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The white man's ecological burden

ETHICS AND CLIMATE CHANGE: THE GREENHOUSE EFFECTE Edited by Harold Coward and Thomas Hurka Publisher: The Calgary Institute for the Humanities (CIH) Price: Not stated

By Pratap Pandey
Published: Wednesday 15 February 1995

-- (Credit: Malay Karmakar)"THE west is the best". Rocker Jim Morrison in a song called The End. The song revolves around the phrase, exposing its contradictions with images of incest and "children going insane". Today, Morrison is dead and the song has become a classic, mark of a bygone countercultural moment. But the phrase lives on, bellcurving its superiority, or masking itself as an "ethical analysis of possible responses to the issue of global climate change".

Global warming is an anthropogenic effect, so involves a question of ethics. This makes Ethics and Climate Change... an intersting attempt; an environmental bomb of human making is obviously sought to be made meaningful by being brought into the fold of human values and action.

Strategies of avoidance are ethically superior to those of adaptation as modes of active responses. But ethical choices complicate the matter. You could evolve a climate policy locally (humans here and now), or provide ethical standing to humans everywhere and at all times (the Brundtland Report), or uphold a radical environmental ethic extending rights to animals and non-human ecosystems. As the net is cast wider, a whole host of complex motivations begin to demand a compromise between adaptation and avoidance.

Hurka's ethical framework relies on consequentialism (i.e. an act is good if its consequences are good), a typically liberal mix of cold utility and the milk of western kindness. Equally typical is the need to be all-embracing.

The ethical lens is predicated on the principle of least contentiousness and greatest acceptance. But such a gesture invariably produces reality, an entire world, in its own image; the arrogance of going beyond good evil reveals ethical neutrality to be politically loaded, even if its findings exist in the realm of "ought to".

Ethics implicitly relies on a theory of the individual and society. Thus, when Peter Danielson proposes a "moral institution" called the Atmosphere Trust that would allow individuals to buy/sell avoidance measures to reduce emissions, we realise that Hurka's framework holds good only for the western person who has the money to put Danielson's plan into action, entirely ignoring rural colloectives and tribal mores who exist in the margins of capitalist development and society.

Similarly, Wayne Stewart and Peter Dickey's essay on corporate responsibility towards climate change -- where tehy suggest that corporations should take the lead in promoting action to protect the environment, and define a model of corporate management where people become "stakeholders" in the company with their views being integrated into corporate decisions -- conceives of industrialisation and multionational capitalism to be the sole model of productivity in society. What about countries with multiple modes of production.

As the study proceeeds, its ethical underpinnings begin to look more and more exclusivist. The central contradiction in the tiny history of global deliberations on climate change policies emerges in the context of developing countries' interest being weighed against a now-alarmed North wanting limits to greenhouses gas emissions without compromising on an expansive lifestyle and mode of development. In an essay on the militations of international law and conventions (such as Rio) in dealing with global warming, Nigel Bankes suggests that even a moderate formula of allocating emission costs must consider factors like historical utilisation and population. But such pro-South factors are discounted by Hurka himself as being ethically too disturbing!

Any such policy is bound to make the North poorer, an economically unviable proposition. To make economic sense, you must demonstrate that augmented warming actually reduces global (read: the North) welfare. Anticipated sea-level rise in Malaysia and the Indian coastline does not harm XVI Inc, so why change?

It would be safer to adapt, and leave money to future generations (of the North, again). Both essays use the same model to come to radically opposite conclusions.

In this scenario, the best proposal of "energy efficiency" suggested by Ross and Blair turns to be ethically the most satisfying solution, involving all the the choices and achieving the perfect mean between adaptation and avoidance. Ah! The thinktank can now stop wracking its brains! And how is this to be achieved? By making the developed countries "leapfrog" from underdevelopment to new efficient technologies, bypassing the present generation of polluting technologies.

This is where Hurka's ethics reveals its politics and inbuilt bias, turning an otherwise sincere attempt into another version of the "west is the best" syndrome.

An environmental ethic requires, above all, generosity and the courage to inconvenience yourself for a collective good. This step the CIH team is unwilling to take. But then, isn't ethics a little finger?

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