Continuing College Professor at Okanagan College, all views are my own, not those of Okanagan College. My background includes graduate work in Political Science at York University’s Centre for International and Security Studies, a one-year travel-study tour around the world focused on issues of peace and conflict resolution, and almost 20 years of teaching subjects from International Development to Canadian government. I have researched and published on topics like ecological modernization, global environmental governance issues, protected areas governance in North America, environmental discourses, and environment and trade in Canadian foreign policy. I am also energized by educational technologies and the latest news and information about teaching and learning in higher education. I am currently a Research Fellow with the Earth System Governance Project, Board member for the BC Council for International Cooperation, Chair of the local Steering Committee of the Global Empowerment Coalition of the Central Okanagan (BCCIC Chapter) and Board Member of the Okanagan Sustainability Leadership Council.
A talk for the Multihazard Risk and Resilience Group Seminar at the Western University. MARCH 25, 2021
Canada’s response to global disasters has been characterized by a certain degree of push and pull between the domestic and the international levels, and between the provision of immediate relief and the support of long-term resilience and risk reduction. In the area of disaster risk reduction, progress at the international level since 2011 has been marked by a sustained movement away from reactive and relief-based approaches toward “disaster risk governance”. As a signatory to the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction, Canada has been a supporter of this move as well as the move to integrate disaster responses with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), blurring the boundary between “relief” and “development” activities and policies. In this talk, I will explore the meaning of ‘disaster risk governance’ as it is addressed in the Sendai and Hyogo Frameworks, and consider practical examples of how a shift toward governance might improve disaster responses by the Canadian government, and in turn, reduce loss and damage from disasters.
Nature is one of the most complicated terms in English or any language. It carries the weight of projected human fears and hopes, the marks of history and political conflict, the grounds for moral legitimation or condemnation.
Hurricanes that have increased in number and volume, forest fires that have burned larger swaths of land, flooding, mudslides, viruses, and extinctions are multiplying. The planet is experiencing cascades of disasters that overwhelm human adaptation efforts.
Is nature our enemy?
For most of human history, and for ancient peoples especially, the answer to that question would have been ‘yes’. At every turn prehistoric farmers, hunters, gatherers and herders had constantly to battle the elements to put food on the table. In Medieval Europe, when the stories of Hansel and Gretel and Little Riding Hood were written, nature was represented as a hungry wolf, an evil force with malicious intent, ever ready to attack and consume the vulnerable children of the village. Plagues and diseases were a feature of urban city life, an invasion of human settlements, a product of the devil or evil forces from outside of otherwise peaceful and vulnerable God-fearing folk.
It matters less to us whether an inanimate force is real, and more whether we interpret it broadly as a good or bad function.
This was not by any measure a universal human attitude. Inuit and other indigenous people around the world developed a sense of partnership and community with nature even in the harshest environments, embedding themselves into the natural order. Animals, birds, and even rivers and trees were endowed with spirit and force, which could be destructive or generous. Many civilizations also grew to understand nature’s harshness as part of the order of the world, a way of creating balance and humility.
Humans often mistake their interactions with nature as a form of natural intentionality. It could be thought of as a twist on the idea of an ‘attribution error’. An attribution error happens when people explain individual actions as functions of the innate characteristics of the actor rather than as responses to a situation. In this twist, the actions of a natural or artificial being might be interpreted as intentional, and worthy of either blame or admiration. So, it might matter less to us whether an inanimate force is real, and more whether we interpret it broadly as a good or bad function. The cultural attitudes around nature affect how we make decisions, how we plan, how we use resources. Humans’ interpretation of nature then becomes a cultural force shaping decisions about how to understand the natural world, and the feedback cycle between natural and social worlds accelerates.
