I first met nature writer and philosophy professor Kathleen Dean Moore in 2004. I had already dog-eared my copy of her first collection of essays, Riverwalking: Reflections on Moving Water, when she came through town to read from her next book, Holdfast: At Home in the Natural World. For three decades Moore taught philosophy in Oregon, raised a son and daughter, and wrote books about the natural world, including The Pine Island Paradox and Wild Comfort. Her intimate connection with the wild led her to feel increasing alarm over its destruction, and when salmon began disappearing from the rivers, Moore started to question the role of the writer in a wounded world.
Then one sentence from James Gustave Speth changed her life. The former dean of Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies opened a climate conference by saying, “The only thing we have to do to be sure we will leave a ruined world for our children and our grandchildren is to do exactly what we are doing now.” Moore later wrote, “To imagine [my grandchildren] wandering, hungry, in a barren land changed everything for me. I decided I would never do anything in my working life that doesn’t at least try to make the world safe for bog lilies and hooting owls and laughing children.”
Recently Moore examined the climate change debate and found it long on science and short on principled reasons to do right by the planet and its inhabitants. She and her colleague Michael P. Nelson decided to ask a hundred visionaries whether humans have a moral obligation to act on behalf of future generations. Their responses became the seeds of the book Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, which Moore co-edited with Nelson.
On a recent sunny morning Moore and I spoke about the twin threats of climate change and corporate hegemony. Small and fair-haired with bright blue eyes, Moore radiated quiet strength, and she laughed often despite the gravity of her subject.
Images courtesy of Katie Ione Craney
Mary DeMocker (MD): For Moral Ground you gathered testimony from political and cultural leaders about our moral obligations in the face of climate change. South African Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu wrote the foreword. President Barack Obama and Sheila Watt-Cloutier, former chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, made powerful arguments.
Kathleen Dean Moore (KMD): The strongest arguments in the book are the ones based on justice. Desmond Tutu writes with the moral authority of one who has worked steadfastly against apartheid. It’s unjust, he argues, for some people to bear the burden of others’ advantage. It’s unjust that people in Africa—who don’t reap the “benefits” of the reckless burning of fossil fuel—are suffering from droughts and crop shortages as a result of the West’s consumption of oil. He knows from experience that it is possible to bring down entrenched institutions. He says there should be worldwide outrage at the injustice of climate change, as there was against apartheid.
Sheila Watt-Cloutier identifies climate change as a form of cultural aggression—people of one culture destroying the material basis of another. We’ve seen this story before in the United States, when settlers killed the buffalo in order to kill buffalo-hunting Native Americans. And we’re seeing it again as the rich nations create climatic conditions that are melting polar ice. Because the Inuit culture is based on a cold climate, Watt-Cloutier claims that her people have a right to ice. Those in the far north are suffering the most from the disrupted climate, even as the effects spread to the rest of the globe. Climate change is damaging food supplies, spreading disease, and creating refugees, and it is poised to become the most massive human rights violation the world has ever seen.
MD: Nobel Prize–winning climatologist Paul Crutzen proposes that the planet has entered a new geologic epoch he calls the “Anthropocene,” meaning the “era of man.” It is characterized, he says, by mass extinction.
KMD: It’s astonishing, isn’t it? Cultural historian Thomas Berry said, “My generation has done what no previous generation could do, because they lacked the technological power, and what no future generation will be able to do, because the planet will never again be so beautiful or abundant.” He points out that the Cenozoic, the era we are leaving behind, was when the Earth was at its “most lyrical,” when songbirds, flowering plants, and the great families of mammals flourished. At this peak of beauty and richness came humankind. We’re now estimated to be responsible for the extinction of one out of every ten species that we know of and likely uncounted others that we haven’t even identified yet. And we’re about to change even the climate that sustains these lives and ours.
We believe we can destroy our habitat without also destroying ourselves. How could we be so tragically wrong?
MD: Something really powerful must have driven us to behave in ways so counter to our own interests. What was it?
