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If Your House Is On Fire,
Part 2

by Kathleen Dean Moore

We can find the ongoing strength to do this work if we keep in mind that it is powered by love


DeMocker: When it comes to getting people to change their behavior, is a moral argument the best approach? Why not a more pragmatic appeal?

Moore: I believe that a moral argument is the most pragmatic appeal, for several reasons.

Number one: Moral arguments speak to all people. Economic arguments speak only to a few. When Big Oil violates fundamental, universally agreed-upon principles of justice and human rights, that’s something everyone can condemn.

Number two: Moral arguments are trump cards, whereas economic arguments can always be overridden by matters of principle. Yes, you might profit from keeping slaves, but it’s wrong. Yes, you can profit from ruining children’s futures, but it’s wrong.

Number three: Moral arguments appeal to what is hopeful and good in the human spirit. God knows, we haven’t done well by appealing to, and even glorifying, self-interest.

We have a chance to focus on the ethics of affirmation. Who are we, as human beings, when we are at our best? But environmental activists often dither about regulation, imposing limits and such. When the climate-change movement frames arguments, it is generally careful not to talk about obligation or duty or morality — all those ethics words. It will talk about patriotism or competing with China or getting jobs or profiting from green energy — anything but ethics. That’s a terrible strategic mistake.

If you look at the times in American history when our society changed directions, you’ll find that it was motivated by moral principle. Think of the Declaration of Independence, a statement about the rights of human beings. Think of the Emancipation Proclamation, a statement that slavery is wrong. Think of the opposition to the Vietnam War. Think of the civil-rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream was not of profits or material comfort; his dream was of justice for future generations. The question isn’t whether we should talk about ethics; the question is whether we can achieve the necessary rapid social change without talking about them.

DeMocker: Do you think people have trouble directing their moral outrage at the worst climate-change offenders because they feel culpable in the process themselves?

Moore: Yes, which is why the worst offenders are happy to implicate and entangle us in every possible way and make us blame ourselves for climate change. We have to do our best to shake loose of that entanglement and never turn our rage against ourselves or allow self-criticism to dissipate our anger toward the real culprits. Of course each of us should be using less oil. But when I hear people piously say, “We have met the enemy, and he is us,” I say, bullshit. I didn’t cut corners and cause an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I didn’t do my best to undermine the Environmental Protection Agency and every other agency that might have limited fracking. I’m not lobbying Congress to open oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean. I didn’t cut funding for alternative energy sources. Big Oil is pouring billions of dollars into shaping government policies and consumer preferences. And what do we say? “Oh, I should be a more mindful consumer.” Of course we should, but that’s only the beginning.

DeMocker: Do you hope to reach politicians and oil-industry executives with your moral arguments, or are they a lost cause?

I don’t think I’ll reach them directly. But if you reach enough voters, it’s possible to reach politicians. If you reach enough investors, it’s possible to reach oil-industry executives. If you reach enough people who love the Earth and want to save it, it’s possible to reach both politicians and executives.

DeMocker: Gandhi set an example for his country when he embraced nonviolent disobedience, voluntary poverty, and traditional homespun clothing over Western attire. Is the climate-change movement waiting for someone to come along who challenges the system by completely sidestepping it?

Moore: I don’t know what we’re waiting for. I’ve heard people say we’re going to need one big disaster. But we had Hurricane Katrina. We had the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. We had the worst fire season in history. We’ve had a massive die-off of forests. Or I’ve heard people say we need a leader. But we had Al Gore, and people laughed at him. We had President Obama, who spoke about the dangers of climate change when he was a candidate in 2008, but since then he’s given climate change a pass. What are we waiting for?

DeMocker: Many of us are waiting until our lives feel less busy before we jump into activism.

Moore: Yes, we are busy. Probably too busy to avert a planetary disaster that will have the effect of an asteroid impact: killing off species, altering the climate, acidifying the oceans. Why are we so busy? Those who would prefer we not think about climate change and other injustices would like very much for us to stay busy. If we have to work two jobs to make a living, we’re not going to be out in the streets protesting. If we are preoccupied with other parts of our lives, our attention is drawn away from the practices that are destroying the foundation of those lives.

I used to think it was enough for all of us simply to live our lives imaginatively and constructively. I don’t think that anymore. I think we have to find the time to be politically active. I don’t want to cut anybody any slack on that. Are we going to let it all slip away — all those billions of years it took to evolve the song in a frog’s throat or the stripe in a lily — because we’re too busy?

The ransacking of the world is making the top 1 percent of the population very, very rich. As the writer Daniel Quinn points out, the rich are like people who live in a fancy penthouse at the top of a hundred-story building, and every day they send workers down to take some bricks out of the foundation to increase the size of the penthouse. The building has lots of bricks, so this seems harmless enough. But there will come a time when they will have introduced so many holes in the foundation that the building will collapse, and their position at the top of the tower will not save them.

