Does America deserve to survive and thrive on into the future? We are facing a veritable climate catastrophe, yet our sense of alarm is about “3” on a scale of 1-10. Does that mean we deserve (morally) to suffer whatever fate the gods have in store for us, if you will? I am talking here about responsibility, wisdom, and proactivity. Bottom line: there really is no excuse; we are out of time; it’s a climate catastrophe that should trump Trump, cultural disputes, and the status quo.
Christians believe that “God helps those who help themselves.” Yet, America—by and large, in the minds and hearts of most people most of the time—is utterly failing at helping itself. We are failing at helping ourselves is a better way to phrase America’s failure of insight, will, and responsibility.
What can one say about a people who know very well (or should know if they are playing with a full deck and paying full attention) that we are ruining the planet (for human habitability, that is)? We can’t say we are not aware, and it is patently obvious that it is in our best interests to try to stop our slide into climate catastrophe.
The United States’ overall ability to stave off further climate-related disaster (if it’s not too late, that is!) reminds me of an old friend of mine who would repeatedly take steps to ruin his own life with alcoholism. Now, I do get that it is a disease with some very powerful psychological and physiological aspects, but it’s like, “COME ON you were caught naked in the lobby of a Red Roof Inn?? (true story, and yes I was the one paying for my friend to have a room to stay in that night. Because he was homeless. You get the picture….).
Whether we deserve to survive (or thrive, perhaps, since survival could be a Mad Max-like dystopia, an anarchy marked by “survival of the fittest”) is an interesting question, because it gets at moral desert. Pronounced like “dessert,” it is the concept that gets at whether morally we deserve something or not. Think of it as “deservingness of good or bad outcomes, based on merit, justice, character, and behavior.” It is a truly interesting moral-philosophical concept that comes into play with global warming, pollution, species extinction, and so on.
Usually moral desert is thought of an an issue affecting one individual; however, it seems appropriate to ask if America as a conglomeration of over 300,000,000 persons deserves to survive climate change (or global warming, or probably more apt—climate catastrophe). This may sound harsh, but have you ever watched a show about murder, or serial killers, or the like? The “bad guy” is so awful and horrible and repugnant that you are left with the feeling that, morally-speaking, he deserves to be punished (and at times I have certainly felt that he deserves to die for his crime/s). You tend to feel: “This person has committed such horrible sins of commission (as compared to sins of omission, which in the case of climate change are certainly relevant), that they deserve to suffer. Their victim suffered horribly and then he killed them and left them to rot.” Or these foul villains who kill for money, or to be able to be with another woman…. Sorry if that is uncouth but hey that’s how murderers operate a certain percentage of the time.
We know that the future is now. We see the suffering on television: whole communities ruined by weather events that, when considered from 30,000′, look awfully ominous. How could this many (and this level of ferocity of) floods, droughts, fires, hurricanes, etc. really be thought of as unrelated to climate? Look to The Guardian for some pretty compelling information about what drought (and the resultant fires) are doing to the Southwest. And note, I do realize that “forest management” is a thing, and that is part of California’s (and other states’) problem, but drought is 90% of it. I personally feel frightened seeing the pictures of Lake Mead, or hearing about the plight of the Colorado River (from which much of California’s huge agricultural industry a much of the burgeoning population of AZ obtains water). California is a desert, I get that, but it wasn’t like this when I was growing up there in the 70’s and 80’s and 90’s. California has a tremendous problem with fire now, and it costs us all (financially speaking).
One would think that with the flood myth (Noah and his Ark) in the minds of 85% of Americans, we would have an inkling that horrendous weather events means God is trying to tell us something. Obviously, I would think of this in terms of a metaphor, but I’m fine with Christians interpreting it literally (who as of this writing are “going to the mattresses” about abortion—an issue that I would say is 75% religious in nature to those folks). In sum, if Christians were half as concerned about conserving the environment (that God allegedly gave them!) as they are about preserving the lives of fetuses that are being carried by women who desperately don’t want to be parents, we would be in a much different place! It shows the foolishness and unwisdom of many modern American evangelical Christians, but that’s kind of a tangent…
If “climate change” is too hard for you to handle, and if climate catastrophe is just a bridge too far, mentally, then focus on other, less loaded ideas (and stop watching Fox News!). Bees and sea turtles and polar bears and other creatures, vast forests and the big, beautiful oceans that GOD PUT ON EARTH (some say) are facing serious, unprecedented threats. If humankind was a teenager, we would have taken the family’s car one night without permission, got liquored up, picked up a hooker, and run the car into a brick wall while texting and swigging a bottle. That’s what we have figuratively done to the planet in our short time as a group of ever-evolving modern civilizations. Maybe even in the last two hundred years have we wrought this level of planetary devastation. Calling it a climate catastrophe is not hyperbole!
