The Moral Climate

Painting: Joy Garnett

What most distresses me is the thirty years we’ve wasted by asking people to live sustainably. In high school in the early 1970s, having grappled with terrible air pollution, oil embargoes, and the tyranny of Big Energy, we knew we needed more economical and efficient cars, we knew we were vulnerable to unsavory governments, and that real free enterprise in the form of energy competition would mean innovative, diverse, agile, and decentralized energy sources. From then to now, as a country, we’ve sat on our hands.

This, I believe, is our shame. Shame not only because we chose it. Shame because the unborn, who did not choose it, come saddled with all conceivable consequences. Shame because the poor, who likewise did not choose it, will be hit first and worst.

And because that is not merely “unsustainable” but unjust. It is wrong. And so it crosses a line and becomes no mere matter of “sustainability,” but a matter of morality. Dysfunctional values married to catastrophic leadership has led us to the place you go when you are made to believe solution is sacrifice, and that sacrifice for a just cause is not noble but, rather, out of the question. The moral density of this social climate is wafer thin.

This refusal to “sacrifice” is actually a pathological refusal to change for the better. That is the real sacrifice. That refusal is framed and abetted by the disinformation campaigns of companies that would shrink if we realized we would be better off with less of them. Think of ExxonMobil; it’s probably the best example. Those companies’ fear of us — specifically that we might accept the consequences of reality — compels them into a rather successful effort to retain power over us by distorting our understanding of what’s real.

Nearly every just cause is a struggle between the good of the many and the greed of a few. But because greed has the advertising dollars to make selfishness fashionable, it sustains itself by turning enough people against their own self-interest. Foremost, our interest in hanging on to our money. Second, our health. Third, the options of our unborn.

Of all the psychopathology in the climate issue, the most counterproductive thought is that solving the problem will require sacrifice. As though our wastefulness of energy and money is not sacrifice. As though war built around oil is not sacrifice. As though losing polar bears, ice-dependent penguins, coral reefs, and thousands of other living companions is not sacrifice. As though withered cropland is not a sacrifice, or letting the fresh water of cities dry up as glacier-fed rivers shrink. As though risking seawater inundation and the displacement of hundreds of millions of coastal people is not a sacrifice — and reckless risk. But don’t tell me to own a more efficient car; that would be a sacrifice! We think we don’t want to sacrifice, but sacrifice is exactly what we’re doing by perpetuating problems that only get worse; we’re sacrificing our money, and sacrificing what is big and permanent, to prolong what is small, temporary, and harmful. We’re sacrificing animals, peace, and children to retain wastefulness while enriching those who disdain us.

When we stop seeing our relationship with the whole living world as a matter of sustainability, and realize it is a matter of morality — of right and wrong — we might make the moment we need.

Carl Safina is co-founder and president of Blue Ocean Institute, and author of many articles and three books, including the award-winning Song for the Blue Ocean and the most recent Voyage of the Turtle.


  1. The author of the article talks about when we stop seeing nature or ourselves connected to the whole. I suspect that a large part of our culture has not been connected to the natural word in any way for a very long time. We have no clear land ethic as a society. Fragments of our society have some form of connection to the land, but it is not common. Actually I see more conversation indicating an interest in understanding the environment in recent time, so perhaps there is substantial reason for hope.

  2. For several years I worked for a company where many employees had this statement on their individual tackboards. “The chief cause of unhappiness in the world is giving up what we really want for what we want at the moment.” It seemed true then and more so now. Our social moral climate is full of fog that we hardly see what is ahead of us. Around us are thousands of means of distracting us from the truth just inches from our faces. Yet, the truth will not be silent. From somewhere comes a yearning to connect. I, like Karen Pratt, am encouraged by the increasing concern for connection to the land. Such growing interest in land and conservation and doing with less gives me reason for hope.

  3. This is the best statement on the moral climate that I have seen since I wrote about it in “A Taoist Politics: The Case for Sacredness”.

    In that work, available on Amazon or on my website,, I show that because we are part of the Whole, which is the only thing that Is, we have a moral obligation to preserve it.

