If Your House Is On Fire:
The Moral Urgency Of Climate Change
by Kathleen Dean Moore
Part 1 of 2: Interview by Mary DeMocker
2012 was an extraordinary year for wildfires in the USA: more than 9.1 million acres burned. Average fire size was the highest on the record. The NASA visualization above depicts fires that burned between January 1 and October 31. Yellow & orange indicates fires that were more intense and had a larger area of active burning. Most of these intense fires occurred in the western US, where lightning & human activity often sparks blazes that firefighters cannot contain. By contrast, many of the lower intensity fires shown in red were prescribed fires, lit for agricultural purposes.
DeMocker: For Moral Ground you gathered testimony from political and cultural leaders about our moral obligations in the face of climate change. South African Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu wrote the foreword. President Barack Obama and Sheila Watt-Cloutier, former chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, made powerful arguments.
Moore: The strongest arguments in the book are the ones based on justice. Desmond Tutu writes with the moral authority of one who has worked steadfastly against apartheid. It’s unjust, he argues, for some people to bear the burden of others’ advantage. It’s unjust that people in Africa — who don’t reap the “benefits” of the reckless burning of fossil fuel — are suffering from droughts and crop shortages as a result of the West’s consumption of oil. He knows from experience that it is possible to bring down entrenched institutions. He says there should be worldwide outrage at the injustice of climate change, as there was against apartheid.
Sheila Watt-Cloutier identifies climate change as a form of cultural aggression — people of one culture destroying the material basis of another. We’ve seen this story before in the U.S., when settlers killed the buffalo in order to kill buffalo-hunting Native Americans. And we’re seeing it again as the rich nations create climatic conditions that are melting polar ice. Because the Inuit culture is based on a cold climate, Watt-Cloutier claims that her people have a right to ice. Those in the far north are suffering the most from the disrupted climate even as the effects spread to the rest of the globe. Climate change is damaging food supplies, spreading disease, and creating refugees, and it is poised to become the most massive human-rights violation the world has ever seen.
DeMocker: Nobel Prize–winning climatologist Paul Crutzen proposes that the planet has entered a new geologic epoch he calls the “Anthropocene,” meaning the “era of man.” It is characterized, he says, by mass extinction.
Moore: It’s astonishing, isn’t it? The philosopher Holmes Rolston calls it a “hinge point in history.” Our generation is witnessing the end of the old era and the start of a new one, when human culture will determine the future of the Earth.
Theologian Thomas Berry said, “My generation has done what no previous generation could do, because they lacked the technological power, and what no future generation will be able to do, because the planet will never again be so beautiful or abundant.” He points out that the Cenozoic, the era we are leaving behind, was when the Earth was at its “most lyrical,” when songbirds, flowering plants, and the great families of mammals flourished. At this peak of beauty and richness came humankind. We’re now estimated to be responsible for the extinction of one out of every ten species that we know of and likely uncounted others that we haven’t even identified yet. And we’re about to change even the climate that sustains these lives and ours.
DeMocker: Something really powerful must have driven us to behave in ways so counter to our own interests. What was it?
Moore: We are the children of the Age of Enlightenment, and we have brought the world to the brink of ruin by acting under the delusion that humans are separate from the Earth, better somehow, in control of it. We believe that humans are the only creatures of spirit in a universe otherwise made up of stones and insensate matter; that the nonhuman world was created for us alone and derives all its value from its usefulness to humanity; that we are the masters of the universe. Because of our technological prowess, we see ourselves as exceptions to the rules that govern the “lower” forms of life. We believe we can destroy our habitat without also destroying ourselves. How could we be so tragically wrong?
We’re such a sophisticated species that we’ve even got words for these delusions. Individualism means humans are essentially isolated rights holders, fully separate from one another and always in conflict or competition with each other, even though we are born into a family and the first thing we do is seek out another human. Then there’s dualism, which opens a deep crack down the center of creation: on one side are humans, who alone have spirit and value; on the other side is the inanimate material world that was created solely to serve our needs. Human exceptionalism is the idea that we are special in some way, able to exceed natural limits.
