A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability
Vol. 8, No. 5, May 2012|
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
Sustainable Energy: Ethics and Technologies
Sustainable energy has much to do with social ethics, including the ethics of science and technology. This is a complex and very sensitive subject that might be left to philosophers and moral theologians except that it is too important to be relegated to academic discourse alone. At a time when vested interests are pushing for absurdities such as "ethical oil," a recently published book on ecological ethics, by Patrick Curry, provides a comprehensive introduction to the subject matter. The book starts by quoting from Will and Ariel Durant's The Lessons of History: "Caught in the relaxing interval between one moral code and the next, an unmoored generation surrenders itself to luxury, corruption, and a restless disorder of family and morals." It ends by concluding that "having traveled the path of material and moral liberation to the bitter end, we are now obliged to take the path of inner mastery that liberates the human spirit." In between these two statements, there is a lucid exposition of the ethical systems that might help guide humanity during the impending transition from consumerism to sustainability, and how a fully "ecocentric ethic" is the only one that is really helpful. This issue includes a review of this excellent book and several articles that pertain to the ethics of sustainable development.
Page 1. Book Review of Ecological Ethics: An Introduction, Patrick Curry, Polity Press, 2011, by Luis T. Gutiérrez
Page 2. The Meaning of Sustainability, by Albert Bartlett, University of Colorado
Page 3. Framing Sustainability, by Justin Miller, Ball State University
Page 4. Common Good and the Crisis of Globalization, by
Joel Rosenthal, Carnegie Council for Ethics in Int'l Affairs
Page 5. Labor’s Declining Share and Future Quality of Life, by Neva Goodwin, Tufts University
Page 6. World Energy Consumption Since 1820 in Charts,
by Gail Tverberg, Tverberg Actuarial Services
Page 7. The Masculinity Conspiracy - Part 8: Conclusion, by Joseph Gelfer, Melbourne School of Divinity
Page 8. Unconditional Basic Income as a Postpatriarchal Project, by Ina Praetorius, Switzerland
Page 9. Killing One Bangladeshi Every Four Days, by Farjana Mahbuba, University of Western Sydney
"For most of the last century, economic growth was fuelled by what seemed to be a certain truth: the abundance of natural resources. We mined our way to growth. We burned our way to prosperity. We believed in consumption without consequences. Those days are gone. In the twenty-first century, supplies are running short and the global thermostat is running high. Climate change is also showing us that the old model is more than obsolete. It has rendered it extremely dangerous. Over time, that model is a recipe for national disaster. It is a global suicide pact." UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s remarks to the World Economic Forum session on redefining sustainable development, Davos, Switzerland, 28 January 2011.
Book Review of
Ecological Ethics: An Introduction
by Patrick Curry, Polity Press, 2011
Luis T. Gutiérrez
The creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2, and the understanding of healthy mutuality between humans and non-human nature that is reiterated many times throughout the Bible, has been distorted in recent centuries with a one-sided ethos of human domination. This distortion is the negative side of many positive benefits brought about by the industrial revolution and the availability of cheap (fossil) energy, and nobody is guilty for the negative side effects just as nobody should boast too much about the cumulative (albeit unequally distributed) benefits. But it is now becoming increasingly obvious that the balance between dominating creation and taking good care of it (Cf. Genesis 1:28, 2:15) must be re-established, and sooner rather than later.
Ethics in Human Evolution
In his famous book, The Ethical Animal (1960) Conrad H. Waddington traced the historical development of ethics as a function of human evolution, demonstrating the parallelism between biological and cultural evolution. Perhaps under the influence of the then surfacing new insights of analytical psychology, he identified the pivotal role played by authority figures in the formation of the human ego; a process that starts in early childhood but continues until adulthood. Waddington's book was a quantum jump forward in our understanding of the emergence of ethics as part of human evolution. He concluded that the quality of human relations, and in particular "love of neighbor," is essential for healthy human development. However, not insignificantly, he reaffirmed the need to sustain, and derive maximum benefit from, the conquest of non-human nature by humans.
Shortly afterwards, in her seminal book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson went further and stated that "man's attitude toward nature is today critically important simply because we have now acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature. But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself. We are challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves."
Emergence of Ecological Ethics
Patrick Curry, in Ecological Ethics (2011) for the first time provides a comprehensive introduction to the much needed departure from the ethos of human domination of the human habitat. From the beginning to the end, this book is about the urgent need to embrace an ecocentric ethic, in which humans are embedded within the human habitat, to supersede the anthropocentric ethic whereby humans are viewed as separate from, and superior to, the non-human habitat in which they live. According to Curry, there are three levels of green ethics:
- Light Green (or environmentalism) - A superficially green ethic that remains mostly anthropocentric in that natural resources must be managed and conserved primarily for the benefit of humans.
- Green (or mid-green) - An extension of the light green ethic in which non-human animals must be treated with care while humans retain the right to use them for their sustenance, comfort, and leisure.
