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The World in Our Hands

2,884 total words    

12 minutes of reading

The Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal on Fracking, Climate Change, and Human Rights has just concluded. The stories told by the witnesses have been terrifying and empowering, infuriating and uplifting, tedious and electrifying, disgraceful and full of grace. As the judges’ advisory opinion is issued, Kathleen Dean Moore reflects on the transformative power of a human-rights narrative.

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I am writing from my garden, in full bloom this time of year, and filled with the sounds of birds in the maples and motorcycles on the road beyond the hedge. Evening grosbeaks, I would say, and Harleys.

We all live in Earth’s garden, where “evolution has achieved its greatest fullness of flowering.” I’m quoting theologian Thomas Berry. It’s the “most lyric period in Earth history,” the time of thrush song and thirty-thousand species of orchids, microscopic sea-angels with tiny wings, whales that teach each other to sing, and countless other astonishments that have evolved over four billion years. And the greatest astonishment of all—the human species, which has the ability to turn, shivering, to the night sky and imagine its own beginnings and its own end.

And yet, governments, in collusion with the oil and gas industry, are rapidly taking steps to give away this world, this lovely world, to the planet’s ninety-three crude-oil billionaires, enriching them beyond the cruelest Pharaohs.

“It is our generation that is witnessing the end of the era we evolved in.” That’s Thomas Berry again. “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.” 

In my lifetime, because of fossil-fuel driven climate change, fossil-fuel enabled habitat destruction, fossil-fuel driven agricultural expansion, and fossil-fuel based agricultural and other assorted poisons, 39 percent of terrestrial wildlife is gone, 39 percent of marine wildlife is gone, 76 percent of freshwater wildlife—gone. The greatest extinction rates are in the poor countries, where the wealthy countries are outsourcing their environmental destruction. Let us think also of the extinction of homelands—Bangladeshi deltas, Alaskan coastal villages, Micronesian villages, sinking under the rising seas.

I am writing from my garden. The air shimmers with the scent of azaleas and the laughter of small children. There is my grandson Theo, who wants to be an engineer for the Lego Company when he grows up, his little brother Lem, who wants to be a deep-sea biologist. And Zoey, who imagines herself working in a pet store when she grows up, among the kittens and snakes. All the imagined futures.

And yet, a new extreme extraction technique, hydraulic fracturing, is flooding the atmosphere with greenhouse gases eighty times more potent than carbon dioxide, accelerating climate change, and I hear this always in my mind, a statement by five hundred scientists led by a team from Stanford: “Unless all nations take immediate action on climate change, by the time today’s children are middle-aged, the life-support systems of the planet will be irretrievably damaged.” 

Irretrievable, from the French, retrouver. So: “never . . . to be found again.” Of course I’m afraid for the children—and my little biologist, probing a sour, scoured sea.

Great Barrier Reef

Around the world, global warming has begun. There is disastrous flooding in northern Africa, where mothers are forced to sleep standing up, to keep their babies’ heads above water. In east Africa, drought is so severe that crops die on the vine and twelve million people are in terrible need of food. Children, the little ones, are falling to infectious diseases from insect vectors and fouled water—thirsty children, delirious dreams of gardens.

The point I want to make with these contrasts between what is now and what may be coming is that the planet balances here, now, between two possible futures. Earth, this beautiful blue marble in absolute balance, trembles there, with wind singing across its melting poles. It could roll either way, the planet and the children, head-over-heels.

In this context, in this place, in this time, the Tribunal gathered to consider fracking—the new engine of the US energy revolution, a technology that has increased oil and gas production faster than at any time in US history. Already, there are 510,000 fracking wells, producing more than half of US crude oil and two-thirds of natural gas. Thirteen-thousand wells are planned to go on line this year. The technology is racing ahead, far outpacing the legal regulations or moral outrage that might control it. Dear god, this flood of cheap energy could not have come at a worse time in planetary history.

What happens next is largely a function of the choices we make, aiming civilization toward the aspirational goals of international human and Earth rights, or surrendering to the power of self-enriching corporations or the allure of fossil-fuel powered life, the easy life, the end game. We are in terrible moral peril that we might let this world slip away.

I think of writer Erica Jong, who wrote:

In my dream, the angel shrugged and said,
“If we fail this time, it will be a failure of the imagination.”
And then she placed the world gently in the palm of my hand.

Imagining Two Futures

So let us turn to the essential work of imagining.

Imagine two futures: One in which human and Earth rights are fully respected and another in which rights are trampled by huge amounts of money invested in crimes that are dug into the very structure of the land, a tangled wellhead of fearful politicians, reckless corporations, and bewildered children.

