Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change fieldis an excellent, accessible book that contains a collection of articles originally written for the New Yorker.  Kolbert uses snapshots from her travels, interviews and research to educate the reader about man’s impacts on the environment.  Far from being condescending or depressing, Kolbert instead entertains with her wit and style while providing cutting insights on the intersection of the needs and wants of culture, politics and the environment.

I recommend this book whole-heartedly as an accessible start to understanding man’s contribution to climate change, and the science behind it.


You may have heard some high-profile human-induced climate change skeptics tote the benefits of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for plant life.  Some lobby groups have even released press releases and documents to senators and the public in an attempt to further the illusion that there is no scientific consensus that humans are affecting the climate in  bad way.  As you can imagine, these energy-industry supported groups, which include the misleadingly named “Greening the Earth” group and Competitive Enterprise Insititute, latch on to any shred of science they can to make their position seem valid.

Scientists are in consensus, however, that this global warming is in human-induced.

It is true that plants use carbon dioxide to grow.  They “inhale” CO2 and use the carbon, the C, along with water and sunlight,  to, in essence, create themselves.  More CO2, more growth.  Millions of years ago when the dinosaurs roamed the earth, there was much more CO2 in the atmosphere due to various factors.  The earth was much warmer, sea levels were much higher (warm water expands), and indeed, much of the earth was covered in lush vegetation.

However, with our rising CO2 levels, the situation is quite different.   When plants have an increased rate of respiration tree(they are “breathing” more CO2 to grow faster), they also need more water.  It’s like if we were running a race, we need more water than if we were simply walking.  Our CO2 excess has not come with increased rainfall.  In fact, in many areas of the globe, we’re seeing less rainfall.  Sadly, what rainfall these plants do get is increasingly toxic.  “Acid rain” is now the norm – which means that the rainwater gets more acidic due to emissions largely from coal plants (sulfur and nitrous oxide).  The plants suffer – many studies have documented the die-off of trees in North America due to acid rain (read Dying of the Trees by Charles Little).

CO2 is a greenhouse gas – which means it’s contributing to the warming of the earth.  This warming means that many plants’ ideal habitats are moving up mountain slopes and towards the poles, where it is cooler.  Trees, which take a long time to move, reproductively, will be at a particular disadvantage.  Some trees are just beginning to make it back to their ranges before the last glaciation.  They can’t keep up with the rapid-change of human-induced global warming.

In summary, our CO2 emissions are not good for plants, mainly because they come with a whole host of other toxic chemicals, and they do not come with increased rainfall.  Human-induced global warming is also not good for most plants, including the ones we rely on most, because plants cannot move quickly enough to adjust to their moving ideal habitats.

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Craig Iffland is a dear friend of mine who graduated with high honors from the University of Virginia in 2007 with degrees in Political Philosophy, Public Policy, and Law, Religious Studies, and Bioethics. He was a 2007 recipient of the Patricia Hollingsworth prize from the Institute for Practical Ethics for a series of publications and presentations he delivered on a range of ethics-related subjects. His work has been published in The Political Studies Review, The George Mason Review, and The University of Pennsylvania Bioethics Journal. He currently serves as a research fellow for the Social Trends Institute.  I asked him to write a post for J.O. and gave him free reign as to the topic.  The result is below.

Silent Rights Claimant?

Why don’t people care about the environment?

It’s a simple question. It is, in fact, the very question we, as persons committed to responsible stewardship of the earth, ought to be asking. It is also the very question we have not yet answered. We have consigned ourselves to giving various explanations as to why one should care about the environment. And while this is certainly a noble exercise, it hasn’t inspired our fellow citizens to make “responsible stewardship” a priority in their own lives and the lives of others. The current state of American politics can testify that no such priority exists. Neither party is interested in being truly environmentally conscious. Much of the Republican party faithful are not only indifferent to the many home-grown instances of environmental waste and degradation in this country, but are also downright hostile to any kind of policy discussions aimed at making this country more environmentally conscious. The Democratic party, on the other hand, have shown that their commitment to environmentally friendly policies extends only to those causes which enjoy public support (as their capitulation to off-shore drilling showed). And the failure of the Democratic party, normally reliable to counteract the extreme anti-environmentalists of the right, shows that we have not succeeded in convincing our fellow citizens to care about the environment. This point brings us back to our original question: why don’t people care about the environment?

