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Intentional Ignorance

November 6, 2012

I wrote this essay to offer some essential information about our world and the future of our species, adding my voice to the many cries of alarm over the environmental crisis (lately reaching criticality). [More…]

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Climate Change and Resource Limits

The Power of Ted. That’s not a title, but a characterization. Of the educational value of a variety of presentations by particularly remarkable speakers, people who have special insights of value to share with the world. According to Wikipedia, “TED was founded in 1984 as a one-off event. The annual conference began in 1990, in Monterey, California. TED’s early emphasis was technology and design, consistent with its origins in the Silicon Valley. The events are now held in Long Beach and Palm Springs in the U.S. and in Europe and Asia, offering live streaming of the talks. They address a wide range of topics within the research and practice of science and culture, often through storytelling. The speakers are given a maximum of 18 minutes to present their ideas in the most innovative and engaging ways they can.”

Past presenters include Bill Clinton, Jane Goodall, Malcolm Gladwell, Al Gore, Gordon Brown, Richard Dawkins, Rodney Mullen, Bill Gates, educator Salman Khan, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and many Nobel Prize winners. If you haven’t come across any of these presentations on the web, be advised that more than a thousand of them are now available for free online.

Paul Gilding spoke at the TED2012 conference in February. Author of The Great Disruption:  Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World, Gilding is an advocate and adviser to nongovernmental organizations and businesses and the former chief executive of Greenpeace. Sara Barczak, Program Director, High Risk Energy Choices at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy recently brought Gilding’s talk to my attention.

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Misplaced Values

Chapter 12 from Humanity’s Environmental Future:
Making Sense in a Troubled World
© 2003 William Ross McCluney
SunPine Press, Cape Canaveral, FL

Beliefs and human behavior.

Appropriate and inappropriate values.

 

Why do good people do bad things? You know it happens. Sometimes you do it yourself. With the best of intentions you do something that turns out later to have been a mistake. It might be insulting a co-worker or being impatient with a food server.

These usually happen because of either bad information or just plain bad luck. Most of us try to learn from these experiences, or try to get better information the next time around.

Bad thinking is more difficult to avoid and correct. How we think about things, the world about us and the people we meet, comes from our upbringing and the social context of that upbringing. People from a deeply religious community in some Mid-Eastern country, for example, or those in an aboriginal culture in Australia, will tend to think about things differently than a typical middle class American, especially if the latter lives in a big and bustling city like New York, Atlanta, or Los Angeles.

How we think, and the actions that result, are important to our lives individually, and can be important to society as a whole. They can be harmful on a very large scale. It is more than just how we think. Fundamental beliefs underlie most of our actions. Addressing these beliefs is critical to developing a sustainable culture.

Values Guide Behavior

Values and beliefs lie at the core of human behavior. Dictionary definitions of these concepts explicitly make the connection between beliefs and behavior patterns. When our value systems become inappropriate for the situations in which we find ourselves, inappropriate behavior patterns can be expected to result. Thus, to change our environmentally destructive behaviors, we must deal with the inappropriate value systems which produce those behaviors. This leads to a study of ethics and philosophy, and more particularly the portions of those fields dealing with the relationship of humans to the rest of the natural world.

To engineers, scientists, government planners, and others working to reduce the adverse impact of humans on the earth by mostly political and technological means, this emphasis on such fuzzy-seeming subjects as belief systems and philosophy may appear to be idealistic and impractical.

However, it seems doubtful if most of the changes proposed will be possible without some massive shift in belief systems. Our earth cannot remain a viable platform for human life without fundamental changes in our values, however reluctant we may be to make them.
At the heart of this reluctance, I think, is a natural fear of the unknown, the unfamiliar. It is not surprising that people wish to work within their accustomed systems of social interaction and commerce, retaining their inherited and developed systems of values and lifestyles. It can be frightening to confront too great or too rapid a change in beliefs and patterns of living and behavior1. In spite of this, it is absolutely essential that we begin the process of clarifying our values and goals as a species.

A major purpose of the reform movement should be to identify and codify an ethical framework that will support the societal and individual behaviors needed for environmental preservation, minimizing the perceived and actual sacrifices involved and leading to maximum public enthusiasm for the needed changes. I fear that these may not be compatible goals—that for the new ethic to be widely accepted and quickly, it can not be very effective.
Values and beliefs can be powerful motivators for action. Some can even kill. For example, without strong intervention, things can become very bad in economically depressed parts of the world. Small impoverished countries are increasingly desiring, and approaching, access to nuclear and biological weapons of mass destruction. As their plights become ever more tragic and difficult, they can be expected to want to use the new weapons to better their situations, especially if they see their wealthy and developed neighboring countries living well while holding them down (or even ripping-off their natural resources). A possible consequence is nuclear and/or biological annihilation, as the deprived people use their weapons in a blind search for sustenance, and the resulting nuclear or biological releases from various nations get out of hand.