    ” Life is not defined by an external authority, nor does it have an ultimate meaning. Life simply is, meaning lies in the recognition that we are a part of it, and morality springs from our obligation to preserve this Whole of which we are a part.”

  4. With all respect to your eloquent authors, only Carl Safina’s essay came close to expressing the moral outrage and suppressed anger that is lacking in the discourse about global warming. I continue to find it strange that so many deeply concerned, ethical and intelligent people have not yet found the muscle and motivation to directly challenge and rebut not just the decadent values of our consumer society but of our political leadership. We have powerful and just ideas and purpose but they are being wasted on hand-wringing and inner sorrow rather than being used in the service of political organizing of a movement that will at least attempt to oust those who, in power through our votes, either waver from doubt or stubbornly refuse to rebut the lies and excuses that now pass for energy policy in our legislatures. It is high time that all of us come together not in fruitless prayer or disapprobation but in clear, principled and undiluted action, to oust the lawmakers and policy makers who are, because of their inaction, directly responsible for the threat to humanity and the earth itself. An Ecology PAC is needed to rid the body politic of the sloths and replace them with public servants who are willing to fight for the tough measures that are needed in these last few years available to us before the tidal wave of irreversible climate change crushes us. Who out there will help create this movement?

  5. Yes and again yes. Carl S. has put it perfectly: We have “sacrifice” completely reversed. We are now engaged in sacrificing the WHOLE PLANET to a morally and ecologically autistic few who should not even be called ‘leaders.’ They are just the biggest ‘takers’ on the planet.

    Lorna, as for “where is the movement,” see Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest. The movement is happening, it is just that it is not like other movements. It is global and diffuse. Hawken likens it to the body’s immune system.

    The key to this movement is that people simply act rather than ‘call for action.’

    Imagine Orion turned into ACTS.
    Imagine if the many beautiful articles in Orion were turned into podcasts, speeches, rallying talks. Imagine if activists figured out ways to blast the eloquence of Orion writers into the streets. Imagine bicycles equipped with speakers. Imagine walking down sidewalks and hearing words to inspire us to action coming from the trees.

    Imagine parking lots “talking” about global warming.

    Imagine ACTION, people. Amazing, beautiful, wild, salutary human action.

  6. The paragraph on sacrifice speaks volumes to the perception of the whole issue. It is brilliant.

  7. Lorna,

    Your naive faith in political leadership misses the entire point of the essay. Those in political office are not leaders but servants of the dysfunctional commodity culture we have created and which our lifestyles sustain. And that culture of greed and universal exploitation is built upon a foundation of amoral values.

    Changing the faces of the figureheads on the steeples of power will do nothing as long as the corrupt foundation of our (now global) society remains unchallenged.

    We are facing a profound moral challenge, not a political one. As long as our inner nature remains as it is, we will continue down this path of destruction regardless of who is leading the march.

  8. Dear editor;
    Increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide is undoubtedly increasing climate warmth. However I suspect that an even greater affect on warmth is the baring of soil by increase in annual crop acreage, roads, buildings, grazing, and desertification. You may see an article that discusses this in more detail in

  9. I think there’s valid discussion to be had about the moral direction society is taking and whether religion (which one?) is the best way to underpin an agreed set of moral values versus ones that can be achieved via Humanism.
    Also, we need an economic framework to sustain the population. Capitalism (with all its faults) appears to be the system that works best (it can work better).
    What galls me is when environmentalists use scaremongering about global warming/climate change to influence morality and the economy. It’s becoming increasingly clear (and will be to anyone willing to do their homework) that (i) our climate changes on a constant basis (without any influence from mankind), (ii) CO2 is a trace gas and has no discernable impact on the climate (water vapour is the the main greenhouse gas) & (iii) there’s evidence that the recent warming period is over and we’re heading for a cooling one driven by forces (the Sun and Oceans mainly) that we cannot comprehend and have no control over.
    Instead of perpetuating the gloabal warming hoax, wasting $billions on projects that’ll have no impact on the climate and starving the poor through high fuel and food prices we need to focus our energies on solving problems we can do something about: disease, poverty, economic inbalances and subjegated peoples

  10. Bickers,

    The article was about the moral (not religious) basis of the crises we face. But if you would ask “which religion?” then I would have to ask “which humanism?”.

