Saul: The environmental crisis is a moral challenge, not just a practical one


That humanity chooses a path that we can reasonably know will drive hundreds of thousands of species to extinction is obviously an ethical issue.

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The data on rising levels of toxic contamination, destruction of ecosystems, species extinction and global warming is not just a collection of scientific facts. It is an ethical indictment of human values.

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Chemicals from industry and agriculture pollute our waterways; grasslands and wetlands are being converted to farms and urban areas at an alarming rate; and climate change is killing people and destroying and displacing communities. As a result, humanity is driving species to extinction at 1,000 to 10,000 times the prehuman or normal background rate. Dozens of species are disappearing every day.

These horrific developments are no longer the unintended consequences of an expanding human race sleepwalking through history unaware of the toll we are taking on the natural world. These problems are knowable. The consequences are foreseeable. We have the collective choice whether or not to do something about them.

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That humanity chooses a path that we can reasonably know will drive hundreds of thousands of species to extinction is obviously an ethical issue. How we choose to proceed raises deep moral questions about our obligations to each other, to other species, and to our ecosystem.

These problems are knowable. The consequences are foreseeable. We have the collective choice whether or not to do something about them.

Dominant institutions and large segments of society rarely recognize the moral dimensions of social movements in the early stages of a struggle. Even issues such as slavery have been discussed primarily in economic terms – as opposed to ethical – for hundreds of years. It’s hard to imagine, but on the other hand, well-meaning people had polite conversations about whether or not a given country could afford to end slavery, and whether or not women could trust the property.

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Recognizing this, it’s no surprise that most of today’s society is still unable to appreciate the moral implications of climate change and mass species extinction.

Despite our rhetoric and a promising patchwork of inconsistently applied laws, we still tend to treat most cash as if it were essentially our property. Too often we behave as if we were free to bully them or drive them to extinction at our own discretion.

We are just beginning to understand the issues of intergenerational justice emerging from the environmental crisis. Climate change and other environmental issues have obvious implications for our children and grandchildren. They are the ones who will suffer the consequences of any environmental problem that we fail to tackle. Do we have an obligation to avoid harming future generations?

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It is also the poorest people in the world, least responsible for creating environmental problems, who suffer first and most, clearly making the environmental crisis a matter of social justice.

There is an aspect of the environmental crisis – and of all the greatest struggles in history – that goes beyond the jurisdiction of science and politics and exists inside the human heart. It is the difference between what we can know and legislate as a society, and what cannot be resolved by governments. It is the chasm and time lag between action and law enforcement to fight the legacy of oppression, and remove the stain of racism, colonialism, sexism and speciesism from our hearts.

Many social movements evolved as part of a 500 to 3,000 year struggle to conceptualize and operationalize the enlightened idea of ​​”human rights”. People struggle and sometimes die accepting or promoting compassion for the differences that exist between human beings.

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If it is so difficult for us to treat other human beings with compassion and respect, to recognize and truly believe in human rights, imagine how difficult it will be for humanity to find a way to engage all the earth community in a mutually beneficial way. Foster relationships characterized by the respect and compassion that all life on Earth deserves.

We have begun and must continue to not only tackle the scientific and political dimensions of the environmental crisis, but also to lift people out of the ethical quagmire that characterizes our relationship to the natural world.

In the early 1970s, only a few countries had an environment ministry. Today, almost every government in the world has a ministry dedicated to environmental issues, and more than 110 nations around the world guarantee their citizens’ right to a healthy environment.

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In Canada, we have the Species at Risk Act of 2002, which is not yet well implemented, and some countries are even discussing the rights of rivers, mountains and entire ecosystems. In New Zealand, at least three geographical features sacred to the indigenous Maori population have been granted “legal personality”, granting them legal rights similar to those of a person.

Nature doesn’t need us to “fix” it. Free from negative human interference, it will thrive, leading to the inevitable conclusion that we cannot talk about the scale of the environmental crisis without recognizing that human activity is essentially the problem. The current environmental crisis can only be seen as a moral challenge.

Graham Saul is a MetCalf Foundation Innovation Fellow and Executive Director of Nature Canada. Graham Saul’s Metcalf Innovation Fellowship article is titled Environmentalists, What Are We Fighting For?

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