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“Tenet” and Intergenerational Environmental Justice

image of Tenet movie poster

[SPOILER WARNING: This article discusses a number of plot points of Christopher Nolan’s latest film.]

Earlier this month, Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated new movie, “Tenet,” released on virtual platforms. Tenet includes time travel, weapons of mass destruction, and a stereotypical Russian bad guy. The film follows the story of an ex-CIA agent living in the present who must prevent the destruction of all of human history by future generations. The protagonist’s main mission is to obtain and hide an algorithm created in the future which will enable future generations to reverse cause and effect through a process called entropy inversion. Though the plot tackles many complex concepts, it leaves one relatively unexplored: the motive of future generations to completely annihilate their ancestors in order to reverse the uninhabitability of earth.

Is time travel ethical? If possible, would it be unethical for future generations to interfere with the actions of their ancestors? How should we interpret Tenet’s intergenerational environmental justice?

“Tenet” is by no means the first film to examine moral quandaries of time travel. From “The Terminator” to “Groundhog Day,” time-travel movies, often drawing inspiration from novels, have been steadily present since the 1980’s. These films often give the protagonist the ability to time-travel in order to save the world, re-examine their decisions, or even to remedy their past mistakes. The ethical questions posed by these films often focus on the protagonist’s decision to time travel, rather than the morality of time travel more generally. And usually, those who time travel face potentially grave consequences on their present and their future, depending on the decisions they make. As time travel is currently impossible, and there lie many logical paradoxes within the concept, this question has not been heavily debated. However, for the sake of argument, assuming that time travel is possible and that it is possible to change the past and impact the future, when might doing so be ethical, and when might it not?

If one believes the best moral outcomes from time-travel are positive impacts on the future, time-traveling would be considered morally positive when one time-travels in order to maximize social good for the most people. Though time travel is in many ways, linked to cause and effect and therefore consequences, it could also be considered morally positive if it is a way for society to gain knowledge. Such knowledge could be based on our distant past and ancestors to more accurately understand history. Time travel could also be used, if not to interfere, to solve mysteries, either on an individual or collective basis.

“Tenet” applies time travel to flip the normative narrative of intergenerational justice on its head by asking the question: what if future generations could fight back? Intergenerational justice appeals dominate ethos marketing of the modern environmental movement, especially concerning climate change. At the core of these appeals is the central moral tenant that it is wrong to predestine harm, in the form of environmental destruction, for those who have no agency in this decision. While many see our obstinance to curb climate change and environmental destruction as a deep irrefutable moral harm to our descendants, whether or not future generations have a moral license to retaliate is a different question entirely. Such a question though, is not dissimilar from many ethical questions we currently face in regards to self-defense, retribution, and sacrifice.

“Tenet’”s choice to interplay climate change as the reason for the future’s desire to destroy the past makes the question of its morality far more complex, as it is a reaction to a ruined world rather than an offensive aggression. Future generations fighting back might even appeal to those who view environmental destruction as the defining moral issue of the current age. If viewed in this manner, the “war” occurring in “Tenet” is less between the past and the future, and more between environmental destructors and the victims of this destruction. Those familiar with environmental justice and its modern movements, might see the antagonists as fighting for environmental justice, and see the protagonists as the true wrong-doers.

Of course, “Tenet”’s time travel plot comes with the caveat that future generations are incorrect about “The Grandfather Paradox” and in reality, will cause humans to go extinct if they succeed in obtaining the Algorithm. However, assuming that future generations were not incorrect, and the environment could be “reset” by wiping out the human ancestors, is doing so unethical?

The answer to this question might rely on knowing the full consequences of doing so. Inability to predict consequences is often the dilemma inherently posed by time travel. However, if wiping out human history leads to even greater future human stability and success, those with consequentialist leanings would likely believe future generations’ desire to obtain the Algorithm is moral. However, the unknown consequences of using the Algorithm might be enough for many to argue that destroying human history is not justified. Even in a scenario where humans faced inescapable extinction, wiping out the humans of the past with no guarantee of survival in the future might be too large of a risk to take.