KMD: We are the children of the Age of Enlightenment, and we have brought the world to the brink of ruin by acting under the delusion that humans are separate from the Earth, better somehow, in control of it. We believe that humans are the only creatures of spirit in a universe otherwise made up of stones and insensate matter; that the non-human world was created for us alone and derives all its value from its usefulness to humanity; that we are the masters of the universe. Because of our technological prowess, we see ourselves as exceptions to the rules that govern the “lower” forms of life. We believe we can destroy our habitat without also destroying ourselves.
How could we be so tragically wrong?
We’re such a sophisticated species that we’ve even got words for these delusions. Individualism means humans are essentially isolated rights holders, fully separate from one another and always in conflict or competition with each other, even though we are born into a family and the first thing we do is seek out another human. Then there’s dualism, which opens a deep crack down the center of creation: on one side are humans, who alone have spirit and value; on the other side is the inanimate material world that was created solely to serve our needs.
Human exceptionalism is the idea that we are special in some way, able to exceed natural limits.
Ecological and evolutionary science tells us that this is false; that humans are part of interconnected, interdependent systems; that the thriving of the individual parts is necessary for the thriving of the whole; and that we are created, defined, and sustained by our relationships, both with each other and with the natural world. If we come to understand that deeply, we can invent new models of human goodness.
As I see it, cultural evolution is a series of experiments. We test a worldview, and if it’s wrong, the world slaps us down. Because humans are stubborn, we hold on to repudiated beliefs for a couple of generations, but eventually we try something new. We’ve been holding on for too long to a worldview that allows us to think we are separate from the world, even as the world is slapping us with evidence to the contrary. A new experiment may yet emerge. It needs to happen soon.
MD: [In 2011] you set out to articulate a new ethic, convening an ad hoc brain trust of ecologists, philosophers, poets, theologians, social scientists, and musicians. Is having a new ethic enough? I find it difficult to live by my chosen ethic within a culture that still adheres to a destructive one.
KMD: If the culture forces us to live in ways we don’t believe in, then we have to change the culture. Given the urgency of the question, we may need to start with conscientious objection. There are things we must refuse to do, and there are costs for that refusal.
Many of us were alive when people said, “Hell, no” to an unjust war in Vietnam. The question today is: Can we say, “Hell, no” to an unjust economic system? Can we reclaim our humanity from forces that would prefer us to be mindless consumers? Every decision that we make—about where we find information, where we get food, what we wear, how we make our living, how we invest our time and our wealth, how we travel or keep ourselves warm and sheltered—is an opportunity for us to express our values both by saying yes to what we believe in and by saying no to what we don’t believe in.
I love what Carl Safina, who writes about the ocean, says in Moral Ground: “We think we don’t want to sacrifice, but sacrifice is exactly what we are doing We’re sacrificing what is big and permanent to prolong what is small, temporary, and harmful. We’re sacrificing animals, peace, and children to retain wastefulness.” So many of us wake up in the morning and eat a breakfast of food we don’t believe in and then drive a car we don’t believe in to a job we don’t believe in. We do things that we know are wrong, day after day, just because that’s the way the system is set up, and we think we have no choice. It’s soul devouring.
Deciding we won’t drive to that chain grocery store and buy that imported pineapple is a path of liberation. Deciding to walk to the farmers’ market and buy those fresh, local peas is like spitting in the eye of the industries that would control us. Every act of refusal is also an act of assent. Every time we say no to consumer culture, we say yes to something more beautiful and sustaining. Life is not something we go through or that happens to us; it’s something we create by our decisions. We can drift through our lives, or we can use our time, our money, and our strength to model behaviors we believe in, to say, “This is who I am.”
MD: The major paradigm-changing social movements in history—the civil-rights movement, the abolitionist movement, the independence movement in India—have mostly been campaigns against oppression. Who are the oppressors in the climate change movement?
