Thursday, October 18, 2012

Comparative Ethics

Lemos, Maria Carmen.  2008.  Whose Water Is It Anyway?  Water Management, Knowledge, and Equity in Northeast Brazil. 

Holt-Gimenez, Eric.  2011.  Food Security, Food Justice or Food Sovereignty?  Crises, Food Movements, and Regime Change. 
Byrne, John, and Noah Toly.  2006.  Energy as a Social Project:  Recovering a Discourse. 

This week’s three readings give a clear picture, in each of their respective areas (water, food and energy) of the problems these sectors are having, not just in physical terms (abundance or scarcity of the resource, climate change, pollution and overuse); but how society thinks about (or ignores) using them and overcoming their environmental and social consequences (through economic and political considerations). But more importantly, they write about the ethical and social justice concerns that an equitable use of finite resources raises, how they are being addressed today, why they are being addressed that way.

There are certain things that humans need in order to survive, and certain things that we need to live above a hand-to-mouth existence. For survival, we need food and water, shelter and clothing. For a more comfortable way of life, at home and at work, we also need energy. The authors give us a primer on the history of human development, and how the inclusion of all stakeholders, accessibility to information and transparency in governance has made the situation better, but has not been able to solve the problems caused by systemic regulatory and economic inequalities caused by the vast privileges that multinationals have over markets.  

Holt-Gimenez uses a stark comparison of the subtleties that separate food production in the US today: an industrial agriculture perspective (neoliberal, food enterprise, toxic), a slightly more progressive industrial agriculture perspective (reformist, food security, less toxic), a progressive perspective (food justice, saving seeds, organic farming), and a radical perspective (food sovereignty), and explains each of their beginnings and ethical arguments. The agro-industrial (so-called “green”) revolution stemmed from a need to fight world hunger which created a thinly veiled opportunity for large corporations to invest in and overtake a global market (food) that is inexhaustible, which led to land grabs, consolidation, and monopoly conditions.

Within that corporatist cadre, there are Reformists, which believe that people should have food security, and therefore espouse corporate buying of organic farms, maintaining subsidies, market-led reforms, and “sustainable” roundtable discussions that give the impression of moving away from industrial agriculture, but in truth keep concentrating the sector into fewer and fewer hands.

Progressive food movements like Food Justice espouse Fair Trade and Slow Food, but shy away from actually fighting the systemic underpinnings of the corporate system. The most radical food movements, like Via Campesina, have sprung from a deep sense of inequality that third world peasants feel when the Goliaths of industrial agriculture force them off their lands, and therefore broaden their attacks to include social justice and rights-based ethics in their vision and mission statements.

This comparison points to several conclusions: humanity is managing after the fact, learning to properly regulate after corporations have begun to make a profit and capture market share: it is not proactively avoiding damages or being precautionary; successful businesses tend to become systems that have their own growth imperatives, and are very hard to change or stop; those with the most money have the most political influence, and they influence the lay of the business playing field in their favor; multinational corporations are like a climate system that has hit numerous feedback loops that make their rapacious trajectories unstoppable.

Byrne and Toly focus on the energy sector, and its similar history and possible solutions, with the important difference that in the energy field there are very few voices concerned with the ethical or social justice part of what they do, and they are much more interested in scaling businesses (whether they are conventional or alternative energies) that have proven to be income producers and have some prospect of lowering GHG emissions or other environmental problems, without addressing any other ethical concerns. To fossil fuel energy producers, it is more important to make use of economic opportunities and society's dependence on comfort than it is to solve intractable problems like climate change and social justice. 

Bill McKibben of recently published an article that made this clear: there are $27 Trillion dollars in proven reserves of fossil fuels that companies have already monetized on their books (so they will not leave them in the ground unless paid for them). That amount translates to five times the amount of CO2 that avoids the greater dangers of climate change, and there is almost no chance of leaving them in the ground. 


Beyond pragmatic (if disheartening) realities, there is an ethical imperative to share life-giving resources equitably. But from reading these papers, it is clear that society gives much more importance to economic considerations when we are deciding on regulations and incentives to business, and governments are exceedingly influenced by the businesses they are trying to regulate. In the natural world, this would be a species that cannot stop itself from growing too large, and is rapidly approaching a cliff from whence it may not survive.

Prof. Gondek’s comments:
Explain whether we are learning fast enough about ethics etc. (para. 6) to turn around our approach to the cliff (para. 9). Is there a remedy?

My response:

Ozymandias Revisited

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

It seems to me that big business, the military-industrial complex, multinational corporations and all other multi-billion dollar enterprises (Fossil Fuel companies, Big Pharma, Big Ag, Big Banks, Silicon Valley, Big Media, law firms, lobbyists, politicians etc.) have already amassed (or control) much of the wealth and the resources that exist. They are using those resources to further their near-sighted goals, which were mostly created in ignorance or avoidance of the science of ecology or of social justice.

At this point, acting in a truly environmentally ethical way threatens their economic survival, and accepting this responsibility threatens their personal sense of self-worth (who wants to think of himself as an ecocidal global murderer?).