From a retributive standpoint, wiping out the humans of the past might be justified even if it did not necessarily lead to better consequences in the future. If one views the antagonist future generations as activists fighting for environmental justice, one could argue that such extreme actions are justified, as past humans deserve to be wiped out. Some radical environmentalists, such as those in The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, suggest that one day, humans should initiate their own extinction in order to restore environmental stability. Though many disagree with this stance, the antagonists in “Tenet” are not trying to end human existence, but rather, to further it, by erasing the past. In a way, the core issue at the heart of the film is whether or not our past is worth sacrificing for a better future. The attempt to erase the future envelops many of the same moral wrongs that climate activists take with our current destruction of the environment: robbing individuals of the ability to survive. The actions of the antagonists might also be viewed as self-defense rather than retribution, as they are fighting back in order to undo the wrongs which have occurred.

Lastly, the question of the antagonist future generations decision to wipe out the past, rather than to convince past generations to change their actions, or to focus on wiping out the biggest contributors to environmental destruction, might be viewed as immoral. “Tenet” takes place in modern day, with the future antagonists set many generations in the future. Countless environmental organizations, individuals, and nations have joined forces in the past few decades to combat climate change and environmental destruction in general. Some of us are trying, despite the pushback. In addition to this effort, the question should also be asked: who is truly responsible for the environmental destruction of which future generations now suffer?

It is rather easy to subscribe to narratives which purport that we are all equally responsible for climate change and environmental destruction, but this way of approaching responsibility in environmental collectives fails to recognize both the quantitative differences in our impacts, as well as the existence of economic power and political structures which give individuals relatively little control over their impact on the environment. This is not only problematic in wiping out all individuals in the current era, but also those in the past, who had no knowledge of nuclear arms, climate change, or pollution. The lengths to which the antagonist future generations are willing to go, by wiping out all of their ancestors, punishes pre-industrial humans for the actions of their descendants. Though humans have been committing large-scale environmental destruction arguably since the dawn of agriculture, both the invention of nuclear fission and the rapid release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere really kicked off the type of long-term environmental destruction which will likely be responsible for the majority of future generations’ grievances.

Should future generations fight back to preserve humans from extinction? If so, who and what should they sacrifice to do so? Though time-travel is not yet possible, it need not be for us to ponder such ethical questions. The best approach to answering these questions can likely be found in turning to the modern environmental justice movement, and the activist ethics employed in fighting for a healthy environment for those in the modern era, as environmental destruction has consequences now as well as the future.

The Coastal GasLink Pipeline

photograph of pipeline through open land with mountains

Tumultuous times in Canada as protests and blockades have brought to light a very complex set of moral issues. At the center of the turmoil is a natural gas pipeline running through the territory of the Wet’suwet’en in British Columbia. Approval for construction was given by twenty elected band councils (including the Wet’suwet’en) along the proposed route, but it has been denied by some of the hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en. Opposition has led to protests and blockades, court injunctions, and then further protests and blockades of rail lines and bridges in eastern Canada in solidarity. This issue now involves factors ranging from environmental effects, the rule of law, the future prospects of reconciliation with First Nations in Canada, economic effects, and the political priorities for Justin Trudeau’s government.

The proposed pipeline project is worth over six billion dollars and could introduce several economic benefits both to Canada and to the region in British Columbia where construction would take place including about 10,000 jobs. Coastal GasLink has signed economic benefits agreements with several First Nation groups. This is part of the reason that several prominent members of the tribe support the construction. It will bring hundreds of well-paying jobs to a region that needs it. On the other hand, the pipeline carries natural gas which means that there are environmental factors to consider as well. If completed, the pipeline will have the capacity to move 2.1 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day with the potential to eventually expand to 5 billion cubic feet. While supporters of the pipeline will point out the relative environmental benefits of natural gas compared to alternatives like coal, it is still carbon that will be burned. Also, like any pipeline there is the possibility of breakages and leaks which could cause additional harmful environmental effects.

