Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril

IN 2009, THE YALE PROJECT ON CLIMATE CHANGE and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication conducted an extensive study of perceptions concerning climate change and its effects. At issue for the researchers was not simply whether or not Americans believe scientific evidence regarding the state of our planet, but also – and perhaps more importantly – the degree to which we are willing to change our behaviors as a result of those beliefs. What these scholars found was sobering: nearly 50 percent of all Americans are, at best, ambivalent about climate science; a full 82 percent of those surveyed admitted that they have made no changes in their lifestyle as a result of that science and its implications.

Evidence concerning our deleterious effects on the Earth’s atmosphere and the resultant damage to the biosphere is, of course, nothing new. Greenhouse emission theories have been around since the end of the nineteenth century; they have been a part of our vernacular since the publication of Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature over twenty years ago. Mainstream media outlets regularly report on statistics more sobering than anyone ought to bear: 300,000 human lives lost annually as a result of climate change, countless animal and plant species gone, multiple planetary limits exceeded. And still, the majority of us do nothing.

Clearly, our collective survival requires a different tack.

This recognition underlies Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril. As editors Kathleen Dean Moore and Michael P. Nelson argue in their introduction, neither scientific data nor externally imposed regulation will change hearts and minds – let alone our behavior. “What is missing,” they contend, “is the moral imperative, the conviction that assuring our own comfort at terrible cost to the future is not worthy of us as moral beings.” And so, rather than focus on atmospheric theory and tipping-point statistics, Moral Ground seeks to inspire action through a recognition of our species’ commitment to ethical behavior and a reminder that ideals such as love and justice must dictate all of our actions.

To establish this imperative, Moore and Nelson offer a multivalent collection of voices including those of world leaders Barack Obama and His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama; noted scientists and nature writers such as E. O. Wilson and Gary Snyder; and environmental practitioners including Earth First! cofounder Dave Foreman and Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai. Each of these ninety contributors agrees that our shared destination is a sustainable future; however, they make clear that the paths we take to reach this end are as varied as the values that drive us.

To this end, Moral Ground figures as a kind of a la carte menu of ethical decision making, with foci ranging from the stewardship of God’s creation, to the imperatives of justice and integrity, to an aesthetic justification for preserving the beautiful. What unites these arguments is a dependence upon a deceptively nubby syllogism: As ethical beings, we are inclined to act in a responsible way when faced with a moral choice. The health of our planet is a moral choice. Therefore, we should – and will – choose to treat it in a conscientious way. Or, as the Dalai Lama contends in his contribution to the collection, we are bound by a sense of universal responsibility, and, given the tools and the freedom, we will make choices based on compassion and collective well-being, rather than personal gain.

For many if not most of the contributors to Moral Ground, this responsibility is best exemplified in our obligation to future generations. With this commitment comes a belief in our moral imagination and the sway of ecological inheritance. And why not? We love to believe that we are a culture of infantolatry: that, whatever else, we will choose what is right for our children. Of course, we haven’t managed to do so thus far. But maybe that’s because we haven’t had to.

As we enter the Anthropocene epoch, we are proving ourselves a species capable of environmental brutality Thomas Hobbes couldn’t have imagined: brutality institutionalized, even legislated, by imperialism and corporate capitalism. Along the way, we have surrendered our self-determination and the accountability it requires. These systems, however, are proving themselves increasingly archaic in a new global reality; so too are their mandates. Moral Ground is a reminder that their decadence presents the opportunity to forge a new direction — one based on what Terry Tempest Williams calls in her contribution a “spiritual democracy.” And through this shared ethic — this return to moral agency — perhaps we will finally navigate our way to higher ground.