It is clear that the usual conundrum of reasons will not suffice. It is true that people are very much uninformed and misinformed about our rampant waste of natural resources and the nature (and probable effects) of rapid climate-change.  It is also true that many people have been turned off by the more hyperbolic elements of the “environmental movement”; and what’s more, many of our fellow citizens are hesitant to make the kind of sacrifices necessary to live in an environmentally conscious society.

Yet, none of these truths quite answers the question posed above. For one could be misinformed, disenchanted, lacking in relevant knowledge, and hesitant to make sacrifice and all the while still care about the environment. So, these answers will not suffice. Where should we go to find the answer? To begin with, we might look at the title of this web page: Jesus and the Orangutan: Environmental Ethics. I submit that the reason people lack concern for the environment is inextricably linked to the modern conception of ethics. And inasmuch as I posit that the current apathy is founded upon the modern conception of ethics, it would do us good to give some explanation as to what that conception is.

Pre-Modern Ethics

Perhaps the best way to approach such an explanation is by way of simple comparison. Whereas historically speaking much of ethical thought has been concerned with the nature of man’s obligations, in the past centuries moral philosophers have focused their attention almost exclusively on rights. In short, man’s obligations are that which he owes the society in which he lives; rights, on the other hand, are those things which I am entitled to receive from society by virtue of the humanity I express.1 Immediately, one should realize how absolutely opposed these two conceptions of the moral life are. In the former, the moral life consists in one’s practical discernment of what they owe to the particular world they inhabit; the latter consists in what the world owes me by virtue of who I am. In order to make this discussion relevant, I will need to discuss (a) the specific characteristics of each view of the moral life and (b) how might this analysis help answer the question posed above vis-a-vis environmental ethics?

In the former conception, man is not some solitary creature who inhabits a world alien to him; instead, he is a man of the world, a man defined by his place in the world, a man whose moral life consists in serving the world. Man is not some nameless, position-less, culture-less phenomenon, but is conceived much more organically. That is, he is a man who acquires phronesis, or practical wisdom in moral decision-making, through his growth in and interaction with the world. His life is measured “good” or “bad” by how well he has discerned and then fulfilled his obligations to the world of which he is part. In this way, the former view looks at man’s function in terms of a gift. His happiness, the pursuit of which is the main focus of the moral life, depends solely on those actions he performs that are directed outside himself and to something (and most often someone) else. That something need not be restricted to our fellow man. The medievals and the ancients conceived of many dimensions of one’s obligations: to human persons or a group of human persons, a divine person or nature, the city-state, the Church etc. The essence of the moral life, on this view, is one in which man’s actions are always directed outside of himself and into the world he lives. For Christians, such a view came to be understood in an even more radical way: man’s action was directed at the material world of which he was part, but it was also transcendent, that is, it was to rise to heights beyond this world and into the infinite love of the Creator.

Modern Ethics

This stands in total contra-distinction to the second conception of the moral life, a life grounded in the exercise and protection of one’s rights. On this view, the moral life is fundamentally turned inward. The world is no longer conceived of as the venue for one’s “living the good life”, but rather becomes the chief adversary of it.2 Hence, the “good life” comes to be an obsessive exercise in one’s escaping the burdens placed on them by society. And so the moral life is conceived fundamentally in terms of one’s ability to exercise certain freedoms, freedoms to which man is naturally entitled. That is, he is entitled to that which he would possess if only he were independent of the burdens imposed by living in society. To ponder man’s state in this way, as living outside of a society, inhabiting some space outside of the world, reflecting in some “original position”, is to ponder on a myth, a myth which has absolutely no grounding in reality.3 Of course, this “myth” should be cause for concern for those who want others to care about the environment because such a myth propagates the notion that not only are we not dependent on our external environment, but we are also not to have our freedom restricted because of it. If the aim of the natural rights discourse is to show how well man would function if only he were independent of the world, then would its advocates not tend towards an interpretation that the world is some unfortunate add-on? Because much of modern morality hinges on these kinds of rights-claims it will be increasingly difficult for us to convince others that one should care about the environment.