With the coming of the Anthropocene and the ‘triumph’ over nature wrought by the industrial revolution, newly-urban city folk softened their fears of nature and began to view it as benevolent, even spiritual and inspirational. During the late 1800s at the height of the colonial era, European estates became filled with exotic trophies, animals, plants, tokens, and artefacts gathered from around the world. The astounding successes of scientific methods convinced Europeans that they could master nature. Europeans were uniquely able to distance themselves from the worst of nature’s wrath, and so they perceived a kind of immunity to its harsher judgements. This sense of immunity allowed Europeans to believe, as they sheltered in cities that became dirty and disease-ridden, that nature was nothing to be feared. A view of the ‘natural cathedral’ and the wilderness ethos fueled a global tourism industry as Europeans sought benign natural experiences in remote locales.
Where are we today? Unsurprisingly, the ‘friendly wilderness’ image has not caught on with people in colonial situations, because culturally and materially their struggle continues and is made worse by colonial relationships. These experiences have heightened a material approach to nature quite different from the ‘wilderness’ view. This view sees nature as a complex partner in human endeavors, sometimes vicious and sometimes generous.
Going to war means we’ve forgotten that a war on nature is exactly how we got into this mess. And also that war hardly ever ends well even for the victors.
Today, climate change has upset the sense of immunity, insulation, separation, and benevolence enjoyed by the world’s cultural elites. Wilderness offers no escape from disease, extinction, pollution, and disasters, perhaps except for a brief respite and retreat. There is a growing awareness that nature is not defeated but is increasingly outside of human control and understanding, and nature is pissed.
With our classic inability to see past ourselves, some engage in an attribution error of growing proportions, nature is blamed for all of our own mistakes. The response is either resignation or a call to war. Resignation in this sense means divvying up spaces on the lifeboat. Going to war means we’ve forgotten that a war on nature is exactly how we got into this mess. And also that war hardly ever ends well even for the victors.
What are we to think in a time when nature seems to be again our enemy? There are plenty of people around all over the world who have a different view. Indigenous peoples with centuries of learning and experience understand nature as a complex system, of which we are an integral part. Consciousness, morality, and will is also natural, and not unique to humans. A reflective turn is needed to shift our understanding. We need to pierce the sense of immunity, separation, and distinctiveness that has led us down this road. The Anthropocene shift pushes us towards a degree of humility. It prompts a sense of connection and complex systems thinking which will not only bring a better understanding of nature, but will enable our survival and adaptation to it.
This post is inspired by a short conversation I had months ago about climate change. It went something like this:
Hello passerby, do you want to learn more about sustainability?
Passerby: why yes, I am very interested in that topic. I always keep a clean house, I compost so I don’t waste food, I ride my bike as much as possible, and I use organic products, so I am definitely living sustainably.
Me: that’s interesting and very commendable! Have you thought about how you can contribute to the cause?
Passerby: well, I feel like I’m doing everything I should, and if everybody lived the way I do, we’d all be better off, but I can’t tell other people how to live. Besides, all that stuff about climate change just doesn’t seem to be based on fact.
Since ‘the great hunkerdown’ began, I’ve been thinking about this point of view alot. I see similar, if more extreme, ideas being circulated in the media. There’s an invisible line drawn between ‘my world’ and ‘what I’m responsible for’ and ‘the world of others’ and ‘what they are responsible for’. An individualistic approach to problems is our reflexive reaction in the Anglo settler countries of the developed industrialized world. Individualistic liberalism dictates that the line of ethical responsibility for others is determined by each person, as they make free decisions based on their own values and interests.
There’s something to be said for the power of this idea and its influence on liberal culture. After all, it is liberalism which first originated the modern language of rights and constructed a political space for imagining an ethic of agency which has been highly effective, at least within its own parameters.
It is appropriate to imagine that collective problems can be solved by individual action, indeed it is difficult to imagine how any progress can be made absent people ‘buying in’ to it, for example by changing their own consumption patterns.
Those countries around the world that ignored individual freedoms in favour of panicked enforced lockdowns in response to the pandemic will likely pay a high price in legitimacy, which will be costly in the end. Those countries that have enjoined their populations to ‘do the right thing’ have implicitly drawn on people’s genuine fears of their own contagion rather than a commitment to civic duty.
