What Is After Us?

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Where we, even where we mean

To mend her we end her,

When we hew or delve:

After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.

—Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Binsey Poplars”

In 1902 when he wrote What Is To Be Done?, his influential theory of what a revolution requires in order to succeed, Vladimir Lenin saw something unexpected coming into the world—that the next stage of history would emerge in Russia, a pre-modern, pre-capitalist country, rather than in Germany, the most mature European civilization, or in the United States, the rising star of capitalism. He also saw himself standing on the threshold of a new age of human emancipation. The vision was clear; what mattered most was the strategy, the best way to get across that threshold into the promised land.

Today our vision is anything but promising, or, for that matter, clear. The new land offered by the best science we have and by the most reasonable expectations and conjectures is not one of equality, empowerment, or progressive human self-realization. It is one of gradual erosion of planetary stability, Holocene climate, biodiversity, ecological resilience, and social and political order. Geological business as usual, perhaps, if one takes the very long view, but a profound devolution from the perspective of history measured in decades and centuries. And that is the only temporal frame in which the question of what is to be done makes sense for ethics and politics. So Lenin’s question remains to be posed, even though his vision has been turned upside down.

The Voice of Ethics in the Conversation of Climate Change

Lately, I have been trying my best to explore the encounter between ethics—understood as a particular kind of prescriptive discourse—and climate change—understood as a thoroughgoing public problem of human and ecological health, with descriptive and explanatory natural science mediating the conversation. In the pending what-is-to-be-done, prescriptive ethical values must play an important role alongside law, technology, and investment. I am coming to some conclusions.

We must recognize that human health and well-being are intertwined with planetary and ecosystemic function and resilience in newly complex ways. Both human and natural being are shaped by institutional structures of neoliberal, capitalist political economy and by cultural systems of consumptive modernity and technocratic post-modernity on a global scale. It is an exaggeration to say that human beings totally determine natural processes or to say that there is no such thing as “nature” anymore. It is unwarranted to hold that nothing is ontologically “natural,” in the sense that it can be understood and valued in its own right or on its own terms, or ethically “natural,” in that it should be so understood and valued. But it is correct to say that, now and for some time past, most environmental and human health hazards originate in human choices rather than in chance or natural necessity. Hence, we must now deal with geophysical and bio-ecological manifestations of our economic systems and cultural values. Increasingly frequent disasters and emergencies bear our fingerprints. Gazing in the mirror of climate change, we see our own faces—a few in the foreground, and many receding behind. This leads to a new what-is-to-be-done, a different governance, policy, and action agenda in which it isn’t enough to follow or re-channel the money; we must also follow and reconstruct the interpretations that are given to the meaning of life and the world.

Reductions in greenhouse gas emissions will come about only through change at both the level of individual behavior and of social norms and institutions. In practice, this means that public policies must have recourse to values and purposes ordinary people will understand if they think and act like interdependent and relational selves. Ethics must help to promote such thinking and acting. How else can we ever garner the collective will to break out of the strictures of the current world system? How else to move beyond social, economic, and political formations supporting carbon-based energy systems, thermodynamically unsustainable economic growth, and neo-capitalist concentrations of wealth and power? For these formations are strictures. Although they may begin there, solutions must achieve escape velocity and break free of the gravitational pull of ideologies of private opulence and public squalor.

One mistake that environmental political thought made in the 1970s was to define the problem as a politics of scarcity focusing on possessions that are exclusive, rather than on a politics of plenitude focusing on practices that can be shared. Studies of happiness (think Finland) suggest that relational goods beat exclusive gadgets, hands down. The politics of falling down and falling behind in a stratified society is a mug’s game played out on the bait and switch of raised expectations followed by betrayal and disappointment. One of its main aims is to perpetuate in large numbers of people a failure to perceive the underlying forces of economic and social power that are working on everyone in the society, albeit with differential effects. This failure of perception is an acquired impairment; it is not yet so far gone that it cannot be replaced with political judgment.