Beyond environmental and economic concerns, the issue is complicated because of disagreements taking place within the First Nations community as a whole. Part of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s agenda when it comes to Indigenous issues is to build a nation-to-nation relationship between Canada and First Nations. However, it isn’t clear right now who speaks for the Wet’suwet’en. 20 elected First Nation government bands and some hereditary chiefs support the pipeline, while other hereditary chiefs remain opposed. The issue is made more complicated by the fact that the elected band councils are an imposition created by the federal government under the Indian Act. Because of this, the approval of the band councils is problematic. Critics charge that the councils are a colonialist imposition and question the moral and legal authority of the councils to offer approval. On the other hand, those council members and other Wet’suwet’en people have voiced their support for the pipeline and disapproval of the protests. This has resulted in a situation that is splitting families. As David Chartrand of the Manitoba Metis Federation points out, “The elected chiefs and councils and hereditary chiefs need to sort out amongst themselves who has governance of their territory.”

In addition to the economic, environmental, and political concerns of the pipeline itself, there are additional legal issues involved with the protests. This issue isn’t new as there have been previous blockades established to prevent construction. However, court injunctions have required that these blockades be removed. Those who oppose the blockades argue that the issue is a matter of the rule of law; the courts have ruled these blockades be removed and they have not done so. In addition, the protests and blockades of rails lines in eastern Canada have created further legal problems as protestors try to prevent trains from passing by throwing fire and debris at moving trains. Conservative politicians have compared the situation to a state of anarchy.

However, the issue is complicated by the fact that in many cases these protests and blockages are mostly on land that was never legally ceded to Canada. Canada’s Supreme Court has also ruled that First Nations legal systems continue to be valid. Depending on which legal authority takes precedence, the Wet’suwet’en may be within their rights to try to remove people and equipment from their land. In areas of Ontario (such as Belleville) where rail lines are being blockaded a similar concern exists.

Within the rest of Canada there are the complicated moral and political choices about how to respond. Canadian police have a controversial history when it comes to Aboriginal affairs and in breaking up protests. And this history may be driving the reluctance of the federal government to break up the blockades. The presence of the RCMP has been responsible for preventing negotiations to settle the matter. On the other hand, the blockades of rail lines will prove to be harmful to the Canadian economy. They have resulted in shutdowns of passenger trains as well as freight trains. It is estimated that $425 million in goods is being stranded each day. Farmers could lose payments because they aren’t paid until products are delivered. Hundreds of (and potentially thousands of) employees of the Canadian National Railway have been laid off. The Trudeau government has asked that people be patient, but a recent poll shows that 61% of Canadians oppose the blockades. Conservative politicians have called the government’s response weak, and because the government only holds a minority government, an early election could be forced at any time.

So to recap: the issue currently taking place in Canada involves the potential to bring economic prosperity for some who need it, harm the environment and contribute to global warming, it requires understanding who has the authority to represent the people of a given territory, it is splitting up families and communities, it involves determining how to deal with conflicting legal systems, the livelihood of thousands, trying to chart a new path in Canada-First Nations relations, and requires a delicate balance to reassure a public who is growing less patient by the day that something concrete is taking place to resolve the matter, all while trying to prevent an early election. It is safe to say that this account only scratches the surface of just how complicated this issue is from a moral perspective in terms of what should be done. Perhaps this is why there will be no “quick fix” to this according to the government liaison on the matter. However the issue is resolved it will have far reaching effects for future Canada-First Nations relations.

“Phantom Champion” Memorabilia and Global Justice

photograph of 49er flagbearers celebrating on field

On February 2nd, the San Francisco 49ers were defeated by the football team from Kansas City (Missouri) in Super Bowl LIV. Almost immediately after the game ended, Kansas City players and coaches were sporting t-shirts, hats, and other celebratory memorabilia trumpeting their team’s victory. Clearly, in order for them to be ready when needed (for both post-game merrymaking and for sale), the souvenirs needed to be created well in advance – long before it was known that Kansas City would end up the victors. Presumably, the losing side of the field held a similar shipment of now-inaccurate collectibles heralding the triumph of the 49ers. What happens to this “phantom champion” memorabilia? And what sorts of ethical questions might it provoke?

The answer to the first question comes in two parts: in many cases, souvenirs made unmarketable by a team’s loss are donated to charities that distribute the clothing to parties in need; in some others, they are simply destroyed.

