Author Archives: Mickey Gjerris

And I was hoping for spring…

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’Winter is coming’… is the motto of one of the rivaling clans in the very popular HBO TV-series Game of Thrones based on an even more popular book series by George R. R. Martin calles A Song of Ice and Fire. It depicts a small world with rivaling political forces fighting for influence and power in the shadow of a pending natural disaster – The Winter – that will make the battles, intrigues and cunningly laid plans to dominate others seem like child´s play.

’Winter is coming’… Soon the different groups and parties will be forced to join rank against this common enemy – or be overrun by forces much greater than their own. At least that is the impression I am left with having seen the first two seasons of the series. It might just be me looking through a distorted perspective, but I cannot help see the series as an allegory of the political landscape today and the fight for power, resources, influence and economic advantages that takes place in the shadow of the ”winter that is coming” in our reality: climate change. I am not sure whether it is this resemblance with the current political situation or the surprising amount of very scantily clad young women, blood filled action scenes and mythological scenery that has given the series the huge success it has had.

But it does seem fitting that the series is aired in a situation where we basically seem to have given up on climate change and are just focusing on getting the economy back in growth mode.  It is very hard not to hear the words ”Winter is coming” as a comment to our own situation. A situation that is characterized by the inability of democratic societies to recognize that the idea of perpetual growth in a closed system is suicidal. A situation characterized by our common ability to close our eyes to the dire warnings from climate scientists that we are heading for 4 degrees temperature raises or more within the next 100 years (for some reason nobody seems concerned about what will happen in 150 years).

’Winter is coming’… and as the as the severity of the situation grows, reality to an ever incressing degree resembles a lazy tv-movie: from the stereotypical scientists warning us about a pending disaster to the stereotypically uninterested politicians that are more concerned about re-election than taking care of the public good. It is like watching ’Jaws’, ’Earthquake’ and ’Vulcano’ at the same time with the only difference being that we are all playing the part of the politicians these days.

No matter how many hyped concepts such as ’green’, ’sustainable’, ’responsible’ or environmentally friendly’  we place before the basic notion of ’growth’ there can be little doubt that the current tehcno-fetishism and daydreaming about golden technologies that will allow us to continue our patterns of consumptions and save the planet, are wearing thin. Techo-optimism is a new phrase describing the bankrupcy of a culture that is left hoping for the impossible while digging its own grave. A culture so unimaginative and fearful that the mere idea of changing our life-styles seems more threatening than the catastrophic climate changes caused by our current way of life.

’Winter is coming’… and as it approaches we go on with our daily lives: watch Game of Thromes, song contests, Champions League, make babies, laugh at stupid pictures on Facebook, and generally forget about the reality we live in. The human ability to hope in the face of hopelessness and continue to live everyday lives in the shadow of events out of our control is a beautiful phenomena. There is strength and hope in that. But what about our ability to deny that we are in a situation where we need to hope and fight? Our ability to simply close our eyes to the havoc we create and vaguley hope that spring will come no matter what we do? It is hard to see that as anything else than part of reason why the winter is still coming – and it is already April.

The Extremism of Moderation

Idealists with integrity are pretty annoying and demanding to be around. These are people who emulate Gandhi and hold that we should be the change we want to see in the world. Most others prefer to talk about what should be done and then find a host of excuses for not doing so.

One way to avoid acting upon our values is by making people who actually do so seem suspicious. Often we use a word borrowed from the world of religion to ward them off. They are: ‘fanatics’!

I have come across this phenomena several times over the last few weeks. One instance was in connection with the commercial collaboration between Tivoli in Copenhagen – a famous amusement park, but also national heritage in Denmark – and Kopenhagen Fur. Also, I experienced it in several discussions about eating meat. Allow me to briefly explain both contexts.

Tivoli made a deal with the fur industry that would benefit them financially. In return, the fur industry could use Tivoli to promote their products and thus sprinkle themselves with fairy dust from the stories of magic and innocent childhood that are usually associated with Tivoli’s brand. This was a very odd mixture of child amusement and brutal fur production, wherefore Tivoli received more protests than expected. What is interesting though is the discourse used by supporters of the collaboration in the social media (online newspapers, Facebook etc.)

