Monday, 19 May 2008

A Moral Imperative

"We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late." - Martin Luther King

Al Gore has attracted a lot of criticism from all the usual vested-interest groups that are trying to dodge the issue of climate change. But none of his attackers have been more persistent and determined than those who try to do down his assertion that global warming is a moral issue. In general, they attempt to discredit this assertion by either deliberately misunderstanding what it means, or by ad-hominem attacks showing that he isn't a saint, and therefore shouldn't talk about moral issues. Clearly, neither strategy is valid, but it does raise an important question: what is meant by calling global warming a moral issue? And what purpose does it serve to frame the question in this way?

It doesn't seem, on the face of it, too hard to understand. Firstly, question of the sort "should I do X, when the consequences are Y and Z" is correctly a moral issue, concerned first and foremost with finding the right course of action. The answer to such questions usually comes down to a balance between desires on the one hand and conseqences on the other. This makes it tempting to frame the issue as follows: "Should I be driving my car to my summer house if it is going to kill X Ethiopians?". Clearly the textbook answer would be no. But the issue is as always more complex than this. If you don't drive your car to your summer house, the people awaiting the revenue from your tourist activities will not gain the economic benefit of your presence. And you will save a certain amount of money. But ultimately, you will spend this money on SOMETHING... And that something may be better or worse than driving the car in terms of its consequences to the planet and so on.

It is also true that we cannot be expected to give up all the basic freedoms and activities that are technically unnecessary to our mere survival. It is not pragmatic to demand that no-one should spend any money, or have any economic input, or generate any waste beyond what is required for subsistence. It would solve the problem, of course, but at the cost of the civilisation and freedom that we aim to maintain in the first place.

So what should we be doing? What is the moral limit? My view on this is quite simple. We must draw the lines where they are easy to draw first. So for instance, anyone who still has a standard lightbulb, which can be replaced with a long-life model, is morally bankrupt. Because not only are they spending more money than they need to, but they are doing so with the sole end purpose of killing people and destroying the planet, for the simple reason that they can't be assed to buy a new lightbulb they'll have to change in a few months anyway.

Now, lightbulbs are a first target, because the question is so heavily balanced in favour of changing them. But what about other things? What about, for example, buying a big-engine car or a sports car, instead of a more efficient, lightweight and less powerful model? This is also an absolutely moral issue, but one that conflicts with some peoples more basic desires. To us, cars are often a way of showing off, and a statement of personal freedom. The car represents the ability (whether or not we use it this way) to travel anywhere we want to, without effort and with the minimum of personal restrictions.

But how are these personal freedoms more valid than someone's right to life? Clearly they aren't. If it takes you five more minutes to walk to the bus stop, then surely that is the correct, moral course of action. And how often do you take your car to the racetrack, and make use of that 5 litre V8 engine under the bonnet? And how often is it merely burning three times more petrol than necessary while you're stuck unmoving in traffic? Even if the answer is that you use the capibilities of your car 1 second in every thousand spent driving when you don't, you're an unusually agressive driver.

So these are the questions. Is it a sufficient moral imperative, that we should re-frame some of the ideas that have been pumped into our heads by aspirational advertising, and lifestyle magazines, and celebrity endorsements? Overwhelmingly YES. And if there are still celebrities out there who endorse the opposite approach, and if you as an individual do, then you and they are morally bankrupt. Because knowing the issue, and knowing that you are killing people, you decide that a modicum of extra comfort, or consumer pride, is enough to destroy someone's home, ruin some subsistence farmer's harvest, and ultimately maybe even drown the world.

These are the reasons why global warming, far from being merely a political or a partisan issue, is in fact a moral and a personal issue.

Not Someone Else's Problem

This is not, of course, the whole story. Because there is a good political reason for framing the issue as a moral imperative. Morality must apply to us all. It is not a social issue, and not a political one. It overwhelms subsidiary concerns, such as looking good and being comfortable. As such, it is only a matter of morality that can ever bridge the divide between different political parties, social classes and nations themselves, because it is only morality that unites us all in our basic humanity. To give you an example, let us consider the civil rights movement in the US. It was only after Martin Luther King framed the issue as a moral one, not the remit of any one party, but an absolute requirement of human justice, that the politics finally caught up.

Mahatma Gandhi once said "Be the change you want to see in the world". What he saw was that it is only if we first recognise our own culpability, and act to the limits of our powers, that others start to understand the necessity of taking up the cause. It is easy for us to say that without the political will to change the law, and to subsidise this and rectify that, no real progress is possible. But that misses the point. Because if we want that change, and we act on a personal level in a way that is consistent with it, then and only then will others take note, and understand that they too must change. At any stage, it is easy to argue that there is someone bigger who must change first. But ultimately all change comes from the small scale to the large scale, and not the other way around.

Thus, it may well be true that China as a nation produces more CO2 than the US. And it may well be true that they are even less ready to address the issue. But the question isn't "who is responsible?", but rather "what is the very utmost that we ourselves can do, with the power that we have?". And this applies at all levels. Once the individual will exists, so follows the national will (we as individuals do at least have some political and opinion-forming power). And once the national will exists, so follows the international policy. This is why Al Gore, amongst others, insist on making it a moral issue. Because every single one of us must act, and suit our actions to our beliefs.

In my next post, I hope to talk about some of the steps that we can take at the personal level to improve our moral bank balances.

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