- Dark Green (or deep green) - A fully ecocentric ethic that overcomes any hierarchical relationship between humans, other animals, and non-living nature; humans belong in the ecological web together with all the other living and non-living elements.
The dark green ethic is consistent with both James Lovelock's Gaia theory, whereby the entire cosmos is a living organism, and Richard Bauckham's biblically inspired view of the community of creation. We are all in the same boat, and we are nothing without the boat and the water on which the boat floats. But in this oikos, in which so many cause and effect relationships are fuzzy, how is it possible to make ethical decisions? What about establishing necessary and sufficient conditions for actions and consequences? To provide guidance for ethical decisions, Curry uses the concepts of probable necessity and probable sufficiency:
- A is probably necessary for B means that B is highly improbable without A
- A is probably sufficient for B means that B is highly probable with A
These are very reasonable and practical rules. For instance, it is not necessary to predict with absolute certitude that continued accumulation of greenhouse gases will eventually induce global warming and climate change. No such prediction is scientifically possible, and no such certitude is required before the
precautionary principle applies. Based on the evidence already available, it is reasonable to anticipate that climate change is highly probable during the Anthropocene, if it hasn't started already. The concepts of probable necessity and probable sufficiency pave the way for ethical and ecocentric decision-making, here and now.
Chapter on Ecofeminism
Another unique feature of Ecological Ethics is the inclusion of a short but decisive chapter on ecofeminism. Not that ecofeminism is a new idea, but Curry's exposition of the connection between ecofeminism and ecological ethics is transparently lucid. In the following quotations, words are shown in bold and/or italics as in the original, pages 127-128:
"Insofar as patriarchy identifies women with nature and dominates both, they are internally linked, so the struggle to resist or overturn either must address both."
"Ecofeminism is a meeting of two strands. One is feminism itself: the awareness of the pathological effects of dominant patriarchal or (to use a more recent term) masculinist structures, both 'inner' and 'outer' -- particularly, of course, on women but also, ultimately, on their oppressors -- and the attempt to replace them with ones that also value the feminine."
"The other element is a recognition of, and deep concern about, the equally masculinist domination and exploitation of nature through the very same habitual structures of though, feeling and action that devalue and harm women."
The chapter goes on to analyze the master mentality, both dualist and hierarchical: "humanity versus nature; male versus female; and reason versus emotion... the domination and exploitation of nature and women proceed by the same logic, the same processes and, by and large, the same people... only ecofeminism brings a critical awareness of the extent and ways in which the subordination of women and ecological destruction are integrally linked."
The chapter unfolds with a review of work by ecofeminist leaders such as Vandana Shiva (India) and Wangari Maathai (Kenya), and proceeds to deconstruct the androcentric (male-centered) mentality while, at the same time, making it crystal clear that ecofeminism is definitely not a matter of demonizing men. In fact, men are victims of patriarchal practices as much as women; in one way or another, domination that goes around comes around. Only an ethics of care, as in a mother holding her child, can break the vicious circle of patriarchal command and control whereby humans abuse the human habitat at their own peril. Indeed, as Lynn White proposed years ago, St. Francis of Assisi should be recognized as the patron saint of ecologists.
Consistent with the book's approach to squarely face controversial issues, and consider them fairly from all possible angles, there is also a very instructive chapter on the overpopulation problem. It starts with a review of the Ehrlich-Willey equation,
I = PLOT
P = Population
L = Lifestyle (or Consumption)
O = Organization (or Ideology)
T = Technology
which is used several times throughout the book to put difficult ethical issues in context and show the absurdity of one-dimensional solutions. The overpopulation issue, like all issues pertaining to social justice and ecological sustainability, must be analyzed in context with tightly coupled issues of lifestyle (consumption per capita is much greater in "developed" countries), organization (institutional-cultural laws and practices that may mitigate or exacerbate demographic trends), and technology (the means available to improve labor productivity and/or resource usage efficiency). For instance, it would be reasonable to think that, ceteris paribus, the overpopulation issue is magnified in patriarchal cultures that foster the subjugation of women and/or limit their education and employment opportunities, thereby inflating the value of the O factor. However, it does not follow that women's empowerment is a one-dimensional solution to multi-dimensional sustainability issues; the potential impact of any proposed solution must be analyzed and evaluated in terms of at least these four dimensions: P, L, O, and T.
Economic Growth and Energy Technologies
The L factor (or affluence, denoted by Erhlich as A in the original I = PAT equation) is of course a central issue. Affluence is highly correlated with superfluous consumption of goods and services, which is the real problem, so lifestyle (L) as proposed by Willey is the most meaningful terminology. As Curry forcefully states (page 265):
"Statistics cannot do justice to the ethical obscenity of (say) an old-growth forest -- literally irreplaceable, biotically rich beyond our comprehension, and home to countless nonhuman lives -- devastated and converted into more plywood shuttering, mail-order sales catalogues and toilet-paper, not to mention cattle-feed in order to supply hamburgers."
