Connecticut College Magazine · Fall 2013

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Corrie Searls '14, an art history major from Minneapolis, at the site of her dream internship last summer, Christie's auction house at New York City's Rockefeller Plaza. Photo by Karsten Moran

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The Long Arm of Indifference

The Long Arm of Indifference

How we respond to evidence of climate change will affect more than just the environment of the future

by Lauren Hartzell Nichols '03


'm being kicked from the inside by my first child, a boy. It's his way of letting me know he's doing okay.

As I prepare for his arrival, as much as anyone can prepare for a completely foreign and unknown experience like parenthood, I sometimes find myself wondering about the world in which my child will live. What will the world be like in 20, 50 or even 100 years?

As an environmental ethicist, I devote much of my time and energy to thinking about our collective moral obligations to future generations. What do we owe to our children? What do we owe to those who don't yet exist? Specifically, do we owe it to future generations to protect the environment from climate change and other threats? What would it mean to protect the environment for future generations?

The answers to these questions are far from simple and require deep philosophical reflection. One of my aims as a philosopher is to get to the metaphorical starting line of such questions, by articulating the nature of the issues. For example, I suggest that the choices we make today will affect not just the environment of the future but actually who will live in the future.

To understand why, think about how different the world would be today if the Industrial Revolution had never happened. It's hard, isn't it? We, those of us living today, would not be alive, would not exist if the Industrial Revolution hadn't happened. Too much would be different.

Don't believe me? Think of yourself. In order for you to have come into being (if you believe that your identity is at least in part determined by your genetic make-up), your parents would have to have been your parents, and they would have had to conceive you in the month they did. But would your parents have conceived you when they did — let alone existed themselves — if there had never been an industrial revolution? There's just no way.

Think of the people living just before the Industrial Revolution. If the revolution hadn't, in fact, happened many people would have lived entirely different lives. People who would have become machinists or merchants post-revolution might have remained farmers instead. These farmers likely would have married different people and had different babies at different times than they would have if they'd become machinists. Fast-forward to today and it is inconceivable that any of us, let alone our parents, would have come into existence without the Industrial Revolution.

Now imagine two possible futures. Let's call them the Green Future and the Climate Catastrophe Future. If we radically reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, consume less, and prioritize protecting the environment, a Green Future will likely result. The generations who live in that future would have the opportunity to enjoy a stable climate and live sustainably.

But most climatologists agree that if we continue to emit greenhouse gases at increasing rates, spread and increase consumptive lifestyles, and ignore pressing environmental problems, future generations will experience the Climate Catastrophe. Many millions of future people will suffer and die because of rising seas, droughts and other harmful conditions.

The Green Future and Climate Catastrophe Future are just as different as our post-Industrial Revolution world and a hypothetical world in which large-scale industrialization never occurred. That means different individual people will come into existence if our choices lead to the Green Future as opposed to the Climate Catastrophe.

It also means that if we want to claim we owe it to future generations to create a Green Future — and, as I'll explain later, I believe we do — we cannot apply moral reasoning that appeals to the good of particular individuals. That's because we cannot harm future people in the same way we can harm our contemporaries.

Why not? Well, can you say that you are glad you exist? Me too. But if we are glad we exist then we cannot say that previous generations harmed us. The fact is, we wouldn't exist without that “harm.” We owe our existence to the collective choices — good or bad — made by all past generations.

Similarly, if Climate Catastrophe ensues, future people might very well say we made bad choices. But they will not be able to claim that they were harmed because different people than they would exist in the alternative, the Green Future.

This is what is called the “non-identity problem” in the philosophical literature. It is important because it challenges the way we think about our obligations to future generations, which we'll have to do if we are to fully and adequately address climate change.

The other difficult concept we must come to terms with is the intergenerational dimension of climate change. Climate change is a time-lagged phenomenon. The sea walls we build around our cities or the new water-management strategies we pursue to mitigate the effects of climate change may minimize the extent to which we suffer from climatic changes in our lifetimes. But self-interest won't lead us to take long-term planning very seriously.

Focusing on our children and our children's children may help extend the time horizon we're concerned about. Valuing our children and wanting to bequeath to them an environmentally unburdened (or, more realistically, less-burdened) world may even lead us to push for more than band-aid-level fixes. But it won't lead us to want to address the full scope of climate change or any other environmental problem that involves a long time horizon.

That's because fully addressing climate change requires taking into account not just near-term future generations, which we can easily conceive of, but all future generations (and the rest of nature). Much of the CO2 you emitted while driving around town this week will persist in the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas long after you are dead — for thousands, if not tens of thousands, of years.

Understanding and acting on our obligations to future generations, however, is further complicated by the fact that we often don't understand with any degree of precision the nature of a problem or the distant-future effects of our actions. And when we don't understand those, we're not very good at finding solutions. Think about forest fires. We used to think forest fires were always a negative, so we did all we could to avoid them. Now we realize that fires are natural and play an important role in many ecosystems.

Likewise, it appears clear we ought to reduce greenhouse gasses, but what seems like a reasonable solution to us, the present generation, may not be a satisfying solution to distant future generations. For instance, we may be satisfied if we limit global warming to 2°C above the pre-industrial average, but this increase may be far too great from a genuinely intergenerational perspective.

Where does all this leave us with regard to the questions I originally posed, about our collective moral obligations to the future? Although I cannot provide a complete philosophical argument here, the simplest reason I can give about why we ought to care about hypothetical and even unimaginably distant future generations is that a harmful outcome is a harmful outcome whenever and to whomever it occurs.

Logic dictates that we cannot directly harm any future people because our “harm” will be responsible for their very existence. But I propose that we ought to be concerned about creating harmful conditions for whomever comes into existence. We certainly cannot (and should not) take ourselves to be obligated to do everything in our power to eliminate all harmful conditions in the world, as this would be paralyzing. But we have strong moral reasons to try to prevent foreseeable catastrophes.

I am literally connected to the next generation right now. This connection helps me imagine my son's future, his potential children, and even the possibility of my great-grandchildren. The further out into the future I reach with my mind, however, the more difficult it is to conceive of the people who will come into this world. We need to come to collectively care about the fate of future generations, whoever they turn out to be. We need to own up to our collective responsibility to do what we can to ensure future people don't live under especially harmful conditions.

I hope for the sake of my son and all of those who follow him that we do and we will.

Lauren Hartzell Nichols '03 studied philosophy and the environment at Connecticut College and earned a certificate from the Goodwin-Niering Center for the Environment before earning her doctorate in philosophy from Stanford University. She teaches environmental ethics at the University of Washington in Seattle and is working on her first book manuscript, “A Climate of Risk: Precautionary Principles, Catastrophes and Climate Change.” Her essay appears here in honor of the 20th anniversary of the Goodwin-Niering Center.


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