Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril. Kathleen Dean Moore & Michael P. Nelson, Editors (Trinity University Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1-59534-066-5) Review by Susan Clare
Moral Ground is not an “entertaining” book, but it is a very important one. It is as serious as the topic demands; parts of it are downright frightening, while others lend some hope that we can possibly keep Earth from becoming uninhabitable. We don’t feel good while reading it, but we can take solace in the knowledge that the writers are working on behalf of us and of our planet. More importantly, we can be changed by its words.
This collection of essays comes from well-credentialed and varied philosophers, writers and artists, ethicists, environmentalists, economists, physical and social scientists, activists, world leaders, and clergy of diverse faiths. These people should be the illuminati of the movement to save Earth, yet they barely get our attention when we listen to radio, watch television, or read the newspapers. We have to seek out their teaching and inspiration, we have to study them, and we do that by reading this book (as well as publications recommended in their essays).
The essays are brief and are organized into chapters according to reasons for a moral imperative to address the degradation of Earth. Kathleen Moore and Michael Nelson are the finest editors I’ve encountered in some time. Although the powerful essays speak for themselves, the overall effect is magnified by the editors’ well-tailored preface and afterword to each section. One is aware that they believe in, and are passionate about, the essayists’ messages. The editors are integral to this book and have permitted themselves to become a presence in it, an unusual but effective approach in this instance.
The book has a rhythm, thanks to brilliant editing, and should be read chapter by chapter, in order. Begin each chapter by considering the editors’ challenge, and end it on a hopeful note with their call to ethical action. A truism, not ancient, but fast becoming venerable, is Activism breeds optimism.
Written for the lay reader, the essays are not overly technical in nature. Although the facts and figures included are already known to many of us, they are presented to support a new interpretation, a new perception, of available information. How to think about and make sense of information is something we continue learning as we mature, and these writers are good teachers. If one essay doesn’t lead you to a eureka moment, the next one will.
Sometimes making us uncomfortable just as we are congratulating ourselves on recycling our many plastics, the authors urge more. They make the case for our personal involvement, often inspiring us and providing us with arguments we can use when discussing the matter of Earth’s sustainability. More critically, our own habits, desires, and wills can benefit from what we are taught in these essays.
At the beginning of the 21st century, scientists began using a new term for the current geologic era of profound human impacts on the Earth, its systems, and its life forms. Now, great thinkers are addressing the possible end of this Anthropocene Era due to a great extinction of biological life on Earth. Thich Nhat Han says, In my mind I see a group of chickens in a cage disputing over a few seeds of grain, unaware that in a few hours they will all be killed. [NOTE: quotes from essays appear in italics, for smoother reading]
Moore and Nelson clearly lay this extinction at the feet of mankind. The unique and morally outrageous thing about this sixth extinction event is that it was caused by a single species, a single species who knew what it was doing, a single species who could have chosen otherwise but did not. . . The failure to act on behalf of the Earth is . . . a cosmic cutting-off-the limb-you’re-sitting-on-stupidity.
Too late in preventing severe climate change, we may be able to survive it and make future life on Earth possible. According to F. Stuart Chapin III, Recent emissions of carbon dioxide already commit the planet to at least another half-century of rapid warming, which will strongly shape our lives and the ecosystems on which we depend.
Robert Michael Pyle agrees, stressing that we must get small, get local. With luck, the smart and humble adherents of the small and the local may survive to have another go after the larger collapse, may even thrive under the uncomfortable and inconvenient conditions to come. But I doubt very much that the culture we know will long persist, absent truly radical changes in the way it works.
If so much damage is already unretractable, why should we burden ourselves with correction? According to Bill McKibben, a fellow new Englander, We must accept the fact that the world we have known is going to change in hideous and damaging ways–and we must nonetheless work as hard as we can to limit that damage, to keep it this side of complete catastrophe, to save as many options for our descendants as are still possible.