In both cases, although certainly some fans would jump at the chance to purchase tchotchkes celebrating a history that never happened, sports leagues are interested in preventing such merchandise from entering the secondary market; as a representative for the Major League Baseball Association explained in 2016, their choice to trash memorabilia celebrating Cleveland’s (nonexistent) win over the Cubs was motivated by a concern to “protect the team from inaccurate merchandise being available in the general marketplace.”

More frequently, rather than simply letting such materials go to waste, leagues have coordinated with non-profit groups to distribute the clothing to people in foreign countries or who have been victimized by natural disasters. As Jeff Fields, then-representative of a charity which has worked with the NFL in this way, explained in 2007, “Where these items go, the people don’t have electricity or running water. They wouldn’t know who won the Super Bowl. They wouldn’t even know about football.”

Which, for all of its humanitarian veneer, might suggest something less-than-morally-praiseworthy about how phantom champion materials are handled: either they simply go to waste (thereby contributing further to the problems inherent to “fast fashion”) or they work to perpetuate what Teju Cole has called the “White-Savior Industrial Complex.”

In the case of the first, recent years have seen much attention given to the problem of low-quality, inexpensively-produced clothing and other textiles ending up as landfill waste. Not only does so-called “fast fashion” (named for its ever-increasing speed of turnover to match ever-more-quickly-changing trends) produce upwards of 10% of humanity’s carbon emissions, but the fashion industry is the second-largest consumer of water in the world. Many of the products targeted at fast-fashion consumers are made with polyester or other fossil-fuel-derived synthetics and washing these clothes introduces a significant amount of microplastics into the water supply. Overall, somewhere on the order of 85% of all textiles produced globally end up in landfills each year. Insofar as the NFL, MLB, and other professional sports organizations dump their undesired merchandise straight into the trash, they are directly contributing to problems of pollution and climate change.

Regarding the second, in critiquing American sentimentality that “is not about justice…[but]… is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege,” Cole directly channels W.E.B. Du Bois’ criticisms of “whiteness” as that which patronizingly treats the Earth as being under the care of white people. Even – and perhaps particularly – when acting as a “caretaker,” whiteness exudes the “assumption that of all the hues of God, whiteness alone is inherently and obviously better than brownness or tan…even the sweeter souls of the dominant world as they discourse with me on weather, weal, and woe are continually playing above their actual words an obligato of tune and tone.” Writing in his essay “The Souls of White Folks,” Du Bois continues, “Then always, somehow, some way, silently but clearly, I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!” When American corporations disguise their garbage disposal as “humanitarian aid” and pat themselves on the back for donating unwanted products that, arguably, should never have been produced in the first place, it’s hard to avoid cynicism when assessing their motivations – particularly when they patronizingly excuse the distasteful design of their gifts by belittling the targets of their supposed concern. “They wouldn’t even know about football,” indeed.

Certainly, there is much about the state of modern American football that is well-deserving of criticism; its unnecessary environmental waste is simply one more item on the list. This year, the NFL pushed to approach a zero-waste certification for the host of the 2020 Super Bowl (though it is worth noting that “zero waste to landfill” is not the same as “zero waste”); eliminating the problems posed by phantom champion products (even if that requires foregoing immediate merchandise sales) would be another small step in a positive direction.

Is This an Emergency?: Why Language Matters

image of emergency road sign

Last September, the UN Secretary General António Guterres delivered an address on climate change, calling it a ‘climate emergency’ echoing the terminology employed by the prominent climate scientist Prof Hans Joachim Schellnhuber.

The language we use matters a great deal; and itself has ethical implications.

Given the severity of the situation: warnings coming from a raft of recent reports from agencies such as the IPCC and the UN, have scientists sounding the alarm that human society is in jeopardy from the heating atmosphere, the accelerating decline of the Earth’s natural life-support systems, and other forms of ecological destruction, it is manifestly necessary to speak about the situation with an appropriate level of alarm and urgency.

There is a concern that the media have, for decades, failed to adequately report the dangers of greenhouse emissions and the scale of their increase. In fact it seems clear that some of the mainstream media – primarily right-wing and conservative presses – have been chronically under-reporting on the dangers of climate change while deliberately subverting the problem with skeptical reporting.

