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August 1 was also the day the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its annual “State of the Climate” report. It found that 2017 was among the three warmest years on record. Levels of greenhouse gases are higher than they have ever been. Sea levels are rising. Arctic and glacial ice are melting.
Some claim this data indicates the need for deep moral change. Moralistic ecologists see our consumption habits as a moral failure.
They see our changing climate as the feverish symptom of a moral disease.
The moral intuition here is that it is wasteful and stupid to run a deficit on Earth resources. The trivial goods of consumer society cause irreversible long-term harms. And the selfishness of consumerism produces global inequality.
Moralistic ecology is related to a kind of asceticism. From this perspective, we ought to minimize our impact on the world, restrain our profligate habits, and develop modesty and self-control. This moral ideal extends to a consideration of injustice and inequality in the human world. It seems wrong that North Americans are fat and happy while poor people starve in the developing world. It seems wrong to enjoy the fossil fuel economy when future generations will suffer from an overheated climate.
The motto of the eco-ascetics is “live simply so that others may simply live.” These “others” include human beings distant in space and time. Moral concern also extends to the non-humans impacted by our consumption habits. We help all of those others, from this perspective, by curtailing consumption.
But critics will claim that asceticism is untenable. The global moral transformation imagined by the moralists is utopian. Consuming less does not feed the hungry, without a plan for global resource redistribution. And unless we are going to impose radical population control, we will still need to figure out how to create a decent standard of living for a human population that will reach 8 billion in five years.
Critics of ecological asceticism will argue that Earth overshoot and climate change are primarily engineering challenges. Those making this sort of argument are pro-growth fans of technological development. They believe that technological innovation can help us squeeze more out of less, while also fixing prior damage.
Rather than simple living, technophiles want smarter living. Their motto is “knowledge is power.” The pro-technology camp wants us to apply our intelligence to the problem of efficiency, distribution, and damage control.
The technophiles will appeal to the history of technology to show how this works. Burning wood was inefficient. So we developed more efficient fuels like coal, oil, and gas. Those technologies caused climate change. So now we need cleaner and more efficient energy sources. We also need tools to sequester greenhouse gases and control the global thermostat.
The moralistic ecologists will shake their heads at all of this. They will argue that our faith in technology — and in the idea that we can engineer our way out of moral problems — is what got us into this mess in the first place. The technophiles will roll their eyes and claim that the moral critique of consumption is not sufficient to solve the world’s problems.
While this debate runs deep, the good news is that it rests upon a shared set of facts. The bad news is that some, including our president, claim that climate change is a hoax. But that view is only held by shrinking and ignorant minority. The rest of us are struggling to come to grips with the moral problems and technological challenges of our hot, crowded world.