Saturday, December 22, 2012

Confucius, Keynes And Christ: The Role And Opportunity For Ethics As A Driver For Climate-Friendly Behavior

Posted: 22 Dec 2012 09:11 AM PST

Max Wei, via Climate Access

It is often argued that we have an ethical obligation to combat climate change for two related reasons: (1) we must not cause serious harm to future generations, and (2) we have an ethical duty to preserve the natural environment based on notions of stewardship or to preserve and respect animal life.

While these appeals are based on rational arguments and make sense to many people, they are problematic on several levels. First, the appeals are extrinsic or external to our individual selves; second, they refer to people and places distant in time and space, and thirdly, they lack any direct causality. Not to mention that they are tied to global warming and climate change, which some continue to persistently deny.

The problem is that it simply is not in our DNA to act based on the concerns of future generations.
Moreover, the impacts of whatever we do to change our actions in terms of greenhouse gas emissions will be virtually invisible within our own lifetimes, given the global nature of the atmospheric commons and the time-delayed impact of carbon emissions.

In contrast, appeals to traditional ethical systems offer an intrinsic appeal with more immediacy, and can be invoked independently of climate change and global warming arguments.

How might appeal to “virtue-based” ethics spur people to action to reduce their carbon footprint?   To attempt an answer this, let’s step back for a moment.  When we make appeals to people to change their behavior or lifestyle to forestall global warming, we usually ask two things:  change our buying or investment patterns and/or change our daily actions.  For example, do we buy a 48” plasma television, or perhaps a more energy efficient option; do we invest in energy efficiency upgrades for our home or live with higher heating bills; do we take public transit to work or drive?

To expand upon this, one can argue that a small set of key individual decisions make a disproportionate impact on one’s cumulative carbon emissions:  where we live, what type of housing we choose, how many kids we have, even our choice of profession. For example, the size of one’s lifelong carbon “shadow” in transportation may largely be determined by where one decides to live.

Clearly, there is a complex set of factors that determine the outcomes of key life decisions but surely among them are social norms and values, which may be informed by religious or philosophical-ethical beliefs.

The key point here is that traditional systems of virtue ethics are either very much in keeping with low-carbon or lower carbon living and at the least, instill values that do not place materialism or material riches at the front and center of what we value and hold dear.  Put another way, rediscovering teachings from the past can appeal to us as individuals as they can offer prospects to make us better, happier, more fulfilled individuals.  They are not extrinsic appeals to act or to change on behalf of people we’ll never know in a world that we’ll never live in.

One can hardly hope to do justice to great spiritual traditions here but only trace the faintest outlines.  Let us now make a few remarks on the teachings and writings of the three individuals in this blog posting’s title, focused on the following questions:  (1) what has primacy; (2) what is the desired end state for individuals or society; and (3) what is the path to that end state?  But first a question: what has primacy in society today?

Society’s Figure of Merit

A key problem for the climate today is that society’s figure of merit and key metric is output and consumption, and much output is carbon intensive.  As Joseph Stiglitz says, “Metrics matter… if we have the wrong metrics we will strive for the wrong things.”

Problems with the GDP metric (Gross Domestic Product) are numerous and well documented:  no accounting for environmental externalities, carbon impacts, and ecological damages; GDP credits inefficiency and waste (think U.S. health care); no consideration of “natural capital,” etc.

Since society’s indicator of success is GDP and income, deciding to sharply reduce one’s personal consumption is very much swimming upstream. Moreover, the U.S. is highly responsive to this metric and outstanding as measured by it: #1 by a large margin in household consumption, orders of magnitude higher than hundreds of millions of people in the developing world.

Surely the gospel of growth and primacy of profit has been a wonderful thing and has enabled much higher living standards over the past decades.  And surely it or very similar frameworks are the paths forward for the developing world.  Yet the U.S. also leads the developed world by a large margin in income inequality and also in health and social problems including physical and mental health problems, divorce rates, out of wedlock children, drug use, obesity, incarceration rate, etc.   The U.S. has also led the way in perhaps the greatest market failure of all time, global warming and with it, the prospect for catastrophic climate change.


