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Ethics in the time of the climate crisis

Ethics in the time of the climate crisis
ECOLOGY / Despite this book's general critique of anthropocentrism, one could go even further in practicing an ecocentric ethic.


On Easter evening, I was in the bookstore Tronsmo in Oslo Ethics in the time of the climate crisis in the hands. I picked it up, started flipping. I do not remember a word that was allowed to stick, only that a large, dark lump rose in me: "I can not bear to relate to this now."

When I finally read the book a few weeks later, it is with a kind of shame of relief: It is precisely the dark cloud they are dealing with. The philosopher Arne Johan Vetlesen and the theologian Jan-Olav Henriksen's book is a step into a new ethic, founded on a justice extended to apply to more than human actors. The authors put nothing in between and call the crisis really a crisis – paradoxically, it inspires hope in me. Recognizing the problem is, as is well known, the first step.

The lack of action and commitment among Norway's population is treated on the basis of the knowledge we have that our standard of living is neither compatible with the goal of a temperature increase of 1,5 ˚C nor to stop the loss of nature and biological diversity. Consequently, our way of life leads others to suffer and die – humans as well as other species and entire ecosystems.

The authors ask with sincerity rather than with moralism: "Why do we continue to do things we know have negative environmental consequences?" The question they ask, and the possible answers that are examined, are important contributions to combating paralysis of action, powerlessness and contempt for each other.

Action paralysis

A chapter in this respect is devoted to the Norwegian-American sociologist Kari Marie Nordgaard's research on climate denial in the book Living in Denial Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life (2011). In short, she emphasizes that culture shapes the perception of reality in individuals, which leads to powerlessness and slows down climatic development. Socially organized denial, social acceptance of what one can discuss, and collective norms of what feelings one can express that one has, shape the perception of reality and the space for action. In addition to presenting Nordgaard's research as one of several explanatory models for why we are affected by paralysis of action, Vetlesen and Henriksen draw some practically applicable conclusions: We must counteract the notion that it is useless by learning to deal with unpleasant emotions. To do so, we must create arenas for the articulation of discomfort and powerlessness and forums for interaction. We must contribute to realityorientering and emphasize that we as a community and society are responsible for the crisis continuing.

Attitude change

The argument in the book oscillates as a pendulum between the need for political, structural, social and individual change, between intergenerational justice and ecological solidarity. Sometimes, however, it may seem as if much of the responsibility lies with the individual, as it is emphasized that we both have the knowledge we need, without it leading to action, and that it is our moral duty to seek out and use knowledge that can be crucial for the future. However, I am not so sure that it is so easy for the individual to decide when it is enough, what is sufficient action, and where to start to restructure society without being overwhelmed by the thought.

"Why do we continue to do things we know have negative environmental consequences?"

But as the authors write, it is rather the general change of attitude they are looking for, then we must find the solutions together: "It is not just about adopting and implementing effective political measures, but about fundamental questions related to what kind of society we want to have in the future. […] The task involves each of us, our motives and priorities, which values ​​should guide and guide our actions, and which practices should ensure a living planet ”(p. 17).

Anthropocentrism and the assumption of an intact nature every generation has a "right to exploit" are pointed out as the main reasons for the shortcoming of the prevailing ethical theories. If the goal is at the same time to formulate a new ethic, I wonder how appropriate it is to narrow the attention to the current ethical theories and exclusively in the Western canon.

In this context, it is also strange to deliberately omit what they themselves call "promising alternatives" among American environmental philosophers or Australian eco-feminists, rather than anchoring the book in Norwegian society.

The authors nevertheless have some promising suggestions for how we can bring about the fundamental change of attitude in order to act more climate-ethically: We must recognize the intrinsic value of nature and respect the whole of ecosystems as something valuable in itself in addition to being our basis of life. "Justice must include other life, and this life must be valued on more than what it means to satisfy human needs. That others should also have their fair share of the earth's opportunities and resources is a prerequisite for ensuring biological diversity beyond what serves human interests. " They point out the need to say that enough is enough, and speak against the growth economy – also the so-called green growth. This is despite others who maintain that economic growth is not in conflict with ecological sustainability, the trend from 1990 shows that growth from material consumption is on a par with GDP growth. We are constantly reminded of specific cases where the trend is in the opposite direction of measures we know must be implemented to ensure biodiversity and meet the 1,5 degree target: «Some of the human response to the climate crisis must be restraint (restraint). […] Therefore, there is always reason to ask: Do we have to expand here? Is a four-lane motorway necessary if we can make better use of existing train lines? […] Giving landscapes a chance to develop without human intervention, helps to safeguard qualities and values ​​that are important for all life on the planet. The opposite is still plundering the rainforests or using fjords as landfills for sludge from industry. "

Direct experience basis with nature and "our ecological reading ability" is emphasized to determine what is an adequate response. Emphasis is also placed on meeting the discomfort, as well as giving room for the eco-grief it may provoke, as indifference may rather indicate emotional blunting in self-defense: "On a personal level, we can not deny the discomfort of opening up to the damage we have caused. on us. Then it is important that we do not react by becoming hard-skinned, hardened and cynical, in self-defense and as a form of denial. "

A brutal realityorientering

A section on how the consideration for jobs still weighs heaviest, and reluctance to change that entails opposition to powerful players in the oil industry, resonates sadly as the deadline for the consultation round on allocation of predefined areas (APA2022) to the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy expired on 2 May. It will be exciting to see if the Storting and the MPE this time listen to environmental input and do not open the Wisting field, which is both partly within the ice edge zone and in the middle of a red-listed polar bird migration. For the time being, it cannot work like this for the Labor Party. Vetlesen & Henriksen follow the same line as UN Secretary-General António Guterres did in his speech on April 4, pointing out that the burden of proof has shifted: The radical is to maintain the status quo, not to exercise civil disobedience to get political leaders to take responsibility. I would urge both the government and the representatives of the Storting as well as the citizens of Norway to acquire what the authors call a brutal realityorientering about where we (still) are going, and make our own reflections on what an ethic for our time must entail, something this book is certainly a useful contribution to.

 See also https://naturvernforbundet.no/energi/fossil_energi/olje/tfo-2022-moralsk-og-okonomisk-galskap-article43012-118.html and https://radio.nrk.no/serie/dagsnytt-atten/NMAG03008622

Tina Kryhlmann
Tina Kryhlmann
Permanent literature reviewer in MODERN TIMES.

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