Belief Scales

Reading newspapers, listening to radio, and watching television, one is struck by the conflicting beliefs espoused on a variety of subjects affecting the environment. This was mentioned briefly in Chapter 1. Miller has pointed out2 that these beliefs range along a scale between two extremes.

First there is the viewpoint of the believers in a “full speed ahead, business-as-usual” scenario. As described earlier, these are called the cornucopians—for their faith that world population, currently just over 6 billion humans, as well as per capita material affluence, can continue growing indefinitely. If any limits to growth are encountered along the way, they will be overcome by science, technology, and business adaptability.

Second is the opposing view, that of the so-called neo-Malthusians. This label comes from their belief in the arguments of 1790s economist Thomas Malthus3 that population grows rapidly, while subsistence grows slower until disaster strikes: demand exceeds the available supply, and Nature restores a form of balance by devastating the over-populated species or reducing its fertility. Some cornucopians call the neo-Malthusians “tree-huggers,” as a term of derision. I’ll use that term here, not in derision, but as an easier-to-remember label for neo-Malthusian activists. Most neo-Malthusians are proud to be called “tree-huggers.” (The name comes from the Chipko Movement (1974) begun in the village of Reni in the foothills of the Himalayas to protest monoculture tree plantation development.) This linear scale of environmental beliefs is diagramed in Fig. 1a.

 

Who is right about where we are headed, the tree-huggers or the cornucopians? These philosophies are discussed in greater depth in later chapters, and conflicts between these two extremes thread through these pages. The intent is to allow you, the reader, to form your own judgement about which perspective is the correct one, or perhaps one in between.

Perhaps you object to the polarizing nature of the linear scale. We could represent the varying beliefs differently, as with the “star-burst” pattern shown in Fig. 1b. This avoids the extremist label, putting all beliefs on an equal footing. But are all beliefs equal in the light of our scientific knowledge of the known past and the expected future consequences of human action?

The two differing viewpoints about population growth at each end of the linear scale match extreme beliefs in the more general future of humanity. There is a wide range of possible outcomes, extending from the tree-hugger belief that world environmental disaster is nearly unavoidable, and eminent (without massive change), to the cornucopian belief that catastrophe will be averted as we exercise our considerable intelligence and technological skills to overcome problems as they are encountered, but without major changes in our directions, beliefs, and social structures.

Just because a belief is at the extreme end of a linear scale does not mean it is incorrect. But also few things are truly either/or, and few issues are truly black and white. So it is with the great decision facing us. The optimum path may lie somewhere between the two extremes of ecotopia and corporate-sponsored materialistic bliss. Talking about the extremes, however, has a way of clearing the air, focusing on the core issues. It gives a structure for being interested, for being curious about the issues, and for examining our educational processes. Once we are informed, maybe then we can look at possible compromises and try to find a safe and sustainable middle ground. On the other hand, we cannot be blind to the possibility that one of the extremes might turn out to be the correct one.

Indoctrination vs Advocacy

Indoctrination has been defined as the process of closing minds on open issues. It is important to keep these issues open and avoid the trap of over-zealous advocacy of any particular view.

Even if it were possible to remain neutral, there is a big problem with studiously avoiding advocacy. There is a risk of overlooking important possibilities, just because you will them to be impossible.

In spite of my desire to remain neutral, I cannot avoid being biased. Every writer is biased, as a result of having lived, observed, studied, and thought about things. My bias should be clear from what has been written to this point. I believe the human species to be headed towards a relatively unknown cliff. This puts me mostly in the camp of the tree-huggers, and I’m proud to be there. However, predictions of doom are ordinarily dismissed by the savvy reader, almost before they are stated, and rightfully so. Claims of doom have come and gone over the great history of humanity on Earth. Most have proved false.

The predictions found in this book are different. They are buttressed by the conclusions of a large number of scientists, scholars, theologians, and philosophers. You can ignore these concerns, as many are doing, but this will not make the risks go away. A sampling of the evidence is offered to support claims of what appears to be impending environmental suicide. The references cited throughout the book provide extensive additional evidence. More can be found on the web site www.futureofhumanity.org. Whichever perspective you happen to choose, I hope you will agree that misplaced values have resulted in a considerable set of serious problems for humanity.