Two strategies were employed: the first strategy was to point out the inconsistency of those who objected to the cooperation. ”How can you oppose the fur industry if you eat meat? If you want to be against this you must be a 100% vegan – it is just another way of using animals”.

However, it is obviously not a viable position to place each and every use of animals in the same category. One can argue that A and B are not the same and that there e.g. are differences in the way free-range pigs and mink are raised that make it possible to enjoy the first but not the other without being ethically inconsistent. Disregarding this it is striking how self-evident consistency is taken as an ethical prerequistite. If situation A and B are alike, you must without a doubt judge them in the same way. But this view-point is not self-evident, but much discussed within ethics, usually under the heading of the importance of context for ethical decision-making.

Behind this, however, lies a much more far reaching claim: If one is not 100% consistent, then one should not act at all! If one is not perfect in a moral sense then one might as well be an utter bastard. At least this is viewed as being better than inconsistency or, as it is also known, hypocrisy. The question must be whether this is actually the case though? Can you ward off criticism of your behaviour merely by pointing out the imperfection of your opponent? Should we refrain from acting, if our actions are not totally consistent? What if we give the homeless man 10 euros on the way home, but then stop at the liquor store to buy a bottle of wine for 20? Somehow it seems that I would be more consistent, had I not given the money to the homeless person.

The demand for perfection thus becomes an excuse of oneself on logical grounds. It is an avoidance of actually engaging with a life where perfection might never be attainable. Nonetheless, everybody is to some degree able to help other beings to a better life in countless situations – even if we could do even better. However, the moral demand becomes senseless, if it is reduced to an alternative between perfection and indifference. Morally the task must be to do the best you can and find practical ways of dealing with your shortcomings.

The demand for consistency has also played a big role in the current Danish debate on how to act in light of animal contributions to climate change. One way to reduce emissions is to limit the amount of meat and animal products (dairy, eggs etc.) in your diet: less meat is preferable, vegetarianism more so, and going vegan the optimal solution for the climate. The fewer animal products, the fewer emissions (However, this is only a rule of thumb, since e.g. food miles may be highly detrimental for the positive effects of eating fruit and vegetables.). At the same time animal production causes a range of other problems with regard to deforestation, changes in savannas, drainage of wetlands and desertification, water use among other issues.

It seems there are a host of good reasons to change our diets. Nonetheless, many people promoting this change are very careful not to become purists. ”Let us not become fanatics/extremists” they warn. Other times they insist there is ”…no need to become religious about it.” Indeed, many similar expressions are frequently heard in public debate. It seems that vegetarianism and especially veganism is viewed as being fundamentally wrong – too drastic. This perspective marks vegetarians as a kind of food-Taleban militia with no regard for common sense. This would perhaps make sense if changing one’s diet were received in revelation as a divine command. The deity demands veganism as a sacrifice: the lord giveth vegetables and taketh away the meat. This is not the case though: vegetarianism/veganism is actually a rational choice in the scientific knowledge of our day and age.

Rather, the prevalent rhetoric seems designed to preserve the status quo instead of actually discussing the values, arguments and choices in front of us. Interestingly, those who call opponents of the fur industry hypocrites also often use the discourse of religious zealotry in other connections – and the result always seem to be that they are excused from changing, their behaviour

The discussions surrounding the human use of animals shows how many of us use concepts to get off the hook. Finger pointing and shouting ”Hypocrite” or ”Extremist” is enough for most to feel justified in continuing on the given path although the charade is wearing thin. Indeed, it is becoming ever more apparent that we are putting up a show to avoid admitting our indifference about our victims, about changing our ways, or about the paralyzing effect our fear has on us.

Perhaps it is time to follow those who act, however imperfectly, rather than be afraid of them. Perhaps the world would be better off with more hypocrites. Perhaps it is the time to be afraid of our amazing ability to lie to ourselves and invent excuses that allows us to do anything. Who knows – we might even make things a little better along the way if we avoid the extremism of moderation!

The author would like to thank Thomas Derek Robinson for valuable suggestions.

Thinking like an airport

COP 15 was held in Copenhagen in December of 2009 – just 3 years ago. As with meetings of this kind before and after, there was a sincere hope that this would be a, or even the turning point for the approach of post-, hyper-, and almost-industrialized societies in dealing with their physical and biological environment. The escalating and converging crisis of climate change, loss of biodiversity, environmental degradation, and general disruption of the only planet that we humans have to dwell on simply seemed too acute to ignore politically. But nothing happened.