Many governments have been treating the issue with the same mixture of obfuscation and ignorance. In the past several years some have become much worse, notably America under Trump and the Australian government now under Scott Morrison. Morrison, recently responded to the impassioned speech given to the UN Climate Conference by Greta Thunberg by saying that “the climate change debate is subjecting Australian children to “needless anxiety.”

The first ethical implication of language choice is about truth. If we have any hope of addressing this issue, then the truth must be widely, openly, and adequately acknowledged.

It is the responsibility of government, in its role as sovereign state, to inform its citizens. Democratic governments have this responsibility in virtue of the fact that the people are needed in order to grant authority legitimacy. To function in this role, citizens must have the relevant knowledge to choose the right candidates and correctly instruct them in how to serve the community. (A free press has a democratic responsibility in this regard as well. A free press is only free when its agenda is not set by special interests.)

Recently, The Guardian made a decision about changing some of the language it uses to report on the climate and ecological emergency, introducing: “terms that more accurately describe the environmental crises facing the world.” Instead of “climate change” the new terms are “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown” and “global heating” is favored over “global warming.”

We’ve used the term ‘climate change’ for several decades in reference to what is also often called ‘global warming,’ or sometimes ‘the greenhouse effect.’ But, to many, this terminology makes the problem sounds like a gradual, natural, and passive event. But in reality we are now using it to denote something that has been caused and is rapidly being accelerated by human actions – so is neither gradual, nor natural.

António Guterres told the gathering of leaders in September 2018: “We face a direct existential threat,” adding that we have until 2020 to change our behavior or “we risk missing the point where we can avoid runaway climate change, with disastrous consequences for people and all the natural systems that sustain us.” Given that this is the case, the language of crisis and emergency is not alarmist – it is warranted and necessary.

Professor Richard Betts, of Britain’s meteorological monitoring organization, has called for a change from ‘global warming’, which many have also noted sounds rather too benign, to ‘global heating’ which more accurately reflects the reality of what is happening.

Future life on Earth and future and present human society is now in serious jeopardy. With so little time left to turn the situation around, we are going to have to start acting like it is an emergency, but complacency is still rife, and it is now the greatest barrier to urgent change.

Language has been part of the complacency, and changing the language we use is necessary for action. To combat the problem, we first need to understand our situation, and to do so we must be able to name it. We also need to reorient ourselves in the way we talk about our current predicament to reflect the fact that the effects of climate change are happening now.

The outcomes will be so bad that there is no other mode to adopt than emergency-mode if we are to mobilize in time, and our language needs to reflect that. We can talk about ‘climate change’ and then turn back to topics of ordinary life – we can drift away from ‘climate change.’ But we cannot as easily drift away from an emergency. Once you start talking about an emergency, about breakdown and collapse, then it is much harder to turn away. We are in a crucial moment – a window of opportunity, a vanishing window, we can ill afford to turn back to other, everyday subjects.

We need for our language to be unequivocal about the seriousness of the situation; to help reduce cognitive dissonance and allow us to conceptually make the connections we need to make in order to act. That is why the question of what we are calling this is a moral question.

The analogy of the burning house, evoked by Thunberg in her speech, is apt here:

The building is on fire, and all occupants need to move very quickly or face serious injury or death. If in that situation I merely say to the occupants something like: “it’s getting warmer in here” instead of something more like: “the house is on fire, quick, run for your life!” then I have essentially lied to them through omission and am guilty of moral negligence.

I can say I didn’t at first know it was on fire, or did know but didn’t believe the situation to be serious, it will still be surprising that it has taken so long to reach the conclusion that the building is on fire and we must get out. That is, as soon as one comes to the conclusion that we are in very serious trouble, one immediately wonders how we can possibly be in such serious trouble when we could easily have prevented from becoming a serious problem.

On one view, our language ought to change as the changing situation demands; but one wonders where we might be if our way of talking about the situation (our way of comprehending it) reflected its seriousness from the beginning.

Those are very important questions, and the answers we can provide to them might in the long run have a bearing on our continued survival – but not if we don’t get out of the burning building now.

