Ethical Obligations on a Tortured Earth: Should We Continue to Make Babies? Part. I

James Ensor — ‘Skeletons Fighting Over a Pickled Herring’

No Harm Done?

The nadir of an irreversibly damaged climate looms ever closer as a possible future. The pressure and demand for action similarly aggregates. Whilst the path to climate redemption has barely seen its first few slabs paved, the compulsion to emit less and to act greener is no longer limited to a few concerned environmentalist parents, virtue-desperate celebrities, and ozone scientists. Political elites and corporations (and those who dally with and within both camps) are now taking stock of the burning world and boiling seas. Maybe we can attribute the negation of this denialist attitude in part to the simple fact that Bangladeshi sweatshops don’t function optimally underwater, or maybe motivations are genuinely altruistic — who knows.

But whilst Ferrari have promised us a fully electric vehicle by 2025 and Amazon have pledged to be net-zero by 2040 we shouldn’t be satisfied with having the fate of the planet rest in the lap of Big Business, even if it is these corporate powerhouses (and their intersection with the political sphere) which can truly make a dent in the problem placed before us. Individual action should still, arguably, be at the forefront of those mindsets which are, apparently, conscientious.

Not everyone is of this view however. Both everyday person and academic polemicist have taken the view that individual actions are often so insignificant in the ‘grand scheme of things’ that there are little (if any) moral obligations to reduce carbon emissions through eliminating a certain number of our own, personal actions. ‘Why should I switch to energy saving bulbs, or sit in my living room freezing cold, when office blocks are lit 24/7, and private jets are flying about?’ the semi-rhetorical battle cry, typically peppered with expletives, would oft, and still does, ring.

It’s true that wasting plastic shopping bags and indulging in fast fashion from the Philippines isn’t as damaging as being frequently hoisted through air with the power of aeronautics. It’s similarly true that the emissions involved in a lot of our individual everyday actions are unbelievably minute (in fact barely recognisable) when placed alongside heftier tallies of corporate, national, or global emissions. With this in mind, are we, as individuals, really doing enough harm to the environment to be morally obliged to stop or reduce our everyday activities?

Individual Harms

What can be missed, however, and I do find it amazing that this point is so prone to be missed, is that whilst individual actions aren’t sufficient to produce recognisable changes in world temperature (disallowing hypotheticals of lunatic forest-fire-starters, or billionaire jet-racing, of course), collective actions (i.e. the actions of millions) clearly are sufficient to affect global environments and climates. Both technically and literally, it is these individual behaviours which form the totality of collective behaviours.

With this in mind, it seems foolhardy to suggest that the conduct of each and every one of us is somehow removed from the causal chain of warming the globe. Individual tendencies towards consumerism, wasteful plastics, and fossil fuel consumption all contribute towards harms when the (collective) quantities involved are considered. It shouldn’t matter that it currently remains impossible to accurately (i.e. empirically) trace links between our personal behaviours and alterations in the ozone layer or biosphere. All that should matter is that there are joinable dots between individual action, collective actions, the byproducts of collective actions (like enormous quantities of CO2 being produced) and changes in the environment.

Further, we might suggest that not only are our individual actions damaging in the raw physical consequences they produce, they are also harmful in terms of certain ideologies which they help to propagate and reinforce. Envision the following: my recycling bin goes AWOL one day. Stolen by bored youth, accidentally wheeled off by a neighbour, who knows. It’s gone. I don’t have a considerable use for the recycling bin anyway as I don’t bother with food shopping, I’m part of the Pret-for-Breakfast-and-HelloFresh-for-Dinner gang. So I leave it, I don’t order a new one through the relevant council channel. As a result of my (in)actions, the small amount of recyclable waste which I produce through my home life just gets rammed into my regular bin along with everything else, where, unsurprisingly, it doesn’t stand a chance of getting recycled.

Not recycling the (admittedly minimal) plastics I use means that new (unnecessary) plastics enter into circulation, the production processes of which are associated with further carbon emissions. Let us assume also, for argument’s sake, that these associated emissions amount to practically 0% of global emissions per annum. Even in spite of this incredibly minor harmful contribution, wasteful habits like these may still contribute to ideologies which serve to ‘justify’ or at least normalise wasteful activities in general. In being wasteful I promote — and potentially appear as justification for — wastefulness. On the contrary, if I were to visibly abstain from being wasteful (and instead appeared carbon conscious) this may serve to unsettle other damaging convictions and proclivities. In short, it might help foster more environmentally favourable beliefs in the minds of others.