If we are to use self-interest as the primary motivating factor in garnering democratic political support for climate-smart public policies and the effective regulation of commercial and private behavior, then we must rediscover the common good. How do we break free of this conundrum? I do not believe that we can simply try to bracket the notion of self-interest in the motivational structure of individuals and replace it with some overriding moral ideal of duty or principles of justice and beneficence in that sense. The best contribution that ethics—with other forms of moral learning—can make is to temper and reconstitute self-interest by interpreting it in new ways. Does Hopkins’ sobering insight have to be the epitaph of our future, or can we somehow mend nature without ending her?

The Tide Also Rises

I was well into middle age before I added the terms “mitigation” and “adaptation” to my vocabulary or spent much time with people who actually used these words frequently. I now see that they tell a sad tale. A few years ago, mitigation was the watchword. Its aims were correction, control, prevention, limitation of further damage. We still had time to turn things around. If we had the will, there would be a way. Sober people thought that atmospheric carbon could be leveled off below 350 parts per million, and global temperature rise could be kept below two degrees Celsius.

Today, the watchword is adaptation—battening down the hatches, learning to live with perturbations and stress, reluctantly exchanging security for resilience. We see that a glacial pace is the top speed of global climate governance. (Pardon me, that metaphor doesn’t work well anymore, since glaciers are receding remarkably fast.) We have also received scientific updates that warn of the threshold effects or tipping points at work in the atmosphere, the oceans, the ice sheets. Points of no return have rendered prevention irrelevant for certain phenomena; the discussion is not whether, but when and how bad. Some sunny temperaments see silver linings here, but to have gone from mitigation talk to adaptation talk in such a short time seems ominous to me.

A case in point: global sea level rise.[1] In 2012 assumptions for the eventual Paris Agreement set global mean sea level rise at two meters by 2100. In 2017, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) increased its estimates of global mean sea level rise to 2.5 meters (8.2 feet).[2] These estimates are changing because massive ice sheets in Greenland and the Antarctic have begun to collapse more rapidly and extensively than previously projected. Earlier models did not take this into account. Where ice sheet collapse happens changes where the greatest effects will be felt. Greenland melting will flood more in the southern hemisphere; the effects of Antarctic ice collapse will be felt more in the northern hemisphere. There is enough water in Greenland ice alone to raise the world’s oceans by twenty-two feet. Land-based ice sheet collapse has a tipping point, but we don’t know what it is.[3]

What does seem certain is that steps must be taken to adapt to sea-level rise and its related effects—some inadequate ones are already underway, like the gate system in Venice designed to handle rising waters of about two feet, which, in any case, will be too expensive to operate as storms become more frequent. The higher level of the oceans per se is not the only problem. Sea-level rise is related to the frequency and severity of coastal storms that bring dramatic, albeit shorter term, flooding with storm surges. In 2012 Hurricane Sandy hit New York City and coastal New Jersey with surge of nine feet. In the future the average high tide each day in those places could be higher than that. A massive infrastructure will have to be moved. Sea-level rise has happened before in human pre-history, but our ancient ancestors traveled much lighter than we do.

In sum, a very gradual repositioning of the coast lines of the world will be punctuated by sudden disasters of flood damage and relentless incursion of salt water into fresh water aquifers. Two out of three of the world’s cities are located on coastlines, and a large percentage of the world’s population live there. Such flooding and fresh water shortages can be expected to produce massive inland movement of climate refugees. In The Water Will Come, Jeff Goodell describes the prospect this way: “For anyone living in Miami Beach or South Brooklyn or Boston’s Back Bay or any other low-lying coastal neighborhood the difference between three feet of sea level rise by 2100 and six feet is the difference between a wet but livable city and a submerged city.… The difference between three feet and six feet is the difference between a manageable coastal crisis and a decades-long refugee disaster.”[4]

