By Susan Johnson
Approximately 200 people assembled in Rock Valley College Student Center Saturday evening, Oct. 30, for a seminar based on the new book, Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril. The event was hosted by Four Rivers Environmental Coalition.
Don Miller, representing Four Rivers, welcomed the crowd and introduced the speakers. Main presenters were editors Kathleen Dean Moore and Michael P. Nelson. John A. Vucetich, a professor of animal ecology at Michigan Technological University, also gave a brief presentation about “Wolves, Ravens and a New Purpose for Science.”
Following is a summary of comments by Moore and Nelson. Environmentalism is a fundamental moral issue, much of which is drowned out by scientific and economic issues. The writers wanted to focus on two main premises, and premises have evidence. Scientists have reached a conclusion about climate change, but they present this data and then wait. Very little happens. They redouble their efforts and present the data again, and nothing happens again. They fret about their communication skills, but it is actually a logic problem.
Two kinds of premise
You need two kinds of factual premise—a descriptive, empirical premise and a normative, ethical premise. From these two concepts, you can arrive at a conclusion, but not from one alone. The writers believe that if we do not act anthropogenically, environmental changes will bring serious harm to the future. Once the first and the second premises are put together, one cannot escape the conclusion. We urge people to do the work of the second premise. Who articulates your values? Artists, professors, leaders, families and churches all do.
This is what political conversation involves. We need a second conversation about the second premise. People say, “Why are you worrying about ethics? Ethics never solved anything. You are out of touch. What really matters is economics—the almighty dollar.” But this is a misreading of history. When we have made these great turnings, it is because of the rising wave of affirmation, such as the Revolutionary War, the emancipation of slaves, women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King had a dream about justice flowing down like mighty waters. We are called upon to create this rising tide of moral affirmation for future generations. We can turn in the directions we need to go to preserve a full life for the future.
The book is based on the second premise. What do we actually value? Why do we think it’s wrong to wreck the world? Do we have an obligation to the future? We ended up with about 100 voices [presented as chapters in the book]—affirmations of the obligation. Then we thought that’s great, but 100 voices is hardly enough. But we need both premises to facilitate a larger conversation. So we took that question on the road to present the evidence. We collected data but also wanted to facilitate that conversation in these town hall meetings. What came through clearly is the singularity of voices.
On the topic, “Do we have an obligation to the future?”, people from six different continents (excluding Antarctica) agree. Every religious perspective, business leaders, philosophers, those whom people look to for moral guidance agree—there was a great monism in our answer, but a great plurality of why. This fell into sections in the book. We weren’t looking for the right answer but a plurality of answers. There is something right for everyone.
What is our obligation?
Do we have an obligation to the future to leave a world as rich as our own? Yes, for our children. We need to protect them, and if climate change and environmental degradation are manifestly harmful to them, we have an obligation to avert those harms. Environmental degradation threatens the foundation of human survival, which is a deep value. Therefore, we have an obligation to avert the degradations that threaten us. We have to enter the argument of why it is wrong to destroy the material base of a culture.
Beauty—the world is beautiful and full of wonder. One section of the book indicates that one reason not to wreck the world is its beauty. We need to act in ways that preserve the world’s beauty and wonder. There are two kinds of knowledge; one kind helps us to do good things and live sustainably. But this knowledge can also be used to exploit others. The second kind of knowledge can change our attitudes about nature. This is the most important kind—the sense of wonder. When we ask ourselves what is the purpose of nature, this is the point at which science and ethics commingle.
What about politics? Technocrats, students and teachers—what is their purpose? As consumers of science, our job is to be open to wonder and use that scientific knowledge for that purpose. When we decide that the purpose of science is to generate wonder about nature, not to control it, we will be close to the real purpose. Do we have an obligation to the future? Yes, because we love the world.
What can we do?
It is one thing to be clear about your moral purpose; it’s another to figure out what to do. What can we do? We have three ideas. How do we answer the most enduring of moral questions—how, then, shall I live? Michael Nelson said it’s not only what motivates us, but what motivates other people. Your part in the book concerns the concept of hope. We tell people horrible stories about the condition of the world, leading them to despair, then motivating them to act. Sometimes people act, but usually they don’t. As a remedy, we try to insert some kind of gesture toward hope. But, Nelson said, his students are smarter than that. The best way to motivate people is to convince them they have an obligation to act with integrity. It doesn’t matter what the consequences may be—we all have an obligation to act rightly. This is empowering.
We need to save ourselves from our own destructive ways. We need a collective moral reform and a commitment to fight against those forces that are trying to destroy the world. A crisis can be a moral one. We need a great “yuck!” that tells us this is not the way a responsible person lives. We also need a great “No!” which gives way to the great “Yes!” Yes, I will do what is right. I will choose to live with dignity and grace. But none of this is dependent on some future state.
Each of us has the power to choose to live the moral life. But technological ways are not enough; society is in the midst of a huge sea change. We once thought we were separate from the Earth and that the Earth was created for our purposes. We were essentially human beings who fulfilled our purpose in conflict with one another. That view is wrong. We are full and equal members of a completely interdependent community. We are born into community. We find our purpose in connections with one another. That will call us to a different world view.
Frederick Buechner once said, “Your calling is at the intersection of your greatest joy and the world’s deepest need.” Our life should be a true expression of our values. What is it that most defines us? How can our life be a work of art? That will take away the power of the corporations and leave the world as rich in possibilities as it was left to us.
The second part of the book concerns, “How do we manifest these values?” There are sections about ethical actions. If you identify with one of these sections, what does that mean about how you live your life? One section addressed the need to be stewards of God’s creation. What about the need for a sanctuary? After your church becomes a sanctuary, what about the lands owned by parishioners? Grandparents are in a good position to protect their grandchildren. They also have political clout. The third thing we have is a community. We can organize ourselves into leagues of grandparents and elected officials who will save the planet.
Moral Ground lists 14 reasons to act. The presenters had two questions for the audience: (1) Do we have an obligation to protect the world for the future, and why? and (2) What are you doing in your life that embodies your values? What kinds of actions are you taking?
At this point, various members of the audience were given a chance to briefly answer these questions in their own way, enhancing the participatory nature of the seminar. FREC thanked everyone for coming and announced that there will be future events.
Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril is published by Trinity University Press and is available at the Rock Valley College bookstore, among other sources.
From the Nov. 3-9, 2010 issue