That is the practical level: CO2, vehicles, air travel, a vast network of huge ships bringing crap from one country to the next, an addiction to beef, etc.
Practically (non-morally) speaking, if you ruin stuff, you have to face the consequences. And with planet earth, there are no “do-overs.” We get one chance to not ruin this planet due to greed, foolishness, and myopia. If we put a certain amount of CO2 into the atmosphere, it’s climate catastrophe. It’s just that simple (and that inarguable) (link).
Let me put the practical aspects of climate catastrophe in language so plain it’s glaring (me speaking to any “climate change deniers” who for some reason are reading about practical philosophy). If you ceaselessly and immoderately push permissive, foolish, lax standards when it comes to gun control—if mass murders and street killings and such continue to tick up, for example—then you will figuratively be shooting yourself in the foot—owing to the fact that more Americans are moderate or stringent about gun rights than you are. There is no reason on God’s green earth to take weapons to protests, or shoot fleeing suspects in the back, or disproportionately target cops or black people for murder. A weak, optimistic interpretation of one sentence in the Bill of Rights does not equal a Wild West culture on steroids. Full stop.
Bottom line: if the murders and suicides persist, you can expect gun rights to be drastically curtailed. Firearms are there for personal protection (arguably) and sport. That is as far as one can take the argument. It’s not too different from that teen I made up who acted like a holy terror: consequences—be they natural or societal—are obviously going to come down the pike. Actions lead to consequences, basically. So far the NRA has done an end run around more reasonable politicians, and the public has been mostly complacent about public violence since Columbine (what, 20 years ago!?). The phrase “the right to bear arms as part of a well-regulated militia” doesn’t mean: “It’s cool to invent awesome weapons and let them into the hands of miscreants and irresponsible individuals and let the chips fall where they may.” In case I’m not being clear, GOD DOESN’T APPROVE OF MURDER OR SUICIDE, it is said.
So, there are practical issues (such as the “Pottery Barn Rule”: you break it, you buy it). I’m talking here about how many pounds of CO2 there are in the atmosphere, and now that we know that the situation is called by 99% of climatologists to be “dire” and “extremely worrisome” what we do or do not do about it.
My main point is: beyond practical aspects of CO2 and rising seas and droughts, another aspect of humankind’s stewardship of the planet is on the level of a moral question.
In other words, do we deserve to perish if we are callous about the natural environment, other animals, and so on? Are we going to be in for a kind of cosmic justice if you will for our use of powdered rhino horns for superstitious sexual reasons? Shark fin soup? Ivory from the faces of elephants? What about keeping bears captive for their bile? What about puppy mills supplying questionable scientific experiments on Beagles (link)? DDT? Glyphosate? Continued extraction of oil? Fracking?
Not to appear to be singling out superstitious, overcrowded, and benighted Asian cultures, I will admit that America boasts a long litany of stupid, unwise, ill-advised, obviously foolish, and downright dumb ideas and actions. We certainly consume a lot and pollute a lot and we don’t expect China or India to be able to have a massive, thriving society of consumers as well! That is called moral hypocrisy. In fact, I’ve got three words for anyone who thinks America is the so-called greatest country on earth: The Tuskegee Study.
Think of ancient Rome. It suffered from numerous problems, ranging from those Edward Gibbon promulgated in 1776 to more modern takes on the issues (link). I am trying to fit Rome into my thesis by pointing out the grave problems eventually facing Rome were human-caused (i.e., not mere chance). I’m excluding divine causes of its decline and fall, of course.
So, overambitious imperial expansion, endemic corruption at all levels, monetary issues (vis-à-vis the coinage of the empire), the decay of Romanitas (the quintessential character of the early Romans), overreliance on slave labor, military blunders, or the breakup of the empire into two empires (late in the 3rd century, by Emperor Diocletian). I count plagues as being largely out of Romans’ control, and I suppose lead ingestion (goblets and such made of lead) would of course be nearly impossible to envision as significant threats. Clearly, 99% of the responsibility lies with the emperors and other elites, since access to information, and democracy, were nearly nil for the vast majority of citizens and others. The average Roman had far less information and quite a bit less true freedom than Americans do.
In the case of America, conversely, almost every American has a cellular phone, access to the Internet, K-12 education of at least minimal quality, newspapers, global travel, etc. We have better nutrition, health care, and so on. I do think that there is a legitimate and unfortunate similarity between Rome and the U.S. when it comes to the power of the elites, but the fact remains that the American populace has ample opportunity to learn what “climate change” means for themselves and their grandchildren if they are so inclined. So, I think it is fairest to compare the 1/10th of 1% of Romans (the elites) with 90% of Americans (the vast majority) when it comes to moral desert for the collapse of [Rome, or the entire planet, respectively]. I’m talking about responsibility, here.