1. A future without human and Earth rights protections

First, let us imagine the story of a future without human- and Earth-rights protections. In this scenario, internationally recognized human and Earth rights are simply ignored. They are, in this imagining, trumped by the corporations’ right to make a profit. The immediate result is that, unimpeded by law or conscience, corporations spread wells across the land. Profits soar. This wealth creates a lively market in legislators, judges, and regulators, all happy to sell their consciences, and their votes, for the shiny rainbow swell of dirty oil money.

The level of corruption becomes staggering enough that citizens have to prod themselves to remember that paying piles of cash for votes is called “bribery,” and it’s a betrayal of the public trust. If it weren’t for Citizens United, it would also be a felony. In only a single legislative session, federal energy policy is transferred to the hands of the fossil fuel corporations. It is now government of, by, and for the corporations—a corporatocracy.

Now the greatest transfer of public lands and public wealth into the hands of gas and oil companies proceeds apace as drills move into cherished indigenous land and into the once-protected lands of public parks, forests, grasslands, farms, and neighborhoods. The effect on human health is immediately measurable. There are cancer zones that map exactly onto the fracking fields, which—at first—map onto poor and minority townships and villages. Asthma, neurological disorders, and skin rashes increase, birth weights drop. The costs are born by the victims, never by the corporation or the state.

Pollution follows fracking wherever it goes. Abandoned wells leak methane. Chemicals leak into ground water. Chemicals leak into surface water. Pipelines leak, corrode, spill, and explode. Gradually, the cancer zones radiate from the wells, following the pipelines, just as cancer cells follow the blood.

Let’s follow the first story as it continues to unfold. To consolidate their power, the corporations fight against the most powerful opponent they might ever face, which is knowledge. Four traditional sources of knowledge, the pride of civilization, come under relentless attack—science, universities, free press, courts. The weapons are silencing (scrubbed websites, demoted scientists, cancelled research, nondisclosure agreements), purchasing (university professorships and research centers, hired guns who plant false stories, bribes of every sort), deception, and threatening homes and livelihoods.

Activists who seek and share information are charged under new laws that allow a person who “aids, advises, counsels, or conspires with someone who damages a pipeline to be charged with a felony and sentenced to up to ten years in prison,” echoing legislation that was proposed in 2018.[1] Sometimes, absent any human rights, murder is the preferred way to silence a critic. Citizens who know only one fact—their stress and pain—are ridiculed, isolated, and threatened.

As the methane leaks without restraint, global warming accelerates, as does the warming’s effects on peoples’ homes. Driven from the lands by drought, driven from their homes by flood, driven from their cities by unbearable heat stress, people are on the move—with no possible place to go and no redress. There are no rights for refugees.

But really, I’ve got to end this story. I don’t know how to write this. Do I use past tense (because these things have already happened), present tense (because they are happening today), or future tense (because, without effective enforcement of human rights, they will continue to occur)?

What is the verb tense for, “dear god, this can not be allowed to happen”?

Areas of heavy shale-drilling/hydraulic fracturing

2. A future with full human- and Earth-rights protections

Let’s start over with a different thought experiment. Let’s imagine a story of a future with full enforcement of human and Earth rights.

In this story, the governmental commitment to rights serves as a powerful restraint on the fossil fuel industry’s freedom to defile. At first, the fossil fuel industry does its level best to use hydraulic fracturing as carefully as possible, developing technologies, siting wells, and disposing of waste in ways that are expensive, but fully respect the rights to health of people and biota.

Let us imagine also that the protection of the right to know is a high priority for the government. Quoting: “A responsibility of every American citizen to each other is to preserve and protect our freedom by recognizing what truth is and is not, what a fact is and is not, and begin by holding ourselves accountable to truthfulness, and demand that our pursuit of America’s future be fact-based.” That was the newly enlightened Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil. 

When his advice is followed, as it is in this alternative story, much becomes clear about the fracking technology. The salient fact is that it seems to be impossible to pour poisons into the ground, impossible to move methane thousands of miles, impossible to exhaust toxins into the air, with the assurance that human and Earth rights will not be violated.

At that point in the story, the precautionary principle kicks in. If the primary obligation of states and corporations is to honor the rights of life, health, and so on; and if industry simply does not know enough about the chemistry of toxins, the geology of the wells, the fittings of the pipes, to be even a little bit sure they are safe, then the rational (and in this imaginary setting) the legal thing to do is not to proceed.

Now things are really getting expensive for the fracking industry; delay costs a fortune. And now oil and gas cost a whole lot of money—far more than solar panels and wind turbines, or agricultural methane capture and tidal power. It is a powerful incentive for industry to find more reliable sources of income. And off we go into the future with the monkey off our back and the whole realm of possibility ahead of us.

It’s a weird chicken-and-egg thing. I don’t know if the enforcement of moral standards makes people moral or if a moral people insist on the enforcement of moral standards. But the steady protection of human rights embeds those human rights deeper and deeper into the bedrock of a society. We’ve seen this. And we’ve seen where tearing rights out of the social bedrock exposes them to erosion by all kinds of forces, until they disappear.