Ecological and evolutionary science tell us that this is false; that humans are part of interconnected, interdependent systems; that the thriving of the individual parts is necessary for the thriving of the whole; and that we are created, defined, and sustained by our relationships, both with each other and with the natural world. If we come to understand that deeply, we can invent new models of human goodness.
As I see it, cultural evolution is a series of experiments. We test a worldview, and if it’s wrong, the world slaps us down. Because humans are stubborn, we hold on to repudiated beliefs for a couple of generations, but eventually we try something new. We’ve been holding on for too long to a worldview that allows us to think we are separate from the world, even as the world is slapping us with evidence to the contrary. A new experiment may yet emerge. It needs to happen soon.
DeMocker: Last year you set out to articulate a new ethic, convening an ad hoc brain trust of ecologists, philosophers, poets, theologians, social scientists, and musicians. What was the result?
Moore: I was working with the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word, a sort of think tank that brings together people with different backgrounds to reimagine our place in the world. We took seriously what conservation scientist Aldo Leopold said: any new ethic must evolve in the mind of a “thinking community.” We tried to create that community, to crank up the rate at which our culture is evolving. We asked the twenty-four people assembled, “What will the next ethic be? What will it have to be?” Over thirty-six hours of intense discussion, debate, and drafting, we wrote the Blue River Declaration.
The declaration calls into question the self-destructive practices of the old utilitarian, humancentric worldview. It looks at how we educate children, how we move from place to place, how we eat, how we exchange goods, how we relate to land and water and so-called natural resources. [full text here.]
DeMocker: Is having a new ethic enough? I find it difficult to live by my chosen ethic within a culture that still adheres to a destructive one.
Moore: If the culture forces us to live in ways we don’t believe in, then we have to change the culture. Given the urgency of the question, we may need to start with conscientious objection. There are things we must refuse to do, and there are costs for that refusal.
Many of us were alive when people said, “Hell no,” to an unjust war in Vietnam. The question today is: Can we say, “Hell no,” to an unjust economic system? Can we reclaim our humanity from forces that would prefer us to be mindless consumers? Every decision that we make — about where we find information, where we get food, what we wear, how we make our living, how we invest our time and our wealth, how we travel or keep ourselves warm and sheltered — is an opportunity for us to express our values both by saying yes to what we believe in and by saying no to what we don’t believe in.
I love what Carl Safina, who writes about the ocean, says in Moral Ground: “We think we don’t want to sacrifice, but sacrifice is exactly what we are doing. . . . We’re sacrificing what is big and permanent to prolong what is small, temporary, and harmful. We’re sacrificing animals, peace, and children to retain wastefulness.” So many of us wake up in the morning and eat a breakfast of food we don’t believe in and then drive a car we don’t believe in to a job we don’t believe in. We do things that we know are wrong, day after day, just because that’s the way the system is set up, and we think we have no choice. It’s soul-devouring.
Deciding we won’t drive to that chain grocery store and buy that imported pineapple is a path of liberation. Deciding to walk to the farmers’ market and buy those fresh, local peas is like spitting in the eye of the industries that would control us. Every act of refusal is also an act of assent. Every time we say no to consumer culture, we say yes to something more beautiful and sustaining. Life is not something we go through or that happens to us; it’s something we create by our decisions. We can drift through our lives, or we can use our time, our money, and our strength to model behaviors we believe in, to say, “This is who I am.”
DeMocker: The major paradigm-changing social movements in history — the civil-rights movement, the abolitionist movement, the independence movement in India — have mostly been campaigns against oppression. Who are the oppressors in the climate-change movement?
Moore: Transnational petrochemical industries, their leaders, their investors, and the politicians they control.