In the developed world, we should all pay deep respect and homage to the Italians for their sacrifice in helping us to learn that we were vulnerable. However, those countries that have relied almost exclusively on fears, without any reference to civic duty, have fared even worse than Italy, because in a liberal culture the absence of a sense of civic duty means that individual freedoms end up trumping everything else. Now more than ever, the paradoxical nature of individual freedom, based on a confident sense of security and separateness, is being laid bare.
It is liberalism which first originated the modern language of rights and constructed a political space for imagining an ethic of agency which has been highly effective, at least within its own parameters.
The gaps and limits of liberalism are being made visible, even obvious, as the logic becomes extended to its absurdities and extremes. Why not me first? Why care about others, isn’t that their job? My house is in order, I am healthy, I am reducing my footprint, I’m doing the right thing, I’m not the threat, why do I have to pay a price?
A really clear gap of liberal culture as it lives today, is its lack of any distributional ethics. Liberal thinking is essentially blind to the question of how security, or any other value, should be distributed. Since the only value worth distributing is individual freedom, and the only way to measure it is by each persons’ values and preferences, there is little to no room for considering exactly how equitable social distribution might actually work to enhance individual freedoms. The idea that each person’s freedom will be enhanced when decisions are made equitably, with the collective interest in mind, is alien and foreign.
The passerby who cares deeply about the cleanliness of her own household, and believes she alone deserves the benefit of her efforts, is blind to the myriad ways in which her choices are supported by the collective decisions of the past (and the present) that have made those choices possible. Indeed, the entire institutional structure of individual choices enjoyed today by those who most strongly defend their ‘freedoms’ has been made possible by the collective decisions of societies in the past (not by individuals). Ultimately, in history, it is only collective action that lasts, since the length of individual lifetimes is too short for leaders to see their ideas become permanently embedded. Thatcher had it exactly wrong: it’s not that there is no such thing as society, in the end there is only society.
Ultimately, in history, it is only collective action that lasts, since the length of individual lifetimes is too short for leaders to see their ideas become permanently embedded. Thatcher had it exactly wrong: it’s not that there is no such thing as society, in the end there is only society.
The cracks in this edifice are showing. The maldistribution of security, including the inequitable distribution of (in)vulnerability, is becoming glaringly obvious. The invisible line between ‘immunity’ and ‘vulnerability’ is being revealed for what it is: a collective construction. Immunity/vulnerability is a paradox. Immunity is always dependent, derivative of the vulnerability of and to others. The confidence in individual choice that liberalism empowers is at its core a function of the maldistribution of social vulnerability. Immunity can never be ‘just for me’ if it is to be a real thing and not an illusion or myth.
My protest to be mask-free is predicated on the existence of modern medical knowledge, nurses, doctors, and ventilators which can catch me if I fall. My resolve to open my business profitably is predicated on the willingness of customers to take risks AMA (against medical advice). All of this means that I have to be very strident to convince enough of the community to my side if I’m going to make a go of it.
My sense of safety in my own home, my ‘home immunity’ is predicated on the risks and vulnerability of service workers, first responders, grocery clerks, truck drivers, payroll clerks, meat plant workers, sewage workers, and an army of government employees. My insistence that I am only responsible for my own house is predicated on the edifice of social protections that society has established collectively. This edifice includes the effort and sacrifice of climate activists who may eventually contribute to finding a collective solution to the threat of climate change without my help.
If and when solutions are found, as a liberal focused on the ethics of individualism, I would have no qualms in making a claim for the immunity created by the vaccine for myself and my household. Similarly, I would have no qualms about defending my right to enjoy the benefits of a livable planet, including my freedom, as long as someone else pays the price. The question is, would anybody care enough about me to listen?
Talk scheduled for October 18th. Oil is essential to industrial society as we know it. The history of the industrialized world has been shaped by changes in the environmental, economic, social, and political dimensions of oil. In this session, we will learn about the history, the present challenges, and the future of oil in an environmentally-stressed planet. Participants will emerge with a deeper appreciation for the complexities of oil politics.
