Sometimes it’s hard to know if things you encounter in the climate debate are real, or clever works of fiction or satire.
For example, the website Trees Have Rights Too – ecological justice for all sounds to me very much like a joke, parodying the excesses of some eco-warrior. But it is in fact the website of Polly Higgins, the barrister-turned-Gaia’s-advocate, who really does think that non-human things have ‘rights’. The deranged lawyer wants to make a crime of ‘ecocide‘ comparable to genocide, because killing a nest of ants is a bit like the systematic murder of a race of people. Higgins view of people, then, is that they are no better than ants — so why not let them suffer?
Another crazy idea that has resurfaced recently is Jean-François Mouhot’s idea that
Once, men abused slaves. Now we abuse fossil fuels
Pointing out the similarities (and differences) between slavery and the use of fossil fuels can help us engage with climate change in a new way
In an article in the Guardian last week, Mouhot said,
Intriguing similarities between slavery and our current dependence on fossil-fuel-powered machines struck me: both perform roughly the same functions in society (doing the hard and dirty work that no one wants to do), both were considered for a long time to be acceptable by the majority and both came to be increasingly challenged as the harm they caused became more visible.
Back in 2008, I thought it was a joke when I came across the author making the same argument in an article in an edition of History Today. I blogged about it back then, but perhaps too verbosely. More briefly: the use of oil and slaves can only be moral equivalents of course, if we think oil is capable of subjective experience — will, in other words. There’s nothing about using a substance or an object which is ‘like’ using a person against their own will. Yet it takes an academic historian to wonder whether or not there is.
Trying people for ‘ecocide’ and making moral equivalents of slavery and burning oil speak about two, very much related phenomena: total moral disorientation, and the completely diminished view of humanity.
Which brings me to my most recent discovery, and which I still cannot quite believe, and which I am urging caution on, before any comments are made.
This email found its way to me…
This is the official solicitation for open peer commentaries for the Summer issue of Ethics, Policy, and Environment (http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals/cepe).
For this next issue, 15.2, we have selected a Target Article by Matthew Liao (NYU), Anders Sandberg (Oxford), and Rebecca Roache (Oxford) titled “Human Engineering and Climate Change.” The abstract follows:
Abstract: Anthropogenic climate change is arguably one of the biggest problems that confront us today. There is ample evidence that climate change is likely to affect adversely many aspects of life for all people around the world, and that existing solutions such as geoengineering might be too risky and behavioural and market solutions might not be sufficient to mitigate climate change. In this paper, we consider a new kind of solution to climate change, what we call human engineering, which involves biomedical modifications of humans so that they can mitigate and/or adapt to climate change. We argue that human engineering is potentially less risky than geoengineering and that could help behavioural and market solutions succeed in mitigating climate change. We also consider some possible ethical concerns regarding human engineering such as its safety, the implications of human engineering for our children and for the society, and we argue that these concerns can be addressed. Our upshot is that human engineering deserves further consideration in the debate about climate change.
We are now soliciting approximately 4-6 open commentaries in response to this article. Potential commentators will be invited to write short 750-1500 word responses which will be published simultaneously with the lead target article.
Benjamin Hale and Andrew Light
I have no idea how humans could be modified, so that they can become walking, talking solutions to climate change. And I have no idea how the authors make an argument that ‘ethical concerns’ about modifying people to become climate change solutions can be overcome. I am still not sure that it isn’t a joke.
While Ethics, Policy & Environment centers on environmental ethics and policy, its substantive coverage is wider. Authors have been concerned with a range of subjects, such as applied environmental ethics, animal welfare, environmental justice, development ethics, sustainability, and cultural values relevant to environmental concerns. The journal also welcomes analyses of practical applications of environmental, energy technology, regional, and urban policies, as well as theoretically robust discussions of common arguments that appear throughout debates on environment and energy policy, either in the scholarly literature or in the broader civic sphere.
More surprisingly, the journal doesn’t appear to be some half-baked vanity project either. Roger Pielke Jr. and Max Boykoff are listed as Associate Editors, and the Utilitarian moral philosopher, Peter Singer is on the journal’s editorial board.
