Friday, September 5, 2014

Stranded Ethics




Robert Jay Lifton, author of Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima, wrote an op-ed for The Sunday New York Times called The Climate Swerve, pointing out the sudden shift in awareness towards the existential threat we face from our careless destruction of the atmospheric commons.

In his earlier work on Hiroshima, Lifton observed that such a shift occurred some years after the bombing, when the full extent of its horrors became more widely known. Before then, it was, while unfortunate, morally okay under the rules of war to blow up or incinerate civilian populations, as the allies had been doing beginning with the firebombing of Dresden and then all over Japan. The Bomb's victims' shadows, etched in pavement, and the torments of the hibakusha  did what Picasso's Guernica and Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five had failed to do. It transformed mass civilian incinerations into something that was morally reprehensible, auguring the Cold War.

Of course, just because it is now universally considered morally reprehensible does not stop rogue states from mass-slaughtering civilians with radioactive weapons in places like Falujah, Fukushima, Gaza or Doniesk but nonetheless the public is now outraged when it learns of these crimes, and it wasn't as much before. Governments are forced to go to lengths to keep these atrocities secret and to obscure the truth when it is hinted at. Lifton wrote:
"With both nuclear and climate threats, the swerve in awareness has had a crucial ethical component. People came to feel it was deeply wrong, perhaps evil, to engage in nuclear war, and we are coming to an awareness that it is deeply wrong, perhaps evil, to destroy our habitat and create a legacy of suffering for our children and grandchildren."

There is something more important in Lifton's essay than the "swerve" that the author is trying so hard to sell as a meme. Almost as a throwaway he uses a phrase that has a much deeper resonance. He calls the ways people regard moral crimes before the swerve "stranded ethics."

Stranded ethics: ethics that governed our collective decisions but have now lost their relevance.

Yes. We need to leave behind the stranded ethics of the 20th century the same way we need to leave in the ground the stranded capital assets of the fossil fuel companies and countries.

Our stranded ethics were based on growth at all costs — the prime directive of capitalism — and damn the environment, damn social justice and fair share, damn the future consequences. What counts, according to obsolete dicta from an industrial age, are share values, net worth, market share, competitiveness, national pride, ethnic pride, war footing and profits über alles.

In the stranded ethics of the past, it is more important to have routine unemployment to support all-volunteer armies than to pay a minimum wage adequate to support a family; it is more important to return value to shareholders than to protect the air and waters surrounding a manufacturing facility; and it is more important to give corporations civil rights than to regulate influence on the regulatory process, such as by making huge donations to sway an election.

Lifton says, "We may well speak of those shareholder-dominated principles as … better left buried but at present … all too active above ground." 
"It is a bit like the old Jack Benny joke, in which an armed robber offers a choice, 'Your money or your life!' And Benny responds, 'I'm thinking it over.'"

To truly inhabit the 21st century we will all share a common epiphany: that we have reached the Age of Limits and the Era of Consequences. We are at or soon approaching that inflection point. Here, now. From that shift it will follow as inexorably as night follows day that the ethics of the past are not just passé, but counterproductive. Anyone clinging to them will be regarded as a fool, a fossil and a social pariah.

So for instance, if you encounter someone who still thinks nuclear power is a good idea, they are still clinging to stranded ethics. If you encounter someone at a wedding telling the bride and groom it would be good to have more than two children, they have stranded ethics. You can be a little more compassionate towards them, especially if they are elderly, because you can appreciate what they are going through, having to change their whole approach to the world and still live with the horrible decisions they made earlier in their lives.

Someone who thinks it is okay to have that third kid, to donate money to a biotech wing at a university, to not compost their kitchen scraps, or to throw away lots of plastic like they didn't know where it is going — has stranded ethics. Eventually peer pressure will catch up with them.

Fishermen who use purse seine nets have stranded ethics. Japanese "whale researchers" have stranded ethics. Rhino horn cocktail consumers have stranded ethics. Very soon regulations and public opprobrium will catch up to them.

Homeowners who lease their back yards to frackers have stranded ethics. Poisoned wells and defaulted rent checks will catch up to them. People who work at car dealerships that only sell urban land cruisers have stranded ethics. The public will simply have stopped buying those behemoths.

Keeping 73 prisoners who have been exonerated of any crime imprisoned for years without trial or right of counsel after being found innocent by judicial review, for years, and then subjecting them to daily torture by shoving oversized and unsanitary plastic tubes down their noses when they protest, even on the day you admit, "We tortured some folks," thinking you were referring to a dozen years earlier and some other administration, not to the hundreds of people you tortured repeatedly that very same day for speaking up in protest, is stranded ethics.

Crimes such as these have well-established mechanisms of justice, that, while painfully slow, have no statute of limitations and apply as equally to Heads of State as to their minions. Toadies who coddle such war criminals as "the least worst alternative" have stranded ethics.

The late Zenmaster, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, in Zen Mind Beginners Mind said it is important to understand that Zen is nothing special. Any roshi will say the same. There is no attainment. Just sit. Nothing special.

As the ethics of the 20th century become stranded, the ethics of permaculture will become invisible. Permaculture will become the new normal. It will simply be taken for granted.

Permaculture is nothing special. Acting ethically towards future generations is nothing special. Living today as if there really is going to be a tomorrow is not a fringe activity. Just do it. Already, everyone else is starting to, too.

A version of these remarks was extemporaneously delivered at the opening plenary of the 2014 North American Permaculture Convergence on August 31, 2014. The full plenary can be viewed at http://youtu.be/r1vImekf4XI

 

No comments:

Friends

Friends

Dis-complainer

The Great Change is published whenever the spirit moves me. Writings on this site are purely the opinion of Albert Bates and are subject to a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike 3.0 "unported" copyright. People are free to share (i.e, to copy, distribute and transmit this work) and to build upon and adapt this work – under the following conditions of attribution, n on-commercial use, and share alike: Attribution (BY): You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work). Non-Commercial (NC): You may not use this work for commercial purposes. Share Alike (SA): If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same or similar license to this one. Nothing in this license is intended to reduce, limit, or restrict any rights arising from fair use or other limitations on the exclusive rights of the copyright owner under copyright law or other applicable laws. Therefore, the content of
this publication may be quoted or cited as per fair use rights. Any of the conditions of this license can be waived if you get permission from the copyright holder (i.e., the Author). Where the work or any of its elements is in the public domain under applicable law, that status is in no way affected by the license. For the complete Creative Commons legal code affecting this publication, see here. Writings on this site do not constitute legal or financial advice, and do not reflect the views of any other firm, employer, or organization. Information on this site is not classified and is not otherwise subject to confidentiality or non-disclosure.