In sum, Roman leaders were responsible for what happened to Rome starting with Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon, and though American elites are hugely influential, the nature of the democratic republic is such that the American hold the freedom and the responsibility for pushing for significant climate change legislation, and agreeing to adopt necessary lifestyle alterations. In either Rome or the U.S., those with access to information and power should have seen the pain coming down the pike and avoided the decisions that lead (or will lead) to disaster. That can be translated as: Rome was mighty and then Rome fell; America was once a great power and is struggling to survive and thrive; environmental sustainability and climatic stability jointly account for one of the major pillars holding the American civilization up, and we ought not to be deluded about being “exceptional” or “God-sanctioned” as the Romans were because it didn’t save them from barbarian hordes. Our barbarian horde looks a lot like fires that destroy whole towns, or forty named storms hitting the U.S. mainland in a single year.
I wrote earlier in this blog “We can’t say we are not aware, and it is patently obvious that it is in our best interests to try to stop our slide into climate catastrophe.” That needs a little qualification.
One, if an individual doesn’t know that Americans are leading the charge when it comes to destroying our only possible home, then they are guilty of 1) not paying attention, 2) being purposefully ignorant (the topic of a recent blog), or 3) burying their head in the sand. I know, I know—nowadays Fox News, myriad social media outlets, and friends and family can make it possible for one to live in a virtual bubble of their own choosing. “Alternative facts” is really a thing now! But to me this is “courting ignorance,” and as with the law, I’m not sure one can use ignorance as an excuse. No American can be so utterly uninformed that they do not know that scientists predict we will encounter a climate catastrophe in our lifetimes (or perhaps by the year 2100 at the latest). However, climate change is now moving faster than anyone was able to reasonably predict (link).
Does one have an “out” morally-speaking if they court ignorance because it just doesn’t feel good, or doesn’t comport with their preferred notions and preconceptions about the world? Is not someone who never exercises and eats a red-meat-centered diet and has stress just obviously going to have a heart attack at age 50 or 60 or so? If that were your dad, would you really tolerate excuses about how he “didn’t know red meat was bad for me!”? Folks, An Inconvenient Truth made it very clear over 15 years ago what was on the horizon (link). Thing have progressed at an even more alarming rate since then!
I’m not sure how one can see example after example of weather events from hell and not put 2 and 2 together; a hell of a lot of red-staters are seeing tornadoes, floods, and fires that are awesome in scope and power and frequency.
Then there are those who think that other, more personal/proximal/pedestrian/”temporally nearer” concerns or threats are of greater importance than climate catastrophe. For example, some people get extremely upset when their team does poorly in sports events. Some are all hung up on getting dates so they can increase their numbers of sexual encounters. Some are worried about money and loan repayments and inflation and “keeping up with the Joneses.” Others feel that abortion or guns or prayer in public school are issues of relatively greater importance than a far-off, seemingly hypothetical threat.
These folks are missing the forest for the trees. And I get it; that’s how the human brain works—if we don’t put forth effort to counteract the tendency. We see rewards and threats that are closer, likelier, more salient, more solvable, nearer, and sooner as being much more significant than those that are farther, more variable, more avoidable, more complex, etc. I could see, as a parallel example, if someone were told, “In fourteen-and-a-half years, there is a 90% probability that artificial intelligence (AI) will get out of control and take over the world, either making slaves of humans or perpetrating genocide—not unlike Terminator 2 or The Matrix.” A fairly understandable response would be, “Fuck, man, are you kidding me, another impending disaster? How are we supposed to rally and counter that threat? I don’t understand it, it’s far away, and it seems so unlike anything in my past experience; I’ve got a mortgage I’m a month behind on, and Trumpism is here NOW.” It’s like the human mind is not equipped to encounter problems of such magnitude—apocalyptic in scale, somewhat unpredictable, and extremely costly to cope with.
But allow me to use a metaphor—and I hope it doesn’t strike the reader as uncouth. Imagine that an oracle says” “You and your family will be murdered at some point in the future. I have seen it, and it will come to pass. There is no escaping this fact. I can’t say when, only that it will happen.” That is only a slightly exaggerated way to view climate catastrophe. We are not, after all, talking about slightly warmer ocean temps—we’re talking about 12 inches of rain in 12 hours. We’re talking about the biggest fires ever. We’re talking about Florida sink holes due to overpopulation at the same time that rising seas are threatening much of Florida. This is not inconvenience (as in, an inconvenient truth); this is life and death. It’s just a fact that awesome weather events are occurring with more frequency now, and costing a tremendous amount of money each time they occur. You’ve seen the videos!
Something akin to murder is exactly what is in store for us, without any reasonable doubt. I say without reasonable doubt with confidence. Here’s why: many, many have died already from climate-related, freakishly dangerous weather events. That is a fact. They are predicted by the vast majority of climatologists to continue and even to get worse (link). Methane is not our friend!
