Put Out the Damn Fire

A philosopher on climate change

Climate experts insist we’d better reduce carbon emissions by 6 percent a year if we hope for a livable planet, but politicians continue to greenlight coal mining, fracking, oil drilling and a Keystone pipeline expansion that former NASA climatologist James Hansen says means “game over” for the atmosphere.

Most of my friends, if they discuss the politics of global warming at all, shake their heads in disgust, then in despair and, finally, with a statement of resignation along the lines of, “We are so screwed.”

But Kathleen Dean Moore says we don’t get to sit this one out.

The nature writer and distinguished professor of philosophy emerita at Oregon State University believes that fighting climate change is a moral imperative because, simply put, it’s wrong to ruin the world.

“We can draw down atmospheric carbon dioxide to livable levels,” she says, “but not until we draw down the power of those … enriched by destroying the conditions of human and ecological thriving.”

Moore is the author of four collections of essays that weave philosophical inquiry with observations of the natural world (Riverwalking, Holdfast, Pine Island Paradox and Wild Comfort.) Over the last decade, her intimate connection to wilderness led to increasing alarm over its destruction. She examined the climate change discourse, found it lacked principled reasons for doing right by the planet and its inhabitants and asked 100 visionaries — including the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu — whether humans have an obligation to act on behalf of the future. Their responses were seeds for the 2010 book Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, which Moore co-edited with Michael P. Nelson.

Moore spends most of her waking hours collaborating with activists and climate scientists and giving workshops, lectures and interviews. At her home in Corvallis on a sunny May morning, we spoke about the twin threats of climate change and corporate hegemony.

You’re best known for your essays about nature. What started you on climate change work? 

I heard a climate scientist say, “The only thing we have to do to be sure we will leave a ruined world for our children and our grandchildren is to do exactly what we are doing now.” This one sentence broke my heart. I decided then that I would never do anything in my working life that doesn’t at least try to make the world safe for future generations.

This must be a discouraging task because climate change is so closely tied to an industrial growth economy and a culture of consumption. How do we change a destructive culture?

Let’s start with conscientious objection. Many of us were alive when people said, “Hell no,” to an unjust war in Vietnam. The question today is: Can we say, “Hell no,” to an unjust economic system? Every decision we make — about where we find information, what we eat and wear, how we invest our time and wealth, how we travel or stay warm — is an opportunity for us to express our values both by saying yes to what we believe in and no to what we don’t believe in.

Life is not something that happens to us; it’s something we create by our decisions. We can drift through our lives, or we can use our time, money and strength to say, “This is what I believe in. This is who I am.”

The major social movements in history have mostly been campaigns against oppression. Who are the oppressors in the climate-change movement?

Transnational petrochemical industries, their leaders, their investors and the politicians they control.

For a long time activists were unclear about this. The Big Oil corporations were happy to claim that they were simply responding to public demand. Only recently has it become clear how much they’ve been manipulating public demand. They build and maintain infrastructures that force people to use fossil fuels. They convince politicians to kill or lethally underfund alternative energy or transportation initiatives. They increase demand for energy-intensive products through advertising. They create confusion about the harmful effects of burning fossil fuels. They influence elections to prevent any limits on Big Oil’s power to impose risks and costs on others.

If you own stock in a petrochemical industry, you’ve got to dump it. If you benefit from a fund that owns stock in a petrochemical industry — a university fund, a retirement fund — you’ve got to insist they dump it. No excuses, no delays.

Since the scientific community has reached consensus about the reality of global warming, do we need to listen to climate-change deniers?

No. Debates about the causes of climate change have become distractions. If your house is burning down, you don’t stand around arguing about whether the fire was caused by human or natural forces. You do what you can to put out the damn fire. You throw everything at it, and then you hold your breath because there are people inside that house. Billions of them.

Is a moral argument the best approach for getting people to change their behavior?

The most important and abrupt turning points in American history were motivated by moral principle. Think of the Declaration of Independence, a statement about the rights of human beings. Think of the Emancipation Proclamation, a statement that slavery is wrong. Think of the Civil Rights Movement. The question isn’t whether we should talk about ethics; the question is whether we can achieve the necessary rapid social change without talking about them.

Do you think people have trouble directing their moral outrage at the worst climate-change offenders because they feel culpable themselves?

Yes, which is why the worst offenders are happy to make us blame ourselves. Of course each of us should be using less oil. But when I hear people say, “We have met the enemy, and he is us,” I say, baloney. I didn’t cause an oil spill in the Gulf. I didn’t undermine the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency]. I’m not lobbying to open oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean. I didn’t cut funding for alternative energy sources. Big Oil is pouring billions of dollars into shaping government policies and consumer preferences.

