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Skipping a flight might not save the Arctic, but it means you care | Oliver Burkeman


In 2005, the philosopher Walter Sinnott-Armstrong wrote a paper, It’s Not My Fault, arguing that none of us has a moral obligation to reduce our carbon emissions. He didn’t deny the looming emergency; he simply couldn’t see, after running through the available ethical theories, how it could be my duty not to go on Sunday drives in my gas-guzzling SUV (to use his example). “No storms or floods or droughts or heatwaves can be traced to my individual act of driving,” he wrote. It’s true that lots of people driving, collectively, helps to cause storms and floods, but I’m not lots of people. And it misses the point to respond that you can calculate, say, the precise area of lost Arctic sea ice corresponding to one passenger’s transatlantic flight. You can – but I want to know that if I forgo the flight, the ice is likely to remain. And, thanks to the systemic nature of the climate crisis, that’s the link that can’t be made.

Sinnott-Armstrong’s argument often enrages people who think of themselves as environmentalists. But I think that’s a reaction to the fear that he’s right – that there are no strictly rational grounds for making personal sacrifices for the climate. (In the same way, it’s often noted, it seems irrational to vote in an election, given the infinitesimal chance of your vote swinging the result.) And when it seems as if there’s no rational case for doing something, it’s extremely tempting to just not do it.

But there’s another option, which is not to insist on a rational justification before you act. That’s one of many lessons I took from Charles Eisenstein’s remarkable recent book, Climate: A New Story, which offers a perspective-jolting indictment of the current state of environmental activism. The way we’re fighting global heating, he maintains, unknowingly embodies the belief system that caused it in the first place. Locked in a “war mentality”, focused on fear-based appeals about the need to avert catastrophe in order to save our species, we’re being as instrumentalist as any corporate polluter, trying to manipulate the world to our ends, treating nature as a “thing”, separate from ourselves, that we need to control.

Eisenstein argues for a “deeper revolution”, in which we understand that we are nature. Everything is. And one consequence is to realise that the standard question we ask about climate-related lifestyle changes – “What direct and measurable difference am I making?” – might not be the right one.

Viewed from the old mindset, the governing ethos of this revolution is bound to seem intolerably soppy. We should care for the Earth, Eisenstein suggests, out of love for the Earth. But aren’t we accustomed to the idea that love is a sufficient reason to take caring actions in other areas of life? The environmentalist Derrick Jensen has written that when people ask why he bothers, he tells them: “Because I’m in love. With salmon, with trees outside my window, with baby lampreys living in sandy stream bottoms… And if you love, you act to defend your beloved. Of course results matter to you, but they don’t determine whether or not you make the effort.”

You make the effort anyway.

Listen to this

Charles Eisenstein and his guests chart a course beyond both optimism and despair about the climate, and everything else, in his podcast, A New and Ancient Story.

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Source: TheGuardian