The world’s biggest conflict of interest

by Milan on December 16, 2010

in Climate change, Climate science, Ethics

A conflict of interest exists when what is good for one group or individual is bad for society at large. Such conflicts are especially worrisome when there are powerful individuals within society who have the ability to favour their own interests, at the expense of everybody else. One of the strongest checks against conflicts of interest is the fact that disadvantaged groups will often raise a fuss when they detect that decision-makers are acting for their own welfare.

Unfortunately, there is a massive group of people who cannot make their needs and desires felt in any way: those in future generations. The choices our generation makes affect them intimately, but they cannot commend, respond, or defend themselves in any way. Surely, some of the most dangerous choices we are making now relate to energy. The world remains dependant on oil, gas, and coal to generate electricity, grow food, move vehicles, and perform innumerable other functions in society. The gases produced when these fuels are burned are changing the climate in alarming and dangerous ways. By continuing to rely on them, we are perpetuating a conflict of interest between this generation (which enjoys cheap energy) and future generations (which must live with the consequences).

The fact that members of future generations are mute and defenceless means that we can rob and kill them with impunity, by undermining the climatic stability upon which human prosperity depends. In recognition of these facts, people in the current generation need to make a moral case to policy-makers and the general public. They need to argue that there are profound moral conclusions that arise from what we now know about the nature of the climate system and the risks we are now imposing upon future generations of people and the natural world in general.

We need to shift our policies from those that perpetuate this massive conflict of interest to others that will help to reduce it. Accomplishing that requires two major things:

  1. We need to scale back the harm and danger we are imposing on future generations, by reducing our use of fossil fuels.
  2. We need to improve the legacy we are leaving for future generations, by investing in zero-carbon forms of energy as well as the means to adapt to the amount of climate change that is now inevitably in the pipeline.

It is easy for people to focus on smaller ethical issues while missing the largest moral dramas unfolding around the world. The success of all future human undertakings depends on the existence of a climate that supports human welfare, prosperity, and flourishing. The current generation is selfishly doing everything it can to destabilize the climate, at a very real and insufficiently recognized cost to those who will come after us.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan January 5, 2011 at 5:20 pm

Generally, I think I agree with the moral weight of this analysis. Of course I think that “our generation” is pursuing its interest in conflict with interests of future generations. But I think there are much smaller interest groups which actually control the decisions of “our generation”, and I doubt the usefulness of speaking about “our generation” as a group which could have a conflict of interest. Our generation is not an “interest group”, it is a biological reality organized in a myriad of complex ways. Groups, in order to have conflicts of interest, need to have common interests and ways of pursuing those common interests. For instance, a family of beavers can have a conflict of interest, but the species of beavers can’t. Like the species of beavers, the present “generation” has no means of pursuing its common interests because it is divided along class, race, state, and party lines. What in reality exist are sets of narrower groups which are organized and powerful enough to pursue their common interests – and while I think it is perfectly correct to state that every single one of those groups has a conflict of interest with future generations, I don’t think the fact every, or the vast majority, of particular interest groups have a conflict of interest with the future is sufficient to state that the current generation as such has a conflict of interest with the future.

However, I agree with the dream which posits a future where a generation could be an interest group with a common interest, and be self-conscious enough as a universal class to become cognizant of this interest and how it could conflict with its interest in the future. That is nothing other than the Marxist dream of the proletariat becoming the universal class and the withering away of divisions based on state, racial, class, religious and gender lines. While some aspects of Marxism have been discredited, I think the ideal of bringing humanity to a point where it can recognize itself as having interests in common, rather than divided into sectarian groupings which remain in indefinite conflict of subjugation and counter subjugation, remains a worthwhile goal.

Milan January 8, 2011 at 6:14 pm

Members of a group don’t necessarily need to coordinate their actions, in order to act at the expense of members of another group. Of course, in practical terms, dealing with the intergenerational conflict of interest created by climate change requires getting the current generation to act in a more coherent and much more benign way toward the planet and those who will live on it subsequently.

Tristan January 9, 2011 at 1:28 am

“in order to act at the expense of members of another group”

If you are going to define “interest” group in a way that makes it completely independent of the coordinated interests of its members, you should call it an “expense group”.