In the community I come from, life centres around Okanagan Lake. The Okanagan Valley is a spectacular vista of rounded hills, distant mountains, sparkling waters, and a unique ecosystem for human and non-human life to adapt and thrive.
Despite its apparent permanence, the Valley and the Lake are fragile and vulnerable ecosystems experiencing accelerating pressures from unsustainable patterns of settlement, travel, and economic development. The Valley is vulnerable to insect damage, invasive species, extinctions, drought, fire, flooding, and water contamination. Virtually all of these threats arise from human activities in one way or another.
Looking at it from a birds’ eye view, the Valley is a whole ecosystem, yet the laws that govern it, and those that determine its future, are piecemeal. As I have written before, movements to protect the Valley and the planet can build on holistic thinking using the political and social revolution in human rights. ‘Rights language’ can be used to transform the current framework of laws, policies, and decision making procedures that govern development.
The Valley is a whole ecosystem, yet the laws that govern it, and those that determine its future, are piecemeal.
The progress of human rights is one of the most vital political stories of human history. The broad recognition of rights has a natural logic of expansion and consolidation. Progress comes in waves and is often beaten back by counter-movements, nevertheless, rights language often reemerges in new clothes when violations are at their worst. Violence and abuse trigger a reaction toward conscience and care, and new rights become recognized and affirmed following the worst atrocities.
What does ‘rights language’ bring to environmental causes that other arguments may overlook? Arguments from science, expertise, economic interest and values are sometimes disembodied, ephemeral, remote. An appeal to ‘rights’ triggers foundational debates: the questions become fundamental to identity and society because many rights are enumerated and protected by constitutional law, and because Canadian society has made a point of ensuring that people know and understand what rights are.
As Canadians we also understand that rights have intrinsic value. Most agree that we would prefer to live in a society that recognizes and respects rights, rather than one that does not. While we may not all comprehend the statistical probabilities of climate models or the technicalities of a carbon tax as a policy instrument, we understand ‘rights’. They are a thing. Rights are personal.
Rights are powerful because they are inherently subversive and simultaneously affirming. Raising an issue of water as a right raises questions about the status quo. What are all of the ways that water is freshened, used, transferred, polluted, and acted upon? It prompts rethinking the economic premises of water management. Rights language also prompts us to recognize the intrinsic value of existence. In other words,the recognition of a right elevates the ethical value of a rights holder in the view of the government and society. For example, the right to exist is one of the most fundamental rights possible. A right to exist implies the logical necessity of respecting that existence by not threatening or undermining the integrity and dignity of the rightsholder.
While we may not all comprehend the statistical probabilities of climate models or the technicalities of a carbon tax as a policy instrument, we understand ‘rights’. They are a thing. Rights are personal.
Rights language is also ethical and cultural. The current imbalance between human development and natural protection, evidenced by the global scale of pollution, is at least in part a product of the tendency to view nature in purely instrumental terms. In Western cultural constructions, nature is inert, a dumping ground for human wastes, or a storehouse of potential resources ready for extraction. Nature has not even been seen as a player in the cycle, much less as a rights holder.
The degradation of nature is simultaneously and unavoidably the degradation of humans. Since nature is a closed system, wastes and depletion will circle back to impact human welfare. The Anthropocene is signalling not the supremacy of humans over nature, but rather the exact opposite: the re-embedding of humans back into nature. We are now as much a product of our own activities as we are of natural processes. The world is now fully ‘human’ in at least one sense: the fates of human and nonhuman alike are interlaced in a way not seen before in history. Human and nonhuman fates are planetary in scale.
Restoring balance means revisiting the roots of the gap between humans and nature, the original split that divided the world and made degradation possible, and even celebrated it. That split is symbolized in three ways: 1. the assumption of anthropocentric dominance, 2. the neglect of nature’s intrinsic value, and 3. the separation and distancing of humans from the ecosystems that sustain them (both physical and psychological) .