An Example

Robert F. Kennedy is senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Though not considered an original thinker and philosopher in the vein of Leopold or Carson, the following brief example of his thought offers its own internal elegance and illustrates the importance of environmental values. Kennedy played a leading role in the campaign to save the rainforest home of the Spirit Bear, a nearly extinct white bear living only in British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest.

International Forest Products (Interfor) had renewed destructive clearcutting on Princess Royal Island—the heart of the Spirit Bear habitat. The company was planning to log 18 pristine valleys in the Great Bear rainforest. In addition, the company was logging the habitat of endangered species on the border of Pacific Rim National Park on Vancouver Island, and was cutting down extremely rare, 1,000 year old Douglas fir trees in the Stoltmann Wilderness north of Vancouver.

Equally alarming, Interfor’s workers had resorted to violently assaulting peaceful environmental protesters. “Interfor is without a doubt the worst destroyer of temperate rainforests on our continent,” says Matt Price, an NRDC forestry expert. “It’s clear they don’t want to be part of the solution. They’re intent on liquidating ancient rainforests and flouting public opinion.”

From the article “Talking with… Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.” In the January/February 2001 issue of Nature’s Voice, published by NRDC, comes this dialog:

Q: Why are you so passionately committed to saving the Great Bear Rainforest?
Kennedy: Because its destruction will diminish all of humanity. Right now, the last wilderness areas on Earth are being overrun by giant energy, timber, and hydro companies. These remote places are home to the last indigenous cultures on our planet. So when we clearcut the Great Bear, we’re not only destroying one of the largest coastal rainforests left on Earth, we’re destroying one of the very last cultures that link us to our own ancestral past. We impoverish ourselves aesthetically, culturally, and spiritually.

Q: How do you answer those who argue that economic growth is paramount?
Kennedy: The choice between environment and economy is a false choice. Interfor would have us treat the planet as if it’s a business in liquidation. Sure, we can convert our natural resources to cash as quickly as possible. We can produce instantaneous cash flow and the illusion of a prosperous economy. But our children are going to pay for our joy ride with denuded landscapes and poor health and huge cleanup costs. If you take the long-term view, good environmental policy is always good economic policy.

At the heart of this example is conflict over values and beliefs, between proponents and opponents, at opposite ends of the belief scale of environmental values.

Psychological Consequences of Misplaced Values

Our beliefs and the resulting lifestyles, can be in conflict with the physical, social, and environmental situations in which we find ourselves, in which case quality of life suffers. Joanna Macy says, “It is hard to participate in social and economic life without feeding, clothing, and transporting ourselves at the expense of the natural world and other people’s well-being.”4, p.29 This can lead to emotional difficulties, since our daily behaviors are in conflict with the realities of the world in which we live and the environmental degradations we see can affect us deeply and personally.

Called cognitive dissonance, this living a life with actions and/or beliefs that are in conflict can result in mild or acute depressive disorders. The American Psychiatric Association describes a version of the malady as having “…irrational beliefs and distorted attitudes toward the self, the environment, and the future….”5 and cites A. T. Beck for more information6.

The society around us is changing faster than many of us can manage. We are being called upon to adopt more appropriate value systems faster than we can comfortably do. So we search for rationalizations to deny our need to change. Or we try not to admit that current societal beliefs, such as “maximize short-term gain”, are destroying our futures.

It is difficult for some to accept that without major change, we are likely to destroy the very basis of our existence. A response is to deny its truth. It is easier to believe, for instance, that technology will somehow advance to such a state that we will be able to accommodate current and even future population levels. This is not something easily proved or disproved. The argument appears to be a rationalization to keep us from having to confront fundamental changes in our beliefs about what it is to live, prosper, and be fulfilled.

A new system of values and beliefs is needed to guide us. A new set of guiding principles, if generally accepted, could provide rules of behavior supporting our continued survival at an acceptable overall standard of living and with an acceptably high quality of life.

The Right to Rights

As we search for meaning and a viable new system of values, we come up against important concepts of worth and rights. In his history of environmental ethics7, Nash presents two diagrams, somewhat like the ones in Figures 2 and 3, showing his view of how the concept of rights have developed and are advancing. He argues that there has been and will continue to be an expansion of the human acceptance of the rights of others.

Nash sees a trend toward the idea that morality includes the relationship of humans to nature. He identifies an historical expansion of concern, for the natural rights of a growing number of entities, starting with limited groups of humans, to the rights of all humans, to those of parts of nature and, finally, to all of nature.

At the ultimate end of the evolutionary sequence identified by Nash is a belief, supported by authors in a variety of disciplines, that all manifestations of the natural universe derive from the same basic entity8-16. This brings us then to the idea that all parts of this entity have inherent and equal rights and worthiness and deserve moral consideration. Thus all aspects of the natural world deserve protection from abuse. It remains to be seen how much farther the human species will progress upward in the chart of Fig. 2.