    Humanism is an ethical system based on the rational (scientific, logical) evaluation of life. If denying the largest scientific consensus in the history of the human race is “humanism”, it’s not a religion I would subscribe to.

    Further, it’s not that “we need an economic framework to sustain population”, it’s rather that we need to acknowledge that the human population is many times beyond the carrying capacity of the biosphere, artificially and temporarily sustained by the massive exploitation of ancient sunlight in the form of fossil fuels. We cannot reverse millions of years of geological evolution in one century without an impact on the environment.

    And it’s hardly the case that “capitalism appears to be the system which works best”. As Safina so aptly put it, “nearly every just cause is a struggle between the good of the many and the greed of a few”, and capitalism requires an owning class and a working class with wealth significantly concentrated in the hands of the few while the masses suffer. As an economic system, it is unjust and unsustainable because it is based on no moral foundation.

    Pointing out that multiple crises are looming is not “scaremongering” but prescience, and looking to foundational causes – i.e. a moral failure of society – is the only sensible and constructive approach.

    Perhaps your “gall” so clouded your vision that you missed the entire point of the essay.

  11. Robert Birdsong, Have you read “Dark Ages America, The Final Phase of Empire” by Morris Berman?

    I swear, everything you wrote could have come out of that book. Berman discusses the moral or ethical faults of America that resulted from a virtually unchecked society of consumerism. With decades of a military/industrial complex designed for empire coupled with an economic system designed to both makes us stupid and blind to what we’ve become personally, as communities and as a whole societal system, we’ve reached a point of no return.

    The vast majority of the American population isn’t the least interested in looking inward at our country (it gets in the way of consuming). Yet, somehow there is at least evidence of the perception that all is not right. Opinion poles of recent years show large disgust with Congress, The President, corporations and the media. Somewhere in our psych we’ve come to decide the system (politics/media/corps) isn’t working or has become something not desired.

    But on the other hand there is such an addiction to consuming that people can’t seem to stop. It’s quite possible people can’t find a way to change the system, so they shop til they drop out of trying to feel good about themselves since they don’t feel good about the society we’ve become.

    Individualism reigns over community. It’s what we are suppose to be according to the advice of the elites and the endless advertising. We are constantly told to make ourselves happy (by purchasing things) and only occasionally to help others (but this is usually via the donation of money). Spend money, send money…is our societal anthem.

  12. jon b,

    Given that you completely missed my name, it’s not surprising that you would miss the essense of my critique.

    But I’m glad that you thought my ideas similar to Berman’s rather than to classical Marxism. While I’m not familiar with the breadth of Berman’s analysis of the modern crisis, I suspect that my perspective is both broader and deeper.

    More like Glendenning, Quinn and Jensen, my critique begins with the shift from hunter-gatherer (Garden of Eden) to settled agricultural lifestyle (exile and cultural imprisonment). Modern American imperial consumerism is but the latest (and most pernicious) manifestation of our fall from grace.

    The root of the problem is not just moral (as Safina suggests) but spiritual and existential. Once we chose to separate from the Source (the web of life), we began to wander aimless and empty and filled the void with lust, greed, arrogance – all the great sins.

    The continuance of the human race will require a shedding, not just of consumerism and global corporate capitalism, but of civilization itself. We need to become “savages” again (Lat. silvaticus: of the woods).

  13. Posted on behalf of Frank U. Farmer, who was having technical difficulties posting…

    Ethics is defined as a system of moral values, but morals may vary among organized religions. I like to think of ethics as values that would be valid across all ethnic, religious, and cultural lines. I have over the years, with like minded others, put together a beginning system of ethics called The 13 Basic Ethical Standards of Behavior. We believe there are no internal contradictions in this system of values which can be peer reviewed here:

    One course of action that anyone can participate in to take back power for “we the People” is to go to, spend the 10 minutes to listen to (or read) the presentation for The National Initiative for Democracy, then vote for or against it. 50 million yes votes by registered voters will make it the law of the land. Here are the first two paragraphs:

    “The National Initiative for Democracy is a proposed law developed by The Democracy Foundation, over the past decade, along with a plan to get it enacted by the people (not by the government) creating, for the first time, a government “by you, the people.”

