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Ethics before economics: Towards ecological justice

We are seeing the emergence of a new wave of Climate Capitalism, driven by the new market for green technology, carbon-trading, technology transfers and adaptation funds, writes John Samuel. But surely the ethics and politics of climate change need to precede the economic calculus of climate change?

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You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, it is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled upon  

  --  Jesus (Mathew 5:13)

Every part of the earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people.

We know the sap which courses through the trees as we know the blood that courses through our veins. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters. The bear, the deer, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the dew in the meadow, the body heat of the pony, and man all belong to the same family.

-- Chief Seattle (1852), in response to a US government inquiry about buying tribal lands

We are face to face with an impending ecological crisis. As we finish the first decade of the 21st century, the planet and earth and the forces of nature are staring at us with a sense of revenge. Revenge against the injustice of exploiting the earth and all that belonged to the earth in our search for pleasure and profit. The impending ecological crisis raises profound moral questions about the choices and patterns of our life, about the development paradigm as well as about our universal responsibility to each other, the earth, and the biosphere. 

It is time to locate the real crisis of food and the economy within the context of the impending ecological crisis that can harm the very sustenance and future of the earth. The ongoing discussions and debates on global warming and climate change should help us think beyond the immediate technical negotiations on climate change, to the larger ethical crisis that confronts the essence of humanity and human civilisation. It is time to develop effective moral and political responses based on a shared commitment to ecological and planetary justice. 

Issues related to global warming and climate change acquire a sense of urgency in the context of the ongoing negotiations in relation to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The ongoing discussions and debates on climate change have multiple subtexts of political economy, international politics and the paradigm of development. Climate change negotiations and discussions clearly bring out the unequal and unjust relationships between the rich countries in the global north and countries at the receiving end of colonialism, an extractive economic relationship and poverty. The discourse also signifies the ongoing economic and political tension between the rich countries and emerging economies such as China and India, though it may not necessarily be in the interests of the large number of citizens in these countries.  

Though everyone is concerned about the disastrous effect of global warming, at the core of the climate change negotiations are the economic interests of the economic and political elites in rich and emerging countries. The subtexts of climate change negotiations are the politics of technology, the market, trade, economic growth and aid architecture. On the one hand, rich countries are keen to capture the market for ‘green technology’ through the old trinity of aid, trade and debt. And on the other hand, there is a concern that the emerging economies of China and India will further exacerbate climate vulnerability as well as the market potential of the rich countries. 

Technical discussions and priorities on adaptation and mitigation are often a smokescreen for the underlying political economy of climate change. Mitigation in terms of a clear commitment to quantifiable reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and adaptation to meet the challenges of climate change should form the twin pillars of an effective response strategy. The rich countries and civil society formations and aid agencies often place more stress on adaptation strategies in poor countries. This is important. However, advocacy for adaptation strategies in poor countries without the necessary political pressure within the respective countries for quantifiable mitigation measures points to the doublespeak even among civil society actors in the global north. 

While in the last 20 years new forms of disaster capitalism have emerged, there is indeed a possibility of the emergence of a new wave of Climate Capitalism, driven by the new market for green technology, carbon-trading, technology transfers, adaptation funds etc. Multiple actors of the state, market and civil society, are beginning to smell new opportunities in the emerging markets for ‘green technology’, adaptation funds and potential opportunities for economic growth. 

On the one hand, poor communities and countries are at the receiving end of climate injustice, changing weather pattern, natural disasters, decreasing food production and unprecedented scarcity of water. On the other hand, there is an economic development and consumption paradigm that undermines the very sustainability and biodiversity of this planet. While on the one hand there is a lot of talk about the disastrous effects of global warming, on the other hand there is fierce economic competition and a political tussle between the rich and emerging countries to reap the harvest of the anticipated climate capitalism. These dichotomies and paradoxes are at the core of the moral and ethical dilemma posed by the ongoing discourse on climate change. 

Climate change and natural disasters do not respect the territorial boundaries of nation-states. Hence, it is important to take the ongoing discourse beyond the narrow confines and interests of the nation-state to a moral and ethical plane of ecological and planetary justice. It is important to locate the discourse within the framework of human rights and social and economic justice. The issue of global warming raises a deeper moral dilemma: isn’t it immoral to promote an unsustainable consumption-based economic growth model that would have disastrous consequences for coming generations as well as for the very sustainability of the planet? 

Without discussing the core problem of unsustainable and unjust consumption and an economic growth model that survives on the extractive relationship between rich and poor countries, and rich people and the earth, we cannot have a morally viable discourse on the politics of global warming and climate change. The ethics and politics of climate change need to precede the economic calculus of climate change. Hence, it is all the more important to bring the issue of human rights and justice to the heart of the discourse on global warming. 