If it’s ideology which underpins our actions, then the importance of contributing to (or challenging) a given number of beliefs might be one of the most impactful behaviours we can take on. As hinted at by the proposals of Ferrari and Amazon, when opinions begin to be reformed en masse then corporations, industry leaders, and government agents begin to shift to and align with the market, consumers, and the populace more generally — even if only to preserve self-interest. At the risk of sounding like a pseudo-profound proverb (the sort of which you might find posted on LinkedIn) you could say that ‘enough bee stings can make the bear change paths’.

To deny the causal potency of an individual act is to fail to take into account the nature of what collective harms are constituted by, similarly, it is to overlook how the expression of individual ideologies are the starting point for wider shifts in belief. Only be appreciating the role of the individual (even if difficult to pinpoint with exactitude) can we begin to prompt the behavioural changes required for influencing larger-scale acts of mitigating (and adapting to) a warming globe.

So, No Kids?

Whilst the conclusion just now reached smacks intuitively of a purely positive application, it does open up a question surrounding the demandingness of moral duties more generally. For instance, if behaviours like taking the car for a typical ‘Sunday drive’ (a dated example I know, but a relatable one, I trust) or ordering cheaper jeans from the Philippines are now recognised as entirely wasteful emissions then they equate to harms.

And if it can be illustrated that even these minutely harmful behaviours (in the grand scheme of things) contribute towards collective harms and damaging ideologies then there is arguably a duty, a moral obligation, to refrain from said behaviours. If there are obligations (to refrain) relating to these relatively innocuous behaviours then presumably it also follows that there are a slew of other activities and lifestyle choices — which are at least as damaging for the environment — which we must similarly abstain from. It seems we can forget about flying on holiday.

In a sense, by illustrating that there might be duties to avoid committing small harms, we run the risk of overburdening ourselves with corollary duties to avoid undertaking other activities of equal or greater harm. We might worry therefore that because, commonsensically, moral conduct requires sufficient motivation to do the correct thing, these ethical burdens will reduce us to a state of disagreement (with the existence such duties) or simply to a point of resignation and inaction.

If it ends up, then, that our entire daily operations — the routines that we and those immediate to us have come to both admire and rely on — need a serious restructuring then it remains unlikely that such moral obligations will be embraced, rather, the more expectable outcome is one entirely contrary to this.

Now you may be thinking that this is in fact the exact response demanded by the scale of the problem. The greatest moral dilemmas face the greatest sacrifices, and, at times, the greatest restructuring of society. With a continually growing awareness of how our individual actions impact the planet things we once took as little liberties, enjoyments, and guilt-free pastimes are prone to come under scrutiny, and part of this scrutinising contains the need for a reconsideration on whether or not these ‘little liberties’ are justified. These seem reasonable enough points, but what if this particular environmental dilemma required us to forgo one of (if not the most) fundamental human functions?

Procreating is singlehandedly the most environmentally damaging thing we can do. The amount of carbon emissions and resource depletion associated with human beings (particularly ‘Western’ individuals, or at least those in the northern hemisphere) related both to their own conduct and to all the societal infrastructure required to support them throughout their ever increasing lifespans and luxuries, is staggering. Tons and tons of CO2 are now tied to the modern person’s existence, even if we attempt to ‘live green’.

The estimates do vary quite significantly, but, annually, the average associated CO2e (the ‘e’ meaning ‘equivalent’, a broader term which captures other greenhouse gas emissions) for a ‘Westerner’ is around 14 tons. That’s about the same as driving 26,000 miles per year. Times this average figure by the equally average lifespan of an individual and the numbers start to get really daft. So, where does the fact that having a child equates to 2 million miles being driven actually leave us?

Motivational concerns — concerns over whether we can bring ourselves to do the right thing — are amplified massively when we consider both just how environmentally damaging it is to procreate, and that, in light of this damage, whether or not it is an activity we must refrain from. Remember, the reasoning goes something like this: if ethical duties to refrain from X are premised on the harms associated with X, then it follows that (arguably) the strongest moral duty (which we are subject to) dictates we should not be having children.

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