First they came for the low-lying island states…

Climate Ethics

I moderated a student-organized panel discussion several weeks ago about making the best, or maybe just making sense, of a bad situation.

I was joined by Bill McKibben (co-founder of and Middlebury’s very own environmental scholar-activist in residence), Rupert Read (an environmental philosopher and key proponent of Extinction Rebellion), and Kim Cobb (an oceanographer and lead author of the grim climate report released by the IPCC late last year).

The panel discussion starts around 20 minutes into the video, following some introductory comments from myself and President Laurie Patton. My prepared remarks are copied below the video.

“Welcome everyone, and thank you President Patton for those remarks.

It wouldn’t be quite right to say that it is my pleasure to be with you here today, given the circumstances — specifically, the sort of preposterously grave seriousness that defines our subject matter. But that kind of incongruity is just how we have to do it in environmental studies these days. Occupational hazard.

It goes without saying that our subject tonight is positively rife with trigger warnings. You read the blurb.

But that is precisely the topic of our discussion — that is, facing up to certain things, which we will try to name and to wrestle with together over the next hour and a half: with earnestness, with courage, and with all the compassion we can muster as we confront the experiences of discomfort, and anger, and heartbreak, and fear, and that grasping at that perennial question of “what is to be done?”

And, all the rest of the things that come with thinking deeply about today’s accelerating planetary-scale environmental transformations and the ongoing decimations of human and non-human life encompassed in them.

As we let those “revolutionary implications” President Patton just gestured at sink in, when we really allow ourselves to dwell on such a recognition, it can in my experience begin to feel a bit overwhelming. And yet it is vital and so very necessary.

Such acknowledgements have this habit of demolishing all kinds of rarely examined, taken-for-granted idle presumptions about the future, containing these bewildering ramifications. It forces serious re-evaluations — like in the most practical of terms! — of how exactly you’re supposed to understand your place on what you’re now told is a dying world, what can (and should) be done about it, and basic decisions about how to live and find your way in it.

So what are we facing? Well, there’s global warming. And I assume many of you have by now seen those scary hockey-stick shaped graphs depicting something more particular than just ‘global warming’. What they depict is a runaway, point-of-no-return, kind of a problem: that “doom loop” of mutually reinforcing positive feedbacks and chain reactions, from melting permafrost and ocean acidification to ecosystem collapses and disappearing ice sheets, together with their fire-and-brimstone manifestations — the escalating disruptions of wind, fire, floods, drought, extreme heat, anoxic dead zones, and myriad other biblical-sounding forms of chaos arising from all these processes working together in concert.

So what we now call “climate change” is a capacious term whose aspects are sprawling. Thus, our conversation today is going to be a bit more pointed in some important ways which we’ll move through one-by-one, including:

  • How to negotiate — in an embodied, creaturely sort of way — the wrenching, affective emotional gut-punch, the grief and mourning that comes with facing the present. We often get lost in climate models and policy cycle diagrams and whatnot;
  • The pedagogical challenges for us here in places like Middlebury — as students, as educators, as those struggling to find a meaningful outlet for these anxieties: where and how, exactly, to ‘make it count’ at this dire, eleventh-hour, all-hands-on-deck, “Hail Mary” kind of a situation;
  • and of course, questions of hope, what it is (or isn’t), why we need it (or don’t) and where we might go about finding such a thing;
  • and others (our students came up with some fantastic questions which I am eager to hear our panelists explore).

With your permission, I’m going to use my prerogative as moderator to highlight one particular theme, which centers questions of injustice and inequality at the heart of our understanding of this momentous historic crossroads, our sense of its character, of how we got here, and where that all leads.

An anecdote. I will never forget the day right after the 2016 election, walking in a daze through the Berkeley campus, where I was a grad student at the time. I found myself in this impromptu rally that had spontaneously formed, growing into this big crowd on Sproul Plaza in the middle of campus full of demoralized freaked-out people. I remember some faculty members setting up what looked like a karaoke machine, attached to a portable amp, taking turns holding up the amp, and taking turns giving voice to the anguish and solidarity many were feeling in that moment gazing into an uncertain future.

I remember a Jewish-German historian who took the mic to read us a poem. Many of you will know it. It was by Martin Niemoller, remarking on the disastrous complicities of those swept up in the early 20th century’s ascendant fascisms, culminating in wars and genocides and devastation: a haunting admonishment to those who could have but for whatever reasons didn’t do something when they had the chance.

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

While her immediate point was clear — of the urgency of solidarity, of mutual aid, of protecting the most vulnerable against what was about to happen — I sensed in that moment, in her decision to share this poem, that she was also giving voice to the analogous forms of violence being promised by climate change.

Standing in that crowd, I involuntarily began to fill in other verses in my head:

Then they came for the low-lying island states, and I did not speak out — Because I did not live in a low-lying island state

Then they came for Puerto Rico, and I did not speak out — Because I did not live in Puerto Rico

Then they came for swaths of Sub-Saharan Africa, and I did not speak out — Because I did not live in Sub-Saharan Africa

This is what Naomi Klein stressed in a recent speech (commemorating the work of Edward Said) where she emphasized the urgency of anti-colonial, anti-imperialist thinkers in apprehending the climate crisis. Drawing on these thinkers, she stresses how certain places, and certain people, come to be “othered” — whether by race or class, gender or geography — designated, in other words, as disposable: as worth sacrificing. Because stopping climate change at 2 degrees Celsius — a point beyond which those “other people,” those “other places,” sink forever beneath the waves, succumb to endless storms, or cook in unsurvivable heat — is simply “too expensive” for those most insulated from such consequences and those who are, simultaneously, the most responsible for shoving all those greenhouse emissions into the atmosphere in the first place. “Let them drown,” Klein paraphrases.

I invite you to ponder these brutal exclusions and how intrinsic they are to the climate crisis. They force us to reckon with these very real, very acute forms of violence, with how we are all implicated in different ways in these violences, and with the disturbing realization — especially for those of us just starting to face it — of our own forms of complicity and consent in this decisive moment to a system which has these predictable consequences and really, desperately, must be made to turn out otherwise.

While this othering has always had the genocidal implications that it does, the scope of that sacrificial “other” now finally threatens to widen and to engulf everyone and everything — to expand and encompass even those who have regarded themselves safe and protected from it (for now, perhaps). This logic — the “sacrifice zone mentality” as Klein puts it — not only expresses the worst dehumanizing rationalities that have been so central to colonialism, to white supremacy, to empire, to so many forms of domination and oppression and violence: it now also virtually guarantees the collective ruin of all.

You can imagine that final verse:

Then [our overheating planet] came for me — and then there was no one left to speak for me.

But! While it’s very late in the game, this observation only heightens the urgency of finally overcoming precisely this complacency, of finally facing what needs to be faced, and finally figuring out how to make a break for it together before the moment passes.

Our task is to recover from this predicament something that is analytically honest and rigorous in its reckoning of where things stand — not flinching, not averting our gaze, but looking right into it — yet, also, recovering from it something that is more than paralysis, more than nihilism, more than despair: the basis for meaningful action.”