Laws and politics have tended to wipe nature out of the ethical universe by limiting legal standing to parties with property interests. In other words, the legal conversation about value, loss and damage takes place only among those who are deemed to have an interest, namely, property owners. Even the representation of the public interest is narrowly circumscribed by the necessity of showing direct property-like profits or losses, rather than a public interest in a long-term trust relationship with nature.
While present and recognized in law, the notion of a public trust has not proven to be an effective shield against destruction in the long term, primarily because it can always be trumped or replaced by a new property claim. In addition, property claims are themselves partial since they divide nature up into parcels of utility based on their value to particular property interests. Sky, land, water, and underground are all seen in terms of different types of access, use, and ownership rights.
Solutions to this problem already exist in law, but they are currently found only in isolated and disjointed legal opinions and cases, both locally and around the world. Recently the question of nature rights has risen in prominence in political discussions, partly due to the rising awareness of the planetary nature of environmental damage being experienced in the Anthropocene, and partly due to the increasing recognition of indigenous rights and the distinctly contrasting worldview of nature that such rights represent.
The Whanganui River decision in New Zealand, the rise of Buen Vivir in Ecuador, the Ganges decision and others are pushing back against the notion that nature is nothing more than property, sink, or resource. At the heart of this counter-narrative is the recognition that humans and nature are together, with common fates and interests, and that the inclusion of nature as member of the human family, worthy of respect, care and affection, is essential to human survival. This is represented by indigenous worldviews in varying ways around the world and set down in the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as well as many other international legaldeclarations and treaties. Both humans and nature have a right to exist, what is needed (even if it is a first step) is the recognition and affirmation of these new rights in politics, law, and development planning.
This is no small thing, so what are the problems? One may object to the recognition of nature as a rights-holder on various grounds. One objection is that extending rights to nature means the diminution of existing human rights. However, this is not a new argument. This argument is familiar to historians, who documented them in response to the expansion and extension of rights to slaves, women, unpropertied males, and ethnic and religious groups. In every case the historical extension of rights did not result in the reduction of existing rights protections, but instead allowed for the more fulsome exercise of existing rights. This is because the pattern and framework of rights growth reinforces and legitimizes that a universe of moral beings and rights holders exists and is deserving of respect.
Another objection is that nature rights are expensive. Indeed, it is hardly arguable that valuable social and political goals are costly. The question of how to pay for rights has rarely been a strong argument against the recognition of rights, however. Few would argue today that the cost of freeing slaves, or protecting children from abuse are not worth the price of rights enforcement. As well, the social, political and even economic benefits of rights recognition spill over into remarkable new avenues of growth and development. Protecting the right of the lake to flow, to provide recreation and fish and a rich environment has immense economic benefits that should also be taken into account when considering the balance sheet of rights recognition.
Finally, a last objection is that recognizing the rights of a lake necessarily undermines the value of other beings who may be more ‘appropriate’ or ‘deserving’ of rights due to their similarity with or affinity for humans. Why should lakes have rights that are not extended to whales, elephants, monkeys or dogs, all of whom demonstrate more ‘human-like’ characteristics such as family relationships, intelligence, and emotions and feeling? What about microbes or farm animals? What about Mars or the moon or other distant territories? Why lakes and not mountains, or deserts, or garbage piles?
These are all valid and complex issues which should be deliberated and which will likely be decided and come before the courts in the next few years. Awareness is growing about how humans and nonhumans should be governed in a truly planetary ecosystem. It’s important to keep in mind that rights recognition is about governing human action, limiting and allowing different kinds of human interaction with the nonhuman world.
Such rules governing human interactions with the nonhuman world already exist, whether they are laws against animal abuse, or rules about mountain climbing or fishing or logging or nature reserves. The issue is that these rules are currently one-dimensional, shaped disproportionately by property and the need to prove an interest in that property. The rules are insufficiently permanent and not based on inter-generational ethics, and they rely on an out of date worldview of nature, one that is amply demonstrating its failures to protect humans and nature every day.
Rights recognition is about governing human action, limiting and allowing different kinds of human interaction with the nonhuman world.