Let us start by addressing why Keynes is included here.  Certainly Keynes is not on par with Christ and Confucius in historical impact.   But in many ways, economics is our new religion – pretty much unquestioned and unchallenged until just a few years ago.  Many would place Keynes with Adam Smith as perhaps the greatest exemplars of economic thought.

J.M. Keynes was a free ranging thinker.  Among his more expansive works is a short essay penned in 1931, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.” Keynes predicted that by 2030, much higher productivity would enable us to work far less.  There would be plenty instead of scarcity and more leisure instead of more work in a post-profit world.  Capitalism was seen as a necessary evil to a greater end.

As it turns out, Keynes was more or less correct in terms of productivity gains.  For vast numbers of people in the developed world, especially America, the problem is indeed managing plenty instead of managing scarcity — too much stuff, too many calories, too much traffic, and far too many cable TV stations.  But of course working hours have not decreased.   Keynes missed the insatiability aspects of greater wealth and consumption.  Since wealth is the societal marker for success, there is ongoing and ceaseless striving, much like an elevator where everyone is moving upward but no one is gaining on anyone else.


Clearly God has primacy for Christianity as in the other Abrahamic religions, and the desired end state is a place in heaven.  Of course it’s hazardous to selectively quote from the Bible, but the Biblical Jesus was pretty unequivocal about the pathway for his followers.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. Matthew 19:23-24
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. Matthew 16:24

My vision of Jesus and the life he would lead today is quite the opposite of today’s masters of the universe. In fact, Jesus would probably champion low carbon living. Clearly this is not the focus of fundamental Christians today perhaps because it would require such an inconvenient lifestyle.  Today’s fundamentalist Christians seem more focused on belief and faith rather than acting to follow in Christ’s footsteps.


Confucius lived about six centuries before Christ in post-Zhou Dynasty China, a time of great chaos and “moral degradation.”   In this environment, Confucius was most interested in how to reclaim a lost Golden Age in attaining a harmonious society with wise, benevolent rulers.  He held that perfection of man is the ultimate goal in life: to be a “sage” (or essentially a secular saint). Humanity (or Ren) is the key – what is it that makes us human? To this end, reciprocity, kindness, and sincerity are emphasized as well as an early statement of the Golden Rule:  “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.”  Self-regulation of the individual is at the root of a harmonious society and education is of paramount importance.

On the negative side, Confucianism carries with it the artifacts of its time and emphasizes a strict social hierarchy.  But there is still much to be praised or taken from its teachings. (The same could be said of Aristotle).  These issues have huge modern relevance as China’s current leadership grapples with what philosophy or set of teachings to pursue with Mao’s teachings relegated to the scrap heap just as the ancient sage’s teachings were jettisoned a half-century ago by Mao.

The Challenge for Today

Of course, other great spiritual traditions have much to offer – the mindfulness and meditation of Buddhism, the spiritual maturation process of Hinduism, the teachings of Daoism and others.  Throughout history – and perhaps only up until recently, traditional ethical systems have been an important guide and contributor to behavior and decision-making, for better or worse.

So how might we tap into and/or synthesize the “better” part of these traditions as we take on the immense challenges of climate change? Are there policies that might be pursued that are in harmony with these traditions?  For example, should we consider higher consumption and luxury taxes? Advertising limits for children as in some Scandinavian nations?  Greater emphasis in K-12 education or college-level curriculum on traditional ethical systems?

Themes contained within major philosophical and religious traditions are quite consistent with “low carbon living” and material restraint.  And as we argue here, it’s important to inspire and appeal to people’s intrinsic values rather than make them feel guilty, fearful, or to ask them to be unnaturally altruistic. At the very least, there should be more debate and discussion on these topics, as we face not a Sputnik moment but potentially a civilizational one.

Max Wei is a program manager in the Sustainable Energy Systems Group in the Environmental Energy Technologies Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. This piece was originally published at Climate Access and was reprinted with permission.

