This post was going to be about the permanence of pollution, and how the whole world is connected and finite.
I was going to use the story from Blue Planet 2 about the dead pilot whale calf, and how it awoke general consciousness about pollution.
However, if you watch that clip again, you might notice that this specific calf’s cause of death is not known. It is being used to illustrate the impact that plastics could be having on sea life.
Our ethics are led by our life experiences and our values. I’m a fan of transparency, science, and facts…up to a point.
Scientism is “the view that the characteristic inductive methods of the natural sciences are the only source of genuine factual knowledge and, in particular, that they alone can yield true knowledge about man and society”. I only discovered it recently, but find it incredibly apt. This describes a willingness to leave the hardest questions to science. Questions about whether to be racist, sexist, homophobic, sizest… all can be “answered” by studies of whether there is truly differences.
These topics, like global pollution, are far bigger than facts. They are about morals.
The idea that these decisions could be made with “objective” numbers alone should be repulsive to ideals of fairness and equality.
I appreciate scientific backing for more responsible plastic practises, and human action to limit climate change and CO2 emissions, but it isn’t making my decision for me. In the same way, whether this calf died from plastic pollution isn’t making my decision for me, because these decisions are subjective and depend on human values.
Science can tell us that there is a rapid increase in toxic plastic in the ocean and harmful chemicals in the air, but it is up to us as individuals to decide that this problem matters to us, and that we want to take action about it. It takes courage to own a decision made on values. Values are internal, un-provable, subjective. They entirely clash with a scientific objective approach.
Yet when we look at a life with only rules, you get into the darkest most sticky areas of philosophy. If you could live inside a perfect experience machine, would you? If you could save the world by torturing someone, would you? If you could kill one person by taking action or kill 5 through inaction, would you?
Philosophy is a soft science and doesn’t claim to have all the answers, only the logistical tools to explore these questions and values. Some of the most interesting questions I think you can ask are outside of the realms of the thought experiment; who tied these people to these trolley tracks anyway?
Similarly, in real life, dillemmas are often presented in a two dimensional way. Do you care about the planet, or don’t you? Do you want a wind farm on your island, or don’t you? Are you the enemy, or are you not?
Our ethics are deeper than that, even when they appear not. Everyone has important caveats and exceptions and explanations to their beliefs, if you aren’t afraid to explore that with them. These differences are personal, diverse, and infinitely varied. No two vegans have the same views exactly, nor two feminists, nor conservatives, nor bigots. This is often exploited as “feminists don’t agree on anything” or “the right will eat itself”, but there’s so much more depth to explore than that.
Beneath the surface level debates, in the complexities and exceptions, there are often important values being held and decisions being made. We sum them up in simple words, but these words reflect a wealth of variety. These values are what we live by. Within these complex views, there’s more room for significant nuance.
I can support ending pollution (because it seems wrong and unfair for one species over just a century to cause unprecedented damage to the Earth) and yet not feel strongly about the science that supports it either way. Others might be only feel convinced by what scientific evidence is out there, and build their views based on that. Both of us will share the same goal, and have a depth of resolve to fix this.
There is value in both approaches, and plenty of space for manoeuvre together, because our values are far deeper than we think.
Further Reading: Doomsday Scenarios are as bad as Climate Change Denial: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/doomsday-scenarios-are-as-harmful-as-climate-change-denial/2017/07/12/880ed002-6714-11e7-a1d7-9a32c91c6f40_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.fbd851b7ff44