Speaking of Miami, it is almost the perfect poster child for sea-level rise: essentially built on a swamp, economically dependent on real estate and tourism, and surrounded by a sea floor that is not strong enough to support a system of physical flood barriers. A beautiful city that must stay exciting and fun to be economically viable is also naked and exposed to the sea. Miami’s situation drives a wedge between reason and self-interest, and people cannot bring themselves to walk away. Jorge Perez, one of the city’s real estate moguls, reacts to these inconvenient truths this way: “No, I am not worried about [sea-level rise].… I believe that in twenty or thirty years, someone is going to find a solution for this.… Besides, by that time, I’ll be dead, so what does it matter?”[5] How does one begin to respond to thinking like this? Goodell says that it is not limited to a few, and he has found that “in Miami, as in every other city in the world, there is hope that if sea levels rise slowly enough, it is will erode the politics of denial and inspire innovation and creative thinking, and the whole crisis will be manageable.”[6]

Is this the best we can do? Rely on—even hope for—a continuing sequence of smallish disasters that slowly undermine climate change denial and its politics, buying time so that our governance systems will actually be able to do something meaningful about adaptation and resilience? Perhaps the realistic anticipation of increasingly frequent small-scale disasters and their costs will be sufficient for some to take action sooner. For example, leaders in the world’s most powerful and vulnerable cities have global financial leverage and may be able to create governance networks and set standards on their own. Such networks can achieve an end run around recalcitrant nation-states and force the attention of national politicians.[7]

However that may be, these political logics of soft (or at least decently survivable, “wet but livable”) landings presuppose that our societies in coastal areas and elsewhere have the wherewithal to conduct adaptation planning well, and maybe sneak in some good, old-fashioned mitigation on the side while they are at it. What should we be thinking about as we prepare to prepare, plan to plan, and put climate change adaptation into practice?

Disaster Adaptation as a Common Good

Disasters are, by definition, times of extraordinary circumstance. The injury, suffering, and death they cause are tragic. But their social and civic significance is that disasters bring traits and behaviors to the surface that are ordinarily latent in everyday life. That is the ethical peril and promise of disasters. Widespread moral indifference and conflict may arise. But so may widespread responsibility and solidarity.[8] To facilitate the promise and to stave off the peril are the ultimate aims of disaster planning and preparedness.

Preparedness does not only apply to individuals or groups. It is also an institutional and cultural capability of whole communities—the capability to plan and prepare in advance, to respond during the immediate crisis, and to recover afterward. In order to do this communities need to be able to tap wellsprings of care, cooperation, and cohesiveness when called upon to do so. Given that an awareness of pending disaster is growing, as emergencies become more frequent and widely publicized, and given that planning for it can and should be a process with wide community participation, disaster preparedness and adaptation can be used by civic leaders to promote a sense of personal and civic responsibility.

Having recourse to the language of community membership responsibility and the common good—as I think we must in order to develop a sound ethical view of climate change adaptation and disaster planning—is often challenged because the spurious use of the concept can often project a pseudo-We that is manipulated behind the scenes by an elite few. When a perception of exclusion, racial and ethnic division, and injustice is widespread, skepticism about notions like community and the common good grows. More localized and particularistic group identifications are said to be the only authentic ones. While understandable, this attitude is ultimately ethically hobbling and politically debilitating.

Hence, it is important to be as clear as possible about what community means and the work it can do in guiding adaptive policies and practices. There are three senses of community that I would like to differentiate.

Community may be understood as an “association”: a set of individuals for whom others are “influences.”

Community may be understood as a “social system”: a structure of institutionalized patterns of behavior and norms.

Community may be understood as a “civitas”: a space of deliberation and action for the common good. In this space individual agents acting together both reproduce and change the social and cultural context of their agency. That is to say, in the space of community, institutions and power, meaning and norms can change for the better in our lives. When that space is gone, things can be changed more easily for the worse.

My suggestion is that climate change adaptation and disaster planning, such as that provoked by impending intense storm activity, flooding, and sea-level rise, offers the opportunity to nurture and strengthen the dimension of civitas in our lives together. My further thought is that neither thinking like members of an association, nor like functional units in a social system, will be sufficient in a hazardous world. No—in order to be truly prepared and resilient, we must also be able think like citizen-members of a civitas, a common good; a “commonwealth,” as the old political philosophers used to say.