Paraphrasing a few quotes making the rounds on social media, 'don’t expect the rich to let you vote away their money or their power; the rich will not give up their riches without a fight.' Arguing ethics with them is not going to right the world; it will only get us self-serving half measures (CSR, food-as-fuel, GMO’s, carbon taxes, CO2 sequestration, cost-benefit analysis, etc. - things they say will technologically solve our problems - when our problems are not technological - and technological solutions only concentrate more wealth, enslave more people and kill more trees).

Was there ever a time when all people understood ethics and lived ethics? I know that as far back as Confucius, Lao Tzu, Plato and Aristotle there have been ethicists and philosophers that have taught ethics. But did that stop Shogun Tokugawa , Alexander the Great or Julius Cesar from conquering (enslaving?) to half the known world of their time? Did it stop John D. Rockefeller from brutally consolidating the petroleum business? Did it stop Kenneth Lay from riding Enron to the ground or Goldman Sachs from selling derivatives they knew to be worthless to an unsuspecting world market that then caused the global economy to crash? Do Exxon, BP, or Chevron employees lose any sleep whatsoever knowing the death and destruction they have caused the environment (and continue to evade accountability for)? No, knowing did not stop them.

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!" Upton Sinclair

Maybe I have been unduly influenced by Derrick Jensen, who believes we are running out of time, and we must make a revolution that tears down corporatist America. My stance has softened during my two years at Columbia, and I do not see the people behind huge corporations as “evil”. They are people doing the only thing they know how to do, as best they know how to do it, and avoiding ethical discussions beyond their sphere of influence.  We do not live in a communal society where individuals can rely on each other for food, shelter, and community. Industrialization did away with interdependence. And our society does not give ethics the importance it should have in order to avoid the many pitfalls we live with today.

I’ve also come to know that just explaining about the science of ecology will not save us, just as only speaking of environmental ethics will not save us. It is not enough to condemn a lifestyle, we must share a vision of a new, more conscious, more ethical, more equitable, more educated, and more empathetic way of life that does away with the cults of concentrated wealth, rugged individualism, and over-consumption. That is not something that can be done from inside this system; the pull of Madison Avenue is too strong, its inertia too entrenched. That is not something that will be embraced by the moneyed Old Guard; it must be crafted by the next generation, and we must accept that only a few billion people will survive the worst consequences of climate change, and we must help the young to build a new future that avoids the mistakes we have so far made.

So, the alternative seems to be to create new communities now, where people live more simply, using local alternative energy, growing and eating their own food organically, living by and for each other, using a new system of trade (Barter? Energy chits? Sharing?), that focuses on everyone’s health and education, that stewards the Commons responsibly, that lives the Precautionary Principle, and is much closer to the land and its bounty, like British ‘Transition Towns’ do, or local ecovillages do. 

We will have to re-learn how to do things like grow food without toxic inputs, animal husbandry, linen making, weaving, crafts such as weaving, pottery and woodworking. We will have to know more about more subjects than we use today (everyone is so specialized), be more inter-dependent, less industrial cookie-cutter desk jockeys, and much more selfless and empathetic. Let’s hope a few of these villages survive the floods, the storms, the droughts and the heat, and that homo sapiens gets a second chance to exist.

Since I alone cannot change the system, and changing the system would entail violence that I am not willing to expend, my answer is to create a reservoir of knowledge in a safe community so future generations, if humanity survives the cliff, will find, like in the caves of Altamira or Lascaux, a treasure trove of information from our generation, that tells a story of what happened: that within the haystack of apathetic humanity there were a few needles that saved humanity’s highest insights for them, the children of the future, as a cautionary tale.

And the lessons were these: we may come in to this world alone, and we may die alone, but every other second of our existence is traveled on a path from dependence, to independence, to interdependence; without community, man is only an island for one or two generations; life is all about continuity and building on what you already have; and abhors the greedy vacuum of individuality. We are but a gossamer thread in a vast web of life in a fragile, unique yet resilient planet, and we must respect it and not overstep our part in it's web. Because we ignored the needs and the rules of the environment we live in, we have caused massive pain and millions of unnecessary deaths, and our inability to communicate with each other did not allow us to avoid an ecocidal outcome. We have lost touch with the Earth and our intimate ancient knowledge of it, and we mistreated and marginalized the few remaining natives and aboriginals that still guarded that knowledge. We did not learn from our past, and we were corrupted by our hubris and tried to avoid life’s tougher lessons by insulating our lives with money.

So to future generations I say: learn ecology, learn permaculture, learn home-building, learn ethics, learn math and science, learn sociology and anthropology, learn history and development, learn to communicate and share, learn the cycles of the planet; be self-reliant and inter-dependent; and above all, act ethically in the broadest sense of the word. Learn as much as you can about as many subjects as you can. Never stop learning. Do no harm. Allow space for nature to breathe and live; she feeds us. Learn to talk to each other, help each other. Work hard, be responsible for your actions and do your part for your community; teach others what you have learned and leave a fruitful legacy for future generations. Respect nature; respect yourself; respect all others, and earn their respect.

For millennia we have had men of vision that used the urgency of their mortality as an excuse to conquer or enslave others. It is time we began to think of ourselves as roots of a common Aspen grove (we are all one), and to think in geologic time (how will my actions affect the ten thousandths generation?); and act as if we accept responsibility for trying to live on Earth forever, instead of trying to deny our biological and ecological imperatives. We must stop acting as if we were Ozymandias.