There seems to be a clear moral duty here for governments, the media, and whoever else is participating in the discussion to tell it like it is – to stop softening the truth. That duty is, I believe, connected with any hope we might have of taking urgent action to mitigate the impending crisis. In one sense our language-choices seems immaterial – this is an emergency, whether we say so or not. But our survival probably depends on our saying so and then acting like we mean it.

Climate Emergency and the Case for Civil Disobedience

photograph of "to exist is to resist" mural

In Plato’s Republic, during a sustained dialogue on the nature of justice and the structure of a just society, Socrates remarks that we are talking of no small matter, but of how we should live. If that question remains central to moral philosophy, any contemporary answer the question of ‘how we should live’ must acknowledge that to ask it in ‘our’ time is fundamentally different from asking it in any other time in history. The question of what a good human life is in an age of environmental crisis cannot be answered without considering our individual and collective responsibility to mitigate the damage which no longer lies ahead of us, but which is happening now.

Governments, policy makers, corporate institutions, et al, have failed to respond to decades long warnings from scientists that CO2 emissions from industrial and domestic activities pose serious risks to human life and human society, to the world’s ecosystems and perhaps ultimately to much of life on Earth. Those scientists, conservationists and activists who have understood this, have nevertheless failed to effect the change necessary to prevent an ecological and climate emergency. There are complex reasons for these failures, and though it is vitally important that we try to fully understand them, I will not speak to them here.

I want to focus on the urgent question ‘what do we do now?’ by considering the response emerging from the new and quickly growing environmental mobilizations such as Extinction Rebellion in which people are beginning to resort to techniques of disruption and civil disobedience in the face of governmental and systemic inaction. Are these measures necessary, are they are morally justified, and are they perhaps even morally required?

Civil disobedience (which I shall assume is necessarily non-violent) has historically played an important part in effecting change, as for instance in the suffragette and the civil rights movements. In one of the most famous endorsements of civil disobedience, Henry David Thoreau (in 1849, after refusing to pay taxes to a government which legally sanctioned slavery) wrote:

“All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to and to resist the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable.”

Thoreau’s point is simple and obvious: morality or justice does not necessarily line up with the law.  Are we reaching a point now at which the inefficiency of governments and the tyranny of corporate interests have become unendurable; where the refusal to adequately address the climate emergency can no longer be tolerated?

A brief (and incomplete) survey of where we are paints a sobering picture: The latest report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that countries must triple their emissions reductions targets to limit global heating to below 2C. Even a 2C increase is not safe, but on the current trajectory heating is likely to result in an increase of between 2.9C and 3.4C by 2100. This will bring about catastrophic climate change globally. The social and geopolitical outcomes of such a scenario are deeply frightening. Rising seas will displace billions of people. Not only will costal habitations be inundated, arable land will be poisoned by salinity and made barren by drought. The effect will be devastating, widespread famine, which, along with water scarcity, will almost certainly cause political instability and conflict. It is likely that humans cannot adapt to an increase of 4C.

Clearly, urgent and serious action is needed. Two of the things that most threaten the possibility for action lie at opposite ends of the spectrum of responses to these predictions. The first is climate denialism  – including the views that climate change is not real, is not caused by human activity or that the likely effects are being wildly exaggerated. The other is climate defeatism – the view, (espoused by Jonathan Franzen in a recent article) that we are already too late. However, many argue that there is still a cause for hope because there is still a window in which to act to keep warming below 2C. Scientists and activists including Tim Flannery and Naomi Klein, are calling for radical action because that window is small, and vanishing quickly.

The question of what kinds of radical action we need brings us back to the question of what role acts of disruption and civil disobedience can play, and how those actions are to be morally reckoned with, given the situation we face.

Civil disobedience can be defined as “a public, non-violent and conscientious breach of law undertaken with the aim of bringing about change in laws or government policies.” The main objection to engaging in civil disobedience is that in a stable, functioning democracy there are effective and non-disruptive pathways to change through campaigning and electoral process. Indeed, the democratic system itself is based on the principle that citizens hold a type of sovereign power in that governments receive their legitimacy through ‘the will of the people.’

