Notes on Dale Jamieson's Reason in a Dark Time
This commentary was written as part of a graduate seminar on Environment Philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center's Philosophy department in September 2019.
The Frontiers of Ethics chapter in Jamieson’s Reason in a Dark Time deals with the challenges of establishing an ethics of climate change in response to new information and pre-established models of morality. The problems of climate change, Jamieson says, “swamp the machinery of morality”. The two starting points are 1) rich people appropriate a damagingly disproportionate share of the public good. and 2) “commonsense morality”, a normative description of what is widely and publicly held as decent behaviour.
Much of the discussion in Jamieson’s writing handles the ethical material of climate change in a procedural manner using the analogy of Jack’s intention to steal Jill’s bicycle. The description of an act being morally suspect when it causes identifiable harm to another is simple enough to establish; Jamieson complicates this narrative with adjustments: breaking the bicycle into pieces and having a series of strangers take each piece, stealing parts from a large number of bicycles that includes Jill’s, breaking the act down into a supply chain that includes a second hand bike shop and distributing the theft across a much larger timespan, as well as finally, a combination of all of the above.
A key element of all of the above is that of mens rea, the guilty mind. Jamieson suggests that in the examples in which Jack and Jill are at opposite ends of an intercontinental supply chain and several generations apart, the perpetrator is not guilty and indeed this appears to be fair– the resulting shortage of bikes down the line is a result of Jack and others “getting on with their lives”. Although Jamieson does add that this is a simplistic set of examples, I think it is in any case worth briefly pointing out that such examples don’t directly serve the morality of some climate change matters in sufficient detail. There are some climate change narratives that are not served by these examples and a good one might be the subsequent results of climate mitigation efforts. We know that the industrial revolution practically wiped out flora and fauna in some major urban waterways, yet today New York City harbour is cleaner than it has been for the last 110 years. This narrative might yield the following alternative example: Jack steals Jill’s bike, but Jill’s bike was already in an unusable and terrible condition, prompting her to buy a new bike with much better security features. Since Jamieson’s examples don’t qualify the condition of the appropriated goods, I’m offering this as a remedy to the totalizing thinking that analogies sometimes impose. It might seem an unfair gloss on Jamieson’s introductory premise, but it does help identify the limits of this kind of thinking when establishing an ethics for climate change. I think political scientist Arash Abizadeh put it best in a discussion on state coercion when he says: “the trouble with Peter-and-Jane examples like this is that they tend to abstract away completely from why we care specifically about [the subject]”. In the case above, we might say that Jack’s guilty mind is much reduced given the low stakes of the situation, and this adds further challenges to establishing a morality for climate change based on analogies.
Jamieson does however move on to add that it’s knowledge that can alter concrete situations quite substantially. To be presented with evidence beyond reasonable doubt that flying on a plane emits climate changing greenhouse gas gives credible ground for guilt when observing the appropriation of a disproportionate share of global good. Climate change possesses a unique identity as an existential threat to humanity in that it represents a crisis of public communication. The tragedies of, for example, war and genocide as well as the threat of nuclear weapons are simple enough to communicate to a public audience for the purposes of avoiding involvement with those practices, yet the intensely complex and interrelated nature of climate change only ever seems to allow for a glimpse into one aspect of the problem at a time, always with the caveat of possible revision at any given moment– and of course without advance notice. It’s simple enough, as Jamieson says, to state that he, unlike his grandfather is at fault for his emissions, but that statement itself exposes the difficulties that lie ahead for a context-informed climate change morality. To knowingly engage in activities that emit greenhouse gases lays the groundwork for a morality informed by a form of pay-to-play economics, that is to say a framework in which the mens rea of climate guilt can be balanced by compensation (carbon offsetting), when the truth of the matter is that one arguable reason a person can be ethically “permitted” (under the current technological circumstances) to take a flight is that the emissions from one flight are not quite significant enough to forbid participation, since a majority (80%) of people in the world have never flown before. If knowledge of climate change alters our level of culpability, there is then the question of collective vs. individual responsibility. Is it right to allocate more carbon for the “carbon-virtuous” among us who are ostensibly working on the problem of climate change, knowing that many millions worldwide don’t have the means for such a lifestyle that could cause such a level of emissions? It’s here that Jamieson’s discussion in chapter 6 of the fate of Bangladesh is useful: the country is responsible for 1/20th of the average global emissions but by the end of the century 20% of that country’s landmass could be permanently underwater, creating 18 million environmental refugees. Given this kind of information, it seems more coherent to view the morality of climate change through a lens of Northern global aggression against the global South. Individual climate culpability as a moral paradigm pales in significance to the question of whether any developed country can justify denying a high-carbon lifestyle to citizens of developing countries. Indeed, I would speculate that for many the appeal of “emerging markets” places the morality of providing improved lifespan, education and personal security above the morality that places an injunction on creating a world of citizens each emitting as much as the average American.
