Climate Change

Towards a planet-wide ethic

‘We need to invent new methods of economic and political regulation.’ For Dominique Bourg, philosopher, environmentalist and director of the Institute of Land Use Policies and Human Environment (IPTEH) at the University of Lausanne, global warming calls for the ethical reformation of a society that is becoming aware of its limits.

Dominique Bourg Dominique Bourg – “Our civilisation is destroying itself because it is determined to disregard all limits in all areas.”
There is nowhere on the planet where people are unaware of how the privileged live. ‘There is nowhere on the planet where people are unaware of how the privileged live.’
© Jean-Paul Chassany/INRA
Even if we can reconstruct a local ecosystem, should the need arise, no one is capable of restoring the entire biosphere. ‘Even if we can reconstruct a local ecosystem, should the need arise, no one is capable of restoring the entire biosphere.’
© Michel Meuret/INRA

Is climate becoming the primary challenge currently facing the entire planet?

We need to look at matters on a more global scale. There are two major imbalances in today's world, both of which were created in the second half of the 20th century and for which we need to redress the balance if we want to move towards sustainable development. The first concerns the distribution of global wealth. When Adam Smith was alive, the proportion of differences in wealth between the large areas of civilisation on the planet ranged from 1 to less than 2. In 2000, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), it reached a proportion of 1 to 74.

Inequalities have thus escalated out of proportion. Gaps have become chasms, at the same time as unprecedented transparency in the history of mankind is being put in place for the first time. There is no place on the planet where people are unaware of how the privileged live – including you and me, for example. Without bearing this huge and explosive imbalance in mind, it is impossible for us to understand what is happening today, particularly with regards to hyper-terrorism.

The second imbalance to be unearthed, over exactly the same period, was the global change as regards the environment. The environment has clearly always been under attack by humanity, with some of these onslaughts sweeping away civilisations. Today, the problems have become global and since they are anthropogenic in origin, they are gathering momentum. The challenge is enormous because, even if we can reconstruct a local ecosystem should the need arise, no one is capable of restoring the entire biosphere.

You don’t seem to be relying too much on technological progress…

We need to take advantage of the lessons we were taught in the 20th century. When radioactivity was discovered, it was believed to be harmless. It turned out to be carcinogenic – what a surprise! When CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) were invented, we were satisfied that they were chemically inert, thus assuming this guaranteed their safety and so mass production began. Decades later, it came to light that CFCs were damaging the ozone layer – what a surprise! DDT was labelled as the invention of the century, very effective and harmless. But this pesticide is toxic for the environment, and even for people’s health at certain concentrations – another surprise! And I have forgotten to mention asbestos, amongst others – what a surprise. Finally, the use of hydrocarbons has turned out to be dangerous for the climate.

All this goes to show that the technologies we use have provided an element of control but are limited in scope and have a time bomb potential that could result in catastrophic damage. The more powerful these technologies become, the greater the potential damage they can cause.

Shouldn’t we expect anything, for example, from the geo-engineering technological hypothesis put forward by the climatologist Paul Crutzen (1), which aims to reduce the effect of greenhouse gases by changing the chemistry of the atmosphere?

I think that releasing aerosols into the upper atmosphere to chemically neutralise carbon dioxide would be another head-long technological rush with potentially nasty surprises – all of which would be on a planetary scale. Crutzen himself believes that this solution should only be considered as a last resort, if we are backed up against a wall and facing catastrophe. But I would find it intolerable to justify inaction today on account of the fact that tomorrow we could allegedly take action on a global scale. We run the risk of getting to the stage where we have no other option because we have created conditions which will condemn us to their use one day.

In that case, what type of solutions should we be turning to?

One of the conditions for sustainability is to considerably reduce the flow of material and energy. It has to be done gradually, over several decades, as this constitutes a considerable change. The climate objectives defined by the IPCC, to which the Union has subscribed, are to divide the planet’s emissions of carbon dioxide by 2 and by at least 4 for OECD countries (for the United States this should be by 10, if we were to be fair…). For developed countries, this implies an annual reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 3 %, to be maintained for several decades. To measure the effort represented by this 3 %, we need to compare it with the current trend which is actually an increase of 2 % per year.

Wide-scale economic decline is not a solution. We will not get there without money and innovation, which is why we need to achieve a serious reduction in flow whilst continuing to create wealth. Nor will we get there without changing our lifestyles. However, hearing such truth strikes fear into the hearts of our societies. They take refuge in the head-long technological rush. That's where all the drama of sustainable development lies.

But how can we achieve this change to our lifestyles that you are advocating?

Sustainable development is only possible if we make alterations to basic ethics. Up until now, the ‘golden rule’ has been: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This ethic of proximity, which was at one time sufficient, is no longer suitable for the world we live in. It takes into account neither future generations nor distant populations. Today, every time I go out in my car I have an effect on ecosystems and on people who live far away from me, in space as well as in time.

This new ethical order has political implications. Our societies are based on the so-called ‘contractualist’ perspective which, from Hobbes to Locke, is structured so as to enable each person to maximise their own interests. With this perspective, it was very clear that the objective was to produce and consume more and more. We can no longer continue along that line of reasoning. The free organisation of society is showing itself to be at odds with the management of shared environmental assets. We now need to invent new methods of economic and political regulation.

How might this new ethic take shape?

One example is the carbon tax, of which I am in favour, which aims to regulate our emissions by price and market. The idea is simple: drivers will cut down on their journeys because they will be more expensive. But that does not go far enough. We need to admit that certain aspects of our lifestyles could end up being termed ‘criminal’ – or, to express things less dramatically, could constitute serious offences. After all, murder is not regulated by the market, it is forbidden by law. The role of the markets is to stimulate the economy, but we cannot use pricing as the basis for the new ethical values required by a global society.

So has the time come for radical measures?

At most, we only have 10 or 15 years in which to react. Climate processes are slow and irreversible. The CO2 that we emit every day will remain in the atmosphere and contribute to global warming for centuries. Once the temperature of the oceans has risen, it will take thousands of years to return them to their original state. And the damage that we are inflicting on biodiversity will debilitate living organisms for millions of years. It's a high price to pay for having driven around in cars for a century.

Do you think something good could come out of the current crisis?

In some ways, confronting the limits of our planet could turn out to be an extraordinary opportunity. Our civilisation is destroying itself because it is determined to disregard all limits in all areas. We have broken all the aesthetic rules in art, given birth to absolute totalitarianisms, declared that there are no longer any physical limits - as illustrated in sports today - nor ethical limits, as illustrated, for example, by artificial insemination. There are no longer any limits on consumption or, quite simply, on nature. Our obsession is that we must always have more. Modern society is, as it were, set on holding the position of the ‘almighty creator’. Ultimately we are confronted with a phenomenon that may make us see sense and the sense of sense. Provided we do not miss the opportunity.

  1. See pp. 12-13.