2012: What Brought Us Together

Via My Humorous Agenda / FB:

Via JMG: Google's Holiday Special For Teachers

Google has a special holiday offer for America's teachers. Via Engadget:
Teachers will be able to purchase the already-cheap Samsung Series 5 Chromebook for $99 this holiday season, Google just announced on its blog. Mountain View will offer the Chromebook for that discounted price thanks to a partnership with the online charity and that $99 covers management and support in addition to the hardware. Public-school teachers who qualify will need to head to the Donors Choose website and to put in a request for up to 30 units. Everyone else can simply admire that act of benevolence -- or head to the aforementioned URL to make a donation of their own.
I considered getting a Chromebook, but they were always sold out when I looked.

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reposted from Joe

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Via JMG: TIME's Person Of The Year: Barack Obama

President Obama has been named TIME Magazine's Person Of 2012.
The selection was announced Wednesday on NBC's "Today" show. The short list for the honor included Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who was shot in the head for advocating for girls' education. It also included Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi and Bill and Hillary Clinton. Obama also received the honor in 2008, when he was President-elect. Last year, "The Protester" got the honor. Time's "Person of the Year" is the person or thing that has most influenced the culture and the news during the past year for good or for ill. In 2010, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg received the honor. Other previous winners have included Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, Bono and President George W. Bush.
The wingnut wailing will be delicious.

Reposted from Joe

Monday, December 17, 2012

Via Eden Movement / FB:

Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing,
there is a field. I'll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn't make any sense.


Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing,
there is a field.  I'll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn't make any sense.


Via The Mayan Space Travelers / FB:

Two from FB:

President Obama reassures Newtown you are not alone at vigil for victims of Connecticut sc

Via JMG: $989.99 + Free Shipping

The rifle used to kill all those kids can easily be purchased online. And shipping is free.

Reposted from Joe

Via God Bless the President of the United States / FB:

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Via Climate Progress: Obama To Name Climate Hawk John Kerry Secretary Of State


In the first serious indication Obama will focus on climate change in his second term, media outlets report the President will nominate Senator John Kerry (D-MA) to be Secretary of State.

Kerry is one of the Senate’s leading climate hawks who has said he believes that climate change is the “biggest long term threat” to national security.

Of course, team Obama is known for effectively muzzling the most ardent of climate hawks. Back in February 2009, for instance Energy Secretary and Nobelist Steven Chu said “Wake up,” America, “we’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California.” But one hardly hears such language from him these days. Same goes for science advisor and one-time climate hawk John Holdren.

Kerry, however, seems far less likely to be muzzled. Indeed, in a speech this summer on the Senate floor, he slammed the U.S. political discussion as a “conspiracy of silence … a story of disgraceful denial, back-pedaling, and delay that has brought us perilously close to a climate change catastrophe.” He called it:

… a silence that empowers misinformation and mythology to grow where science and truth should prevail. It is a conspiracy that has not just stalled, but demonized any constructive effort to put America in a position to lead the world on this issue….
Climate change is one of two or three of the most serious threats our country now faces, if not the most serious, and the silence that has enveloped a once robust debate is staggering for its irresponsibility….
I hope and pray colleagues commit to transformative change in our politics. I hope we confront the conspiracy of silence head-on and allow complacence to yield to common sense, and narrow interests to bend to the common good. Future generations are counting on us.

One would certainly expect Kerry to not merely use his position to speak out on the issue but also to push both domestic and international action. He was after all coauthor, with Senators  Joe Lieberman (D-CT) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) of broad climate legislation in 2009 and 2010.
National Journal reports:

“No senator since Al Gore knows as much about the science and diplomacy of climate change as Kerry,” said David Goldwyn, an international energy consultant who served as Clinton’s special envoy and coordinator for international energy affairs. “He would not only put climate change in the top five issues he raises with every country, but he would probably rethink our entire diplomatic approach to the issue.”

Climate hawks should be enthusiastic supporters of this nomination, which is expected to sail through the U.S. Senate (in part because Republicans want Scott Brown to have another shot at a Massachusetts Senate seat).

I’m not sure Kerry could become Secretary of State fast enough to influence the Keystone XL pipeline decision, but it is hard to believe he would not have raised this issue with the President, as a go-ahead decision would immediately undercut the Administration’s credibility on the climate issue both at home and abroad.

Via GoComics: Doonesbury by Garry Trudeau

Via Real Truth Now / FB:

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