Tristan January 10, 2011 at 9:46 pm

If you just want to talk about numbers, I think humans vs. food animals is by far the biggest “conflict of interest”. Something like 50 billion animals are slaughtered in the world per year, and it’s not really possible anymore to state “non human animals don’t have interests”, given how much we know about animal consciousness and what it means for a human to have an interest. Numerically, the number of animals brought into the world to a life of abuse and murdered in just a few years completely dwarfs the number of future humans who’s interests are being ignored by contemporary cultures.

I guess you could dismiss this in various ways. You could try to maintain that animals don’t have interests, but I think this requires parsing “interest” in overly rationalistic way, that fails to capture the importance and even priority of emotions in human valuation. Or, you could say that species don’t have to take the interests of other species into account, and just endorse specisism full stop. But I think full blown speciesism is pretty clearly a sign of pathology, of a clear breakdown in basic sentient empathy. Alternatively, I suppose you could endorse some kind of limited speciesism, which would attempt to balance the interest of humans and other sentient beings in a way that retains the valuative priority of future generations over currently existing non-human animals, even if the non-human animals far outnumber the future generations. This could be done either by some kind of numerical fraction (i.e. 1 mammal life is worth 0.05 human lives, or something), or by a speciesist principle (we have a primary duty towards members of our own species, and a secondary, subordinate duty to members of others species).

Milan January 11, 2011 at 7:48 pm

Is it morally preferable to have a world in which billions of chickens, pigs, and cows were never born that to have a world where they are raised in conditions of suffering and killed for human use?

If so, perhaps unmitigated climate change which undermines the basis for human civilization would be the best possible thing for those species.

Setting that aside, there doesn’t seem to be any reason why a person cannot oppose factory farming while also working against climate change. Simply choosing to be vegetarian or vegan serves both purposes – as would lobbying for laws that force farmers to take into consideration the harm their operations impose on other people, through things like water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

. July 22, 2011 at 3:26 pm
. June 19, 2012 at 10:21 am

Part of the Titanic parable is of arrogance, of hubris, of the sense that we’re too big to fail. Well, where have we heard that one before?

There was this big machine, this human system, that was pushing forward with so much momentum that it couldn’t turn, it couldn’t stop in time to avert a disaster. And that’s what we have right now.

Within that human system on board that ship, if you want to make it a microcosm of the world, you have different classes, you’ve got first class, second class, third class. In our world right now you’ve got developed nations, undeveloped nations.

You’ve got the starving millions who are going to be the ones most affected by the next iceberg that we hit, which is going to be climate change. We can see that iceberg ahead of us right now, but we can’t turn.

We can’t turn because of the momentum of the system, the political momentum, the business momentum. There are too many people making money out of the system, the way the system works right now, and those people frankly have their hands on the levers of power and aren’t ready to let ‘em go.

Until they do, we will not be able to turn to miss that iceberg, and we’re going to hit it, and when we hit it, the rich are still going to be able to get their access to food, to arable land, to water, and so on. It’s going to be the poor, it’s going to be the steerage that are going to be impacted. It’s the same with the Titanic.

I think that’s why this story will always fascinate people. Because it’s a perfect little encapsulation of the world, and all social spectra, but until our lives are really put at risk, the moment of truth, we don’t know what we would do. And that’s my final word.

http://grist.org/climate-change/on-titanic-anniversary-james-cameron-says-climate-change-is-our-menacing-iceberg/

The attitude of “what’s mine is mine” or “I don’t want to change if no one else is going to” needs to change to a more positive one of “I can make a difference by altering my behavior which will not only make others’ lives better, but may also encourage them change their behavior for the better as well.” Although we all may live in different countries and speak different languages, we are all living on one Earth; we are all in this together and we need to start acting like it.

http://www.treehugger.com/slideshows/culture/bloggers-give-their-earth-day-wish/page/7/

David Quilty is the founder of The Good Human.

. July 19, 2012 at 5:27 pm

Since all of us are in some way the beneficiaries of cheap fossil fuel, tackling climate change has been like trying to build a movement against yourself – it’s as if the gay-rights movement had to be constructed entirely from evangelical preachers, or the abolition movement from slaveholders.

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