Tackling ethics in an ecological emergence(y): the importance of vigil(ance)

Emergence and emergency don’t just sound the same. They encompass a parallel set of initiatives, the urgent and the critical, the calling for attention, the insistence of vigilance in what is arising into awareness. In thinking about the ecological emergency, which includes climate change and biodiversity loss and all the associated suffering, but also the human reactions which include attitude and ideological polarisation, I eschew an ethical approach. Ethics won’t save us since its grounded in ideology, and ideology leads to polarisation. I believe in this god, you don’t, so our views are fundamentally divided. You’re a hypocrite because you don’t live up to the values you ascribe to. I’m a nihilist because I have no values. So the vitriol spews and we spin into further realms of suffering. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/21/world/middleeast/israel-palestinian-rap-video.html

In environmental ethics terms, attempts to describe what to do in moral or ethical terms only creates further layers of difficulty. Robin Attfield (2003), described and outlined the spectrum of responses to the ecological crisis as running from anthropocentric stewardship to ecocentrism. Each response depended on where it located value and this has become the core feature of debate and contention: does it lie only in the sphere of human existence and understanding? Is it a feature of individual sentience that can it therefore be extended to include other so-called ‘higher’ animals? Or is it an emergent characteristic of harmonious relationships? If you think about it hard enough, though, it becomes clear that we’re not separate from either the air around us, the water we ingest, the land that crops grow on, or the fact that everything that comes out of us stays in the system we are enmeshed in. And that’s not even to begin thinking about attitudes that shape these circumstances, including how we treat one another, other species, and the systems that created and sustain us. Any ‘centrism’ suggests a centre – but the centre has no substance. It’s a mesh!

Garett Hardin used an ethical characterisation of the response to limited resources to defend his account of the ‘lifeboat’ ethic that says we can only protect a few. How easy that is, when you’re in the boat. For the rest of us, primarily impoverished and disenfranchised in the global South (but, as we have recently experienced, also in the global North), we’re at sea. The vast majority of us have little control over how we source the material from which we extract energy to survive – land, farming and forestry, building materials (including highly polluting cement factories), petrochemical companies, pharmaceuticals that take materials and blend them into medicines, transport and communication mechanisms that enable us to eat tropical fruit in the winter in Ireland or buy into currencies that are virtually untraceable. We have little control because we are part of the mesh, the substrate is us. We can only look at it when we take a particular perspective: one of vigilance.

Elinor Ostrom responded to Hardin with practical examples that undermined his image of the grasping desperation that dictates a tragedy for the commons but Hardin, like others before him, including Charles Darwin, depended on the Malthusian theory of population boom and bust to advocate a contracting field of moral responsibility. What she was really talking about was self awareness, awareness of our partisan point of view, vigilance and attention that allowed the conversation to continue despite different and often conflicting interests. This is what we need to learn to do.

If we can subvert the issue of what moral obligations we have to the non-human world, and even to one another, entirely, then these problems become illusory. Instead, we can consider other ways of deciding how to act that are independent of ethical judgments. These ways require understanding how we communicate compassionately. We may not be able to do it all the time, we may stumble and fail, but it’s a practice. It’s bringing attention to our own shifting and morphing place in the mesh that allows us to see, to realise, to create enough space to honour that another has come to their point of view for just as many arbitrary reasons as we have. That doesn’t make them wrong and us right. It gives us a place to start seeing what we can do from here.

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