DeMocker: You say you’ve become a “ferocious grandmother.” What does that mean to you?

Moore: I agree with what my book’s coeditor, Michael P. Nelson, says about getting older. He doesn’t want to hear anymore about retirees being entitled to year-round perfect weather, an annual trip to Las Vegas, low taxes, easy Sunday crosswords, and reduced greens fees. Retired people often feel that, since they’ve worked all their lives, the world owes them a rest. That’s outrageous. Old age is precisely when we need to pay the world back. Yes, we have worked hard, but our successes depended on a stable climate, temperate weather, abundant food, cheap fuel, and a sturdy government — all advantages that our children and grandchildren will not have if we don’t act.

We elders are at the peak of our ability to help. We have a wealth of experience. Many of us have sufficient income. And we have that huge commodity: time. Most of all we have a ferocious love for our grandchildren. Wouldn’t that love make us want to leave them the legacy of a beautiful world? To turn away from that into a kind of grouchy selfishness strikes me as tragic.

If your granddaughter has asthma because there is dust in the air, get out in the street and demand clean air. If your grandson is not learning well because there are toxins in the water, you should be at the city-council meeting. Their parents are busy making a home for these children, but you have the time and the ability to make a difference in their future. To love someone is to have a sacred obligation to protect them.

DeMocker: Most parents I know are worried about the environment, but they have difficulty shrinking their family’s carbon footprint without depriving their children of various activities and comforts. What can you say to them?

Moore: Parents have a parental duty to be clear about what their children need. Most important is a future. We’ve got to remember that the next generation will have to live in whatever is left of the world after we get done with it. We are planting time bombs around our own children: toxins in the water, radioactive waste in leaking tanks, acid in the oceans, and climate chaos. And we’re too busy to protest because we have to buy the kids the right kind of shoes for the soccer tournament? What kind of love is that?

DeMocker: Tomorrow I’ll drive three hours to my child’s soccer tournament on the other side of the Cascade Mountains.

Moore: I’m sorry my answer can’t be more gentle, but we are harming our children even as we believe we are providing for them.

It’s ironic and tragic that the amassing of material wealth in the name of our children’s future is precisely what will devastate their future. Consider the poisonous chemicals in the plastic car seat, the pesticide on the fruit, the coal-company stock in the college-investment portfolio, the carbon load of the soccer tournament. But that’s not the worst of it. The harm that our decisions will do to the children who are not privileged isn’t just ironic; it’s reprehensible. These children who will never know even the short-term benefits of misusing fossil fuels are the ones who will suffer the most as seas rise, as fires scorch croplands, as tropical diseases spread north, as famine comes to lands that were once abundant. 

DeMocker: What are some changes you’ve made in your own life?

Moore: I gave my hybrid car away. We still have a car we take camping, which I drive occasionally. Otherwise I walk or use a shared hybrid. I eat local foods, mostly organic vegetables. In the summers I live in a small cabin with hydroelectric power from a creek. I have learned to cook with a pressure cooker and residual heat. I have planted hundreds of trees and bushes and restored a little marsh.

This all makes me happy and brings me into contact with communities of friends and forests. That’s important. But apart from the joy it gives me, it probably doesn’t mean a damn thing, because I still fly cross-country to speak about climate change, and that undoes all my efforts. Where are the trains?

DeMocker: Do environmentalists fighting climate change share common ground with the Occupy Wall Street movement?

Moore: Absolutely. Both movements affirm the same moral principle: it’s wrong to wreck the world. An economic system that forces the majority to suffer the consequences for the reckless actions of a few is immoral. We’re paying the costs of destructive industries with our health and our children’s futures while the captains of industry make fortunes. That’s not fair. And when that system threatens to disrupt the planetary cycles that support all life on earth — honestly, that is moral monstrosity on a cosmic scale.

Occupy Wall Street is linking climate change, toxic neighborhoods, financial recklessness, job loss, concentrated wealth, and pointless war. The dots all connect to one central social pathology: the buying and selling of elections and elected officials, mostly by corporations. We need to get the money out of politics so we can be a democracy again.

Plato had it figured, way back in ancient Greece, that every democracy eventually becomes a plutocracy — a government by the rich — because you can always buy votes. And every plutocracy devolves into anarchy, because poor people will only put up with so much. The U.S. has clearly moved into the plutocratic stage. The question is, can we return to a democracy, or will we devolve into anarchy? It’s that serious.

DeMocker: What changes to the political system would help in the fight against climate change?

