In a culture divided by partisan politics, “moderate” proposals have become the preferred solution for many, but moderation does not always equate with justice, truth, or effective policy outcomes.
This is especially true when it comes to the environment. In our public discourse on climate change and sustainability, pundits and extremists rule the airwaves. It seems that we have a communication problem fueled by our fractured, partisan politics.
These conversations about ecological policy have become charged with heavy moral language but lack the theory, vocabulary, and judgment that the study of ethics provides to make sense of how we ought to behave or co-exist in the world. In ethics, scholars often discuss the role of narrative as being methodologically important but also persuasive, either for good or evil. This lesson on narrative focus seems especially relevant in a time, like ours, when many of our public leaders and “experts” fall into declension or ascension narratives that seek to further divide and confuse us.
One camp is that of the declensionist. Those who drive the declension narratives argue that society is declining and thus requires radical action. One might picture the radical Marxist climate activists who say that capitalism is intrinsically evil and market systems are destroying the world and need to be overthrown.
In this camp, one might encounter opponents of market-oriented solutions, especially as it relates to the developing world, pointing out that this assumes adherence to market forces that have historically relied on oppressive forces like colonialism, racism, and political violence against marginalized groups.
Many ecological advocates on the left have argued for the declensionist narrative, that the world is approaching the line of “no turning back,” and the need for a drastic reduction of carbon emissions is so drastic that it justifies economic manipulation and culture change, even by government force if necessary. Think AOC’s “green new deal” that made the news for suggesting we rapidly reduce individual air travel by implementing market deterrents like increased cost through tax hikes. This strategy would have likely worked but at a high cost to consumers and the airline industry, amongst others targeted by the plan.
The rival camp is that of the ascensionist. The ascensionist argues the world is improving through our current systems, and the status quo needs to be protected, even if by force. This is akin to the optimistic futurist who argues for an apathetic posture towards climate change and pollution. According to them, society has become so advanced that we will soon transcend these issues or just clean up the planet with (name the newest tech). This ascension view is often followed with a warning though, that this future utopia is only possible if we stop the (name the scapegoat) who is trying to ruin it by dividing us.
Some in this camp argue that policymakers should take seriously the econometric hypothesis known as the environmental Kuznets curve (EKC). Essentially, this hypothesis states that as economies develop to become middle class, air pollution decreases and thus air quality improves. With this in mind, many of these advocates argue for an ascension narrative, that we ought to focus on helping developing economies prosper and let ecological improvements naturally follow. This strategy may work, but it is, after all, a hypothesis. It’s a risky bet to hedge the future of our planet on individual nations’ market success and subsequent ability and willingness to sacrifice to have a cleaner environment.
There is reason to be hopeful though! A number of new, innovative businesses and nonprofits are helping to make a greener future. One great example is Project Canary, a certified b-corp that holds methane industries accountable by implementing new technologies that allow for certifications. According to their website, “Methane is 80 times worse than Carbon Dioxide” and contributes to “20 percent of the greenhouse gas problem.” While Project Canary is helping improve market transparency by providing consumers helpful information, many new corporations are working on carbon capture technology that is sucking carbon out of the air through machines. Other companies are planting trees to offset energy use, committing to carbon neutrality, recycling or composting leftovers, moving print services online, and even incorporating new technology like solar panels to do their part in keeping our planet healthy.
But will these innovations be enough?
Both positions rightfully claim a degree of truth, yet both fail to recognize the complexity of our relationship to the environment and the nuance of our current moment. After all, these positions represent two radically different narratives about the future that seem incompatible, thus only resulting in conflict.
In his popular book “The Future of Ethics,” Willis Jenkins argues that our current moral language doesn’t allow us to grapple with the complexities that face us as a society. In rare moments of cross-cultural political dialogue, it becomes disturbingly clear that our shared language around philosophies of agency and responsibility are making us incapable of facing such a global and intergenerational problem.
It seems that our society needs a new form of ethical dialogue that takes seriously both the progressive concerns about power, privilege, and ecological degradation but also recognizes the potential for innovation and market-oriented solutions. We need a new way of conversing about ethics that accounts for historicity, equity, and context while still leaving room for hope and compromise.
Regardless of what side of the fence you sit on, it seems clear that our viability as a global society requires mediating public institutions where we can act democratically and hold our leaders accountable and space for private market-driven organizations that can provide innovative solutions to public problems.
There is a desperate need for groups willing to cross the aisle and receive funding from an ideological diversity of sources that speak to environmental issues. The American Conservation Coalition (ACC) is perhaps one of the few organizations that advocates for market-based solutions and public accountability, supporting common-sense legislation like carbon credits or offsets and policies requiring the federal government to reduce their carbon emissions.
If we are wise, we will reject the false push for “moderate” positions and instead seek out means of pursuing the good life that promote virtues like justice, beauty, truth, equity, and sustainability. Perhaps best of all, finding this new moral language and adopting a willingness to engage in authentic, meaningful conversations about our everyday life starts at the local level.
We need activists arguing for public change and innovation, but we, the polis, can change culture by adapting where we shop, how we vote and discuss elections, where we get our news, who we support on social media, our daily habits, and practices, and the sacrifices we are all willing to make to create an ecologically friendly and sustainable world for future generations who, like us, need clean air, blue oceans, and healthy fields.
Suppose we fall prey to these false narratives of ascension or declension and give way to proposed moderate defaults that are concerned only with partisan compromise. In that case, we will be poisoning the natural (and political) environment for future generations in exchange for cheap peace in the present. We must do better.
Chris West is a graduate student at Duke Divinity and serves as the Raleigh chapter coordinator for America’s Future. Chris is also a theology fellow with Creation Justice Ministries and a member of the American Conservation Coalition.