A certain type of preacher delves into the Bible to find “signs of the times” – references in obscure passages which they say point to world trouble spots 2500 years later – and warn that “the end is nigh”. They’re always wrong. Today, however, a swelling chorus of scientists is alerting us to real “signs of the times” – in stresses to our planet from greenhouse gases, climate change, shrinking forests, expanding deserts, destruction of species, depletion of finite resources, all exacerbated by a soaring world population whose needs for food, water, shelter and work will only add human to planetary distress.
Market-focussed economists and profit-driven businesses jostle to drown those voices out, and when push comes to shove, compliant politicians go along with the money men: the economy must come first. Hence it is not surprising that our Government this month back-pedalled on its emissions trading scheme, brought in to nudge our economy some way towards a more sustainable future.
Transition measures designed to cushion the impact of the Emissions Trading Scheme on businesses will now run for another two years. Taxpayers will continue to subsidise polluters. The carbon price will stay capped. Farming, which generates nearly half of the country’s harmful emissions, is off the hook for “at least” two more years. In other words, short-term market gain has once again trumped the need to protect the environment on which long-term prosperity – and life itself – depend.
Of course there are rational economic reasons to tiptoe around restricting pollution: more jobs, more profit, more tax revenue, more growth, less debt. But while the deferrals delight business and farming interests, the Government’s tepid lead on its greenhouse gas obligations looks like a bad case of the bland leading the blind. Or is it the blind leading the bland? In a saner world, economic activity would be anchored firmly within the physical constraints of the planet and a rounded view of life, not the other way round.
Harvard moral and political philosopher Michael Sandel reminds us that in a wholesome view of life ethical norms are central. They are reflected in old-time values such as honesty, integrity, fairness and responsibility. Today the acids of self-centredness, sharp practice and greed are corroding them – a sign of the times, but not a happy one. Sandel cites the environment as one of many areas where financial incentives, so beloved of market theorists, are squeezing out ethical norms that should apply.
On greenhouse gases, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with putting carbon dioxide into the air – we do it every time we breathe out. It becomes objectionable, says Sandel, when it happens in excess, as part of an energy-profligate way of life: “That way of life, and the attitudes that support it, are what we should discourage, even stigmatise.” He criticises the Kyoto Protocol on curbing emissions for sending mixed signals. It allows countries that cannot or will not reduce their greenhouse emissions to pay another country to reduce theirs. In short, they buy the right to pollute. That damages two desirable norms: “It entrenches an instrumental attitude toward nature, and it undermines the spirit of shared sacrifice that may be necessary to create a global environmental ethic.
“From the standpoint of the heavens, it doesn’t matter which places on the planet send less carbon to the sky. . . Letting rich countries buy their way out of meaningful changes in their own wasteful habits reinforces a bad attitude – that nature is a dumping ground for those who can afford it.” Likewise with carbon offsets. These allow companies to donate to green energy projects in the developing world by charging for the carbon people use in taking a flight, for example, or driving a car. Those who pay these offsets might think that absolves them of any further responsibility.
“The risk,” says Sandel, “is that carbon offsets will become, at least for some, a painless mechanism to buy our way out of the more fundamental changes in habits, attitudes, and ways of life that may be required to address the climate problem.” In other words, markets reflect and promote certain norms, which may then crowd out non-market norms that are more important for life and the future of the planet – respect for nature and its processes, for example, and living in such a way as to place less pressure on them. That makes New Zealand’s shilly-shallying for short-term economic advantage ominous, for the challenge today is to live as if our children’s future – and their children’s future – mattered. That’s where our priorities should lie.