Wednesday, February 18, 2015


The Greatest Moral Challenge Ever

Two weeks ago I saw a fine documentary, “Expedition to the End of the World,”  about a three-masted schooner venturing into the newly open seas off Greenland. Rapidly melting glaciers had afforded the opportunity for a group of scientists and artists to explore territory that had not been experienced by humans for thousands of years. Some of it was probably being seen by human eyes for the first time. An onboard art photographer made sure the images were spectacular, and the sharp eye and ear of the filmmaker captured some great conversation among the mostly-Danish crew.

In the process of eavesdropping on daily life aboard the ship, the filmmaker (Daniel Dencik) captured many discussions of climate change. Most of these folks were scientifically trained, and there was a lot of matter-of-fact acceptance of our current global climate situation. Some seemed simply to accept the gift of glacial melt as another scientific opportunity. Taking the long view, some of them remained ethically neutral, whereas the philosopher on board worked the whole time to figure out the meaning of his life, given the especially fraught times we live in. The character simply called the Artist provided immense comic relief with his off-the-wall statements and antics. There was no attempt to show the research team or the species to which they belong as noble. For the most part, these were just naked apes who were having a lot of fun, with some thoughtful observations along the way,

Of all the remarks on the responsibility of humans to the planet, the archeologist's was most telling. He said that carrying a moral sense of our action at all times was just too tiresome; sometimes you really needed just to live. Having written in my early twenties that all of a life is a moral problem, if we would only see it, yours truly felt a sympathetic sigh of relief. Though I had deeply sensed this early on, I certainly had not lived my life by its standard. “Of course, he's right. We're only human,” I thought.

I have chosen to keep my retirement from academe honest by focusing as much as I allow myself upon the very crux of human life as a moral problem, the crescendo of global ecological disruption, hugely accelerated by anthropogenic climate change. Simply look at the masthead above this post, and the “about” sidebar. But, like the archaeologist, I have not been able to consistently stay with that focus. When I criticize my son for his materialism, he always points out my car use. I live 50 miles away from him, and visit frequently (he seldom reciprocates, although he looks for opportunities to ride here on his bike, along the magnificent Blue Ridge Parkway). For me it gets a lot worse than driving the car, as my readers can see just by reading last month's post in answer to the pointed query, Do all aspects of your life bear the same witness?

The very next day after viewing the documentary, I watched an online interview by Michael Dowd of the most thoroughgoing climate ethicist I have ever witnessed, Kathleen Dean Moore. I shivered as she said , This is the greatest moral problem we have ever faced, and we must act upon this knowledge, which is deep within us all, every day (sic). Isn't' it great how life throws you a paradoxical curve, right when you need it? Since the interview, I have visited both of her blogs, and absolutely quaked at what is written and spoken there. The key resource is the book she co-edited, Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril. The three pieces that I particularly recommend are “A Call to Writers”, the Blue River Declaration (assembly of ethicist-naturalists) and the ferociously gripping speech on “The Ethics of Adaptation to Climate Change." If you aren't moved by these statements, and what they ask of you, then you'd better find another planet.

I once had an exchange with the clerk of QEW where I challenged her statement that she loved the whole earth, pointing out that you could only really effectively love that part of the earth you were in relationship with. The traveler in me had been chastened by Wendell Berry, who wrote that if one needed to get away, then travel within one's own bioregion, continually getting to know its inhabitants. You won't save what you don't love, and you can't love what you don't know in intimate detail.

Kathleen Moore speaks of loving the earth the way a mother bear loves her cubs – with everything you have. “What do you love too much to lose?” she says, her piercing blue eyes looking directly into the camera. A few minutes later, “It's time to start tearing the pages out of our field guides.” She isn't speaking of loving a romanticized earth, but specific creatures and flora she's starting to lose. For the greatest moralist-naturalists of our time – Thomas Berry comes to mind – it is indeed the earth that they love too much to lose. It is I who does not pay enough attention, care enough, love enough. So I owe my friend Hollister an apology, wherever she is.

But encounters with fiery, steady folk like Kathleen Moore are priming me for change. And when is that? As another of Dowd's interviewees, Lierre Keith (day 9), said last night, “This is the last moment... Find your passion, and follow it now.”

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