In March of the same year, the University of Copenhagen co-hosted an international climate research conference, gathering most internationally recognised experts in the field. This was done to provide politicians with the most recent scientific knowledge, when COP 15 was to take place later in the year. A report (1) was written by a group of prominent researchers, seeking to summarize the content of more than a thousand contributing presentations. The future is here described in the following words: … scientific evidence has now become overwhelming that human activities, especially the combustion of fossil fuels, are influencing the climate in ways that threaten the well-being and continued development of human society. But nothing happened in December later that year.

The political system might still deny reality, but people are now waking up to the sad facts around the globe and evermore find the courage to abandon the futile position of total denial. However, as political solutions continue to evade international society, an increasing number find themselves ending up at the opposite side of the continuum: absolute despair. There are many reasons for this: The complexity and magnitude of the issues makes it hard to see how we as individuals can do anything with a noticeable impact. The grief and loss that follows in the wake of comprehending the astrocity of our destruction and killing simply leaves many of us paralyzed. The fear and challenge of altering personal and cultural traditions and habits into sustainable practices leads many of us to reject the possibility of change at all, even in the face of permanent and catastrophic disruption to the home of humans, animals, and plants. As the author of ’Illusions – The adventures of a reluctant Messiah’ has noted: Argue for your limitations and surely they are yours (2)

Sitting in Frankfurt Airport waiting for a plane to Graz, on my way to yet another workshop on ethics and climate change, I couldn’t help thinking that this very act constituted an important part of the problems that confronts us. Not so much in the obvious sense of using fossil fuels to go to a conference on ethics and climate change, which is self-defeating in a very real sense, but more in terms of what kind of thinking that can take place in an airport or a similar environment. Basically my question was: What kind of human do you become in an airport? It struck me that the advise from Aldo Leopold that we should try to think like a mountain (3), suddenly became very scary indeed, if the word ‘mountain’ was replaced by the word ‘airport’.

The British author Douglas Adams has said that it is no coincidence that in no language has the expression ’pretty as an airport’ arisen (4). But even more important is it that airports seem to be so removed from nature as to make it obsolete. At most nature is allowed to participate in our life-worlds in the airport as a disturbance. As something that takes the shape of snow, wind, and thunder storms and delay us in our travels

Sitting in the airport, it struck me how easy it is to forget our reliance upon and relationship with nature in such a setting. How the human order imposed on this tiny bit of the universe, with all its clean surfaces, straight lines and square perspectives seem designed to tell the story of human mastery over a disorderly universe; how the notion of being in control is embedded into almost every artefact in an airport, from the systematic ordering of flights and gates, to the more than predictable sandwiches and generic coffee that is so processed and removed from nature that you can almost believe it was cooked by engineers in some secret room below the helter-skelter of the transit area.

In an airport it is easy to believe that humans are in control – that we are distinct from nature or that nature is an obstacle to overcome through technological means so as not to disturb our plans. In an airport nature becomes environment. Nature is no longer the all-encompassing reality that gave birth to us, but that which we see around us as a resource – from high above, if we manage to get off the ground. The notion of environmental problems as something that must be managed seems almost to grow out of the shining walls. The idea that we as humans have the right to change our surroundings to fit our needs is almost embedded in the rationality of the uncomfortable plastic-chairs. In an airport it is very easy to believe that we will be able to control the environment, to continue our lives without delay. Through technology we will be able to find fuel for transport systems that will not change the climate, meat for our plates that does not come from suffering animals, and resources for our consumption that will not pollute the air, land, and water during the phases of production, use and decomposition. In an airport, humans seem to be in control.

The question must be asked however: what if the claims made by eco-psychologist, -philosophers, -theologians and others that have not bought into the idea of human supremacy, are true? What if is only when we are exposed to nature as that which is at the same time independent from our selves and that which we are embedded within that we can see our nature? What if we need o see our being embedded in the more than human life world (4), as David Abram terms it, if we are to be fully human? What if it takes hugging a tree to understand that we are not merely dependent on the physical and mental nourishment we receive from the world everyday, but that we cannot actually realize who we are until we engage with it? That we only become human when we realize we are more than humans? Arne Næss termed it discovering our ’Ecological Self’ (5). It is the experience that our skin, the very outer layer of our bodies should not only be seen as a boundary that divides me from the rest, but also as a horizon and meeting place where I meet that which is also me.