Rights for lakes will help the larger conversation about how to move beyond the exclusiveness of property, to recognize the limits of the planet and the power of nature to act on human societies. Rights for lakes will reiterate the intrinsic value of the nonhuman world. They won’t solve every problem, but not much can be started without them.
On June 8th and 9th 2018, researchers, students, community members and practitioners gathered at Okanagan College to explore ways of articulating and sharing ethical international development ideas and practices. 50 attendees from across North America joined with leaders locally at Okanagan College’s Kelowna campus for an intensive 2-day conference and dialogue on equality, inclusion, and human dignity. Scholars and practitioners interacted in engaging sessions on gender, local governance, corporate social responsibility (CSR) and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Keynote speaker Chloe Schwenke, former Director of the Global Program on Violence, Rights, and Inclusion at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), shared her experiences advocating for a human rights framework for development in the Obama Administration. A second Keynote with Michael Simpson, Executive Director of the BC Council for International Cooperation, built on the themes of leadership and change in a ‘Talkshow’ style interview that engaged the audience in generating new avenues of inquiry.
In addition to providing a summary resource to share the highlights from the two day Conference, the purpose of these Proceedings is to contribute toward a network in which dialogue between scholarly insights and practical development work can improve the participation of people experiencing poverty, social marginalization, discrimination, and oppression both at home and abroad.
For more information and to view the Proceedings, visit the Conference webpage.
Enjoy my talk on March 11th at Okanagan College in Penticton! Since the mid-20th century observers have been debating the rise, peak and decline of the United States as the world’s leading superpower. In this session, we will go beyond Trumpism to look at the deeper underlying economic, political and social factors that have led up to the current era of US leadership (or lack of), and ask what might be the impact of these changes on the rest of the world, especially Canada. Is the US in decline? What might that ‘look like’ in the years to come? How bad (or good) can it get?
As 2018 comes to an end and the world looks to an increasingly uncertain future, it is worthwhile to reflect on the importance of compassion in public life. On the one hand, it seems it should not be necessary to remind ourselves of the need for compassion, while on the other hand, there has never been a time when it is more vital to think about it.
When I speak of compassion I consider it to be similar to the emotion of empathy, which means the ability to identify closely with the feelings of another. However, empathy is an emotion, while compassion is emotion plus action. Empathy is personal, individual, and private. When one experiences empathy, it is not necessarily expressed. Many of us feel empathy for the plight of refugees, but few of us take any action based on those feelings. Compassion is both an expression and an action, something that is a unique responsibility of the powerful. It is the world’s 1% who, due to their elite position, have the most abilityto exercise compassion. Consequently, the world’s 1% (and if you live in a relatively wealthy developed country, you are part of this elite) uniquely bear the moral responsibility to exercise compassion. The exercise and practice of compassion as an action is much rarer than the feeling of empathy, partly because wealth and inequality suppress the expression of compassion. As the world becomes wealthier and more unequal, generosity declines.
Even more unusual is the embedding of compassion into the practices of a society, in other words, through its laws and institutions. Are institutions capable of compassion? Indeed they must be, because if social structures can be violent and oppressive, then it stands to reason that the opposite must also be possible: institutions and laws can be written in compassionate ways, with compassionate ends. It is the public exercise of compassion with which I am most concerned with, because it raises the potential for people to write compassionate institutions and laws. Compassionate laws are necessary because, as suggested, individual empathy can fail – it is temporary, personal, individual and private.
Compassionate laws make it possible for persons to express and act on their feelings of empathy, because they can see that those feelings are socially elevated. The Dali Lama talks about something similar in the Education of the Heart. Compassionate law can help to educate and give permission for people to act on their empathy. To say that law can be compassionate goes beyond a ‘minimalist’ vision of law – that law is only there to level the playing field and justice means equal treatment under the law. Even if law were able to do this leveling, an element of compassion is also essential to the achievement of equal treatment, since law must be attentive to justice. In this sense, human rights law is essentially compassionate in its purpose. Based on observation of the current state of law in the US, it is clearly not able to even achieve the minimal goal of equal treatment or fairness. The gap between law and justice can be reduced with adequate attention to the need for compassionate law.
