Blog Archive

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Climate Change and Intergenerational Ethics

by Kate Lovelady, St. Louis Post Dispatch, January 14, 2015

Humanism, despite its name, is concerned not only with humanity. People exist in and only because of a fantastically complex natural system, and therefore humanists believe that an essential part of living ethically is living in a way that is sustainable for future generations as well as for other species.
Traditional western thought, religious and secular, has tended to see the rest of nature as a tool for human happiness and progress, but more and more people of every worldview are coming to understand humanity as co-residents of the Earth, as one part of nature--the only (that we know of) self-conscious part, and therefore having a special opportunity and responsibility.
It is time for us to live up that responsibility. The practical results of climate change and coal pollution include illness and premature death, dangerous weather, both flooding and drought in different places, and sea level rise. Yet debates on how to lessen climate disruption and move to a clean energy economy too often focus on the “cost” to businesses and industries, or on fears that environmental protection measures will “kill” the economy.
The economy is not alive. It is important; it is one of the ways humans organize ourselves to survive and to pursue happiness. But despite legal fiction, businesses are not people, and the economy is a being and cannot be killed. Humans and other creatures can be killed, and they will be by climate disruption, which will destroy cities and some entire low-lying island nations, create environmental refugees, and result in avoidable deaths.
Many who want to do nothing about climate change now, imagine future solutions of far-fetched plans to trap carbon in new ways or reflect sunlight from the upper atmosphere—meaning they are unwilling to face economic challenges, but they are willing to burden future generations with unknown and possibly enormous and long-lasting dangerous effects of major geo-engineering. This is immoral.
The consequences of climate disruption will seriously affect the lives of today’s children, and continue to fall on people far into the future. In American political arguments, budget deficits are routinely called immoral because of the burden they might impose on our children; the burden of climate change and environmental degradation will be much greater.
We need a new morality of intergenerational ethics. Never before have humans been able to make decisions that have such drastic impacts on future generations. We're not used to thinking that long-term. But we must learn to; our ethics must evolve to match our technological capabilities. Future generations are completely at our mercy, since they don't even exist yet. We have to make choices as if they will exist, and we have an ethical obligation to act in their interest, because they are helpless.
Religious communities should be at the forefront of a new movement for intergenerational environmental justice, in several ways:
Religious communities create traditions that help people clarify and act on their values—times that call us to our higher selves. Most holidays are centered on a seasonal change or based on a moon calendar and are therefore already linked directly to the natural world. They are a perfect time to renew our commitment to sustainable and non-polluting practices. Incorporating environmental ethical principles into religious holidays is also a great way to have them become part of our long-term culture.
Religions teach interdependence, a value that opposes the mainstream culture of the radically independent consumer in which the “best” life is supposedly the one in which you never have to share anything with others. Sharing is a moral virtue, including sharing space with others in public transit, or sharing bikes and cars and lawnmowers and hundreds of other things, and sharing is a critical part of the solution to climate disruption and pollution.
Lastly, religious communities can use our power of imagination and idealism not only to prophetically warn people of possible environmental destruction, but also to describe the wonderful future possible with a clean-energy economy: improved health, meaningful work for millions of people, less war and terrorism fueled by oil.
The natural world will not be safe until we have a major shift of values to a longer-term view, and a clearer ideal of the kind of world we want to create for future generations: a world of health, peace, and happiness; truly heaven on earth.
If you’re interested in these issues and how your congregation or religious tradition can help, join Climate Reality on Tuesday January 27, at 7 p.m., at Ladue Chapel for a panel discussion on “Faith, Ethics, Social Justice and Climate Change.”

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