If there is some truth to the claim that our psyche needs nature to develop in a healthy way; if we need all our capabilities to figure out what is actually going in the mysterious meeting point between humans and nature; if we want to know how to proceed from here and if we are to come up with a responsible response to the crisis that we have brought upon ourselves and the rest of us – then an airport might not be the best place to think about these ideas. Or even stronger: An airport is definitely not the place to do this. On the other hand, perhaps it is only through experiencing the total alienation from nature that exists in such settings, that we, if we take the time, discover that there is something important missing. That in the very confrontation with the artificiality and functionality of architecture and technology a longing for nature can be found. The point must then be, however, to leave the airport and seek what we miss.

In that light it certainly seems problematic that we usually leave the airport and go to meetings to discuss issues of climate change, loss of biodiversity and extinction of species in settings that resemble airports so. Meeting rooms are seldom designed as places where we meet the wilderness of the world. Congress centres are often equally as devoid of non-human life and natural objects as airports. Basically it seems that we try to think about nature surrounded by stuff brought into the world by humans for the sake of humans.

It is therefore hardly a surprise that we, in these temples of what Chellis Glendinning calls techno-addiction (6), run the risk of underestimating the issues, because it is easy to forget that we are destroying and killing a part of our selves. Politicians and civil servants sitting in designer chairs at tables made of wood bent and shaped by humans to satisfy an aesthetic sense, eating nature shape and bent by humans to do the same, might just have a hard time remembering how serious the situation is – indeed why they are in such a setting at all. In other, perhaps more simple words: As the illusion of human detachment from nature pervades the setting they are in, it also pervades their understanding of the enormity of the problem.

The other risk is that the setting generates the illusion that science and technology are the only answers. When living, breathing, and moving around in environments almost exclusively designed by and for humans, we run the risk of overestimating the ability of technology to shape the world to meet our needs. We begin to see the ’technofix’ (7) as a sufficient solution. At the same time as our belief in scientific and technological abilities is being stretched to the limit, we seem to have lost the trust in our own ability to adapt to the situation. Current levels of consumption are seen as inevitable and even suggestions of moderate reductions of meat intake by for instance 1/3 are seen as hysterically idealistic, while public money is spent on research into growing animal proteins in factories. We are, so to speak, stuck in a circle of needs and technology, unable to see other options.. We have become the species that simply refuses to adapt to the rest of nature, but insist on bending everything until it meet our needs or indeed snap in our faces. If we spend some time in nature, we might, however, be reminded that this is what life is: adapting to the life-world one is embedded in.

All this leads up to a simple suggestion: next time you want to think about who you are and what to do – go sit under a tree! Next time you wonder why you are here and what it is all about – dive into the ocean! Let us arrange the next international political meeting on climate change in a forest; let us meet there and sit by campfires, sleep in tents, and forage for food. Let the politicians and the rest of us feel the connection to the rotting leaves, the dew on the leaves, the mosquitos and the smells and sounds of the more-than-human-life-world. Let us seek to remember who we are, before we decide who to become. In that way the economic interests, the fear of change, the overestimation of abilities and techno-addiction could perhaps be balanced a bit – just a little bit.

Thanks to Thomas Derek Robinson for valuable suggestions

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Mickey Gjerris is an associate professor at the Institute of Resource Economics, Faculty of Science, University of Copenhagen. Originally trained as a theologian, he did his Ph.d. in bioethics. Today he works within a phenomenologically inspired philosophical framework on the subjects of climate change, animal ethics, bioethics and ethics of nature. Mickey is also a member of The Danish Ethical Council (www.etiskrad.dk), a strong believer in smoked tofu, enjoy hugging trees & watching clouds and has an almost passionate relationship with his iPhone.

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(1)   Richardson K et al (2009): Synthesis report from ‘Climate change: Global risks challenges and decisions’. http://www.climatecongress.ku.dk/pdf/synthesisreport.