The kind of compassion I’m thinking about should also be distinguished from altruism, although compassion relies on altruism, they are not identical. Altruism, which is a kind of selflessness, or non-self interested attitude of generosity and giving, is a vital component of compassion, because altruistic motives reduce the temptation to use demonstrations of compassion for self-promotion. Compassionate law is one very effective way to express altruism. Indeed, compassionate law resists self-interested motives by moving altruism from the private to the public sphere and thereby removing the personal motives that might affect compassionate and just outcomes.
The enactment of compassionate law recognizes the innate inequality of human relationships, and works to proactively overcome those inequalities.
Recently, some thinking on giving and charity has been diverted from these concepts of compassion by a concern with effectiveness. Rather than asking how can giving be more compassionate, the question becomes: how can giving be most effective? As one proponent argues: “Instead of doing charity in a way that makes people feel good, effective altruists rely on rigorous, evidence-based analysis to decide how to donate money, where to donate, and which careers are most ethical.” I would argue that this is a diversion. Effective altruists argue using a utilitarian measure: what is good for the most number of people must be the best and most effective form of giving. Using this algorithm, how might one decide between funding one individual’s education and funding a food program for thousands? Probably many more people can be helped with the food program, but over the course of a lifetime what effect might a highly educated individual have, especially if they were able to achieve a position in which they could institute more compassionate laws? The effort to reduce giving to an algorithm sacrifices the element of compassion and arguably undermines the goal of achieving more effective giving. It’s not that effective altruism is wrong, it just kind of misses the point. What is really changed, even if a larger number of people are helped by a given action? There is a risk in reinforcing the status quo and ensuring that giving will continue to be necessary far into the future, violating the goal of achieving truly altruistic giving.
Compassionate laws are necessary because individual empathy can fail – it is temporary, personal, individual and private.
The enactment of compassionate law can, over time and with much learning, come closer to achieving lasting and effective results because it builds-in the principle of altruism by removing self-promotion from the equation. In addition, compassionate law recognizes the innate inequality of human relationships, and works to proactively overcome those inequalities. The human tendency to self-aggrandizement and acquisitiveness is worsened by inequality. Inequality erodes people’s ability to be altruistic and even their ability to empathize. Compassion is needed in a highly unequal world because it is effective, and it is effective because it is authoritative and self-reflexive. The exercise of compassion invites reflection upon one’s own position and relatively good fortune. The proponents of effective altruism are right that relying on natural generosity and emotion is insufficient to make for effective giving, but they are wrong to abandon the idea of compassion, which is needed now more than at any other time of history. This season of giving, consider ways that you might contribute to the establishment of compassionate law, or if this is too ambitious, think about how you can help others express and act on their feelings of empathy, working together with others. For starters, you might consider sharing this post!
The atmosphere on Mars is composed of 96% carbon dioxide, with an average temperature of minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Only 16 of the 39 total Mars missions have been successful. Mars is about as far from habitable as we can imagine any environment. Pretty inhospitable, right? So what is it about Mars that captures the imagination of the public?
As our own planet degrades, are we simply casting around for any alternative, no matter how challenging or unlikely? Afloat on a sinking lifeboat, are we (and by ‘we’ I mean the world’s 2% who have any hope of escaping) planning on being castaways for generations into the future? I think not. I think Mars has appeal for other reasons, and these date back to the era of colonialism in the late 19th century.
Colonialism was the ultimate escape from the uncomfortable truths of home, it glorified a narrative of supremacy and heroism.
From the 1870s to the 1890s European powers fought, pillaged, destroyed, and exploited the peoples and territories variously under their control around the world. Africa in particular was an object of focus, a field of colonial competition and experimentation. Although the forces at work driving colonialism were at least partially strategic, they were also cultural, gaining importance due to broad social trends that gave meaning and legitimacy to an otherwise obviously violent project. At least part of the drive to dominate was an awareness of the losses at home, the shortage of resources and the decline of life quality that had accompanied industrialism. Colonialism was the ultimate escape from the uncomfortable truths of home, it glorified a narrative of supremacy and heroism.