The point above can be better demonstrated by way of illustration. A contemporary moral issue which people most certainly care about, the discussion of which is enumerated with a penumbra of rights-claims, is the vexing debate over abortion. Each side lays claim to some “right”. On the one hand, pro-lifers claim that all human beings have a “right to life” even those who reside in a woman’s womb; conversely, pro-choice advocates argue that women have a “right to choose” and accordingly can choose to terminate their pregnancy. Both sides make claims of rights without ever really establishing that such rights exist. And that’s because the point of rights-claims is not to make an argument; rather, the point is to simply make a claim on other’s and in order for there to be a claim on other’s there must be a person present to make the claim. Indeed, this may be the reason many non-religious people do not buy into the “right to life” rhetoric because they can never meet the person on whose behalf this “right” is being claimed. Conversely, there is a multitude of women ready to proclaim this “right” on a daily basis, both for themselves and others. It follows that rights require something of a human face, we need to meet the person whose rights we are possibly trampling.

The State of Ethics and the Environment

Now, what does all of this mean for the environment? I hope by now it is patently obvious. The environment fares no better than the unborn child in representing itself as some sort of rights claimant. The environment doesn’t have a human face and the environment cannot make any kind of active rights claims on anybody. It is unclear if the modern mind can even conceptualize an obligation to anything without a reference to some kind of rights claim. Thus, the whole language of rights, whilst serving a number of ideological and altruistic purposes, makes our job much more difficult. Ultimately, the problem of apathy comes down to a problem of ethics. While we may be able to win some battles through the imposition and acquisition of political force, we will never solve the whole problem without a committed public who is willing to make sacrifices out of a sense of obligation to their world. In my view, the only path to success is by way of a resurrection of the older view,.the view first articulated by Aristotle and brought to its fullest heights by Thomas Aquinas.

Craig Iffland

1 I should like to add that prior to 15th century, there is absolutely no intelligible rendering of this conception of “rights“. For example, see Alasdair Macintyre’s After Virtue, pp. 68-70.

2For just one example, see Rousseau, Jean-Jacques Discourse on Inequality and Social Contract at www.constitution.org/jjr

3See John Rawls Theory of Justice, pp. 118-161.

Senator John McCain has had an interesting environmental record in Congress, to say the least.  The League of Conservation Voters has given him a lifetime environmental rating in the Senate of 24%, meaning he has neglected to vote in favor of environmental measures most of the time.  While that is certainly sobering, there are problems with just looking at this number.  Bills that go through Washington pick up ridiculous amounts of appropriations, pork, and other freebies to entice representatives to vote yay.  Sometimes when a representative votes against a bill, it’s not due to an ideological difference but rather to the amount of pork attached to said bill.  This, by no means, explains away McCain’s low score, but it does put it in some perspective.

From ontheissues.org, Sen. John McCain is a federalist, which means he supports states’ rights; an issue which came to a head over California’s right to set tougher emissions standards than the EPA.  Certainly, allowing states to adopt stricter standards is one way to allow progress in the environmental arena.

He says his environmental hero is Theodore Roosevelt, who was an avid hunter and created the national parks system.  McCain has said that the NPS is “6 billion dollars underfunded,” and says he has a commitment to them.   While he did help to add ~3 million acres to a wilderness area in Arizona, he also voted to not reduce the Forest Service’s road building budget into wilderness lands, and also voted to not stop the federal credit system which gives credits to loggers to offset debt to the government. (from ontheissues.org)

On the environmental page of his website, Senator McCain touches on wetland loss, the decline of the numbers of hunters and anglers (which results in a decline of funding for habitat protection),  the underfunding of national parks, planning for open space and green corridors in communities, and climate change and energy independence.  It’s actually a good short list of the environmental problems Americans face today.

