabulary. Creation is crying out. Sacred Earth. These slogans speak to shared moral instincts, presupposing that contemporary Western society has emerged from the clutches of relativist, existentialist postmodernism with a shared moral language that’s still intact, still more-or-less universally intelligible.
What mode of discourse will come to dominate the decades to come is yet to be seen, but it needs to equip us to collectively meet the challenges of mitigating and adapting to climate change. On a day-to-day basis, it’s clear that we’re not there yet—as a society, we somehow haven’t managed to bridge the gap between what we know and how we are responding, between our instincts and our actions. The sense of business-as-usual that continues to pervade most layers of society is symptomatic of a difficulty in fitting the ecological crisis into an ethical framework that simply wasn’t built for it.
It’s largely a problem of scale. Most people intuitively consider the consequences of their actions and take expected outcomes into account when making a decision. When it comes to climate change, however, the consequences of our actions tend to be outside of our field of vision. Most of us take it for granted that everyone should value living beings over commodities. Yet we continue to collectively choose commodities over living beings because the trade-off between them occurs out of our sight—making us struggle to conceptualise it.
We are estranged both spatially and temporally from the consequences of our choices. Behind one average pair of jeans bought off the shelf from a major fashion brand, exploitation and human rights abuses have most likely taken place, and over 10,000 litres of water and over a kilogram of pesticides are used, contributing to drought and biodiversity loss and feeding a vicious cycle of environmental and social degradation. This correlates to suffering that is taking place somewhere in the world, but because we can’t see it with our own eyes, it seems theoretical and intangible to us. In addition to this, the industry that produced the jeans is responsible for 10% of all global greenhouse gas emissions, which climatic modelling demonstrates is already contributing to extreme weather events, with the possibility of ecological collapse in the future.
This phenomenon emanates outwards onto every level of society. Politicians can get away with being responsible for their time in office, and not beyond. Exhaustible resources are extracted for short-term profit. Fast fashion relies on the fact that most people consider it broadly socially acceptable to buy clothes that they will wear a few times and then not want anymore—and that many of those who don’t are likely to do it anyway, albeit with a pang of guilt.
Moral philosophy can theorise responses to environmental problems, but normative ethical theories don’t tend to help bridge the gap between theory and practice. According to Kantian ethics, since future generations are not inherently different from us, the categorical imperative is still binding for present actions that may impact them, which means that we must not treat them as means to ends. Steve Vanderheiden’s Kantian intergenerational political theory, for example, has “the moral duty to avoid causing predictable harm to others” and “a basic principle of equality that refuses to discount harm simply because it accrues in the future” as its two main principles.
A utilitarian approach would seek a positive outcome for the greatest possible number without any partiality, and so also require us to treat those far removed from us in space and time equally to those who immediately surround us. But in practice, there are considerable obstacles to applying either of these theories to real-life environmental decision-making: we tend to believe we have a reasonable sense of how our actions impact ourselves and the people in front of us, but this becomes vaguer and vaguer as they become further removed from us.
This is a problem on an epistemic level: whose account do we believe about how our choices are affecting people on the other side of the world or decades into the future when there are competing claims? How do we know what evidence to trust? It’s also a psychological problem: the emotional and chemical rewards we experience as a result of “doing good” are incomparably greater when we can see the positive effects directly in front of us.
Two of Extinction Rebellion’s main aims are to “create a world that is fit for generations to come” and to “create a regenerative culture”, but they skate over the challenge that cultivating such ethical foresight poses for our society. Somehow we need to orchestrate a seismic mindset shift that has enough intensity to transform our culture. There are mountains that we will have to move before we can get there.
But around the world, there are cultural precedents for the holistic, compassionate awareness that the ecological crisis is now urgently requiring us to foster. The Buddhist discourse on loving kindness known as the Metta Sutta prays that all beings may be at ease, including “the seen and the unseen, those living near and far away, those born and to-be-born”.
Rather than trying to be universal, neutral, and secular, it might be more powerful for the environmental movement to embrace the diversity of cultures and beliefs, and to draw on the resources already present in people’s value systems. Scriptures, literature, and popular culture are rich in ecological language that can equip us with the conceptual reference points needed to take cognizance of the scale of the environmental crisis.
There is absolutely no time to wait to cure our society’s “prognostic myopia”: according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), it will only be possible to keep the rise in temperatures at or below 1.5°C if global carbon emissions peak before 2025—i.e. in less than three years—and reach net zero by the middle of the century. The moment to bridge the gap between our values and how we are implementing them is now.