Tuesday, September 04, 2007


Tender Mercies Versus Ecological Justice

“The tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.” Proverbs 12:10
“Your wrongdoing has upset nature's order." Jeremiah 5:25

Tender mercies. Fellow Quaker electronic journalist Marshall Massey brought up this phrase in response to my arguments for nuclear power as the most compassionate energy source in an era when we dare not burn more carbon. Massey got the phrase from reading John Woolman’s journal. In a famous (among us Quakes) passage, Woolman describes killing a mother bird for sport, then, mindful of tender mercies, reluctantly kills her brood, who would perish without her. Going back to the source in Proverbs, Massey shows that “tender mercies” follow in the train of wickedness, a belated effort to set right some wrong. “Wow. He hit the nail on the head,” I thought at first. But then I remembered my own argument on nuclear morality: The overall moral issue is not nuclear power per se, but of how we care for the web of Creation. It is stewardship in an era when our numbers are overwhelming Gaia, multiplied by an extravagant lifestyle (look at the freezer and the clothes dryer, air conditioning and electric heat, the car and multiple-car families). We live in a world deeply, perhaps fatally, compromised by our industrial choices.

Nevertheless, Friend Massey performs an important service by getting me to look at how global thinkers and policy experts omit attention to individual moral acts. Living as we now do, we gloss over so much wickedness, accustomed by an habitual industrial lifestyle to regular mayhem against the ecosystem. Anyone, including myself, who argues for upholding any part of the global industrial machine can only do so in terms of relative harm. Thus we regularize wickedness even as we try to exercise moral sensibility. Massey questions the place of tender mercies in a world where injustice reigns, a global corporate world that ignores the deeper structure of the natural world, which is one of limits, both in terms of quantity and in terms of boundary – especially in the case of transgenic research.

Yet the whole world screams out for mercy! Why pick on the particular cruelties of nuclear power and wastes, when the cruelty is in the industrial system: cruelty to human beings, cruelty to ecosystems and individual members. I shot the parakeet, again and again, and lo, they came back for more as the dead littered the ground wrote a well-munitioned hunter in the North Carolina forest 250 years ago, amazed that they did not fear him. The Carolina parakeet is now long extinct. Today, extinction is the final ruin we inflict not by individual thoughtless acts, but by our whole way of life.

So, Marshall, you have alerted my moral compass to the task, which is to move beyond acts of compassion motivated by shame and remorse. It is not compassion that is the key to righting our wrongs, but justice – ecojustice. Getting right with God in Jeremiah’s terms is more important than tender mercies. Justice trumps compassion, suffering is a necessity, and we muster as much compassion as we can as a consequence. To re-establish a just earth system, we must dismantle what we have wrought. Dismantle a system that commodifies everything, causing us to hasten commerce for short term monetary profit, thus burning more carbon. It’s just a matter of how far we go, and how it comes to pass. Some would say that we need to dismantle settled agriculture itself and return to hunter-gatherer existence (maybe a few million human beings worldwide).

We are not going to do this. We might set up a few adulterated laws to slow down emissions (we and the Europeans and other signatories to Kyoto). But the Chinese are going to keep building their economy until they reach the living standard of Portugal. So they hope. If that is true, if we are to have a Portugal of 1.5 billion people, then our tinkering with carbon caps in the rest of the world will be for nought, and the Climate Beast will go into avalanche.

But there are things we can do. We can grow our food and trade for goods that are locally produced. We can stop buying Chinese goods. We can get rid of our cars and stop riding airplanes. We need to cut our electricity usage by more than half, and where appropriate, shift from reliance on the electrical grid to distributed power. Planners argue against distributed power as “inefficient.” Is this true as well of food production? Is industrial scale efficiency really the answer? We need to stop globalization. But structural changes are the most difficult, and frankly, we don’t have time.

How many can the earth support? Living at what level? The poor African seems to live in a more ecologically just way. Electricity and personal motorized transport are conveniences, but are they a necessity? But even if we all lived a simple lifestyle in tiny houses or efficiency apartment complexes, this itself accepts commandeering the amount of land we’ve stolen from other species, leaving them starving into extinction. It is an argument based on human use-value, not ecojustice.

Given North American bloated lifestyles requiring three and a half to four earths (that’s just the average, which includes the homeless with their assured hot meals and street life near vents of waste heat), living a truly sustainable lifestyle is remote. To be sustainable in a world of 6.5 billion means no coal-fired plants, to be sure, but remember that solar panels, windmills, and hybrid cars all require fossil-fuel inputs to build. Energy and materials intensive manufactured items of any kind are problematic in such a world. And nuclear power on the scale required to replace coal (as well as replacing decommissioned nuclear plants) will cost a fortune that is probably unattainable. But in a world where subsistence is more the norm, durability (Bill McKibben’s word) is within reach. A system that can sustain and renew itself will require belt-tightening on an unprecedented scale. We need a universal one child policy and carbon tax, with a cap on both corporate and individual emissions. Remember, this is war, requiring war’s emergency measures – war against our own rapacious human nature. Short of this, we will have what population biologists call a die-off.

But if we as a species are not going to respond with huge structural changes in the global economy in time to answer the trumpet of ecojustice that clearly rings, what we need to work and pray for is economic collapse. Our retirement portfolios will suffer (a coordinated sell-off of stocks would help bring this on). This will cause the most pain to the poor, just as global warming will. But the order, the natural and the human order is so disordered, so far out of balance, that the suffering has been deferred. The bill of pain has now come due: economic pain, physical pain, the pain of hunger, the pain of dying younger with less offspring to care for us. The balance of nature has to be reset, and the longer we wait to restore that balance (or more accurately, the longer the system takes to right itself), the more pain.

After making this argument, what am I willing to do? How do I live? Will I give up my freezer? Not my car, for I live in the country, nor our dehumidifier, for my wife could not live in this mouldy partially buried house without it, nor our large refrigerator (by global standards). I could give up air travel. I already spend less than the world average on goods and clothes, and yet I have far more clothes and goods than I need due to a nature that is both frugal and possessive. I have virtually given up buying distant produce (California, South and Central America) and have a fairly large garden. I live in a passive solar house, and use wood for the remainder of my space heating (very inefficient in terms of carbon usage, but it’s within the normal cycle of forest growth on my leasehold). We’re putting in photovoltaic panels this fall, but that means cutting thirteen more trees, and even with pv’s we could not run the dehumidifier without reliance on supplemental power from the grid.

Friends, we have only about six years left until the chances will be 50-50 that unstoppable climate change is upon us (at 450 ppm CO2e). James Hansen said in January 2006 that we had “ten years” to make a significant reduction in global CO2 emissions, 10%. Since then, the rate of global emissions has increased, so that we are now at 430ppm CO2e, the figure that includes not only CO2 but other greenhouse gases like methane, NO2 and fluorocarbons. With CO2 alone being produced at 3ppm/year, I read 2013 as the Reckoning Point. If neither personal choice nor continually deferred government action are going to effectively achieve the kinds of needed reductions, then that enticing subset of the biosphere, the global human economy, needs to fail sufficiently to lessen the CO2 outputs that are tied to the production and consumption curves. At that point, we will begin to learn what “community” really means.

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