KMD: Transnational petrochemical industries, their leaders, their investors, and the politicians they control. For a long time activists were unclear about this. The corporations were happy to claim that they were simply responding to public demand. Only recently has it become clear how much corporations have been manipulating public demand. They build and maintain infrastructures that force consumers to use fossil fuels. They convince politicians to kill or lethally underfund alternative energy or transportation initiatives. They increase demand for energy-intensive products through advertising. They create confusion about the harmful effects of burning fossil fuels. They influence elections to defang regulatory agencies that would limit Big Oil’s power to impose risks and costs on others. And, whenever possible, they work outside of democracies.
If you own stock in a petrochemical industry, you’ve got to dump it. If you benefit from a fund that owns stock in a petrochemical industry—a university fund, a retirement fund—you’ve got to insist they dump it. No excuses, no delays.
MD: Part of me wonders why people even need to be convinced that we have a moral obligation to protect the future of our planet.
KMD: There’s a disconnect in our culture separating what people do from what they really care about. I love my children and my grandchildren more than anything else. I care about their future. I love this world with a passion. The thought that we might be losing songbirds, trading them for something I don’t care about at all, like running shoes, makes me angry. And still I drive to the store and buy running shoes. I don’t think I am different from other people in this regard.
MD: Maybe we don’t destroy so willingly. I certainly feel forced to in many ways.
KMD: It isn’t easy to change. Our choices are all tangled up in nets of profit and entrenched patterns of environmental destruction. But if we understand exactly how skillfully we are manipulated, we’ll get angry, and that will motivate us to make changes.
We are at a critical point. We have a very narrow window of opportunity to get it right, and to get it right, we first have to imagine a new world, story by story.
MD: These problems can be solved by stories?
KMD: Historically that’s what human beings use to explore our place in the world: we tell stories about it. Sometimes they’re scientific stories. Sometimes they’re philosophical stories. Sometimes they’re songs or movies. Sometimes they’re fables or morality tales. We need to tell new stories to describe who we are in relation to the land, to honor what’s been lost, to help us understand our kinships, to affirm what we care about, to explore the difference between right and wrong, moral and immoral.
MD: The word moral is a loaded one. Are you ever accused of “moralizing” in your lectures and writing?
KMD: Moralizing is foisting your beliefs onto others without using reason. That’s different from moral reasoning, which is an essential social skill that we seem to have lost in all the shouting and piety on radio and television. Moral reasoning is a discourse in which people affirm what they think is true or good or right, and then they back up their claims with reasons.
When my colleagues and I host public events about environmental ethics, we gather people in small groups and ask, “What do you care about most? What would you be willing to spend your whole life taking care of? What would you die for?” Then we ask, “If you value this more than anything else, what should you do? How might you make that value evident in your life?” It’s an invitation to a respectful dialogue in which both sides listen and might even change their minds. In civil discourse you test your beliefs against experience—your own and others’—and revise and improve them. Think of the conversations the Founders had about basic principles of human rights. We can do that, too. We can talk reasonably about ethics.
MD: Does having a discourse in moral reasoning mean we need to listen to climate change deniers?
KMD: No. Perhaps a scientific discourse would engage deniers in a debate about the facts, but a moral discourse isn’t about science. It’s about right and wrong.
Debates about the causes of climate change have become distractions. If your house is burning down, you don’t stand around arguing about whether the fire was caused by human or natural forces. You do what you can to put out the damn fire. You throw everything at it, and then you hold your breath, because there are people inside that house.
MD: When it comes to getting people to change their behavior, is a moral argument the best approach? Why not a more pragmatic appeal?
KMD: I believe that a moral argument is the most pragmatic appeal, for several reasons.
Number one: Moral arguments speak to all people. Economic arguments speak only to a few. When Big Oil violates fundamental, universally agreed-upon principles of justice and human rights, that’s something everyone can condemn.
Number two: Moral arguments are trump cards, whereas economic arguments can always be overridden by matters of principle. Yes, you might profit from keeping slaves, but it’s wrong. Yes, you can profit from ruining children’s futures, but it’s wrong.
Number three: Moral arguments appeal to what is hopeful and good in the human spirit. God knows, we haven’t done well by appealing to, and even glorifying, self-interest.