It is noted that this statement includes all four PLOT dimensions, and more. Intrinsic to all human activity is the use of energy. The availability of relatively cheap energy from fossil fuels has made possible the amazing growth in industrial output experienced during the 20th century, especially after World War II. With existing technologies, this growth has been accompanied by the release of huge amounts of pollutants that may already be inducing climate changes with adverse effects on the most vulnerable populations, both human and nonhuman. Existing energy technologies, and foreseeable scientific and engineering advances, are most probably insufficient to support the increasingly voracious human appetite for energy -- especially as the quantity and quality of fossil fuel reserves dwindle and ecological impacts increase. The ethical implications of this predicament have been analyzed in connection with book reviews of Energy and the Wealth of Nations and Plato's Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology. Curry's entire book on Ecological Ethics is a lucid exposition of these issues, which cannot be avoided no matter how powerful the vested interests involved and how "politically incorrect" they might be made to be.
Ethics in the Web of Life
In summary, a fully ecocentric ecological ethic is one in which human domination of nature is superseded, not by self-serving or merely condescending care, but by a sense of partnership between humanity and the human habitat, as summarized in the book's postscript:
"The only truly sustainable human culture is one based on ecological sustainability. That in turn requires ecocentrism, for a way of life that recognizes only human needs and values will never be sustainable. Only a nonhuman nature whose flourishing in its own way is permitted, indeed encouraged, will suffice. It won't flourish if it is only allowed to do so within the narrow range of ways that suit us alone. So that in turn requires us to respect and love nature, and recognize its intrinsic value as a whole. However paradoxical it may seem, the conclusion is clear: any philosophy concerned only with humans fails both humanity and the rest of life."
The Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development
It would be naive to think that a fully ecocentric ecological ethic will prevail in the forthcoming Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio de Janeiro, 20-22 June 2012). Twenty years after the historic 1992 Earth Summit, it may seem that we are going backwards. But human history confirms that progress is always a "two steps forward, one step backward" process, and
a fatalistic pessimism is not an effective antidote for naive optimism. There is increasing awareness that human solidarity must go hand in hand with ecological sustainability in order to navigate the transition to a post-industrial society. Hopefully, when the time comes for "Rio+40" we shall be in the "two-steps forward" phase. Curry's book is a significant contribution to this effect, and it is wholeheartedly recommended for those who are interested in building a better world.
The Ethical Animal, Conrad H. Waddington, Allen and Unwin, London, 1960. Reviewed by Sherwin Bailey, The Eugenics Review, April 1961.
Silent Spring, Rachel Carson, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1962.
The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis, Lynn White, Jr., Nature, 10 March 1967.
The Limits to Growth, by Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, and Jorgen Randers, Potomac Associates, 1972; Island Press, 1993; Chelsea Green, 2004.
The Invisible Partners: How the Male and Female in each of Us Affects our Relationships, John Sanford, Paulist Press, 1980.
Peace with God the Creator, Peace with all of Creation, John Paul II, Message for the World Day of Peace, 1 January 1990.
The Global Citizen, Donella Meadows, Island Press, 1991.
The Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan, John Paul II, Pauline Books, 1997.
Some Hopes and Thoughts for the Future, a monograph by David Willey, Optimum Population Trust, September 2000, page 11 (not available online).
Geology of Mankind, Paul J. Crutzen, Nature, January 2002.
Benchmark Assessment of Sustainable Engineering Education, Center for Sustainable Engineering and EPA, 2008.
The Vanishing Face of Gaia, James Lovelock, Perseus Books, 2009.
Earth System Science for Global Sustainability: Grand Challenges, W. V. Reid et al, Science, Vol. 330, 12 November 2010.
The Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the Community of Creation, Richard Bauckham, Baylor University Press, 2010.
The Ecological Wealth of Nations, Global Footprint Network, 21 December 2010.
Energy and the Wealth of Nations, Charles A. S. Hall and Kent A. Klitgaard, Springer, 2011.
Plato's Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology, William Ophuls, The MIT Press, 2011.
Ecofeminism and Rhetoric: Critical Perspectives on Sex, Technology, and Discourse, Douglas A. Vakoch (Editor), Berghahn Books, 2011.
The Biblical Vision of Ecojustice, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Feminism and Religion, 19 August 2011.
Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A Future Worth Choosing, High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability, United Nations, January 2012.
Sustainability: A Comprehensive Foundation, Tom Theis and Jonathan Tomkin (Editors), University of Illinois and CNX, 21 January 2012.
The Meaning of Sustainability, Albert Bartlett, Teachers Clearinghouse for Science and Society Education Newsletter, Volume 31, No. 1, Winter 2012.
A Life of Abundance: Energy and Ethics, Eco-Justice Programs, National Council of Churches USA, March 2012.
Reimagining a Global Ethic, Michael Ignatieff, Ethics & International Affairs, 1 April 2012.
The following are relevant as a postscript on the subject of ecological ethics:
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