    The National Initiative includes a constitutional amendment and a federal statute that equips the people with the central power of government, lawmaking. As lawmakers, the people in every government jurisdiction of the United States become a new Check in our system of Checks and Balances designed to control the abuses of government. Representative government remains unaltered except for the partnership established between the people and their elected legislators.”

    I am seeing more and more people becoming interested in having their voices heard as I continue to visit sites like Orion and read the comments on articles like this one. Unethical behavior is being confronted by people all over the globe as they learn to use the inter net as a resource and a forum. The National Initiative will allow our voices to be heard on the national level, by slowly overturning the special interest legislation enacted by our so-called elected representatives for the benefit of corporate lobbyists in exchange for campaign contributions.

    Each time we vote we force voter fraud to be more blatant, and therefore more likely to be subject to criminal prosecution. One method I have been using to curb political greed and corruption is to not vote for any incumbents. If it is apparent that a candidate is spending huge amounts of money to get elected, I don’t vote for them. We can enact term limits by voting in new inexperienced people. My thinking is that we cannot do any worse with new politicians than we have now with people who are already experienced in how to behave in deceptive greedy ways.

    I am open to gracious discussion/debate on this or any other subject, and I am willing to clarify the intent of any of the 13 behavioral standards, as well as the Law of Mutual Consent.

    Warm regards,

    F.U. Farmer

  14. Scott Walker believes that morals vary between religions, but that is true if one considers only the details. At the core of every religious tradition is the same single precept: Do (or do not do) unto others as you would have then do (or not do) unto you.

    Hillel, the great 1st century BCE Hebraic teacher, when asked to recite the whole Torah while standing on one foot, said “That which is hateful to you do not do to others. All the rest is commentary.”

    Unfortunately, there is much “commentary” in Walker’s 13 ethical standards of behavior, as they are decidedly biased toward western culture.

    Rationality is not idolized in indigenous cultures the way it is in the modern West. In fact, indigenous cultures – those that existed in harmony with the web of life for tens of thousands of years – are heart-based, not head-centered, and the mystery of inherent contradiction is recognized as foundational to all life.

    Equality is a very modern ethic that would appear alien to most pre-modern or non-Western cultures. Traditional Tibetan society, considered one of the most spiritually evolved, is highly hierarchical.

    Western, nominally democratic culture is a highly arrogant and self-centered one which continues to dominate all other cultural traditions with its imperial hubris. Universal ethics is far simpler than Walker would like to believe.

  15. Yes, we should have acted years and years ago instead of cramming all the solutions now when it might be too late. And yes, the ones who are innocent, who are less to blame for these environmental issues are suffering a lot more than the ones truly responsible.

  16. Interesting article.

    I am not sure what I think about the shame and sacrifice model.

    I think that thinking and discussing about doing anything out of “shame” and “sacrifice” is problematic.

    To make people feel bad does not always motivate them into action.

    And if they are motivated into action, the action they take is likely not sound and sustainable action.

    I think this is the core problem of the environmental movement and its approach.

    Concepts of shame and sacrifice are principles which some people find repulsive.

    I do. This is what I found was the key issue that turned me away from doing “environmental advocacy” work.

    Advocacy work that is based on shame, sacrifice, should’s, and have-to’s spawn anger, resentment and grief.

    The search for me in the past several years is to find a way internally (personally) and externally (for others) to inspire and motivate action out of love and pure joy and a sense of cherish-ment for the planet and those you live with and in and amongst us.

    That sense of action our of pure joy and love and cherish-ment (I just invented this word) is what I think is really truly necessary for truly positive action.

    I am not sure how to get everyone there yet. I am still working on being there myself.

    These are just my thoughts.

  17. Wong,

    How is it possible for a reader to so completely miss the point of the article?

    Safina wasn’t suggesting that we shame anyone into changing – only that he has recognized the moral shame in how we treat each other and the earth.

