Environment Destruction: How Will Our Great-Grandkids Forgive Us?

We have obligations to earlier generations, and we also have obligations to later, future generations – the most basic of which would be ensuring that they have a functional planet to live on. With our greenhouse gas emissions, overfishing, pollution, wetland destruction, and deforestation, we are reneging on this most basic obligation to our great-grandkids.

Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah identifies four current practices that are on the brink of widespread moral condemnation – practices which will prompt future generations to wonder, “What were they thinking?” and shudder in horror, much as we today shudder at the witch-burning and slavery practices of past centuries:
1. The U.S. prison system (discussed here),
2. Meat production (here),
3. Warehousing our elderly (here), and
4. Environmental destruction.

Appiah identifies these four based on three criteria (discussed here). Our environmental damage easily meets all three.

Criterion One: The arguments against it have been around a while, had time to sink in and time to be refuted if they were going to be.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), widely credited with launching the environmental movement. The first Earth Day was 42 years ago.

Greenhouse gases. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established in 1988 by two United Nations organizations, the UN Environmental Program and the World Meterological Organization. IPCC reports bring together contributions from the peer-reviewed published work of thousands of scientists. In 1990, the IPCC issued its first assessment report; in 1992, a supplementary report; in 1995, a second assessment report; in 2001, a third assessment report; in 2007, a fourth assessment report. (The fifth is due in 2014). It is well established that global temperatures are rising, and that most of the increase is due to human-generated greenhouse gases. Sea levels will probably rise by 18 to 59 centimeters by the end of the century.

Deforestation. Half the forests that once covered the earth are gone. Each year, another 16 million hectares disappear. Since 1990, half the rainforests have disappeared – and half of all plant and animal land species live in the rainforests.

Water pollution. So much water is already impaired by anthropogenic contaminants that nearly 500 million people lack access to safe drinking water, and water pollution accounts for the deaths of more than 14,000 people daily.

Overfishing. 25% of all the world’s fish stocks are either overexploited or depleted. Another 52% is now fully exploited and in imminent danger of overexploitation. The overall ecological unity of our oceans are under stress and at risk of collapse. Because overfishing removes fish that compete with and prey upon jellyfish, we are seeing massive growth of jellyfish populations wreaking havoc on commercial fisheries and further threatening fish stocks.

Wetland destruction. Wetlands (swamps, marshes, bogs, mangroves, estuaries, and salt pans) provide habitats that many species depend upon, reduce the frequency and severity of flooding, and are essential to maintenance of the water cycle and to biochemical processes necessary for ecological balance. Half of global wetlands have now been lost or destroyed.

Desertification: Appiah writes:
Kalmykia is at the northern end of the Caspian Sea 
Look at a satellite picture of Russia, and you'll see a vast expanse of parched wasteland where decades earlier was a lush and verdant landscape. That's the Republic of Kalmykia, home to what was recognized in the 1990s as Europe's first man-made desert. Desertification, which is primarily the result of destructive land-management practices, threatens a third of the Earth's surface; tens of thousands of Chinese villages have been overrun by sand drifts in the past few decades.
We know – and have known for some time – about these threats.

Criterion Two: The arguments for it tend to be arguments of convenience or necessity or tradition rather than arguments of rightness or genuine social benefit.

No one argues directly that environmental destruction is a good thing. The practices that have the consequence harming the environment are defended on grounds of convenience and tradition. We could re-tool for a green economy – provide jobs for people doing things that preserve the earth rather than deplete it – but that would take energy and planning and disrupting the habitual patterns we now follow.

Criterion Three: Continuation of the practice relies on people just not thinking about it much.

Responsible stewardship of the earth takes time and energy at two levels:

Individual lifestyle changes to reduce, reuse, and recycle. It’s not hard to find out how. It is harder to commit ourselves to making those changes. So, instead, we put it out of our minds.

Calling for legislative action. Many Americans are in denial. Even people like me need the government to pass laws to facilitate my transfer to a greener lifestyles. Once we all went to unleaded gas – thanks to federal mandate – it was a simple thing for me to stop using leaded gas (cars that would use it were phased out, and now the leaded gas itself just isn’t available anymore). As long as high-consumption living is cheap, easy, and all our neighbors are doing it, only very few hardy souls will buck constant social pressure to consume. Lifestyles with zero ecological footprint are possible, but will be rare unless governmental action uses a mixture of incentives, fees, requirements, and bans to create a context for mass transition. Yet this country can’t manage to elect a majority of lawmakers that take environmental issues seriously.

Our great-great-grandchildren will find it hard to forgive us for that. Even if some of them are still, god forbid, wearing high-heeled shoes or eating baconnaise.

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This is part 7 of 7 of "The Future Will Judge Us."
Previous: Part 6: "Warehoused Elderly: How Will Our Great-Grandkids Forgive Us?"
Beginning: Part 1: "What Were They Thinking?"