According to Nash: “Of course, nature does not demand rights, and some moral philosophers even question whether anything so general as the ‘rights of nature’ can exist at all. But…others use the term confidently. At the same time they recognize that wolves and maples and mountains do not petition for their rights. Human beings are the moral agents who have the responsibility to articulate and defend the rights of the other occupants of the planet. Such a conception of rights means that humans have duties or obligations toward nature. Environmental ethics involves people extending ethics to the environment by the exercise of self-restraint.”

John Stuart Mill once said that “every great movement must experience three stages: ridicule, discussion, adoption.”17 According to Nash, “What happens in the process, Christopher Stone reminds us, is that the unthinkable becomes conventional—sometimes gradually and peacefully through legislative and legal processes, as Stone proposed, but often, as we know of the events in Fig.2, violently.”18

Earth Values – Earth Rights

At a workshop on environmental ethics, Dr. Gary Varner identified four categories of earth ethics that he felt are being used to justify various actions by individuals, by business people, by environmentalists, by researchers, and by governmental agencies dealing with environmental problems19. Using his words:

Anthropocentrism is the view that, when it comes to making decisions about the environment, only the interests of human beings matter. An anthropocentric defense of environmental preservation would appeal to or focus on the ways in which environmental preservation benefits human beings while environmental degradation harms humans. So if we argue that an endangered species ought to be preserved because people think it is beautiful, or because people are happy to know that it exists, or because it might someday be useful to people, we would be arguing anthropocentrically.

Sentientism [is the view that] all and only conscious creatures count. [Sentientists] argue that if all human beings have rights (including newborn infants and the severely retarded), then so too do some animals, since intellectual capacities of a normal mammal or bird appear to surpass those of [these humans]. To be sentient is to be conscious of pleasure and pain, [so these people claim] that all creatures who can feel pleasure and pain have interests to be considered. Animals with very rudimentary nervous systems—insects, for instance—may not be conscious at all, and therefore may not deserve moral consideration in this view.

Biocentric Individualism [includes] all living things, including the “lower” animals and all plants [in the group of organisms that] have interests and deserve moral consideration.

Holism [includes] the entire biotic community, taken as a whole system, [in what counts and should be protected]. The most famous example of holism is the “land ethic” espoused by Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac20. When Leopold writes that “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community,” he is focusing on the welfare or interest of a system of living things, rather than on the welfare of the individuals who are members of that system. A view like this is called holism because the whole is being taken to be somehow greater than the sum of its parts.

There is conflict among the proponents of the four different categories of earth ethics, both within and outside of the environmental movement. Arguments over which of the above earth ethics is the “correct” one have threatened to dilute the energy of the reform movement and fractionate it, reducing its effectiveness.

The biggest argument seems to be between the anthropocentrists and the holists. It seems rather obvious that if one takes anthropocentrism to its logical conclusion one would have to accept that humans are totally dependent upon the ecological viability of the entire biotic system and the physical resources upon which this system depends. Thus, the goals and methods of the two groups should merge and become one.
Some say we have insufficient scientific evidence to show all the detailed connections between minute elements of the biotic community and the survival and quality of life of the human species. To what extent, for example, does human survivability depend upon the survivability of the many species of insects living in Amazonia? Much has been written on this subject21-23, and the conclusion is clear. Humans depend completely on nature for survival. Thus, there should be no conflict between the above four points of view, at least as they relate to environmental protection.

Historically, in the West at least, anthropocentrism has been the prime motivator for having an interest in humanity’s future. The very title of this book is anthropocentric in its direction. The reason is that the primary motivation for protecting the environment is a selfish one—we wish to save ourselves. Now that we see the links between human survival and the survival of our life-support system, we are finding that our interest in self-preservation must include an equal interest in the preservation of the biosphere, our planetary life-support system.

The trouble is that, in its purist form, or perhaps only historically, anthropocentrism sets aside the needs of the nonhuman and inherently denies the value of nature’s services. At least in any conflict between humans and the environment, the purely anthropocentric path is to favor the human against the environment. This view was specifically espoused by the George W. Bush administration in 2001, when it was stated that the administration would not sacrifice the needs of the citizenry for energy in favor of greater environmental protection. In consequence, he announced that the U.S. would not sign the Kyoto agreement on the reduction of global warming.

Once the definition of anthropocentrism is modified to acknowledge the inextricable link between human welfare and environmental preservation, it will turn into holism. There seems no other choice for the survival of humanity but to embrace the holistic philosophy and strive to incorporate it in every step that is taken and in every decision made.