Moore: I would start with writer Bill McKibben’s idea to require congresspeople to wear jumpsuits and helmets emblazoned with the names and logos of their corporate sponsors, the way race-car drivers do. The bigger the donation, the bigger the patch.

Most of us are so deeply disgusted by the actions of corporations and politicians that we have trouble imagining how they might actually serve the public good. So let’s work on re-imagining corporations and democracy. If corporations are going to be treated as persons, fine. I’m all for it. But persons need to conform to standards of right and wrong in their behavior. When they fail to do that, they are stripped of their rights. Let’s imagine a corporation that can go to jail. Let’s imagine a democracy where elections are publicly funded and all politicians get is a decent salary and the public’s respect for doing a good job of governing. Just imagine!

DeMocker: Does the climate-change movement in the U.S. need to revise its strategy?

Moore: Yes, as evidenced by the fact that this nation is doing almost nothing to prevent global warming. No prudent politician will even mention the words. Meanwhile the world is breaking records for greenhouse-gas emissions. We will know that the climate-change movement is making progress when it blinks out of existence and is replaced by a global human-rights movement driven by moral revulsion and a rejection of the fossil-fuel industries and their indentured politicians.

DeMocker: Some environmentalists feel that nonviolent protest and civil disobedience will not bring the needed transformation in time. Would you condone violence on behalf of the planet?

No, violence is what we are opposing. You can’t ever stop a behavior by engaging in it. Using violence only increases its power.

The reason nonviolent methods haven’t worked is because we haven’t really tried them yet. We haven’t tried massive protests and civil disobedience. We haven’t tried boycotts. We haven’t harnessed the power of the global religions. Somewhere near half of us don’t even vote. Here and there, sure, we’ve tried nonviolence, but not on the scale we need. Let’s give it a go.

Oren Lyons, faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation, suggests that we need a global council of elders, people like Jimmy Carter and Nelson Mandela and Sheila Watt-Cloutier. They could get together and choose one company to be the target of a global boycott. Every environmental organization, every organization for social change, every church that honors God’s creation could call on its members to join the boycott. How many points would the targeted company’s stock have to drop before it entered into negotiations and transformed itself? Then the council of elders could choose the next company, and the next.

DeMocker: You mention enlisting the aid of religions, but you’re not a believer. You describe yourself as a “sacred secularist.” What does that mean?

Moore: It means that I believe the world is extraordinary and mysterious, beautiful beyond human imagining and grand beyond human measure, worthy of reverence and awe. The word we have for something like that is sacred. You don’t have to believe in God to know that when you go out the door in the morning, you walk on sacred ground. A friend from New Zealand who had never seen a rufous hummingbird once said to me, “That’s the kind of creature that makes you believe in God.” And I said, “Or that’s the kind of creature that makes you believe we can’t let this world slip away.” If God doesn’t have his eye on the sparrow, somebody else had better, and that somebody is us.

You often address faith communities. Does your lack of belief affect how they respond to your message?

When I tell people of faith that I don’t believe in a divine Creator, I think they feel sorry for me. They believe I am dragging a ball and chain that keeps me from doing this work as joyously or as effectively as I might, that I have given away a source of strength. All this may be true. But they don’t turn away from me, because they agree that the glory of the universe, whether it comes from God or nature, has a value beyond its usefulness to humans. No matter if you’re a member of a church or not, you can appreciate that glory, which calls us to action.

I once heard you read “The Call to Forgiveness at the End of the Day,” your piece in Moral Ground written from the perspective of an imagined future in 2025, after you have witnessed the extinction of songbirds, bats, frogs, and salmon. In it you wonder how your grandchildren can forgive you for not acting fast enough to save these beautiful creatures. After you finished reading, the audience sat in stunned silence. Is this the reaction you hope for?

Yes and no. I don’t pretend to know what a writer’s duty is in these times. And nobody wants to write something that breaks people’s hearts. But I did want to help others see one possible future, a world without owl calls and frog song. If we can’t imagine what probably lies ahead, how will we gather the courage to turn in a different direction? Maybe more writers should tell stories about possible futures, the beautiful ones and the ones that will break our hearts. It’s cowardly to shy away from sad stories. As songwriter Leonard Cohen says, even when our hearts are broken, we have to sing the “broken hallelujah.”

Can’t thoughts of devastation also paralyze?

Our civilization has rituals that help us draw strength from grief, get our courage back, and continue forward. Maybe that’s the primary function of religion. Surely it’s an important function of art. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “We have art in order not to die of the truth.” Can we turn our grief toward positive action? We need creative ways to acknowledge loss and extinction. If there are trucks going down the road in the countryside pouring poisons on wildflowers, there ought to be a hearse following them and a string of cars with their lights on to acknowledge the deaths. If construction crews are bulldozing a marsh for a parking lot, there should be a choir there singing a requiem. If you poison your lawn, you should post a sign that says, “Not safe for children and animals.” At the site of every clear-cut there should be a little shrine like the ones families put up for a young person killed in a car wreck. Erect wooden crosses on stumps. Organize people to wear black and to stand along the line the seas will reach in 2050.