This book contains hard-hitting diagnoses and prescriptions for what we face, beginning with our economic practices and including a bit of history: Any notion regarding our responsibility to maintain natural capital for future generations or to advance economic and technological progress with a sense of stewardship was not present in the 18th-century designs that still drive so much of our economic thinking. (Michael M. Crow)
Our economic mismanagement may well mean the end of us, according to Paul Hawken. At present we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it “gross domestic product.”
No matter how you look at it, politics-as-usual ties into economics. Nearly everyone has complained of various elected leaders being “owned” or of “big-money running the government,” and such complaints have some basis in fact. James Gustave Speth neatly summarizes the issue. Economic growth may be the world’s secular religion, but for much of the world it is a god that is failing today . . . The never-ending drive to grow the overall U.S. economy undermines families, jobs, communities, the environment, a sense of place and continuity, even mental health. It fuels a ruthless international search for energy and other resources, and it rests on a manufactured consumerism that is not meeting the deepest human needs.
As Americans, we are justly proud of much of our history, but the well informed among us are becoming aware that some of our more jingoistic beliefs need examination. In the words of Terry Tempest Williams, We have made the mistake of confusing democracy with capitalism and have mistaken political engagement with political machinery we all understand to be corrupt.
It’s pretty well accepted in Western culture that mankind is intended, by nature or by God, to hold a position of dominance over the world. If there is an interest in our part as stewards of the Earth, write down these words from Marcus J Borg: The good Shepherd is not one who devours all the sheep.
And if we wish to continue consuming at our current rate, we can at least be honest with ourselves, as exhorted by the editors. Even as you lead an unjustifiably consumptive life, it will be gracious to acknowledge that not only are you taking more than your fair share, but your lifelong history of taking more than your fair share has in fact exponentially increased the undeserved suffering of others.
According to Sally McFague, and her information can be learned from many reliable studies, If all people on Earth were to live as North Americans do, we would need four more Earths to produce sufficient energy.
But we can’t even survive–much less mitigate our effect on the world–if we don’t pull together. New habits lead to new ways of seeing, and it may be that we can discover the reality of our dependence on the living world around us only by practicing mutual dependence with others of our species. (Mary Catherine Bateson) It is critical to examine our social system and our often-blind adherence to maintaining it as is. Robert Michael Pyle says, As we saw in the recent economic implosion, the entire social system suicidally depends on perpetual growth.
We have an imperative to imagine how our society, AND the world society, might respond to our ongoing rate of consumption and flagrant disregard of suggested remedies. Again, from Pyle: As the world’s resources of non-renewable fuels– coal, oil, and natural gas– are exceedingly unevenly distributed over the globe and undoubtedly limited in quantity, it is clear that their exploitation at an ever-increasing rate is an act of violence against nature which must almost inevitably lead to violence among men.
Wangari Maathai states, A degraded environment leads to a scramble for scarce resources and may culminate in poverty and even conflict. With all simplicity, we each must ask: faced with hungry and desperate people at my door will I feed them or shoot them? It is a scenario that I hope can remain in our imaginations, but people are not going to peacefully watch their families suffer and die when there’s food to be had, even if it requires theft and violence to obtain.
Sally McShane says that . . . these are threats that people who work in national security are already concerned about and taking very seriously. This is not new information. I have read in other well-documented books that our military has been considering how to protect us from neighboring countries, and from one another, when water becomes scarce. My grandson, asking about the “end times” he hears about in movies, seems to accept my explanation that when we draw our first breath as newborns, we are living in end times, as our sojourn as humans on Earth is finite. The thing is: we don’t know when the end times will become the end. We must live carefully and well, to see that we don’t bring on that culmination ourselves. I think we’d best begin sharing now, and that beginning begins with lessening our own consumption.
The subtitle of this book does mention ethics, and even those of us not schooled in philosophy are capable of examining our own. A basic question-and-answer is presented by Derrick Jenson: When most people in this culture ask, “How can we stop global warming?” That’s not really what they’re asking. They’re asking, “How can we stop global warming, without significantly changing this lifestyle [or deathstyle, as some call it] that is causing global warming in the first place?”