Disaster planning and adaptation should be marked with civic values like reasonableness, transparency, inclusiveness, and accountability. These values are clear and intuitive enough, and there is no need to belabor them. In order to clarify a civic perspective on disaster preparedness more fully, I would like to contrast it with an alternative perspective—one arguably more influential in American thinking in these libertarian and neoliberal times. From this point of view, adaptation planning is a specialized and technical service provided by trained experts and purchased by communities to promote their interests. The contrast I want to draw is between this “consumer model” understanding of adaptation, and a “civic model.”

The consumer model understands safety and preparedness as commodities that members of an association purchase from elites and experts with their tax dollars. They are buying a professional service, and emergency preparedness is a contractual relationship. As in all professional contracts, it involves the best efforts of one party to protect and promote the individual interests of the other party. For their part, clients agree to abide by the advice of the professional.

What assumptions are being made when we hold that climate adaptation and disaster preparedness are professional, technical services best left to experts? The consumer model assumes that scientific, social, and cultural knowledge of a specialized kind is sufficient for the task. It assumes that local and contextual knowledge of particular communities and places is not required.

The civic model understands the ability to plan, to adapt and be prepared, and to be resilient as acquired capabilities—effective functionings—of communities and individuals. Climate change adaptation and disaster preparedness are not commodities to be purchased; they are a type of public work and participatory practice. In this practice, not only are plans drawn, social media and telephone trees activated, sandbags filled, and people in peril rescued, but widespread grassroots discussion takes place, well in advance of both the final plans and the disaster event itself.

In these discussions both information and uncertainty are shared. Options are weighed. Value priorities are debated and established. Limited resources are anticipated and mitigated through contingency plans. Local, contextualized knowledge is seen as relevant to the success or failure of the emergency plan and is sought out through engagement with lay communities.

Difficult value choices and priorities are not viewed through the logic of paternalist expertise but through representative voice and deliberative participation. This is what it means to call climate adaptation and disaster planning a type of public or civic work. It is not simply “used” by the people who benefit from it. Instead, it is an expression of the entire community about the value of the lives and health of its members, of its bioregional ecology, and of the Earth system as a living whole. On this view, it is entirely appropriate to emphasize broad, inclusive participation and community engagement in the planning process. Adaptation planning and disaster preparedness in the coming decades will emerge as an increasingly central and sustaining aspect of the life of strong democratic communities. To paraphrase the playwright Bertolt Brecht, unhappy the land that has disasters, and unhappy the land that needs them.[9] Would that democracy could find its strength in other ways.

Disaster adaptation as a civic practice and public work redefines the relationship between political and technical elites and citizens. It is less like a contract between expert provider and needy recipient and more like a covenant, an agreement among those with moral standing that establishes commitments of responsibility for each and has a donative element that goes beyond a mere quid pro quo. As J. Ronald Engel formulates the importance of covenant, “the covenantal worldview reconciles human existence and ecological integrity in one unified moral and natural order whose realization is both the precondition and the outcome of the unique vitality of each unique individual and life-form.”[10]

Another perceptive student of the covenantal tradition, William F. May, indicates how a covenant differs from a contract, much as a consumer model of adaptation planning differs from a civic model:

Contracts are signed to be expediently discharged, covenants have a gratuitous, growing edge to them that nourishes rather than limits relationships. . . . There is a donative element in the nourishing of covenant. . . . Tit for tat characterizes a commercial transaction, but it does not exhaustively define the vitality of that relationship in which one must serve and draw upon the deeper reserves of another.[11]

For the sake of successful climate adaptation later, we should attend now to how we think about the practice of disaster preparedness. Nowadays there is a tendency to confuse the identity of the person as a consumer and the identity of the person as a citizen. Even worse, there are forces—mainstream media conventions, social media influences, campaign financing laws—at work that hollow out our citizenship so that it is reduced to little more than a strategic, consumptive competition or a spectator sport.

