The Moral Math of Climate Change

Click to listen to:

The Moral Math of Climate Change [Speaking of Faith® from American Public Media]

“A conversation about climate change and moral imagination with Bill McKibben, a leading environmentalist and writer who has been ahead of the curve on this issue since he wrote The End of Nature in 1989. We explore his evolving perspective on human responsibility in a changing natural world.”

“A weekly national program since July 2001, Speaking of Faith is not so much about religion per se, but about drawing out compelling and challenging voices of wisdom on the most important subjects of 21st-century life…”

This post is a follow-up to yesterday’s post:

Global warming and the Loss of Earth’s Coral Reefs.

If we are going to avoid environmental catastrophe, we are going to need moral imagination as well as good science.

Indeed, science without moral imagination, science without guiding ethics and humanity, becomes the monstrous tool of our worst human traits. We have only to look at weapons of mass destruction and the massive destructive of the environment through technology to see that this is so.

If our use of science and technology is guided by a deep sense of the beauty and wonder of nature, I think we will tend to make better decisions about the use science and of technology. If we have a vision of the preciousness of all life on Earth, we will tend to make choices that are for the long-term benefit of all beings on this amazing “pale blue dot” of a planet that is our only home.

In all our calculations about the cost of dealing with climate change, lets not forget to do the “moral math.” If we don’t, our moral bankruptcy will bring disaster to us and to countless beings living on our planet. So, don’t miss this challenging interview with Bill McKibben. The future of the world depends on each one of us broadening and deepening our understanding of what is environmentally moral. The future depends on our moral imagination as a species.

∞ ∞ ∞

4 Responses to “The Moral Math of Climate Change”
  1. yoshizen says:

    I can agree with your worry. And as myself don’t drive a car, using 1/3rd of electricity of average, eating only non processed food, no drag, no alcohol, etc etc —–so, I may
    doing what I can, to the limit. Then join the demonstration
    facing police line etc etc.
    *When a baby in the womb having genetic defect, the body try
    to abort the pregnancy.- – – – then mother resort a medical intervention to stop miscarriage. End up, 10% of population
    is now physically, mentally impaired. etc etc
    To see the population pressure against the sustainability
    of the Earth, still you can’t deny the love of the mother.
    —–We are facing stark choice. Where do you go ? ? ?

    • Hello Yoshizen, and thanks for stopping by.

      Great questions! Indeed, very deep and difficult questions. It might take some space here to answer in any meaningful way, so I apologize in advance for the length of this reply. Here goes:

      First, it sounds like you are doing all you can to have as small a “footprint’ on the Earth as you can, through your skillful efforts and conservation. Every little bit counts! And we can’t not do our individual part, because we think we are just one in billions. All revolutions start with the individual, not the mass of man. So people like you, and me, and actually millions of others, are part of a revolution whose time has come. This should give up hope!

      Your questions about babies with birth defects points the larger issue of the sustainability, as you say, of a large human populations. That’s a huge and complex issue, and a crucial one. But from my research and reading, I don’t see the problem of babies with birth defects as any kind of tipping point in the population explosion issue, frankly.

      The fact that medicine saves more babies that might have died before due to birth defects certainly adds to the population, but I doubt if it adds a critical amount compared the the enormous number of healthy babies born each year. To me, that’s the real problem.

      Clearly, we need birth control of some sort, but there is great resistance to using birth control in most poor countries. Why? Poor people have children, even though they know they can’t support the children, because they are afraid there will be no one to take care of them when they are old, We have seen again and again that when we raise the living standards of people, they choose to have fewer children. Surely that way lies the long-term solution.

      For most of mankind’s history, as you say, if a child was too impaired, it either died at birth or was unable to survive the stresses of pre-modern life. There was nothing the mother could do about it. Now, modern medicine gives the mother the possibility of saving a child that might otherwise not make it.

      Frankly, I’m glad that this choice is available to mothers and fathers, even if it adds incrementally to our population problem. Most parents want to save the life of their child (unborn or born) if they can and if the child has some possibility of a meaningful existence (something only the parents can decide.)