But what if democracy is not functioning properly? What if politicians, rather than representing the views and interests of their constituents, seek to dictate those views and interests. And what if they do so to advance their own views and interests? For democracy to function properly, for a citizenry to be self-determinate, citizens need the opportunity to make informed choices about their own welfare. People can only make informed choices if they are in fact informed, and governments have a responsibility, which they are currently abrogating, to tell the truth.

The Australian government is not telling the truth about the climate emergency, and has absolutely no intention of addressing the problem. It is resisting and frustrating renewable energy investment while actively pursuing new fossil fuel projects, of which coal is a major part. In Australia (as elsewhere) the powerful vested interests of the fossil fuel lobby have direct lines to government. The country’s policies and laws under these circumstances do not represent the best interests of the people but rather, at their expense, advance the interests of the few. This triple whammy of government obfuscation, policy inaction, and active support of heavy carbon emission activities is creating intense anger and frustration for climate realists from across the political and social spectrum, and support for disruptive, direct action is rapidly growing.

There is, of course, the question of how creating disruption by, for example, blocking bridges, swarming intersections and surrounding government buildings or corporate offices, would achieve the desired results. On one hand it is unlikely that the government will cave to the demands of protestors. On the other hand, Extinction Rebellion’s sustained protests across London in October 2018 resulted in the UK government declaring a climate emergency. Some dismiss this as merely symbolic, as indeed without meaningful policy change it is – but nevertheless, it is not nothing, and it has given impetus and hope to the movement for solving the climate crisis.

Those engaging in acts of civil disobedience do not know with any certainty if these tactics can or will work, but they do know that ordinary, legal forms of protest can not now be effective enough quickly enough. In this sense civil disobedience is a resort taken by people to express their anger and frustration at a destructive and intransigent system. Disruptive action has a cost – to the individuals risking arrest by disobeying the law and also to society. Those taking such action recognize that the stakes are very high, and that the costs of inaction are far greater.

I do not think it is difficult to make a case that under these circumstances civil disobedience is morally justified. Can we, though, defend the stronger claim that it is morally required?

Ahead of the September 20 School Strike for Climate, an open letter was published from over one hundred Australian academics from a variety of disciplines and universities endorsing and supporting Extinction Rebellion and its activities. The letter concluded that:

“When a government willfully abrogates its responsibility to protect its citizens from harm and secure the future for generations to come, it has failed in its most essential duty of stewardship. The ‘social contract’ has been broken, and it is therefore not only our right, but our moral duty, to rebel to defend life itself.”

This statement clearly makes the move from acts of civil disobedience being justified to their being required – as a moral duty. Though I agree with the claim, its defense is trickier.

For example, exactly whose duty is it? Who is morally required to engage in civil disobedience? Even if someone feels that they, morally, have no choice – are they justified in making that demand of others? Our moral intuitions would suggest that there are reasons for rejecting that inference. And this appears to put it – as a moral duty – into conflict with one of the fundamental features of moral duties, which is that they are universal. If I recognize something as a moral duty for myself, then, all things being equal, I recognize it as such for others as well.

I do not see this as an insurmountable problem for the claim that we have a moral duty to rebel against a fundamentally unjust system in the face of looming existential catastrophe. Perhaps one way of fleshing out an answer would be to return to the ‘all things being equal’ clause. Perhaps also there is a way to acknowledge that while each person must freely choose – and be free not to choose – to take such action, there is still a collective responsibility governing the moral musts. These are difficult philosophical issues and they require further reflection.

I began by saying that at the core of ethics is the Socratic question of what it means to live a good human life. Humanity is at a crossroads, and how we understand Socrates’ question, and how we choose to respond to what it asks of us, needs to be reassessed in light of where we are. It seems clear that, given the current situation, living a good human life cannot mean going about one’s business as if the world might not be ending.

The Ethics of Climate Change Protest: Should Protest Be Funny?

climeme protest sign

The Global Climate Strike, which took place last September and involved over 150 countries, counted nearly 4 million young people among its numbers. This admirable show of support perhaps seems less shocking given the increasing prominence of young people in climate change activism. Greta Thunberg is perhaps the most famous of these, but others like Autumn Peltier and Xiye Bastida have also become important advocates for the fight to save the planet.

