by Tristan on October 22, 2010

in Activism, Ethics

It has become apparent to me during my time as a contributor to BuryCoal that there is a deep divergence between Milan and myself in the way we understand climate change putting a moral demand on us. Looking back at my posts, they tend to thematize advocating for climate mitigation within a broader context of care and concern for political causes. This is most apparent in recent posts such as “The Poverty of Care” and “Imperialism and moral obligation“, but traces back to early posts as well, most notably “Setting Priorities in Social Activism“. I would summarize the position put forth in those posts roughly as such: while I am willing to accept the notion of climate change as imposing a moral demand that in a sense “transcends” our other duties, I do not accept the notion that concern for climate change simply allows us to ignore political oppression or the everyday atrocity of our treatment of non-human sentient beings.

For me, the “transcendent” nature of the moral duty-granting nature of human-caused climate change is grasped in the sense of a “transcendental” in transcendental philosophy. For Kant and other “transcendental” philosophers, “transcendentals” are things on the basis of which other things appear, or can be shown. For Kant, an example of a transcendental is the mental category of causality – it is (according to Kant) because we have this category in our minds that we assemble our perceived worlds in accordance with the notion. If we didn’t have “causality” as a kind of world-interpreting-structure, we would never be able to see causality out in the world, we would perceive the world according to some other frame, some other idea. For Kant the transcendentals are fixed (the “table of categories”) – Nietzsche extends the idea of transcendental to values as such. This means roughly that when you care about something, the world shows up in a particular way, determined by this concern. This is not dissimilar from the Buddhist idea that how the world appears to you depends on your goal. People might have read “The Secret”, which is an attempt to make this idea look revolutionary and non-western.

The decision to ascribe to climate change a transcendental moral value is in a sense a decision to make it the “most important” cause. But, there is a difference between taking it as a transcendental and “giving it highest priority”. When I give something the highest priority, I devote most of my actions towards that thing, in hopes that I will succeed in the goal of achieving that thing. To the extent that I have other priorities, they take my energies away from “the highest one”, unless they are purely subservient goals – goals whose accomplishment has no value other than the advancement of the highest priority. On the other hand, when I set something as a transcendent goal, I pursue other goals within a framework which is coloured by that goal. Things appear important or unimportant on not on the “basis” of the higher goal, but through the higher goal as a lens. So, if mitigating climate change is set as a transcendent goal, rather than a “top priority”, one can not simply devalue other causes on the basis that they are not climate change – rather, one needs to observe the other causes from the perspective of holding climate change mitigation as a transcendent value, and make real decisions about how those other causes show up.

I can therefore not dismiss democratic struggles, indigenous struggles, animal rights struggles, or struggles against neo-liberalism and imperialism on the basis that should not be our top priority. Each of these struggles has validity and value which can be immediately sensed by anyone who cares to look into them. The fact that we should look into them from a perspective of holding climate change mitigation as a transcendent value does not, in my view, take away our responsibility to – when the opportunity is presented and we in fact have the resources required – look into them and decide how important they are, and in what way. And the duties which those situations impose on us do not only exist as means to serve the higher priority of climate change mitigation – rather, they are motivated out of the situations themselves, although the way we should look at those situations if coloured by the transcendent nature of global warming.

This is not an abstract process – in fact, I think the process is and should be highly emotional. I have characterized my approach to the political in recent posts as being open to caring about things which are difficult to care about, and with respect to which a lot of energy is put into refusing to care about by forces of power and the status quo. We should take seriously the extent to which our minds are colonized, subjected to assaults on our moral intuitions, and our ability care about other people, in the name of being reasonable, successful and effective. We should question whether internalizing values of efficiency and repressing our concern for fellow human beings in fact does help the cause of preventing catastrophic climate change? These are real moral decisions we have to make – and I think recognizing the transcendent character of the climate struggle, insofar as it really does put all humans “in the same boat”, only changes the frame within which we ought make those moral decisions, not whether we need to be concerned with them at all. (Moreover, we should recognize that climate change only puts humans “in the same boat” in the long term, and only in the case of a Venus scenario where human life becomes unsustainable even for a small rich elite).

The world is, and probably always has been, a set of many struggles. In a radically globalized world we find ourselves involved, or at least potentially involved, in many. In my view, we should take this as an opportunity become more human – to engage with more persons from more walks of life. In my view, the worst thing one can do in a globalized world is pick a single goal, the pursuit of which excludes one from collaborations with others who have different priorities; in other words to set up an evaluating paradigm which does not take seriously the particularity of novel situations.

I do not understand how I can continue to participate in a project where I feel constantly attacked for my concern for injustice and crimes, which, although interpreted as valuable through the lens of a transcendent climate struggle, are not themselves only valuable as subservient values to climate change mitigation. For me, while I take climate change mitigation to be transcendental, I take it to derive that transcendental position from the injustice and suffering which dangerous or catastrophic climate change has the power to impose on humans if we do not find ways to prevent and mitigate it. So, for me, the transcendent nature of climate change makes it clearer, not more difficult, to see the value in political struggles, and in struggles against insensitive treatment of animals. As I see no way common grounds can be established on this issue, and as continuing to engage in the same arguments over and over has become damaging to my emotional health, I find myself in the unfortunate position of withdrawing my participation from BuryCoal.

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