For a long time activists were unclear about this. The corporations were happy to claim that they were simply responding to public demand. Only recently has it become clear how much corporations have been manipulating public demand. They build and maintain infrastructures that force consumers to use fossil fuels. They convince politicians to kill or lethally underfund alternative energy or transportation initiatives. They increase demand for energy-intensive products through advertising. They create confusion about the harmful effects of burning fossil fuels. They influence elections to defang regulatory agencies that would limit Big Oil’s power to impose risks and costs on others. And, whenever possible, they work outside of democracies.
If you own stock in a petrochemical industry, you’ve got to dump it. If you benefit from a fund that owns stock in a petro-chemical industry — a university fund, a retirement fund — you’ve got to insist they dump it. No excuses, no delays.
DeMocker: Part of me wonders why people even need to be convinced that we have a moral obligation to protect the future of our planet.
Moore: There’s a disconnect in our culture separating what people do from what they really care about. I love my children and my grandchildren more than anything else. I care about their future. I love this world with a passion. The thought that we might be losing songbirds, trading them for something I don’t care about at all, like running shoes, makes me angry. And still I drive to the store and buy running shoes. I don’t think I am different from other people in this regard.
DeMocker: What leads us to forget our obligation?
Moore: I don’t know. But the fact is, many well-meaning people are blithely destroying the world on which their children’s lives depend. Environmental activist Derrick Jensen says that if aliens landed and did to the planet what the industrial economy is doing, it would be considered all-out war. Yet instead of fighting them, we invest in our own destruction. We damage the ecosystem simply because we no longer recognize that we live in an impoverished world. But we also do it because we ask less and less of ourselves. We don’t expect ourselves to be generous or openhearted. We think greed is ok. Even our visions of a better life are simplified and denuded and strip-mined.
DeMocker: Maybe we don’t destroy so willingly. I certainly feel forced to in many ways.
Moore: It isn’t easy to change. Our choices are all tangled up in nets of profit and entrenched patterns of environmental destruction. But if we understand exactly how skillfully we are manipulated, we’ll get angry, and that will motivate us to make changes. We are at a critical point. We have a very narrow window of opportunity to get it right, and to get it right, we first have to imagine a new world, story by story.
DeMocker: These problems can be solved by stories?
Moore: Historically that’s what human beings use to explore our place in the world: we tell stories about it. Sometimes they’re scientific stories. Sometimes they’re philosophical stories. Sometimes they’re songs or movies. Sometimes they’re fables or morality tales. We need to tell new stories to describe who we are in relation to the land, to honor what’s been lost, to help us understand our kinships, to affirm what we care about, to explore the difference between right and wrong, moral and immoral.
DeMocker: The word moral is a loaded one. Are you ever accused of “moralizing” in your lectures and writing?
Moore: Moralizing is foisting your beliefs onto others without using reason. That’s different from moral reasoning, which is an essential social skill that we seem to have lost in all the shouting and piety on radio and television. Moral reasoning is a discourse in which people affirm what they think is true or good or right, and then they back up their claims with reasons.
When my colleagues and I host public events about environmental ethics, we gather people in small groups and ask, “What do you care about most? What would you be willing to spend your whole life taking care of? What would you die for?” Then we ask, “If you value this more than anything else, what should you do? How might you make that value evident in your life?” It’s an invitation to a respectful dialogue in which both sides listen and might even change their minds. In civil discourse you test your beliefs against experience — your own and others’ — and revise and improve them. Think of the conversations the Founders had about basic principles of human rights. We can do that too. We can talk reasonably about ethics.
DeMocker: Does having a discourse in moral reasoning mean we need to listen to climate-change deniers?
Moore: No. Perhaps a scientific discourse would engage deniers in a debate about the facts, but a moral discourse isn’t about science. It’s about right and wrong.
Debates about the causes of climate change have become distractions. If your house is burning down, you don’t stand around arguing about whether the fire was caused by human or natural forces. You do what you can to put out the damn fire. You throw everything at it, and then you hold your breath, because there are people inside that house.
→Go to Part 2