A few months ago I attended University of Oregon’s Public Interest Environmental Law Conference (PIELC) in Eugene, OR, and listened to a lecture by Dr. Stephanie Jenkins entitled Moral considerability: who matters in ethical questions and decision making? Jenkins delved into the inequities and environmental injustices relating to economic and social disparities throughout the global community. It’s a good question – who does matter in decision-making? Is it the decision-makers, or those being affected by environmental injustices? Is it the wealthy Washington Senator or the struggling, famished West-African mother?
Those of us who can aid in solving the environmental crisis, Jenkins explained, are not standing up, and those of us who are being physically displaced due to rising sea levels, arid water sources and extreme weather events cannot stand up to help. Climate change will hurt a lot of us in the long-term, but it is only hurting some of us now. Who matters?
Inequality is not a homogenous concept.
Digging a little deeper into this concept or moral considerability in relation to environmental degradation introduces the book Moral ground: ethical action for a planet in peril, edited by Kathleen Dean Moore and Michael P. Nelson. The book is organized into sections, each examining the question: do we have a moral obligation to protect the future of a planet in peril? An overwhelming response to that question is “yes”, because all flourishing is mutual. We are independent with nature and all of earth’s systems. And yet, many decision-makers do not want to pay the price of cleaning up a problem that they did not create. Why should I have to pick up that plastic water bottle in the storm drain when I just saw that man throw it out the window of his moving car? It’s not fair for me to have to clean up someone else’s mess. But then again, it isn’t fair for my grandchild to have to pick up that same water bottle forty years after it was thrown into that storm drain, because in forty years there will be six inches of human-trash overlaying that bottle, which will need to be sifted through by my grandchild in order to retrieve something that could have been properly recycled decades earlier.
So, maybe I do have a moral obligation to pick up that stranger’s water bottle after all.
“A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change” by Stephen M. Gardiner examines climate change as an ethical issue. Gardiner explains that there is an asymmetry of present and future power. We in the present can impact future generations, but future generations cannot impact us. This, Gardiner says, is the “tyranny of the contemporary”. Future generations need us to make decisions in their favor, but they have absolutely no say in the matter. Who speaks for them in the present?
We need to act for the sake of our future generations. We need to act for those who cannot breathe as they sink beneath the sea. Social problems and environmental problems need to be addressed together, and they need to be acted upon now.