Do you imagine this as a kind of grieving or as a political protest?

Both. I was in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998 when Matthew Shepard, a young gay man, was murdered in a vicious hate crime. The University of Wyoming homecoming parade that year turned into an outlet for grief and outrage. After the marching band and the girls on horseback went by, people poured off the curbs and marched, crying and shouting, through town. The community was profoundly changed. People in the Middle East have taught the world how quickly a funeral procession can become a political protest. In the U.S., civil-rights activists showed that people walking out of a church holding hands and singing can be a powerful political statement.

DeMocker: My friends often say they don’t want to give fear or negativity too much of their energy. Our culture’s desire to focus on the positive is a pretty serious roadblock for activists wanting to confront these issues.

Moore: Yes, and if I were an oil-company CEO, I would take heart in that. I would design strategies that build on that aversion to what is unpleasant or horrifying or sad. If you give people a chance to turn away, they will. If you give them a distraction, they will take it.

Let’s face it: our culture is hooked on cheap oil and consumer goods, and we exhibit all the self-destructive behaviors of addicts. We devote our days to the pursuit of the next hit. We have developed enabling behaviors to allow our addictions to go unchallenged, to deny that they do any harm.

I think the addiction to consumer goods is a response to the loss of community, self-sufficiency, meaningful work, neighborly love, and hope. When these things are taken from us, we look for the cheap fix, which is turning out to be very expensive indeed.

DeMocker: You work directly with students and witness their struggles. Can young people hungry for real change work toward it without risking their personal futures?

Moore: Students face a serious dilemma. They know that the real risk to their future is climate change, and that they have the power to stop it. But they’ve also been told that they need jobs to pay off their student loans, that they won’t be able to compete in the job market if they are distracted from their studies, and that they won’t get a job if they have an arrest record. We see the plutocracy at work in this, undermining public education, increasing student debt and unemployment, and tightening the constraints on free speech. People ask, “What is the end of democracy going to look like?” I think it’s going to look a lot like this.

DeMocker: You and your students have a “hope-o-meter” for the future of the earth, with a one meaning very little hope and a ten meaning no worries. Where are you on your hope-o-meter now?

Moore: Honestly? I’m about a one. I see feedback loops in the natural world that are going to make climate change much harder to address. As ice melts, it frees methane, a potent greenhouse gas. As forests are destroyed, they release carbon dioxide. By every measure global warming is increasing more rapidly than the most horrifying predictions of the past. And I can see the political feedback mechanisms kicking in: the more politicized the issue becomes, the more money will be thrown into debating it instead of addressing the crisis. It will be hard to get out of this one.

DeMocker: So why do you try?

Moore: People tend to think that we have only two options: hope or despair. But neither one is acceptable. Blind hope leads to moral complacency: things will get better, so why should I put myself out? Despair leads to moral abdication: things will get worse no matter what I do, so why should I put myself out? But between hope and despair is the broad territory of moral integrity — a match between what you believe and what you do. You act lovingly toward your children because you love them. You live simply because you believe in taking only your fair share. You do what’s right because it’s right, not because you will gain from it.

There is freedom in that. There is joy in that. And, ultimately, there is social change in that. That’s the way we respond to a lack of hope. A person could be at zero on the hope-o-meter and still do great, joyous work. Even — especially — in desperate times, we can make our lives into works of art that embody our deepest values. The ways of life that are most destructive to the world often turn out to be the ones that are also most destructive to the human spirit. So, although environmental emergencies call on us to change, they don’t call on us to give up what we value most. They encourage us to exercise our moral imagination and to invent new ways of living that lift the human spirit and help biological and cultural communities thrive.

Over the weekend I sat for an hour in a warm pond in beautiful sunshine with my one-year-old grandson on my lap, splashing and scooping. I’ve never seen a child so happy. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so happy. That type of immersion in the world is a lesson in responsible caring. We can find the ongoing strength to do this work if we keep in mind that it is powered by love.

♦ Nature writer & philosophy professor Kathleen Dean Moore has a longstanding connection with the wild that led her to feel increasing alarm over its destruction & question the role of the writer in a wounded world. She examined the climate-change debate & found it long on science but short on principled reasons to do right by the planet and its inhabitants. She & Michael Nelson asked 100 visionaries whether humans have a moral obligation to act on behalf of future generations, presenting their responses in Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril
 Artwork by Robert Indiana: Chosen Love (2011).  Article publ. here 2013


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