    Yes, we need a positive vision to work toward. But change does not begin until we realize that what we’re doing now does not work or is morally indefensible (such as slavery and discrimination).

    And Safina was not suggesting (like Jimmy Carter) that we must sacrifice anything of value in order to become sustainable. He merely pointed out that the way we live today sacrifices most everything that is important to us, that we need to STOP sacrificing our long-term well-being for short-term convenience.

    I agree with you that humiliating people is not way to encourage them to evolve. But evolution requires the humility to let go of our arrogance, and that requires a realization of the shame of our current lifestyle.

    The way we are in the world is plainly wrong, for it undermines the web of life. Only when we understand that will be be moved to find a way of life that is right with the world.

  18. Mr. Riversong,

    Anger like yours is precisely the type of energy that alienates and fuels more anger yet to come.

    Be at peace.

  19. Where are people like you at? I wish that all people like yourselves above knew what a crisis we are in. We need to stop now!!! I mean stop building, stop playing with the “green” campaign, stop manufacturing and start using the garbage we waste. Regardless if the new building that just has been built is certified green, it is still impacting the environment. We are not ready to make the necessary changes, because if we stop, we feel like our monetary empires will fall. When we begin to reward and measure by deeds – too many inhabitants will be broke

  20. Like Robert Riversong…I believe that we need to become “savages” again…not the New World Savages, by any means, but the Old World..Indian Savages…Respecting nature and all it’s inhabitants..not having a monolithic religion…think about interacting with other species…we’re not the “chosen “ones, we’re the “disillusioned” ones

  21. A universal moral code or ethic is the great omission of the environmental movement.

    Too many environmentalists see others — factories, farmers, and developers — as the problem, but not themselves. Where I live, for example, it is not uncommon to see bay polluting SUVs with “Save the Bay” bumper stickers .

    We need personal standards of right and wrong to govern our relationship with the earth, not unlike the code of conduct we apply to our relationshps with one another.

    No effort to regulate polluting industries can equal the strength, power, and reach of an environmental code of conduct followed by large numbers of people.

  22. Our problem is not lack of a universal environmental code, but a powerfully addictive cultural paradigm of selfishness, greed, exploitation and consumption that is not going to be easily relinquished to a higher ethical standard.

    We have many ethical codes, including those of the Torah, the Gospels and the Koran. But even practicing religionists are more heavily influenced by our secular cultural milieu than by either the dictates of their bible or their conscience.

    The environmental movement has been creating its code at least since the national collegiate teach-ins of Earth Day 1970, Arne Ness’ Deep Ecology and the Stockholm Summit of 1972, The Land Institute and WorldWatch Institute of 1976, “Our Common Future” published in 1987, the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, culminating in the Earth Charter which was crafted over a period of ten years with input from 5,000 people.

    Read it in its entirety at

    A summary of its principles follows:

    1. Respect Earth and life in all its diversity.
    2. Care for the community of life with understanding, compassion, and love.
    3. Build democratic societies that are just, participatory, sustainable, and peaceful.
    4. Secure Earth’s bounty and beauty for present and future generations.

    In order to fulfill these four broad commitments, it is necessary to:

    5. Protect and restore the integrity of Earth’s ecological systems, with special concern for biological diversity and the natural processes that sustain life.
    6. Prevent harm as the best method of environmental protection and, when knowledge is limited, apply a precautionary approach.
    7. Adopt patterns of production, consumption, and reproduction that safeguard Earth’s regenerative capacities, human rights, and community well-being.
    8. Advance the study of ecological sustainability and promote the open exchange and wide application of the knowledge acquired.

    9. Eradicate poverty as an ethical, social, and environmental imperative.
    10. Ensure that economic activities and institutions at all levels promote human development in an equitable and sustainable manner.
    11. Affirm gender equality and equity as prerequisites to sustainable development and ensure universal access to education, health care, and economic opportunity.
    12. Uphold the right of all, without discrimination, to a natural and social environment supportive of human dignity, bodily health, and spiritual well-being, with special attention to the rights of indigenous peoples and minorities.