We have a chance to focus on the ethics of affirmation. Who are we, as human beings, when we are at our best? But environmental activists often dither about regulation, imposing limits and such. When the climate change movement frames arguments, it is generally careful not to talk about obligation or duty or morality—all those ethics words. It will talk about patriotism or competing with China or getting jobs or profiting from green energy—anything but ethics. That’s a terrible strategic mistake.
If you look at the times in American history when our society changed directions, you’ll find that it was motivated by moral principle. Think of the Declaration of lndependence, a statement about the rights of human beings. Think of the Emancipation Proclamation, a statement that slavery is wrong. Think of the opposition to the Vietnam War. Think of the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream was not of profits or material comfort; his dream was of justice for future generations. The question isn’t whether we should talk about ethics; the question is whether we can achieve the necessary rapid social change without talking about them.
MD: Do you think people have trouble directing their moral outrage at the worst climate change offenders because they feel culpable in the process themselves?
KMD: Yes, which is why the worst offenders are happy to implicate and entangle us in every possible way and make us blame ourselves for climate change. We have to do our best to shake loose of that entanglement and never turn our rage against ourselves or allow self-criticism to dissipate our anger toward the real culprits. Of course each of us should be using less oil. But when I hear people piously say, “We have met the enemy, and he is us,” I say, bullshit. I didn’t cut corners and cause an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I didn’t do my best to undermine the Environmental Protection Agency and every other agency that might have limited fracking. I’m not lobbying Congress to open oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean. I didn’t cut funding for alternative energy sources. Big Oil is pouring billions of dollars into shaping government policies and consumer preferences. And what do we say? “Oh, I should be a more mindful consumer.” Of course we should, but that’s only the beginning.
MD: Many of us are waiting until our lives feel less busy before we jump into activism.
KMD: Yes, we are busy. Probably too busy to avert a planetary disaster that will have the effect of an asteroid impact: killing off species, altering the climate, acidifying the oceans. Why are we so busy? Those who would prefer we not think about climate change and other injustices would like very much for us to stay busy. If we have to work two jobs to make a living, we‘re not going to be out in the streets protesting. If we are preoccupied with other parts of our lives, our attention is drawn away from the practices that are destroying the foundation of those lives.
I used to think it was enough for all of us simply to live our lives imaginatively and constructively. I don’t think that anymore. I think we have to find the time to be politically active. I don’t want to cut anybody any slack on that. Are we going to let it all slip away—all those billions of years it took to evolve the song in a frog’s throat or the stripe in a lily—because we’re too busy?
The glory of the universe, whether it comes from God or nature, has a value beyond its usefulness to humans. No matter if you’re a member of a church or not, you can appreciate that glory, which calls us to action.
MD: You say you’ve become a “ferocious grandmother.” What does that mean to you?
KMD: I agree with what my book’s coeditor, Michael P. Nelson, says about getting older. He doesn’t want to hear anymore about retirees being entitled to year-round perfect weather, an annual trip to Las Vegas, low taxes, easy Sunday crosswords, and reduced greens fees. Retired people often feel that, since they’ve worked all their lives, the world owes them a rest. That’s outrageous. Old age is precisely when we need to pay the world back.
Yes, we have worked hard, but our successes depended on a stable climate, temperate weather, abundant food, cheap fuel, and a sturdy government—all advantages that our children and grandchildren will not have if we don’t act.
We elders are at the peak of our ability to help. We have a wealth of experience. Many of us have sufficient income. And we have that huge commodity: time. Most of all we have a ferocious love for our grandchildren. Wouldn’t that love make us want to leave them the legacy of a beautiful world? To turn away from that into a kind of grouchy selfishness strikes me as tragic.
If your granddaughter has asthma because there is dust in the air, get out in the street and demand clean air. If your grandson is not learning well because there are toxins in the water, you should be at the city council meeting. Their parents are busy making a home for these children, but you have the time and the ability to make a difference in their future. To love someone is to have a sacred obligation to protect them.