Because political protest itself has become increasingly visible online, signs from the climate strike inevitably went viral. The vast majority of signs spoke to the unblunted rage and helplessness inspired by political ineptitude (a perfect example, seen in the header of a Vox article on the climate strikes, simply reads “DON’T FUCKING KILL US”). However, many other drew on the language of memes and online humor to articulate frustration. In one example, a teenage girl holds up a sign with the words “THIS IS NOT WHAT I MEANT WHEN I SAID…DIE LIT” floating above a planet half-engulfed in flame. Another sign reads, “Winter is Not Coming,” a distortion of a Game of Thrones quote that has become a meme in itself. These signs, and many others like them, require fluency in the language and culture of social media. Almost all young people are equipped with this form of literacy. As Bridget Read notes in an article for The Cut, “Gen Z has a knack for incorporating its politics into its internet-inflected, ironic, and earnest self-expression so uncannily, so it’s to be expected that its IRL signs would be as funny, charming, and devastating as the best ‘climemes’.”

Read coins a startling new word in that last sentence, though climate change memes were hardly invented by the protests of last September. While “climemes” is a useful way of describing the ever-growing phenomenon of climate change memes, it should prompt us to ask what the moral ramifications of “memeifying” political protest are. Does humor have a place in our collective reckoning with the environmental catastrophe, or does it impede active and sustained engagement in social change?

On the one hand, memes are more likely to be seen by younger people who aren’t already actively engaged in environmental activism. Because they are made to be shared, memes certainly increase the visibility of issues like climate change for a diverse audience. If many people didn’t read lengthy articles about the climate protests, most at least saw images of funny protest signs on their Twitter feeds. However, memes inherently have an expiration date, and it eventually becomes blasé to share older memes. Given that climate change will have long-lasting ramifications, is such a short-lived format really best for fostering long-term engagement?

This leads into another question, of whether or not memes encourage those who share them to physically participate in activism. The idea of “armchair activism,” or activism that involves nothing more than sharing information with others online, has become controversial in recent years, but one could argue that sharing memes falls under this category. However, it should be clear that the protestors who make such signs are by no means working against their own cause, or that encouraging engagement is even the goal of climemes. A bitter sense of humor may be all we have in the face of looming catastrophe, a way for us to vent frustration and grief.

This issue is rooted in a much older debate about the overall purpose of humor. Aristotle, for example, was skeptical about the purpose of humor, and separated it sharply from tragedy. In Chapter 5 of The Poetics, he states that,

“The tragic and the comic are the same, in so far as both are based on contradiction; but the tragic is the suffering contradiction, the comical, the painless contradiction […] the comic apprehension evokes the contradiction or makes it manifest by having in mind the way out, which is why the contradiction is painless. The tragic apprehension sees the contradiction and despairs of a way out.”

His argument is that both tragedy and comedy are rooted in contradiction. This could be the contradiction between appearance and truth on which much of comedy hinges, or the contradiction between desire and reality which is often at the center of tragedy. Contradiction is just one thing climate change protests are pushing back against; namely, the contradiction between grim reality and the insulated world in which many politicians are living it, the contradiction between the urgency of the situation and the lack of response to it.

Aristotle’s definition of humor vehemently excludes pain. However, the kind of humor utilized by protestors has a painful edge. As Aristotle said, tragedy and humor are closely linked, but as climate change alters every aspect of life on earth, the lines between tragedy and comedy become indistinguishable. This is evident in all climemes, and whether or not circulating them is fully ethical, their existence speaks volumes about the modern day tragedy of environmental destruction.

ANWR, the Alaska Permanent Fund and Eminent Domain

photograph of stream and mountain range in Alaska

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge sits on the northern coast of Alaska, covering over 19 million acres of what is considered the last example of pure wilderness left in the world. Home to iconic species, such as the polar bear, porcupine caribou, and the gray wolf, ANWR is a symbol to many of the undisturbed landscape that once spanned Alaska and North America. The Coastal Plain of ANWR is considered especially important, since it not only provides critical habitat to endangered species like polar bears, but is considered a sacred place for the Gwich’in people of Alaska.

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