    13. Strengthen democratic institutions at all levels, and provide transparency and accountability in governance, inclusive participation in decision making, and access to justice.
    14. Integrate into formal education and life-long learning the knowledge, values, and skills needed for a sustainable way of life.
    15. Treat all living beings with respect and consideration.
    16. Promote a culture of tolerance, nonviolence, and peace.

  23. It seems strange to me talking about how we should stop purchasing to save the world, returning to “savages” who were scared of nature and had no way of impacting it. When we are all driving cars, typing on the internet, purchasing Orion, etc…
    It seems like the only way to impact a life is to impact your own life and let others do the same.

  24. Recognizing that which is a product of arrogance and also shameful behavior.

    Our lexicon of business activities is being expanded daily, thanks to the “wonder boys” on Wall Street. We are learning about derivatives, collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, recapitalization, puts, short selling and so on. We are gaining a new vocabulary from the recent meltdown of the financial system and expected slowdown of the real economy worldwide.

    Where did this debacle begin? Well, it began in the center of human community’s banking and investment houses in the financial district of NYC. Supposedly, the “brightest and best” among us go to Wall Street, know what they are doing and do the right thing. Unfortunately, such assumptions turn out to be colossal mistakes.

    How did this calamity occur and why is the human family in such dire economic straits? It appears that grotesque greed and a culture of corruption have come to dominate significant operating systems of the global political economy.

    Powerful people in high offices within huge business institutions with access to great wealth are recklessly and deleteriously manipulating the unbridled expansion of the global economy in the small, finite planetary home God blesses us to inhabit.

    Self-proclaimed Masters of the Universe have surreptitiously “manufactured” a sub prime “asset bubble” and perversely fostered its uneconomic growth within the world economy. Not unexpectedly, this asset bubble did what bubbles do. The sub prime bubble burst and made a mess. Global credit markets have frozen, stock prices are tumbling and the value of the dollar is gyrating.

    Evidently organizers, managers and whiz kids overseeing the global economy, and the unraveling {ie, deleveraging} of the worldwide sub prime swindle, are running the artificially designed financial system of the global economy as a pyramid scheme. This is to say that the international financial system is being operated so that most of the wealth funneled pyramidally into the hands of a small minority of people at the top of the world economy where this wealth is accumulated and consolidated. Note that thirty percent of annual corporate profits end up in the accounts of a tiny number of people. At the same time, the vast majority of people on Earth, near the bottom of the global economic pyramid, are left with very little wealth. Does the economy of the family of humanity exist primarily to provide wealth to the already stupendously wealthy? The “bankstas” among us evidently think so.

    In the 1980s, this extremely inequitable method of distributing wealth and arranging business activities was called a “trickle down” economy. We have been repeatedly told how this ‘rational’ economic scheme is good because it “raises all ships.” And yet, from my limited scope of observation, the billion people living on resources valued at less than one dollar per day and the additional 2.7 billion people being sustained on two dollars per day of resources now appear to be stuck in squalid conditions. The ‘ships’ carrying these billions of less fortunate people {ie, more people than lived on Earth in the year of my birth} do not appear to be lifting them out of poverty.

  25. Perhaps ignorantly, I was unfamiliar with Orion Magazine until I borrowed a copy from a co-traveler on a “tundra bus” in Churchill, MB, Canada, while looking for polar bears. Mr. Safina’s commentary astounded me for being so similar to the one that’s been going on in my head for the past 40 years since college. Can we ever hope for mega corporations with moral conscience? Just perhaps, that hope is closer now, as Inauguration Day approaches, than it has ever been.

  26. Great article. What I most agreed with was the disconnect that exists between humanity and the world we live in. Our self-absorption has cost us dearly; independence has replaced inter-dependence. Everything is a commodity – and as a result, we’ve objectified the natural world! Our natural resources do not exist for us to exploit them, after all. Like the arts, they are a treasure that we have an obligation to guard.

  27. This is absolutely so. If we cannot break the defense of denial, we will be responsible for nothing less then the destruction of the biosphere as it now exists and the extinction of millions of species. Among those species will be humans, although that may allow for a gradual re-building of the animal world over many millions of years in the future

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