MD: Most parents I know are worried about the environment, but they have difficulty shrinking their family’s carbon footprint without depriving their children of various activities and comforts. What can you say to them?
KMD: Parents have a parental duty to be clear about what their children need. Most important is a future. We’ve got to remember that the next generation will have to live in whatever is left of the world after we get done with it. We are planting time bombs around our own children: toxins in the water, radioactive waste in leaking tanks, acid in the oceans, and climate chaos. And we’re too busy to protest because we have to buy the kids the right kind of shoes for the soccer tournament? What kind of love is that?
MD: Tomorrow I’ll drive three hours to my child’s soccer tournament on the other side of the Cascade Mountains.
KMD: I’m sorry my answer can’t be more gentle, but we are harming our children even as we believe we are providing for them.
It’s ironic and tragic that the amassing of material wealth in the name of our children’s future is precisely what will devastate their future. Consider the poisonous chemicals in the plastic car seat, the pesticide on the fruit, the coal company stock in the college investment portfolio, the carbon load of the soccer tournament. But that’s not the worst of it. The harm that our decisions will do to the children who are not privileged isn’t just ironic; it’s reprehensible. These children who will never know even the short-term benefits of misusing fossil fuels are the ones who will suffer the most as seas rise, as fires scorch croplands, as tropical diseases spread north, as famine comes to lands that were once abundant.
MD: What changes to the political system would help in the fight against climate change?
KMD: We need to get the money out of politics so we can be a democracy again. Plato had it figured, way back in ancient Greece, that every democracy eventually becomes a plutocracy—a government by the rich—because you can always buy votes. And every plutocracy devolves into anarchy, because poor people will only put up with so much. The United States has clearly moved into the plutocratic stage. The question is, can we return to a democracy, or will we devolve into anarchy? It’s that serious.
Most of us are so deeply disgusted by the actions of corporations and politicians that we have trouble imagining how they might actually serve the public good. So let’s work on reimagining corporations and democracy. If corporations are going to be treated as persons, fine. I’m all for it. But persons need to conform to standards of right and wrong in their behavior. When they fail to do that, they are stripped of their rights. Let’s imagine a corporation that can go to jail. Let’s imagine a democracy where elections are publicly funded, and all politicians get is a decent salary and the public’s respect for doing a good job of governing. Just imagine!
MD: You mention enlisting the aid of religions, but you’re not a believer. You describe yourself as a “sacred secularist.” What does that mean?
KMD: It means that I believe the world is extraordinary and mysterious, beautiful beyond human imagining and grand beyond human measure, worthy of reverence and awe. The word we have for something like that is sacred. You don’t have to believe in God to know that when you go out the door in the morning, you walk on sacred ground. A friend from New Zealand who had never seen a rufous hummingbird once said to me, “That’s the kind of creature that makes you believe in God.” And I said, “Or that’s the kind of creature that makes you believe we can’t let this world slip away.” If God doesn’t have his eye on the sparrow, somebody else had better, and that somebody is us.
MD: I once heard you read “The Call to Forgiveness at the End of the Day,” your piece in Moral Ground written from the perspective of an imagined future in 2025, after you have witnessed the extinction of songbirds, bats, frogs, and salmon. In it you wonder how your grandchildren can forgive you for not acting fast enough to save these beautiful creatures. After you finished reading, the audience sat in stunned silence. Is this the reaction you hope for?
KMD: Yes and no. I don’t pretend to know what a writer’s duty is in these times. And nobody wants to write something that breaks people’s hearts. But I did want to help others see one possible future, a world without owl calls and frog song. If we can’t imagine what probably lies ahead, how will we gather the courage to turn in a different direction? Maybe more writers should tell stories about possible futures, the beautiful ones and the ones that will break our hearts. It’s cowardly to shy away from sad stories. As songwriter Leonard Cohen says, even when our hearts are broken, we have to sing the “broken hallelujah.”
MD: Can’t thoughts of devastation also paralyze?