      And even from the standpoint of society, what a loss it was that throughout history, children with brilliant minds, but damaged bodies, had to die because they could not be sustained or could not be farmers or hunter/gatherers. Although he got sick later in life, imagine physicist Stephen Hawking having to die because medicine was not able to sustain him. What a loss! And to me, every human life is just as precious as Hawking’s.

      Even in truly devastating cases, children with severe mental impairments are often important, cherished members of families, even if they also require tremendous physical and emotional effort on the part of families. I’ve seen this personally, and been very moved by it. Physically it doesn’t cost society much to sustain this (relatively) small population of severely damaged humans, while much bigger problems face of overpopulation face us and have clear solutions, even if we don’t seem to be pursuing them.

      So I guess for me, the bottom line is not a mother’s love versus the fate of humanity, but what kind of society are we going to have and what kind of choices are we going to make with our technologies and resources. Modern technology and the advance of standards of living make possible more humane, compassionate societies that can afford to take care of the weak and damaged, and this is sign of progress.

  2. yoshizen says:

    May be I should highlight the Issue with bit more harsh words, as we are facing this deadly selious matter.
    About 20 years ago I wrote small article titled “The
    right to born or The fate to die”
    —–you see the point easily.
    The most fundamental trouble we are facing is ” The
    direct conflict between the Micro(personal)Human Right
    and the Macro(as the Human species in total)Humanity.
    We are putting all the human effort(science to socio-economical development) and, effectively making
    ourselves weaker as the species. Not only the revenge
    from the Nature, we may be damned by the Dharma.

    • Hello again, my friend. I just replied to your first message, and now I see a second post. I’ll try to be shorter this time!

      The title of your article is certainly provocative, but it would be hard for me to assess its content from a title, and I wouldn’t want to. Certainly there is always the tension between individual choice and its immediate and long-term effects on the collective—the micro and the macro as you put it. That’s a very, very complex issue, and one that both sages and philosophers have discussed and argued for millennium.

      My “quickie” answer is that the more our individual choices reflect true loving-kindness, wisdom, and lack of self-clinging, the more those choices bless society and the environment. Of course, as the saying goes, the devil is in the details! Or more in more Buddhist terms, we have to be mindful, develop true discrimination, paying attention to cause and effect to see what actions increase suffering and what don’t.

      As a practicing Buddhist, however, my ears perk up at words like “fate” and being “damned by the dharma.”

      I don’t know what these words mean to you…I know that the word “karma” is often translated as “fate” in some countries, but to my understanding of the Buddha’s teaching, karma is most definitely not “fate”—a pre-ordained outcome or moral cosmic judgment—but rather a skillful term used by the Buddha to show how cause and effect work.

      I wont’ take space here to explain my understanding of the Buddha’s teaching on this critical subject, but if you are interested, I would direct your attention to some posts at my Metta Refuge blog, specifically:

      Karma-It’s Not Fate!


      Karma-No Big Deal-Just the Way Things Work

      Again, not to make too much of your words, the phrase “damned by the dharma” raises questions in my mind, though you might well mean something I’d agree with. I totally give you the benefit of the doubt, OK, my friend?

      Myself, I would never talk about the dharma, if by that you mean the teachings of the Buddha, as “damning” anybody or anything. The dharma is the Buddha’s compassionate path leading to the ending of suffering. It is compassionate, good, and liberating, “in the beginning, in the middle, and in the end,” as the Buddha puts it.

      If you meant that, given the way the universe works—the most fundamental meaning of “dharma”—wrong motives, intentions, and actions, always bring suffering, then I’d agree with you. But the dharma, (or karma) as I say above, isn’t some cosmic moral bookkeeper, making sure everyone gets their “just deserts,” either in this life or the next. That’s actually a very Western viewpoint and is not, so far as I understand it, the Buddha’s teaching on dharma and karma.

      Thanks again for stopping by and for raising such interesting questions. And thank you for your part in trying to live mindfully and compassionately and helping to raise people’s consciousness about the great moral dilemmas we face today.


      PS – Well, so much for “shorter.” (sigh)

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