a spceship in the earth's atmosphere

The Quadra Project: Eco-Morality

The global environmental crisis is creating a paradigm shift in human consciousness that will change the moral tenor of everything we think and do for the foreseeable future—not just for decades, but for centuries as we become the de facto regulators of our planet’s climate. As the media guru Marshall McLuhan noted, “There are no passengers on spaceship Earth—everyone is crew.”

Indeed, like such a crew, we are already weighing the carbon output of everything we do: driving our gasoline cars, flying to distant holiday locations, heating our homes, logging our forests, producing electricity, disposing of our garbage, growing our food, and judging the worth of our inventions. A shadow of censure is now being cast on any activity or product that emits carbon dioxide and those gasses such as methane that are associated with global warming. Indeed, the censure will grow as the climate heats, as the weather becomes more disruptive, as crises displace our sense of normality, and as the discomfort grows.

This judgment will also be retroactive. The burning of coal to energize the Industrial Revolution will eventually be deemed one of the inadvertent mistakes of a species that possesses much more ingenuity than wisdom. The executives of the oil companies who knew in 1958 of the climatic consequences of burning fossil fuels will be censured by history for their psychopathic indifference to the consequences of their obsessive quest for profits. Capitalism’s ability to generate wealth will be balanced against its propensity to destroy life-sustaining ecological systems.

As for our personal lives—as the Covid-19 crisis is revealing—we will have to make individual concessions for our collective wellbeing. As social beings, we have fostered and thrived in communities, cities, states, and now as a globalized civilization. But the accrued benefits come with obligations to ecosystems. If we want collective prosperity and harmony, then we will have to relinquish certain privileges in order to comply with nature’s imperatives. Societies cannot survive if ecosystems are in chaos.

The antidote to this chaos will be a pervasive environmental ethic that will judge the wisdom of our individual and collective actions by the wellbeing of the biosphere’s ecological integrity. The criteria will not be a matter of taste or aesthetic, but a matter of life or death. Just as every society develops a morality to create the necessary commonalities that allow it to cohere as a functioning unit, the new morality will be ecological, determining whether or not a semblance of our current civilization remains viable.

We are already minding the business of others because their behaviour is affecting the security of everyone. India and China are burning too much coal. Brazil is destroying too much of the Amazon. Indonesia is obliterating jungle to grow palm oil. Boeing may build beautiful airplanes but they are being censured as a significant source of carbon dioxide. Rampant consumerism may strengthen economies, but it is eviscerating and polluting the biosphere. Bitcoin may be an intriguing cryptocurrency but it takes enormous energy to determine its continually changing value. Meat may be a traditional food, but its production entails enormous suffering, utilizes huge areas of land and produces massive amounts of methane. Farming salmon is an inherently wasteful and inefficient way of producing protein. Forests as mere sources of wood are being re-evaluated as complex, sophisticated and indispensable biological communities that sequester carbon, regulate climate, stabilize watersheds, and serve the planet’s ecology in innumerable essential ways.

All these are examples of a shift in the moral values that are beginning to shape our judgment and behaviour. And this shift will accelerate and intensify as the viability of our individual and collective survival begins to collide even more dramatically with the unsustainable ways in which we are conducting our materialistic lives.

Morality is merging with environmentalism because our survival is increasingly dependent on this new measure of judgment.

As the American essayist and naturalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.”

Well, we are being instructed by the circumstances in which we find ourselves. And, as these circumstances become progressively more insistent, our morality will change accordingly. We don’t have a choice. The time is pressing. The threats are dire. The surprises will challenge our imagination. The consequences will likely surpass our worst fears.

Indeed, this is all very sobering. But it is part of our growth and maturation as individuals and as a species. Time and history are telling us that we earned this predicament by our thoughtless past and our failed ingenuity, and now we must acknowledge and confront the consequences as bravely and resourcefully as possible.

Even on our little island in the wholeness of things we are not exempt. So we must try as we have never tried before. And powering this burgeoning eco-morality must be a kind, compassionate and persistent insistence that brings us to a common cause, to a collective ethic that makes the best of a bad situation.

Ray Grigg for Sierra Quadra

Top image credit: Artists conception of a space capsule returning to the earth’s atmosphere – Photo courtesy NASA (Public Domain)

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