Academia is of course an area where ideas should be free. (And again, we should wait until we’ve read the paper before leaping to too many conclusions.) But it is increasingly the case that academia isn’t where ideas are free: it is increasingly the place where unorthodox ideas and opinions are shut down, and where independence, which gave the freedom to speak truth to power has been sold off, to instead speak official truth for power. The demand for ‘evidence-based policy-making’ has forced the colonisation of the academy.
Whimsies such as pondering ‘I wonder if it is right to subject people to biological modifications to suit my political ambitions’ once had little or no application outside the stuffy old ethics corridor in the philosophy faculty. Questions about ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’ did not concern many outside the quad. But increasingly, the university department has had to prove its value in the real world.
All three researchers, you see, work at the Oxford Martin School (OMS) at the University of Oxford. The slogan on the website of the OMS boasts that they are ‘TACKLING 21ST CENTURY CHALLENGES”. Says their about page:
The Oxford Martin School was founded as the James Martin 21st Century School at the University of Oxford in 2005 through the vision and generosity of Dr James Martin. It is a unique interdisciplinary research initiative tackling global future challenges.
Our mission: to foster innovative thinking, interdisciplinary scholarship and collaborative activity to address the most pressing risks and realise important new opportunities of the 21st century.
There are two main focuses for our work:
Research - supporting forward-looking and interdisciplinary research to address 21st century challenges and opportunities.
Impact - fostering impact-oriented initiatives and facilitating public engagement that will influence policy and effect positive change on a global scale.
Moreover, within the OMS is yet another little school, to which at least one of the authors belong:
The Future of Humanity Institute is a multidisciplinary research institute at the University of Oxford. It enables a select set of leading intellects to bring careful thinking to bear on big-picture questions about humanity and its prospects. The Institute belongs to the Faculty of Philosophy and the Oxford Martin School.
So it would seem that the journal article really does intend to offer to the world an ethical argument for the modification of humans, to deal with climate change.
But we will have to see what that is. Perhaps it will make us less sensitive or vulnerable to temperature. Perhaps it will a modification that allows us to run really really fast, so that we no longer need to use cars. Or perhaps it’s a device that makes us more obedient. I look forward to finding out.
Meanwhile, there is more to be said about the institutions that have been set up in Oxford.
The Future of Humanity Institute is the leading research centre looking at big-picture questions for human civilization. The last few centuries have seen tremendous change, and this century might transform the human condition in even more fundamental ways. Using the tools of mathematics, philosophy, and science, we explore the risks and opportunities that will arise from technological change, weigh ethical dilemmas, and evaluate global priorities. Our goal is to clarify the choices that will shape humanity’s long-term future.
One of the things I’ve tried to stress on this blog is the difference between positively and negatively defined ideas about humanity and its future. The institutions at Oxford, it seems, have founded themselves on the idea that the ‘big-picture questions for human civilisation’ come from without. Climate change and other risks seem to ‘define’ this generation — it doesn’t get to define itself.
Let’s call the bluff on this idea that the institute is exploring ‘big questions’. The preoccupation with risks is not about finding and answering ‘big questions for human civilisation’. Institutions such as this are simply performances, which act out the narratives that reflect the political establishment’s anxieties. Looking again at the homepage of the Future of Humanity Institute, it is clear that it is preoccupied with ‘global catastrophic risk’, following the link, reveals the claim that,
Global catastrophic risks are risks that seriously threaten human well-being on a global scale. An immensely diverse collection of events could constitute global catastrophes: potential factors range from volcanic eruptions to pandemic infections, nuclear accidents to worldwide tyrannies, out-of-control scientific experiments to climatic changes, and cosmic hazards to economic collapse.
The Future of Humanity Institute is simply cashing in on contemporary scare stories, and the fashion for political ideas to be grounded, not on ideas about progress, liberty, or development, but on catastrophe, disaster, and the impossibility of any form of progress. The purpose of such exercises is to arm increasingly disoriented and disconnected public bodies with legitimacy and purpose. Insofar as the Oxford Martin School, and the Future of Humanity Institute are the coming together of the academy and policy-making worlds, then, they also represent the point at which the establishment sticks its head up its arse.