KMD: Our civilization has rituals that help us draw strength from grief, get our courage back, and continue forward. Maybe that’s the primary function of religion. Surely it’s an important function of art. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “We have art in order not to die of the truth.” Can we turn our grief toward positive action? We need creative ways to acknowledge loss and extinction. If there are trucks going down the road in the countryside pouring poisons on wildflowers, there ought to be a hearse following them and a string of cars with their lights on to acknowledge the deaths. If construction crews are bulldozing a marsh for a parking lot, there should be a choir there singing a requiem. If you poison your lawn, you should post a sign that says, “Not safe for children and animals.” At the site of every clear-cut there should be a little shrine like the ones families put up for a young person killed in a car wreck. Erect wooden crosses on stumps. Organize people to wear black and to stand along the line the seas will reach in 2050.
MD: Do you imagine this as a kind of grieving or as a political protest?
KMD: Both. I was in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998 when Matthew Shepard, a young gay man, was murdered in a vicious hate crime. The University of Wyoming homecoming parade that year turned into an outlet for grief and outrage. After the marching band and the girls on horseback went by, people poured off the curbs and marched, crying and shouting, through town. The community was profoundly changed. People in the Middle East have taught the world how quickly a funeral procession can become a political protest. In the United States, civil rights activists showed that people walking out of a church holding hands and singing can be a powerful political statement.
MD: My friends often say they don’t want to give fear or negativity too much of their energy. Our culture’s desire to focus on the positive is a pretty serious roadblock for activists wanting to confront these issues.
KMD: Yes, and if I were an oil company CEO, I would take heart in that. I would design strategies that build on that aversion to what is unpleasant or horrifying or sad. If you give people a chance to turn away, they will. If you give them a distraction, they will take it.
Let’s face it: our culture is hooked on cheap oil and consumer goods, and we exhibit all the self-destructive behaviors of addicts. We devote our days to the pursuit of the next hit. We have developed enabling behaviors to allow our addictions to go unchallenged, to deny that they do any harm.
I think the addiction to consumer goods is a response to the loss of community, self-sufficiency, meaningful work, neighborly love, and hope. When these things are taken from us, we look for the cheap fix, which is turning out to be very expensive indeed.
MD: You and your students have a “hope-o-meter” for the future of the Earth, with a one meaning very little hope and a ten meaning no worries. Where are you on your hope-o-meter now?
KMD: Honestly? I’m about a one. I see feedback loops in the natural world that are going to make climate change much harder to address. As ice melts, it frees methane, a potent greenhouse gas. As forests are destroyed, they release carbon dioxide. By every measure global warming is increasing more rapidly than the most horrifying predictions of the past. And I can see the political feedback mechanisms kicking in: the more politicized the issue becomes, the more money will be thrown into debating it instead of addressing the crisis. It will be hard to get out of this one.
MD: So why do you try?
KMD: People tend to think that we have only two options: hope or despair. But neither one is acceptable. Blind hope leads to moral complacency: things will get better, so why should I put myself out? Despair leads to moral abdication: things will get worse no matter what I do, so why should I put myself out? But between hope and despair is the broad territory of moral integrity—a match between what you believe and what you do. You act lovingly toward your children because you love them. You live simply because you believe in taking only your fair share. You do what’s right because it’s right, not because you will gain from it.
There is freedom in that. There is joy in that. And, ultimately, there is social change in that. That’s the way we respond to a lack of hope. A person could be at zero on the hope-o-meter and still do great, joyous work. Even—especially—in desperate times, we can make our lives into works of art that embody our deepest values. The ways of life that are most destructive to the world often turn out to be the ones that are also most destructive to the human spirit. So, although environmental emergencies call on us to change, they don’t call on us to give up what we value most. They encourage us to exercise our moral imagination and to invent new ways of lifting the human spirit and helping biological and cultural communities thrive.
Over the weekend I sat for an hour in a warm pond in beautiful sunshine with my one-year-old grandson on my lap, splashing and scooping. I’ve never seen a child so happy. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so happy. That type of immersion in the world is a lesson in responsible caring. We can find the ongoing strength to do this work if we keep in mind that it is powered by love.