Removing injustice demands the advancing of justice. Hence it is time to talk about ecological and planetary justice. The root of justice is ethics. These ethical roots of justice are to a large extent derived from inter-faith legacies. Justice constitutes a set of moral conditions and choices to advance fairness through equality of human persons, human dignity, capability as well as universal human responsibility to each other and to the sustainability of the biosphere and this planet. 

Human rights are universal, indivisible and inalienable. Justice, too, is indivisible. The justice perspective precedes the human rights perspective in many ways. Regarding the right to food, we must consider both ecological justice and economic and social justice as these are indivisible; you cannot talk about one without the other. The issue of economic growth cannot be discussed without understanding the historical and ecological injustice at the core of the extractive power relationships of colonialism, imperialism and exploitation. 

From the perspective of ecological justice, the impacts of climate change are unequal and unjust. Poor countries and poor people have contributed least to climate change but are affected the most by its consequences. G8 countries create more than 40% of emissions. China and India will soon overtake the G8 countries in this respect. Poor people and island nations are already experiencing the adverse effects of variations in weather patterns. Recently, millions of people in the Philippines have been affected by tropical storms and flooding. We must be aware of these impacts and what it truly takes to mitigate them. The irony is that even the new enthusiasm of various conferences on climate change has a high carbon footprint. Many of us fly in for these discussions and stay in air-conditioned hotels, eating imported food.  

There is a profound irony in the ongoing development paradigm which is based on energy-intensive and high carbon-emission technologies and lifestyles, and at the same time is trying to find solutions which have the same problem. As long as we – our lifestyles, modes of transport and modes of consumption -- are a part of the problem, how can we find a viable solution? Without altering the content and character of the development paradigm -- that is still based on the industrial and extractive character of the modern capitalist model – how can we make any meaningful change? 

Interfaith perspective on ecological justice

Without discussing modes of living, modes of production, modes of consumption, modes of technology and modes of economic growth, how can we have any meaningful discussion on ecological and planetary justice? This deep paradox between the walk and the talk, deeds and words, reality and aspiration, raises the issue of a moral vacuum within the mainstream climate change discourse 

The interfaith perspective on justice and human rights will help to build a more ethical discourse. The idea of human dignity is the cornerstone of human rights and justice. The notion of human dignity can be traced to various ideas and experiences of the divine. In almost all religious and faith traditions, one can see an affirmation of human dignity as well as the idea of the divine. In that sense human dignity can be seen as a reflection of the divine -- a reflection of a universal ideal, omnipotent and omnipresent, beyond time and space. 

The bridge between dignity and divinity is the constant search for truth and freedom -- a perennial source of human creativity and exploration. The ethical as well as existential link between human beings and nature signifies

an eternal planetary communion, a commitment to share the resources of nature -- air, water, earth, trees, forests, rivers, hills, birds, animals and every expression of life, the entire biodiversity and all living species. The notion of sharing is what makes such communion an ethical act. This divine compact of planetary communion is violated and broken by the human greed to accumulate, acquire and subjugate. 

The ethical act of sharing is displaced by the exploitative acts of extractive accumulation, subjugation and injustice. The violation of the compact of planetary communion between all living species is symptomatic of a moral crisis -- the erosion of divinity as well as human dignity in human lives and choices. 

When the Bhagavad Gita says ‘Loko samstha sukinobhavnthu’ (let all in the world be well), it reflects a primordial commitment and compact of planetary well-being and communion. The Vedas and Upanishads clearly talk about the life-centric perspective as distinct from an anthropo-centric worldview. In the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus said: “You are the salt of the earth” (Mathew 5:13), it was to remind us of the human responsibility towards the earth and other living species. Salt is the metaphor of life, sustainability, preservation, and shared resources, symbolising the elemental and life-constituting character of human responsibility. In Islam, Buddhism and all other faith traditions, one can trace the same ethical assertion about  universal human responsibility. Saint Francis of Assisi helped us to understand divinity and spirituality in a sort of mystical union of human beings with all living species. In fact, this ethical assertion of human responsibility is what makes justice and human rights eminent moral choices of our times. 

An inclusive ethical commitment to the sustainability and well-being of all living species is at the core of planetary justice: a part and parcel of universal human responsibility. Ecological justice is an expression of the universal moral human responsibility to all earth and all expression of life -- on the land, in the water, in the air, and within the sea or on the tops of mountains. 

Infochange News & Features, November 2009