Starvation of the weakest is the ultimate driver maintaining the balance in ecosystems. With the help of our intelligence, driven by the love for our children, we humans managed to throw off the nature’s yoke. To keep us and our kids safe and our stomachs full, we came up with sharp rocks and sticks; spears; bows and arrows and guns; farming; complex societies.
Our social structures solve short-term problems but may create more lasting ones that in the course of time destroy our societies. Sometimes, the lasting problems are directly linked to local ecosystem meltdowns. The third Ur dynasty in Mesopotamia reacted to decreasing precipitation by constructing irrigation networks. It managed to increase the crop yields until soil contamination collapsed the yields and pretty much the entire society. Our modern lifestyle is threatened by climate change. It threatens our very existence if the changes in world’s oceans turn out to be dramatic.
The dread of environmental disasters sits deep in us. We feel that it is right to protect our environment. Clean water and clean air feel right, polluted water and air wrong. These feelings are elusive but, nevertheless, firm components of our moral DNA. Shouldn’t we then be using moral arguments when promoting actions to mitigate climate change or eutrophication of surface waters?
Yes, probably. But how detailed and results oriented we want to be in our ethical guidance? Is it enough to tell us to have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth? Should we give dietary advice using moral arguments?
Recently, the archbishop of Finland said that environmental scientists are the prophets of today. An interesting idea. The original prophets transmitted warnings from God to turn the sinners away from their evil ways. Scientists read messages from a complex and mystical nature and transmit warnings to fellow humans. Indeed, the theory behind climate change, its empirical verification and future scenarios have been products of scientists and scientist only. No individual can infer anything related to climate from the weather or other every day observations.
So I guess we are prophets – but let us not turn into priests. A priest works at the operational level of Right and Wrong. And the moral codes we adopt change extremely slowly. Consider an anxious, Weltschmertz-burdened, intelligent and startled 14-year old – a representative teen. Suppose we teach her that to save the winters the Right thing to do is to follow diet A. Likewise, we try to program many other choices influencing the environment to the teen’s moral code: the right and wrong eating and not eating, clothes, traveling choices, cosmetics, etc.
So what? Aren’t we doing the right thing? Well, I think the young people adopt the ethical choices much easier than the elder ones. And once they learn to make the right choices, they don’t change easily.
Here’s the problem: We’re not done with modeling and linking the human actions and environmental outcomes. And we will not be, as long as the activities are carried out by science and scientists, because the middle name of science is Not-Done. Science is a method of gathering understanding by simultaneously building upon old knowledge and ruthlessly dismantling it. A scientist is not shocked if it starts to look like diet Z outperforms diet A or that substituting plastic with bio-based materials may increase the carbon footprint. But the teen might be, if she followed the detailed advice, because it was supposed to be the Right thing to do.
On one hand, we have the ecosystem and the channels through which we affect it. On the other, we have ethics teaching us about right and wrong. Do as you would be done by. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. Don’t bully anyone. Help people in need. This kind of eternal rules of right and wrong keep us on track as a human race; taught to you and me by our moms and dads, grandparents, teachers and priests of all religions.
But I think we shouldn’t say that eating pike instead of Norwegian salmon is the Right thing to do. If we fix the choices today, we block the utilization of improved understanding. And by using moral arguments, we will fix the choices. That’s why it is ok to be a prophet but not a priest.
But individuals must be able to do something to prevent the looming disasters! We can’t just wait until the countless groups of introvert researchers come up with coherent advice!
I don’t know what should be done, I really don’t. Sorry for that. But what I did was to invite three professors to debate on the topic. Environmental and resource economist James Shortle from Penn State University, consumer and sustainability scientist Eva Heiskanen, and philosopher of religion Sami Pihlström from the University of Helsinki.
Maybe they can tell us if it is up to individuals’ choices of right and wrong to save the world. Agora Interdisciplinary Debate on Monday, March 19th 2–4pm.