The natural world played an important part in this project. Colonialism was celebrated in the drawing rooms and smoking rooms of English nobility, adorned with the heads of hunting trophies, some beautiful, some made fearsome to elevate the social status of the hunter. The larger and more dangerous the prey, the more remote and unforgiving the location, the more revered was the hunter who made the shot. Check this piece by Maximilian Werner to see how this biosocial dynamic, including its gender dimension, still holds sway. The exercise of domination over nature embedded a narrative of triumph over adversity, struggle and reward, similar to the social Darwinist theories of racial superiority which were also gaining traction as more remote peoples and lands came under colonial control.
As England degraded physically and the environment became more and more polluted by coal smoke, with forests long since cut down and cities overrun with poor migrating for work in the industrial centres, a movement arose to preserve and protect the countryside and the rural way of life. Romantics painted a rosy picture of the village, with quaint gardens and carefully tended homes, and mourned the loss of Hobbiton (OK, that came later, but you catch my drift).
For the colonial mindset, nature could be only two things: it was either a garden, or a wilderness. The garden metaphor viewed the colonies as representative of the quiet English countryside, well tended and cared for, planted and grown with care using the knowledge of scientific methods to regulate the relationships between species. Ecological science, and particularly amateur collectors, made a strong impression by carefully gathering, cataloguing and classifying every new species and specimen ‘discovered’ in the remotest outposts of empire. The endless frontiers would provide valuable information from which to garner wisdom about what had gone wrong in England, and the urge to recreate the Garden of Eden (to somehow earn a ‘do-over’) was strong.
The incorrigibility of Mars is no barrier, in fact it is the fuel for a profound sense of longing and loneliness. Mars is the frontier we’ve already destroyed on Earth, the potential garden which we’ve already mismanaged.
On the other hand, the wilderness represented those areas yet to be tamed. Large areas of Africa were virtually uninhabitable due to disease, climatic hardships, wild animals, and dangerous and resentful local populations. The causes of these hardships were unknown, but not unknowable. Setbacks were common, and did incur some measure of humility and respect for the mystery of nature and the depth of the challenge of controlling what were essentially uncontrollable forces. In the Western part of North America, wilderness was much less threatening, and its imminent loss inspired a sense of strong protection, even reverence, for the ‘natural cathedral’. In Africa, the drive to protect wilderness took the form of hunting reserves where wild animals were protected and cultivated. In North America, it took the form of the creation of national parks with mountain vistas which would be destinations for leisure and health as well as hunting.
So how does the present-day vision of Mars come into this? The colonial imagination of the garden or the wilderness is still present in Western, now in many senses, global culture. Mars is the new canvas for the population to project its longings and dreams, and accuracy is still no part of the picture at all, just as it was with Africa. The incorrigibility of Mars is no barrier, in fact it is the fuel for a profound sense of longing and loneliness. Mars is the frontier we’ve already destroyed on Earth, the potential garden which we’ve already mismanaged.
In an Anthropocene epoch, when nothing on Earth is outside of human influence or touch, our own planet disappoints. As the quintessential mysterious unknown, great status and wealth is to be gained by the race to conquer Mars, regardless of whether it turns out well. Just as the drive to dominate ultimately undermined colonialism itself, so may the urge to colonize Mars destroy not only Mars, but also end up undermining efforts to protect what is left of the only home we’ve ever known. One can argue this point, and perhaps I might be too pessimistic. Might Mars end up being a wellspring of information that might be leveraged to save ourselves and our own planet? Can we learn the real lessons of the wilderness and the garden? I fear instead that we are not departing from the past but recreating it, not because poor Mars might end up being another junkyard (although it’s on the way already) but because we have yet to demonstrate the moral fortitude to be able to see ourselves in Mars.