The point is that there are two paths here. We have learned that we can see quite a way down the different roads. It’s not as though the path is obscured by fog or distance. We know the consequences of turning one way or another. What the Tribunal’s advisory opinion will do is confirm which path the collective moral wisdom of the planet would have us choose.

The other point I want to make with these stories is about the transformative power of a human-rights narrative. Once you start looking at the world through the lenses of human and Earth rights, you see a quite different prospect. The Tribunal has been an exceptional opportunity to imagine a world very different from our own, an aspirational world, a world that calls us to our better, more discerning and empowered selves.

And there is one more thing to say about rights.

The Rights of Future Generations

Throughout the Tribunal, attorneys and witnesses have affirmed human rights, and they have affirmed Earth rights. But there is a set of rights we haven’t talked about, a set of rights that hovers over us like a nervous angel. These are the rights of future generations. What are our responsibilities to those who will come after us, the children of all species, desperately imperiled by the corporate plunder of the planet?

What do we owe the future?

Surely this: Future beings have a right to a world as rich in possibilities as the world that was left to us. At a bare minimum, they deserve the material conditions for on-going life: A world with fresh water to drink, fresh air to breathe, clean food to eat—the minimum. And then birdsong to delight in, safe homes to return to at night, dreams that might come true, not just for people, but for the towering trees and songbirds.

Why do we have this duty to the new ones? “Because they are the very definition of innocent, and every single blow and shout and shiver of fear that rains down on them is utterly undeserved and unfair and unwarranted.” Those are the worlds of the beloved writer and visionary Brian Doyle. And I would say, because we promised them. Every parent holds their newborn child and whispers into the baby’s sweet whisp of hair: “I will care for you. I will keep you safe. I will give you the world.”

How could future beings deserve any less than what we ask for our babies and ourselves?

Running with the seagulls

To take what we want for our profligate lives and leave a ransacked and destabilized world for the future would be unforgiveable selfishness. To let it slip away—the song in a frog’s throat, the green fields, the chances of the children—that’s a sin against creation. And when oil executives and their bought-and-paid-for regulators knowingly take down the great systems that sustain the inter-generational possibilities of human flourishing and the flourishing of all other lives on Earth, when they devise business plans to damage or destroy the chances of future beings, who have no voice to defend themselves, that is an immortal monstrosity.

Whatever is left of the planet when the pillage ends, that’s the world that future beings will live in. Whatever genetic lines, whatever possibilities are left, that’s what evolution has got to work with. Future beings have a right to more than what is left scattered and torn on the table after the great cosmic going-out-of-business sale. The planet, so gentle to life, picked over and storm-torn.

Philosophers say you can’t talk intelligently about the rights of future generations, because you don’t know what they will want. That is simply not true.

Maybe we don’t know whether they will want electric cars or jetpacks, apples or protein pops, whatever. But there is one fact about the desires of future beings that we cannot deny. That is the fact of the urgent press toward ongoing life.

Consider: I love my grandchildren more than I love my own life; they are the manifestation of life ongoing. That love is intense, ferocious, all-consuming. When I think about people around the world, I assume, I know, that they love the future that is manifest in their children with an equal intensity. And then I think of all the plants and animals that shiver with the urgency of reproduction and life ongoing, life ongoing in the rotting log, life in the deepest sea, ongoing life in bedrock and hot springs. The urge toward life has to be the strongest force on the planet. On a warm, humid day, the air fairly shimmers with it.

So I know this about present life: Life wants to live. And I know this about future lives: They too will want the possibility for full life, for full manifestation of potential, for growth and change, for continuing. Surely these future generations, only imagined, but clearly imagined, deserve a planet as rich in the possibility of ongoing life as our own.

This is what we must protect, fiercely and faithfully, for all time. This living world is in our hands.

Earth love

[1] Nott, L. (2018, May 24). Proposed infrastructure laws jeopardize freedom to assemble. Daily Local News. Retrieved June 11, 2018, from http://www.dailylocal.com/opinion/20180524/lata-nott-proposed-infrastructure-laws-jeopardize-freedom-to-assemble


Image Credit

“Great Barrier Reef” by European Space Agency. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“Fracking” by Simon Fraser University – University Communications. (CC BY 2.0)

“Running with the Seagulls” by Ed Schipul. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“Earth Love” by Naxal courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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  • Kathleen Dean Moore

    Kathleen Dean Moore is an environmental philosopher and writer whose recent work focuses on the moral urgency of climate action. Her co-edited book, Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, gathers testimony from the world’s moral leaders about our obligations to future generations. Other books celebrate cultural and spiritual connections to wet, wild places.

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