Jamieson goes on to discuss the human rights dimension of climate change morality. This is in a sense a fairly simple aspect of morality in that the discussion extends existing rights to life, health, subsistence, etc and adding climate change impacts into the mix. The Woody Guthrie quote (that “some men rob you with a six gun– others with a fountain pen”) builds on the previously mentioned idea that a sense of culpability depends on what you know about the violation rather than the violation itself. Say we interpret a “fountain pen” to represent for example, the corruption of those mortgage-backed securities that helped to precipitate the 2008 financial crisis, it becomes clear in a discussion of climate change that many of the techniques of human rights violations that were practised in the run up to financial, military and political catastrophes are now and have been practised in our domain as well. Climate change’s impact on “life, health and subsistence” are grounds for understanding it as a human rights issue, even if, unlike murder, there is not one easily identifiable perpetrator. I do find Jamiesons’ later remarks on this topic somewhat facetious, supposing that in one theoretical extreme everyone from Barack Obama to a Tibetan herder is a human rights violator. The subtext seems to be that if climate change violates human rights, then establishing individual culpability is impossible and that a false binary between the sovereign leader of a developed nation and a rural subsistence farmer is necessary to illustrate how far this line of thinking can spread culpability. It assumes nothing about the individuals living in the world, which I understand is philosophically useful, but given that this chapter is dedicated to establishing a morality of climate change, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the concept of “rights” per se is largely upheld by political institutions and groups. If anything, I would suggest that Tibetan herders have the right to be human rights violators in this understanding of the term, given that whatever emissions they might be responsible for are necessary for day to day survival and the maintenance of their other rights (ie. the right to life, security of person, etc), unlike the leaders of developed nations who take with varying degrees of seriousness their role as “carbon managers”. A more apt comparison might be to hold Barack Obama and a union or local government representative of Tibetan herders equally responsible.
Nonetheless, I do appreciate that this is an illustrative example, and does add usefully to the discussion of to what extent individual culpability can be established given the deeply overlapping or perhaps imbricated reality of climate change. Jamieson points out (p157) that to live in a developed nation is to be a carbon consumer and emitter no matter the extent of our attempts to divest from the carbon economy. The unforgettable example that comes to mind here is that it takes 1.39 liters of water (as well as 6 ounces of carbon) to make a liter bottle of drinking water. It goes without saying that the average American lifestyle is responsible for far more than the annual limit of 2.7 tons of carbon dioxide per person that would help keep global temperatures rises below (p157) 2 degrees celsius, and Jamieson points out that the infrastructural and economic status of American society doesn’t permit individuals to emit less. The commonsense morality that we started this discussion with is frustrated here given that, in this view, there is no recourse to act on this morality. The right to, say, health or security could satisfy the grounds for an injunction to emit carbon as well as forbid such an emission. That many Americans and citizens of developed countries are aware of this tension is I think what partly gives rise to this new idea of “climate anxiety”. There was justified fear for the future of humanity during the nuclear arms race of the Cold War and the probable outcomes of realization of that fear was well documented in the media. Climate change presents a different and unique affront to morality in that the threat seems more intangible and the specific nature and likelihood of each catastrophic outcome seems more indeterminate that simple thermonuclear obliteration. Therefore it is easy enough to state that climate change violates human rights, but how to stand up for such rights understandably leaves individuals frozen in an anxious indecision as we fight to establish the extent to which constituent power has any agency in decarbonizing the economy.
Jamieson does qualify the above with the distinction between luxury and non-luxury emissions. Naturally the difficulty lies in those cases where it isn’t easy to see what counts as a luxury emission. However much of this discussion that is consumerist by assumption is underpinned by the context of the use fossil fuels being a subsidized industry. My point, briefly, here is to relate (and I wasn’t able to find the source at this time but will attempt to make amends at a later date) that in the beginning of the 20thC, crude oil as a resource for industrializing America wasn’t at that point profitable enough to dig out of the ground. It began as a heavily-subsidized industry until demand for petroleum took off with the availability of motor cars, etc, and I understand that the US oil & gas industry is to some extent still subsidized today. While it is simple enough to criticize the production, transportation and consumption of luxury goods (organic lamb from New Zealand or luxury Italian suits), it’s also crucial to consider fossil fuels themselves as part of a mandated luxury to be enjoyed courtesy of central governments. That idea of a “necessary” expenditure of carbon has always been to a certain degree overshadowed by a historical and arbitrary decision to cheapen extractive industrial activity as the expense of other directions of investment.
The same could be said of those gradations of both time and distance discussed later on by Jamieson. The harms of climate change could be laid at the feet of previous generations ignorance of the matter and perhaps future generations will blame us for “dominating” their lifespan with climate catastrophes, but this is where that imbrication with other aspects of human activity is relevant. The concerns of previous generations are easy enough to document and while I don’t feel the need to exonerate them entirely, a morality of climate change is as, as we’ve discussed, contingent on contextual knowledge, which limits historical perspective, even if it further implicates us in the matter. Jamieson’s point that our decisions “determine the content” (p160) of those of future generations is compelling in that our knowledge will inform current decisions and this will continue to be discussed on an international basis, given the interconnectedness of carbon emission networks– the example of Australia mining the coal, China burning it for manufacturing and America consuming the product. What was a necessary emission in 1930 could be considered a luxury emission today, and the threads of necessity and luxury tied up in international trade relations are sufficiently complex to allow us to say that a luxury emission can only be a discrete category in purely end-consumer circumstances, without taking production and supply chains into consideration.
As theoretical solutions, Jamieson calls for green virtues as part of an “ethic for the Anthropocene” in chapter 6 that fall into three categories: existing, altered and new values, or preservation, rehabilitation and creation. What strikes me here is the restricted audience to which this discussion is obviously aimed. Humility, self-restraint and especially mindfulness are fashionable New Age concepts that have substantial currency in contemporary developed society due in part to the aggravated consumerist habits that drive the wealth-creation. As values on their own they don’t apply specifically to any set practices that reduce carbon emissions and I think that this kind of evangelizing would come across as deeply hypocritical to readers from less wealthy backgrounds in developing nations, not least of all, for example because “mindfulness” is less frequently described as an existential value today than a billion dollar industry.