A New Kind of Thinking

Albert Einstein once wrote that “…a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.”24 Einstein was speaking of the threat of nuclear disaster, but his remarks apply equally well to the current threat of global environmental destruction. He began his statement with this: “Our world faces a crisis as yet unperceived by those possessing power to make great decisions for good or evil. The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” Translating Einstein’s cry of alarm to our present situation, if we are to achieve global behavior changes and make them lasting, we must develop a new set of values, and a new type of thinking, one more appropriate for our current environmental situation. This leads to the need for an assessment of the values affecting our environmentally significant behaviors.

Changing our inappropriate values does not mean changing all of them. We can still retain a belief in the sanctity of human rights, as long as we recognize also the rights of all other living things. We can abhor murder, torture, disrespectfulness, deceit, and slovenliness. We can value love, caring, charity, and playfulness. We cannot, however, continue to see the environment as an it, as an object to be used and abused without consequences. We have little choice but to adopt a more respectful attitude toward nature and incorporate this respect in our laws, customs, beliefs, and educational systems. Only then can we have any hope for sustaining humanity as a viable species on Earth, this third planet from the Sun.

References

1. Robert Theobald. The Rapids of Change: Social Entrepreneurship in Turbulent Times. Knowledge Systems: Indianapolis, 1987.
2. G. Tyler Miller. Environmental Science. 2nd ed. Wadsworth Publishing: Belmont, CA, 1988. From Environmental Science: An Introduction, 2nd edition by Miller. © 1988. Reprinted with permission of Brooks/Cole, a division of Thomson Learning: www.thomsonrights.com. Fax 800 730-2215.
3. Thomas R. Malthus. An Essay on the Principle of Population. Prometheus Books: New York, 1999.
4. Joanna Macy and Molly Brown Young. Coming Back to Life. New Society: Gabriola Island, BC, Canada, 1998, 221 pp.
5. American Psychiatric Association, “Clinical Resources. Depression. V. Review and Synthesis of Available Evidence B. Acute Phase Psychosocial Interventions 2.a. Cognitive behavioral therapy,” World Wide Web, Access date: 21 July, 2001.
http://www.psych.org/clin_res/Depression2e.book-12.cfm.
6. A.T. Beck, A.J. Rush, B.F. Shaw, and G. Emery. Cognitive Therapy of Depression. Guilford: New York,1979.
7. Roderick Frazier Nash. The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics. The University of Wisconsin Press: Madison, WI, 1989.
8. Teilhard de Chardin. The Phenomenon of Man. Harper: New York, 1959.
9. Thomas Berry. The Dream of the Earth. 1st ed. Sierra Club Books: San Francisco, 1988, 247 pp.
10. Thomas Berry. The Great Work — Our Way Into the Future. Bell Tower: New York, 1999, 241 pp.
11. Fritjof Capra. The Tao of Physics. Bantam, Rev. ed.: 1984.
12. Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz. American Indian Myths and Legends. Pantheon: New York, 1984.
13. David Suzuki. The Sacred Balance — Rediscovering out Place in Nature. Promethius Books: Amherst, NY, 1998, 259 pp.
14. Brian Swimme. The Universe is a Green Dragon. Bear & Co., Inc.: Santa Fe, NM, 1984, 173 pp.
15. Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry. The Universe Story. HarperSanFrancisco, div. of HarperCollins: San Francisco, 1992, 305 pp.
16. Gary Zukav. The Dancing Wu Li Masters. Bantam: 1980.
17. Tom Regan. The Case for Animal Rights. Berkeley, CA, 1983. Note: As quoted in, p. vi.
18. C. D. Stone. Should Trees have Standing? – Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects. W. Kaufmann, 1974: Los Altos, CA,1974. Note: p. 6.
19. Gary Varner “North American Association for Environmental Education, Workshop on Environmental Ethics,” 1988, to Ross McCluney, 14-15 October 1988.
20. Aldo Leopold. A Sand County Almanac. Oxford University Press: New York, 1949.
21. Yvonne Baskin. The Work of Nature. Island Press: Washington, DC, 1997, 263 pp.
22. Gretchen C. Daily, ed. Nature’s Services — Societal Dependence on Natural Ecosystems. Island Press: Washington, D.C., 1997, 392 pp.
23. Thomas Prugh. Natural Capital and Human Economic Survival. 2nd ed. Lewis Publishers: New York, Boca Raton, 1999, 180 pp. From Chapter 3: What Natural Capital is and Does.
24. Albert Einstein, “Telegram sent to several hundred prominent Americans on 24 May 1946,” New York Times, 25 May 1946.