Earlier I said that adaptation and disaster planning offers the opportunity to nurture and strengthen the dimension of civitas and the common good in our lives together. Here are some of the reasons I believe this to be true—or, at any rate, worth a try. The memory of recent disasters, or the prospect of impending ones, focuses the mind and seems to stretch the attention span as few other issues do. Nothing is more boring than emergency planning when practiced in its paternalistic and consumptive mode, but active, deliberative participation in climate action planning can engage people in ways that renew or strengthen their own sense of civic responsibility and membership. It may also reinforce the health of those organizations of neighborhood and civil society that make up the infrastructure of civic life and are integral to the ability to recover from disaster and dislocation. The trick is to allow adaptation planning, undertaken before disasters in the relative calm of normal times, to range widely and searchingly. Adaptation preparedness from a civic perspective is not only about the relatively sudden hazards and disasters that cannot be ignored—such as the prolonged drought of the Dust Bowl, whose cloud and shadow reached Washington, DC in 1934 (on May 11, the very day Congress was holding a hearing on what to do about this on-going catastrophe), or the manifestations of global climate change in the hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, and pandemics of more recent times.[12] It must also be brought to bear on the long emergency of inequality and the denial of rights and justice; and on the slow, accumulating disaster of biodiversity loss.

We gear up for blows that wound society. Why then should we ignore slow poisons that deform, deface, and sap our sense of community and the common good, from which it is much harder to recover? Addressing these conditions—the social determinants of ecological disaster, as it were—is a great challenge, but it is the thing that ultimately matters most. What is coming after us? After-comers may not know the old beauty, but the degree of health, integrity, and beauty of the land they will find is still up for grabs and down to us.

[1] See M. Szabados, “Understanding Sea Level Change,” ACSM Bulletin No. 236 (December 2008): 10-14.

[2] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Global and Regional Sea Level Rise Scenarios for the United States, NOAA Technical Report NOS CO-OPS 083 (Silver Spring, MD: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, January 2017), https://tidesandcurrents.noaa.gov/publications/techrpt83_Global_and_Regional_SLR_Scenarios_for_the_US_final.pdf.

[3] See M. Crist, “Besides, I’ll Be Dead,” London Review of Books 40, no. 4 (February 22, 2018): 12-13.

[4] J. Goodell, The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities and the Remaking of the Civilized World (New York: Little Brown, 2017): 69.

[5] Ibid., 93.

[6] Ibid., 256.

[7] See B.R. Barber, If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014) and Cool Cities: Urban Sovereignty and the Fix for Global Warming (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017).

[8] R. Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster (New York: Viking, 2009).

[9] In Brecht’s play “The Life of Galileo,” Andrea says, “Unhappy the land that has no heroes,” and Galileo responds, “No, unhappy the land that needs heroes.”

[10] J.R. Engel, “What Covenant Sustains Us?” in L. Westra, K. Bosselmann, and R. Westra, eds., Reconciling Human Existence with Ecological Integrity: Science, Ethics, Economics and Law (London: Earthscan, 2008), 277-292, at 282.

[11] W.F. May, “Code, Covenant, Contract, or Philanthropy,” Hastings Center Report 5, no. 6 (November-December 1975): 29-38, at 34.

[12] On that fateful May 11, Hugh Bennett, director of the Soil Erosion Service, was testifying. Neither a shrinking violet, nor a Scott Pruitt, he was on record as saying “Americans have been the greatest destroyers of land of any race or people, barbaric or civilized” and called for “a tremendous national awakening to the need for action in bettering our agricultural practices.” Today in History, “May 11 the Dustbowl Hits Washington, DC,” at http://historysstory.blogspot.com/2014/05/may-11-dustbowl-hits-washington-dc.html.


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  • Bruce Jennings

    Bruce Jennings is Senior Fellow at the Center for Humans and Nature where he engages in research, writing, public speaking, and consulting. He is the editor of the Center’s journal, Minding Nature.
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