And what do we say? “Oh, I should be a more mindful consumer.” Of course we should, but that’s only the beginning. We also need to hold government and corporations accountable. What are we waiting for?

Many of us are waiting until our lives feel less busy.

Yes, we are busy. Probably too busy to avert a planetary disaster that will have the effect of an asteroid impact: killing off species, altering the climate, acidifying the oceans.

I used to think it was enough for all of us simply to live our lives constructively. I don’t think that anymore. I think we have to find the time to be politically active. I don’t want to cut anybody any slack on that. Are we going to let it slip away — our children’s world — because we’re too busy?

Most parents are worried about the environment, but have difficulty shrinking their family’s carbon footprint without depriving their children. What can you say to us? 

Parents have a parental duty to be clear about what their children need. Most important is a future. We’re planting time bombs around our own children: toxins in the water, radioactive waste in leaking tanks, acid in the oceans and climate chaos. And we’re too busy to protest because we have to buy the kids the right kind of shoes for the soccer tournament? What kind of love is that?

Tomorrow I’ll burn a tank of gas driving to my child’s soccer tournament in another state.

It’s ironic, the damage we do to our children in order to privilege them. But that’s not the worst of it. The harm our decisions will do to the children who are not privileged isn’t just ironic; it’s criminal. These children who will never know even the short-term benefits of misusing fossil fuels are the ones who will suffer the most as seas rise, as fires scorch croplands, as tropical diseases spread north, as famine comes to lands that were once abundant.

But maybe you’re too hard on us parents. Many work two jobs, trying to keep food on the table. Certainly we can be forgiven if we can’t take on climate change at the moment.

If I were trying to create a world in which I could make money with brutality and reckless impunity and damn the consequences, here’s what I would do. First, I’d weaken public education, making sure students do not have what it takes to make informed decisions. Then I would crank up advertising to your children, convincing them that they desperately need whatever I want to sell them. At the same time, I would put as much stress as possible on parents, eliminating safety nets, denying unemployment benefits, extending your work hours — in every way I could, isolating you parents from your children, substituting my profits for your values. Then I’d create distractions, inviting your children to live in an imagined world, so they don’t notice what is happening to the world that supports their lives. In other words, I would create a society much like this one and try to convince everybody that it was their own damn fault. But what is happening to parents is not bad luck; it’s an agenda.

This isn’t cynicism. This is connecting the dots.

So do environmentalists fighting climate change share common ground with social justice movements like Occupy Wall Street? 

Absolutely. Both movements affirm the same moral principle: It’s wrong to wreck the world. An economic system that forces the majority to suffer the consequences for the reckless actions of a few is immoral. We’re paying the costs of destructive industries with our health and our children’s futures while the captains of industry make fortunes. That’s not fair. And when that system threatens to disrupt the planetary cycles that support all life on earth — honestly, that is moral monstrosity on a cosmic scale.

I once heard you read an essay about an imagined future, a future that will devastate our children. After you finished, the audience sat in stricken silence. Is this the reaction you want? 

Yes and no. Nobody wants to break people’s hearts. But if we can’t imagine what probably lies ahead, how will we gather courage to turn in a different direction? Maybe more writers should tell stories about possible futures, the beautiful ones and the devastating ones.

Can’t thoughts of devastation also paralyze? 

We have rituals that help us draw strength from grief. Can we find creative ways to turn our grief toward positive action? If there are trucks going down the road pouring poisons on wildflowers, there ought to be a hearse following them to acknowledge the deaths. If construction crews are bulldozing a marsh for a parking lot, there should be a choir there singing a requiem. At every clearcut there should be a little shrine. Organize people to wear black and to stand along the line the seas will reach in 2050.

You and your students have a “hope-o-meter” for the future of the Earth, with a one meaning very little hope and a 10 meaning no worries. Where are you on your hope-o-meter now? 

Honestly? I’m about a one. By every measure global warming is increasing more rapidly than the most horrifying predictions of the past. It will be hard to get out of this one.

So why do you try? 

People tend to think that we have only two options: hope or despair. But neither one is acceptable. Blind hope leads to moral complacency: Things will get better, so why should I put myself out? Despair leads to moral abdication: Things will get worse no matter what I do, so why should I put myself out? But between hope and despair is the broad territory of moral integrity — a match between what you believe and what you do. You act lovingly toward your children because you love them. You live simply because you believe in taking only your fair share. You do what’s right because it’s right, not because you will gain from it.

There is freedom in that. There is joy in that. And, ultimately, there is social change in that. Even — especially — in desperate times, we can make our lives into works of art that embody our deepest values. The ways of life that are most destructive to the world often turn out to be the ones that are also most destructive to the human spirit. So, although environmental emergencies call on us to change, the change required is to live for what we value most.

A longer version of this interview appeared in the December issue of The Sun, available at http://wkly.ws/1hf