(2)   Bach R (1977): Illusions. The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah. Random House

(3)   Leopold A (1949): A Sand County Almanac. Oxford University Press

(4)   Adams D (1988): The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. Simon & Schuster

(5)   Abram D (1996): The Spell of the Sensuous. Vintage Books

(6)   Naess S (1982): Self-Realization, in Gullvåg I & Wetlesen J (eds.): In Sceptical Wonder. Inquiries into the Philosophy of Arne Naess on the Occasion of his 70th Birthday. Oslo, pp. 270-281

(7)   Glendinning C (1994): My Name is Chellis and I`m in Recovery from Western Civilization. New Catalyst Books

(8)   Kunstler JH (2012): Too Much Magic. Wishful Thinking, Technology and the Fate of the Nation. Atlantic Monthly Press

 

Some kind of nobility

Historically speaking, humans have taken great pride in being the epitome of evolution. We have attained consciousness about our surroundings, and ourselves and are able to pose the profound question: “Who are we?” We have developed language that enables us to communicate complex and intellectually stimulating thoughts and theories, but also developed technologies that give us control over our bodies and surroundings. Indeed, our power over the planet is unrivalled!

These abilities have been used to distinguish us from ”nature”. The environment has – to an ever-greater degree – become a place without importance in itself upon which we humans play out our drama. It has literally speaking gone from being nature (that which we are born out of) into being the environment (that which we see around us). It has furthermore become reduced to only being seen as a resource from which we can wrestle what we need, in order to fulfil our ever-growing requirements. Carried on the back of anthropocentric interpretations of monotheistic religion and philosophy, with no patience for beings that do not possess human rationality, we have become masters of the universe with license to use the planet as we see fit.

In spite of all our accomplishments, we have however reached an impasse, or perhaps even a dead-end, since that which we take so much pride in seems to be in the process of failing.

When we ask: ”Who are we”, the contemporary answer seems to be: ‘consumers’! This implies a  reduction of humans to “walking wallets”, whose only reason for existing is to ingest the products of our labour at a constantly increasing rate. Faced with the glaring implications of overconsumption, climate change, dwindling resources, and economic melt down, our only response so far is: “More growth!” An understanding of ”we” as more than a species of individuals that eat till they drop, seems to be out of our collective reach. And those that do have different visions are easily over-heard in the daily white noise of commercials.

We use language to face up to problems, to share the beauty of the universe, and to ask the questions of life, the universe and everything. However, more and more it seems we are reduced to using language to fulfil our needs, escape the consequences of this, and inventing yet more needs. The public sphere teems with means of communication. We can instantly be in touch with one another, anywhere on the planet, and access knowledge about anything. We use these amazing new abilities to check sport scores, surf porn, and gossip about people whose only accomplishment is to be more visible than others in the hurricane of entertainment that we use to distract ourselves from the pressing problems of our behaviour.

Finally, we have turned technology into a holy grail. Faced with the consequences of our lifestyles and the immediate need for changes, we close our eyes and keep dreaming that somebody will turn up a gizmo that can solve all the problems and enable us to continue our lives of over-consumption and adolescent recklessness. ”Humans have always come up with a solution” it is said, conveniently forgetting that there is no instance of a human civilisation overcoming the destruction of its ecosystem. In fact, civilisations depend vitally upon their physical and biological surroundings.

All of these arguments are well known elements in the contemporary critique of Western civilisation. There is nothing new here, except for the urgency with which it is put forth as the different crises of environment, food, energy, resources, and climate converge and paint a bleaker future than most of us have the courage to imagine.

In the face of this, most of us attempt either to remain oblivious or to fly into a panic. As Al Gore mentioned, we seem to move from absolute denial to absolute despair in seconds. However, somewhere between these two extremes, we just might be able to prove to ourselves that we at least have the courage to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation. We have a chance to show that thinking ourselves the epitome of evolution was not merely a fit of megalomania.

Whether we can actually solve the problem of these converging crises and return to some kind of ”normalcy” is doubtful however. The present situation is truly more like a catastrophe that will inescapably change the basic conditions of life for us all, but also other beings and organisms on this planet. This does not negate the need or requirement to do the best we can, of trying to salvage what can be salvaged, and seeking to live responsibility rather than in denial. This may not get us out of the hole we have dug for ourselves, but rather than relegating our species to the status: ’destructive infestation’ at least it will confirm some kind of nobility for the human race. We are, after all, the self-appointed epitome of evolution.

 Thanks to Thomas Derek Robinson for valuable suggestions