That addressed, we might look to the satisfaction of such personal sea change. . . . Much more catastrophe is on the way unless we learn that sustainability has less to do with developing more efficient ways to exploit nature, and more to do with learning to be happy with consuming less–a happiness that would rise from being held by a sense of wonder toward nature. (John A. Vucetich)
And how do we begin living toward this philosophy? We attend to the world; we embrace a land ethic proposed by frequently quoted Aldo Leopold; and we meet the needs of the entire Earth, not just homo sapiens. M. Scott Momaday says, We must live according to the principle of a land ethic. The alternative is that we shall not live at all.
We cannot do this unless we deeply and permanently feel that we are not separate from nature, that how we treat her is how we treat ourselves. J. Baird Callicott states that The ethical paradigm that meets the challenge of global climate change must shift the emphasis in moral psychology from reason to feeling.
Having begun an internal discussion of our ethics with regard to Earth (which, remember, includes humanity), we looked for direction in our behavior. “To do nothing is to do something”—namely, to assent to existing trends and entailments. (Ernest Partridge)
We have to act with humility before our interdependence with the rest of the natural world, to . . . cultivate moral dispositions of gratitude, humility, and solidarity. These dispositions are at the core of an ethic of radical dependency and interdependency that must supplant historical models of anthropocentric authority without accountability. (Courtney S. Campbell)
However humble, however strong our solidarity with nature, we do have to act. . . . with all the world at stake, it’s foolishly and reprehensibly irresponsible to rely on some miraculous transformation we all know won’t happen. We need to act, and we need to act decisively. The miracle we’re waiting for is us. (Derrick Jenson)
I’m afraid adequate action does not rely entirely on the intentions of our forefathers or our own good heartedness, valuable as these are. It rests, at this stage of our ongoing deconstruction of Earth, with our actions. It is not enough to “go greener.” We must save the Earth and its inhabitants, from amoeba to human.
I promise that there is hope in the book, as well as a tearing away of the veils of habit. Jonathan F. P. Rose says, We live in an interesting time in history, when the world’s economy is rapidly in decline, when many are reducing consumption to what they need rather than what they want, finding that the reduction is giving rise to a new sense of value and values.
While admitting the severity of what Earth must endure, Bernd Heinrich pleads for optimism that we can make the difference. . . . sudden, sustained, and unrelenting disruption of this scale has not been seen on Earth before. You can’t go back or backward, we are told. Yes, we can. The question is only whether we will. Will we do it slowly and deliberately, getting it right along the way? If not, it will come upon us later, and calamitously.
Curt Meine, lamenting what’s come to pass, places the responsibility for hope on us. From time immemorial hope has been a joyful human response to geological, orbital, and environmental flux. Now hope must become more and more a human creation.
Certainly, Earth will survive, but will it remain capable of supporting biological life? We are destroying a symbiotic relationship here and we haven’t the right, as we are doing so for all life, not just ours. Moral Ground is a lengthy book (478 pages), though mercifully divided and organized for orderly reading. I wonder, though, if it’s doomed to be read only by the already converted. Will a busy person read a book that is slow going and calls into question his morals as well as his daily practices? Will the person struggling to get ahead, or even maintain a lifestyle, let himself in for a book that doesn’t validate his practices?
Life’s hard enough? Well, it’s going to get harder. For nearly every biological life form except the few very rich humans who will be protected, at least until the rest of the people, animals, and plants can no longer support them as we’ve been doing with such dedication.
I think of myself as teachable, and so find the essays in Moral Ground worthy of study. I didn’t read fast and I didn’t read straight through in a few sittings, but I did begin to feel changes in my worldview. The most poignant perception came after reading essays on the beauty and utility of what comprises my world. I looked out my suburban window at a large oak tree, acknowledged its aesthetic and practical usefulness, its nature-given right to survive and do its work in nature.
Surprise! I began to feel, yes feel, that the tree and I are living in the same reality. We are together in it. And, I am not inherently ugly in form or purpose any more than the tree is, though I am easily accused of neglect where Earth is concerned. This I will remedy, refining the ethics of my practices as I go.