A history buff would look back on Rome in 100 A.D., 200 A.D. or 300 A.D. and almost want to yell into their copy of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “HEY PEOPLE! THE WRITING IS ON THE WALL! GET YOUR SHIT STRAIGHT BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE!” Modern humans do have the advantage of hindsight as they look at what went wrong with Rome. One might counter that only the emperors of Rome had the opportunity to get what was happening—and make needed changes before it was too late. They might also conjecture that Rome was a metaphoric supertanker that couldn’t easily or quickly alter its course even if it could reasonably see the evidence of impending disaster. That might be true, but does that mean that information about the modern world’s climate catastrophe is not available to all who wish to open their eyes to the facts? We all have NOVA on our PBS stations; we all have the Internet; most of us were around 15 years ago when Al Gore was showing us the facts and imploring us to act conservatively (I use that term purposefully). No, for every one person who is truly uninformed because they are a hermit, there are 999 who know in their heart of hearts that we as a species have an appointment with the Grim Reaper.
Astonishingly, many evangelical Christians don’t really fear climate catastrophe, they welcome it in a strange way! I’m not even kidding (link). Evangelicals call the tune for the GOP, and the GOP has been exceedingly obstructionist in the last forty years, and even as I write there is talk of what will happen if Republicans take back the House of Representatives—impeaching Biden, further starving the EPA, even letting the United States default on its debt for the first time ever (thus wrecking the economy).
It’s also not irrelevant that many of the bad actors out there—terrorist organizations, Putin, China, Iran, North Korea, etc. don’t give a shit about impending doom by Mother Nature because they feel as though they have bigger fish to fry. That is part of the reason America needs to lead. We simply cannot survive if India and China bring one billion individuals into the middle class (with the resultant big houses, meat-based meals, and vacations and all that). It makes us Americans look like terrible hypocrites, but facts are facts….
So I think it comes down to our not caring enough. Simply not caring enough buys no one any clemency; no quarter will be granted for knowing what is coming down the pike and not doing enough to avoid disaster.
Thus, I say that humans (Americans first and foremost, for a number of reasons) are being alarmingly unwise, and failing to rise to the occasion (by and large). We Americans (especially the 25-and-older crowd) would make John Adams, every World War II soldier, and all of our great grandmothers very, very disappointed if they could know about our lack of adequate responsibility-taking for the mess we made. Appalled, actually (link).
So, when it comes to moral desert, I believe the conclusion has to be: Americans are skating on thin ice and whistling past the graveyard (to mix metaphors). We can’t escape moral responsibility for our actions in the present (actions that greatly impact our present, but more so, our future). Are the generations that lived from 1945 to 2045 going to be largely responsible for ruining the only habitable planet we know of? What would our forebears think??
If we choose not to act now to really take climate catastrophe seriously—to overrule/counteract/motivate/lead the lazy fools, the recalcitrant right-wingers, the hedonists, and the hopelessly ignorant—then I say we deserve what happens to us. Mother Nature has a way of giving rough justice to species who don’t adapt and face threats successfully—that is why 99% of species who once lived have died out! (link). Did the dinosaurs bear moral responsibility for their extinction? Of course not. Humans are the only animals that inarguably know what is going on and what the future might be like—thanks to our amazing brains. I don’t even know if dolphins and elephants envision the future—and they certainly don’t drive cars or live in 5,000’sq. houses. Our amazing brains are not rising to the occasion of dealing with climate change.
To use the biblical metaphor, we are responsible for reaping what we have sown. I would urge evangelical Christians not to imagine that they are only months or years away from meeting their maker in joyous union—eternal bliss as it were. No, instead envision what you will say to your maker when He asks what you did to preserve, love, and conserve what He blessed you with. Rumor has it that God was pissed Adam and Eve thought for themselves; imagine His wrath if He deems humans to be responsible for making bad decisions that led to the extinction of tens of thousands of species of animals He created? Talk about moral desert……! Ω
Bonus #1: A link to song lyrics Neil Peart wrote in the late 1990’s about climate change, it’s fantastic. Called “Red Tide.” The drummer/lyricist from Rush was a genius, and is sorely missed by me (and 150,000 others, too).
Bonus II: From David Gelles of the NY Times, a very inspiring story about a man who, based on what I read, deserves moral praise! His lifelong attempts to eschew greed and to avoid climate catastrophe are very inspirational. The quote:
A half century after founding the outdoor apparel maker Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, the eccentric rock climber who became a reluctant billionaire with his unconventional spin on capitalism, has given the company away.
Rather than selling the company or taking it public, Mr. Chouinard, his wife and two adult children have transferred their ownership of Patagonia, valued at about $3 billion, to a specially designed trust and a nonprofit organization. They were created to preserve the company’s independence and ensure that all of its profits—some $100 million a year—are used to combat climate change and protect undeveloped land around the globe.