To Dress & to Keep (2)

(This was initially posted as Nurturing Justice 18 (2007) 16 October).

Part One can be found here..

We are considering No. 6 on our list of 12 issues: “Climate Change and Environmental Care”. This is the second in a two-part discussion. The previous discussion outlined the Biblical view of the human task upon the earth and this second part will consider our orientation to the cumulative effects of our dressing and keeping God’s garden. We will also try to identify some obvious and unavoidable policy implications.

To formulate meaningful policies about “Climate Change” for governments to implement is easier said than done. After all, we are here confronted with the cumulative and long-term consequences of policies that have developed since the onset of the industrial revolution in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Such policy work – reports by the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change or the Stern Review Report – have not emerged by magic. Ongoing research is required, and that also means a change of attitude to scientific inquiry, in all fields – disciplined philosophical reflection is needed as much as concerted historical investigation; the social sciences as much as the “natural” sciences must also make their contributions. We can expect that the policies that would bring about effective outcomes may take decades to implement.

Yet what has already been disclosed in the debate about “climate change” is a responsibility we have right now, and we have to seriously consider the “unintended consequences” as much as the planned rational outcomes of any line of action. Our calling to be accountable for “dressing” and ” keeping” means seeking to become alert to direct and indirect results of our plans, our policies, our actions, our remedies and our inactions. This calls for a new way of thinking about our world-wide responsibilities. We need to learn to think about ourselves on different levels at the same time: personally, within our local community, as members of our nation and region, as citizens of the globe. One immediate result of the debate is the willingness of people across the world to accept these responsibilities and to identify themselves with their neighbours far and near.

The Stern Review Report has now become a standard by which Governments in (so-called) developed countries accept the need for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and in the use of fossil energy per unit of production. At one level Stern’s recommendation was a courageous attempt to confront a deeply paradoxical situation. The desire for ongoing economic growth now confronts a potential for long-term economic disaster; the search for human well-being through industrial production and consumption brings us to the possibility that we are have been part of a change that “will affect the basic elements of life for people around the world – access to water, food production, health, and the environment. Hundreds of millions of people could suffer hunger, water shortages and coastal flooding as the world warms”. Such a scenario confirms obligations we cannot avoid. We must reconsider the path we have been on.

And is that what the Australian Prime Minister was suggesting when he put forward his Government’s policies on climate change? His policies now use, almost exactly, the words of the Stern Review. There is a claim that this “balances our obligation to reduce gas emissions with the need to keep our economy growing.”

The problem for us, as we consider this policy stance, is to identify what is meant by “economic growth”. Indeed this is a question that has had to be addressed by the Stern Review itself. “Tackling climate change is the pro-growth strategy for the longer term. And it can be done in a way that does not cap the aspirations for growth of rich or poor countries.”

This suggests that a long-term stabilisation of global temperature levels will occur without any constraints on population increases or industrial production. What is the basis for this confidence? Is there one? It seems to be a re-statement of a taken-for-granted view that has faith in the abilities of the economic system to always provide the mechanism that keeps things in balance. That faith is regularly on display when competing politicians each claim: “our policies have got the balance right!” What balance is that? It is rarely explained and because of that this ambiguous use of words suggests that in these words it is a religious commitment that is keeping a deep-seated fear in check. The politicians in industrialized countries know that to be too decisive about the problems that confront us, too incisive about all the threats that the incessant increasing rate of industrial production brings in its train, then the “touring capital” (to use the suggestive phrase used by Zygmunt Bauman in Postmodern Ethics (1993 p. 232) – available through Google books) will simply up and leave and find another more hospitable location in which to provide “employment”.

And thus “going for growth” is proclaimed as the sine qua non of life itself in a world where the clouds of environmental disaster continue to gather. Politics becomes a choice between alternative balancing acts of “dressing” and “keeping” and this means that what is now clothed in the natural environment can be un-dressed – species extinction, deforestation – as the resources of the earth are depleted in a desperate and ongoing (military-backed) struggle to maintain supplies of raw materials.

The problem is that such statements that would balance “care obligations” with a “need to keep our economy growing” – like the Stern Report, like the Australian PM’s YouTube presentation – never stop to explain why an uninterrupted growth in industrial production is the indispensable precondition for economic life. Clearly Stern and Prime Minister Howard believe that it is. But they never seem to get past demanding that it be so. They assume it just is. Why should it be necessary that this be accepted on blind faith?

When we ask this questions we begin to realise that we are on a path of fear, a fear to upset capital investment and the money markets, a fear that drives its proponents to announce: “There is no alternative.”

But should it not be asked whether, in fact, “our” economy might be restored by policies that reduce production and consumption and search for policies that open up concrete ways of ensuring “enough” for those most at risk at home and abroad? Why should our economy be considered abnormal if it is not growing at an ever-increasing rate? Is it not our human vocation to help our vulnerable neighbours to dress and to keep their part of the earth? What is so necessary about putting our creational vocation through the shredder of a misconceived political and economic “necessity”?

As we think about ways of preparing to care for climate change refugees who come to our shores, we will also want to strengthen their own island infra-structure to cope with the threat of rising sea level. As we advocate ways by which workers and their unions can be freed from the incessant demand for always increasing pay-rises, we will also be attentive to the need to bring the preposterous levels of higher salaries back to earth. We need to show it will be to the true benefit of all if the over-paid reduce their salary-levels and the under-paid are guaranteed enough. Such are some of the provisional starting points as we turn to walk an alternative economic path. We re-commit ourselves to support our true wealth and prosperity in people and their relationships to their society and to the natural habitat from which they and we gain nourishment.

To say that people matter more than things, does not mean we are opposed to things. A glass of water is a thing we will want to be clean and refreshing. But the obscene priorities that also push ahead with space exploration, now stimulating a market for weightless space holidays for the rich and famous, will need to be foregone when so much of the world’s people are suffering from the heavy burdens brought on by a lack of basic daily necessities in food and water, in medicine and shelter. If the exploration of outer space is ever to have any validity at all, it should only be considered after political authority, scientific expertise and capital investment has ensured the eradication of poverty from the earth and the restoration of places under environmental threat so that they are henceforth fit for human habitation.

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