Climate Change:

McCain supports a cap and trade emissions system.


McCain supports the Conservation Reserve Program and the Wetland Reserve Program, both of which are programs created from the Farm Bill (for more information read my posts on the 2007 and 2008 farm bills here and here).  His website says he also supports bio diesel and cellulosic ethanol – we’ve already discussed the folly of corn ethanol here, and I’m glad to see it’s not on his list of potential domestic energy sources.  However, McCain supports more drilling – and Governor Palin supports lifting the ban on drilling in Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.

His running mate, Governor Sarah Palin, is a climate change skeptic, meaning she doesn’t believe that climate change is induced by human actions.

All in all, McCain has a mixed record.  If he gets elected and is able to follow through and clean up the atrocity that is Congress now, perhaps legislation can get through which would accomplish both an economic upturn and environmental progress.

Scientific American had an interesting article in its November 2008 issue about the effectiveness of different ways to encourage people to take ‘green’ actions.  The article, available here, details a study on guests’ towel reuse in hotels.  The study found that signs asking guests to reuse their towels are more effective when the signs say that fellow guests in their particular room had reused towels.  The study also found that when the signs included that the hotel donated to environmental agencies, guests were significantly more likely to reuse their towels.

Obviously, the world isn’t going to change much by reusing our towels when we stay in hotels, but we can apply aspects of this study to the larger sustainability movement.

The study, while small in scope, might indicate that advertisers and nonprofits are approaching the green movement in an ineffective way.  Perhaps advertising and education campaigns that seek to increase green participation should reshift their focus to promoting local campaigns that focus on the idea that people are already being green in their area.  It could also be an important step forward in public relations for environmental organizations who are seen as negative nancies, impending doom-mongers, and militant hippies, to start praising the work that has already been done in communities in the name of hopeful further progress.

As for the second half of the towel study findings, companies have already jumped on the donation bandwagon.  General Electric has launched several ad campaigns touting their green efforts, and who can deny the friendliness of Beyond Petroleum‘s green daisy?  Even Exxon-Mobil has rebranded itself to sound more socially responsible through it’s motto, “Taking on the world’s toughest energy challenges.”

The problem comes when a company claims to be sustainable, green or socially responsible, but in all actuality, isn’t.  Critics call this green-washing.   It’s like Special K claiming to be a health cereal, but it’s really laden with high fructose corn syrup and preservatives.  For the consumer seeking to make a sustainable choice, it gets increasingly frustrating.  Seeking more information on company practices can only go so far if companies are opaque and secretive.

What to do?

There are quite a few organizations who are seeking to provide certification services to products and companies in order to help protect the consumer. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certifies paper and wood suppliers; GreenSeal and GreenTick are certification processes for a variety of products; LEED certification is for construction; and there are a multitude of organic certifiers out there for makeup and food.

The certification process is expensive and tedious for companies – but it is a cost that can get passed on to the consumer and also lead to a potential increased profit margin through being able to charge a premium.  It looks like certification is the route we’ll have to go unless more companies are taken to task for false green washing claims.

<<This is an adaptation and update on a previous post on Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama>>

In the spring of 2008, there was an interfaith forum called the “Compassion Forum” run by Oxfam, Faith in Public Life, Messiah College, and the One campaign on religion in which Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton were asked questions on their faith and morality. They were asked about faith impetuses to dealing with poverty, suffering and the like, as well as environmental problems. The complete transcript is available here from CNN.com, and is well-worth the read. Below are clips from Obama’s interview.

