Friday, June 6, 2014

Air, Soil, and Water—the Hard Choices Await

Robin Attfield, Environmental Ethics: An Overview for the Twenty-First Century

As I write, many locations near my prairie hometown had their earliest 100-degree spring days ever, following a winter alternating between arctic cold and appallingly dry warmth. While media pundits dither over he-said/she-said fake debates and false equivalencies, global warming is unfolding mainly as scientists anticipated. Plus we can’t drink our well water anymore, while ragweed and toxic black mold grow everywhere. We’re overdue for serious planning.

Welsh ethicist Robin Attfield lays out the terms in current and imminent debates surrounding environmental change so we can engage the issues in real, not TV, terms. Because so many venues have reduced important debates to personalities and profiles, Attfield’s intricate definitions of terms serve valuable corrective measures. While his academic prose sometimes runs to impenetrability, his attempts to clarify humanity’s top global issue is both timely and welcome.

First, this isn’t a scientific text. Though evidence-based scientific reasoning remains dismally rare in climate debates, Attfield focuses, as his title implies, on ethical concerns: not possible options, but good options. For instance, what are we saving the earth for? Do we defend the environment for humanity’s sake, or because species and habitats have intrinsic value before humans arrive? Why we save the earth colors how we save the earth.

Organized environmental responses have been historically circumscribed by near-term thinking. Not only large-scale polluters, whose motivations are widely known, but even environmental activists have maintained narrow horizons. Banning coal-burning power plants would alleviate some problems, but at what human cost? Would carbon capture technologies fix global problems, or just create new incentives to thoughtless consumerism? Easy answers aren’t forthcoming. Ethical environmentalism requires seeing empirical evidence, and seeing beyond it, too.

Cost-benefit analysis has its detractors. Back in the 1990s, a famous poll indicated Americans would support environmental reforms “at any cost”—a position Americans rapidly walked back when real costs revealed themselves. Attfield recognizes every human action has moral implications; we do nothing abstractly, but rather, every choice forecloses on other choices. He persuasively argues that tools for morally uplifting decision-making exist, if we would just use them.

Attfield has no interest in climate change deniers. He spends no particular time debating whether global warming, soil salinization, water pollution, and other environmental catastrophes are really happening; like north of ninety-seven percent of climate scientists, he simply takes these issues as proven. But how to answer these issues is far less obvious. Simply saying “don’t do these destructive things” isn’t good enough, because ramifications echo down the line.

We’re not, say, in any position to abandon carbon-burning technology yet. How, then to ameliorate the damage atmospheric carbon does to global temperatures and UV rates? Economic measures, like Cap’n Trade, essentially permit rich capitalists to hoard pollution credits, ensuring the status quo perseveres for those with money. Horse-drawn idealism likewise punishes those who cannot afford it. Where do human interests and environmental necessity converge, or do they?

As just this one example, among Attfield’s many, demonstrates, obvious answers generally prove unsatisfactory. Because environmental degradation distributes its consequences blindly across the globe, we cannot think in national, regional, or class-based terms. Attfield spends entire chapters on global citizenship, in the old Jeffersonian ideal of “citizenship,” because we cannot life with blinders on any longer. We must, individually and together, act for the future we will eventually inhabit.

Don’t undertake this book flippantly. Attfield dedicates his largest effort to defining terms. Sometimes, in areas of empirical scientific discoveries, this is fairly easy. But in areas science cannot easily designate, definitions must expand to include controversial ideas and conflicting viewpoints. Attfield strives to remain scrupulously fair, and though he excludes ignorance merchantry and flat-earth pseudoscience, he struggles to include every legitimate disputant in his intellectual landscape.

Therefore, many concepts cable news treats as concise and unchallenged, Attfield examines from diverse viewpoints. Readers weaned on facile binary TV debates may find Attfield’s nuanced, philosophically dense approach overwhelming. Hey, I read philosophy, and I find Attfield very difficult. But he’s addressing very, very difficult problems, which grow more difficult with prolonged inaction. Mass-media debates prolong dialog while encouraging passivity. Attfield’s difficult philosophy empowers us to act.

I’d like to pause and acknowledge this book’s publisher. British-based Polity has established itself as a top-ranked masthead for international philosophy, political science, and history. I’ve recently reviewed several Polity titles, by distinguished authors like Paddy Scannell, Christian Ingrao, and Jacques Lacan. By publishing (or re-publishing) some of today’s most important authors, they truly improve today’s global intellectual climate. They’re truly doing noble work.

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