By Timothy Weidel
We live in two ages. The first is the Anthropocene, where human activity is the primary catalyst of climate change, and concerns for human well-being are put at the forefront of discussions on the environment. The second is the tumultuous American election season. In recent weeks the issue of climate change has finally come to the forefront of the campaign. While Hillary Clinton has averred that she believes climate change is “real,” Donald Trump has moved in the opposite direction. At times he has painted the issue as a nefarious plot cooked up by the Chinese government, and repeatedly stated that he sees it as a hoax. Trump’s campaign has stated that Clinton’s proposed actions on climate change would “destroy millions of jobs and force millions more into abject poverty.” Campaign spokesperson Jason Miller claimed furthermore that supporters of action on the climate issue celebrate “the loss of countless, good-paying energy jobs for American workers.”
As one who believes in the soundness of climate science and the need to act swiftly to address our emissions, I find it easy to dismiss these positions as naïve or misguided. Yet while I disagree with their conclusion, these perspectives reveal an important facet of the moral problem of climate change: the relational aspect. Trump’s concern is about the workers in oil and gas industries who would lose their jobs or livelihoods if stark policies on climate change were adopted. Thus from the moral standpoint of a person potentially acting to do something about climate change (e.g. supporting a ban on coal extraction), the relationship seemingly at stake is between this potential actor and others persons who may be negatively impacted (e.g. a coal mine worker). Clinton’s approach echoes concerns for these persons, focusing on avoiding a carbon tax and redeveloping coal-mining communities. She also appeals to a moral obligation to act based on our relationship to future generations of persons who will be harmed. In either case, the concern for our relationships leads us to some justifiable action or inaction: it is in the interest of those with whom we have a morally salient relationship to do (or not do) something.
Despite focusing on some morally significant relationship, these arguments omit one of the other parties in the question of climate change, one whose interests are bound up with our own. This “party” is the “climate,” our environment. Considering the perspective of the environment reveals not only an alternative perspective to the moral question of climate change, but also the ways in which it is in our interests to act for the sake of nature.
On what basis can we claim that we have an ethical relationship with our environment? Our environment can seem as merely a backdrop to which human life unfolds, a passive collection of flora and fauna with which we occasionally interact to pursue our own human interests. Yet some recent perspectives explore compelling alternative views on the environment that challenge the passivity of nature and our relationship to it.
A renewed focus on the environment as an entity with which we have a relationship is a major theme of the recent papal encyclical of Pope Francis, Laudato Si. Pushing back against viewing our environment as passive raw materials for unlimited human consumption, Francis argues that the biblically founded mandate to have “dominion” over the earth has been misinterpreted. Instead, he makes primary a concern to “till and keep” it: “’Tilling’ refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while ‘keeping’ means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature” (§67).
Notice here the claim of “mutual responsibility” between humans and nature; Francis does not contextualize the environment as a passive backdrop, but rather an “other,” a fellow actor in our world with interests and potential all its own. On this view nature has intrinsic value that is in no way necessarily tied to the interests of human beings. He speaks of nature as our “sister with whom we share our life” and “among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor” (§1-2). This last metaphor is striking, calling into question how we treat poor human beings. Given our propensity to neglect them and their interests, Francis pushes us to consider the ways in which we subjugate and neglect the interests of our environment. This alterity relationship is an ethical one, which places demands upon us to consider the impacts of our actions on the environment.
In one way, these ethical demands may be couched in theological terms, ones that may not be taken up by all persons; Francis’ argument does have this potential limitation. Yet our relationship to the environment and a moral imperative for its interests comes from non-religious perspectives as well. Nancy Tuana’s recent work develops a symbiotic ethical relationship between humans and the environment.
Comprising what she deems a “relational ontology,” the very constitutive elements of human beings and the natural environment are created and recreated based upon interactions between both entities. Rather than being static, all are entities in the act of becoming, constantly in a state of open exchange (a conception she refers to as “viscous porosity”). As an example she cites the use of synthetic fertilizers; not only have they increased crop yields (as intended), but have also led to alterations in farm practices, population growth, and leaching into the water table which has in turn led to dramatic changes in variety, lifespan, and lifecycles of numerous species. What we are, what other species are, and what comprises our natural environment is constantly altered by the actions and reactions that occur.
At a fundamental level, this approach also makes central a relationship with the environment. As Tuana puts it, “It is the porosity of bodies that allows for these exchanges. Understanding that we are affected by this porosity is key to accepting our inexorable interconnection with he world we are of and in.” Thus she argues that this relational perspective “has the potential to provoke new affective dispositions and habits of thought.”
This last point belies what I consider the most significant upshot of showing a concern for the interests of our environment as an other: motivating us to do something about the problem of climate change for moral reasons distinct from concerns of duty to current or future persons.
In today’s world our relationship to nature is not considered as reciprocal in most cases (when the environment is considered at all). As Naomi Klein puts it in her recent book This Changes Everything, we have moved to a relationship of “extractivism.” According to Klein this approach is “a nonreciprocal, dominance-based relationship with the earth, one purely of taking…it is the reduction of life into objects for the use of others, giving them no integrity or value of their own.” She goes on: “the interconnections among these various objectified components of life are ignored; the consequences of severing them are of no concern” (169).
What are these consequences of neglecting the intrinsically valuable environment and our relationship with it? Climate change and ecological degradation, no doubt, but to whom does this cause harm? Taking the perspectives offered above, we see that both parties in the relationship are harmed when we humans act with regard for only one side of the equation. In other words, neglecting our relationship with the environment causes harm to it and us.
Tuana’s relational ontology links in some ways to an Aristotelian conception of human beings, one that is highlighted in the early Marx’s concept of species-being. We require contact with nature not merely to sustain ourselves, but to further develop our capacities as human beings. Francis’ characterization of the earth as one of “our poor” rings true here as well. Just as we have a need for interacting with other human beings, we have a need for our environment. This need goes to a pragmatic level as well: if we do not consider the effects of our actions on nature, we are not long for this world. With rising temperatures, increasing sea levels, and less potable water, we make our world one where it is less likely that we will survive. Thus it is not merely in the interest of our environment for us to consider a relationship with nature as morally salient, but in our interests as well. To further develop ourselves as human persons and to develop our world as one that is amenable to our being able to be such persons, it is imperative that we consider the environment in our climate policy calculations.
So while Trump and Clinton are justified in considering how it will impact us and other human beings to whom we are related, they both miss the morally significant relationship between the environment and ourselves. We need to do something for ourselves, for the environment, and thus for us.
Timothy Weidel is Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Gonzaga University. He works in social and political philosophy, global poverty, applied ethics, and Marxism and critical theory.
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