OBAMA: So, look, the — one of the things I draw from the Genesis story is the importance of us being good stewards of the land, of this incredible gift. (see my post on the interpretation of Genesis 1 here

from barackobama.com

from barackobama.com

) And I think there have been times where we haven’t been and this is one of those times where we’ve got to take the warning seriously. I know that Al Gore was mentioned earlier. By the way, I have to say, I think Al Gore won. And… And has done terrific work since. But I think that we are seeing enough warning signs for us to take this seriously. And part of what my religious faith teaches me is to take an intergenerational view, to recognize that we are borrowing this planet from our children and our grandchildren.

And so we’ve got this obligation to them, which means that we’ve got to make some uncomfortable choices. And where I think potentially religious faith and the science of global warming converge is precisely because it’s going to be hard to deal with. We have to find resources in ourselves that allow us to make those sacrifices where we say, you know what? We’re not going to leave it to the next generation. We’re not going to wait.

We are going to put in place a cap-and-trade system that controls the amount of greenhouse gases that are going into the atmosphere. And we know that that requires us to make adjustments in terms of how we use energy. We’ve got to be less wasteful, both as a society and in our own individual lives. And having faith, believing that this planet and this world extends beyond us, it’s not just here for us, but it’s here for, you know, more generations to come. I think religion can actually bolster our desire to make those sacrifices now. And that’s why, as president, I hope to be able to rally the entire world around the importance of us being good stewards of the land.

Here’s another quote:

OBAMA: We’re going to have to, I think, invest heavily in clean energy. And if we have a cap in trade system, we can generate $150 billion over 10 years to invest in solar and wind and biodiesel and train people to build windmills and solar panels and make buildings more energy efficient — and make alternative fuels.

Nothing I like better than clean energy… Obama, however, strongly supports ethanol made from corn, as one might expect from a senator from the nation’s second biggest corn producer, Illinois. But corn-based ethanol has been widely shown to be inefficient (in that it takes more energy to produce than it makes). Corn ethanol subsidies also increase food prices, which has caused a world-wide problem, and let’s not forget all the pesticides and herbicides used in corn growing. (For more information on the follies of corn ethanol, see here) In addition, Obama has been linked to Archer Daniels Midland, one of the world’s large agribusiness firms that already receives millions, if not billions, in subsidies from the US government. He supports high tariffs on Brazilian ethanol made from sugar cane, which is cheaper than domestic corn-derived ethanol, which may be illegal by the World Trade Organization’s standards and wastes taxpayer money. (see NY times source article here and my post on the fallacies of corn ethanol here)

So while his belief in Biblically-based stewardship is exciting, his support of corn ethanol is not – it reeks of traditional pork barrel politics, catering to the huge corporations. A post on John McCain’s stances on faith and the environment is forthcoming.

I’ll leave you with this quote:

MEACHAM: Senator, do you believe that God intervenes in history and rewards or punishes people or nations in real time for their behavior?

OBAMA: You know, what I believe is that God intervenes, but that his plans are a little too mysterious for me to grasp. And so what I try to do is, as best I can, be an instrument of his will. To act in what I think is accordance to the precepts of my faith. And, you know, if I’m acting in an ethical way, if I am working to make sure that I am applying what I consider to be a core value of Christianity, but also a core value of all great religions, and that is that I am my brother’s keeper and I am my sister’s keeper, then I will be doing my part to move his agenda forward. I don’t know what that master plan is. And I don’t presume to know. And I think that none of us know. But what we do — what I think we can do is to act in ways that are consummate with the values that we cherish.

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Say you’ve been convinced that buying locally grown meat and produce is better for you, others, and the earth.  Or maybe you just realize that it tastes much better than the industrial, transported-thousands-of-miles food in the supermarket.  Where do you go?

Luckily for us, there are several websites that will help you to find places selling local produce and meat in your area. Simply enter your city or zip, and they will give you a list of farmer’s markets, CSAs, and shops selling locally produced food in your area.



In addition, there are websites set up for regional food webs, simply google your state and buy local.  (state + buy local).

Happy eating!

The Orangutan