Mine your own moral obligations

A friend recently sent me the trailer for a new documentary, “Mine Your Own Business.” The gist of the documentary (or the trailer for it, anyway) is that environmentalists are only willing to sacrifice economic development for environmental preservation because the environmentalists are already (relatively) rich — that is, like most people in the developed West, they tend almost universally to have indoor plumbing, enough food to eat, medicine, etc. Accordingly, environmentalism is analogous to climbing out of a hole and then pulling up the ladder behind you.

As “Mine Your Own Business” (again, at least the trailer) presents this argument, it is overtly one about motives. Environmentalists are accused of not caring about the poor, and the implication is that they might not prefer having their water so clean if they themselves had to pay the price in terms of lost economic development. This explicit accusation about the environmentalists’ motives strikes me as improbable, not least because it implicitly assumes that one can usefully generalize about the mental states of hundreds of thousands of individuals as if they were all the same. More to the point, it strikes me as irrelevant whether the environmentalists (or the mining companies) have pure hearts; what is relevant is whether they are right about anything. Are they right or wrong when they assert that industrialization as practiced by the West for the last 250 years is not (or is no longer) environmentally sustainable? I’m not qualified to say, but I feel confident that introducing questions of motive doesn’t shed any light on the issue.

The question I find more interesting is whether the West is somehow morally obligated to allow the rest of the world to industrialize in environmentally unsustainable ways (assuming for the sake of discussion that they are unsustainable) just because we did. I think this is far more doubtful than the makers of this documentary seem to suggest. Suppose an older brother, having done prison time for car theft, tells his younger brother he’ll beat the living daylights out of him if he ever gets mixed up in criminal activity. That’s right, isn’t it? We wouldn’t say the older brother has to hold his tongue just because he made the mistake first, would we?

Should I be forbidden from taking the car keys of an inebriated friend unless I can demonstrate that I myself have never driven while legally intoxicated? Or should we expect those who have had some experience of the unfavorable consequences of driving while intoxicated to be the first to step up to the plate in that situation?

Or how about this: A museum is hosting a cocktail party for some of its large donors, most of whom are collectors of fine art and many of whom actually have paintings on loan to the museum. Because it is a private party, smoking is permitted, and one of the cigarette butts starts a fire. As the building is evacuated, the donors scramble to retrieve the paintings they themselves own, along with whatever other treasures they can save. The fire department arrives, and the collectors wait anxiously outside as the firemen move in and out making sure that no one else is inside (and, incidentally, bringing out some more art as they emerge). Just at that moment, an art collector who is late to the party happens along, and he is horrified to learn that a priceless painting he loaned to the museum is still inside. Heedless of the risk, he dashes toward the door to retrieve his painting, but the fire chief stops him and tells him it’s too dangerous. “But all these other people were able to save their paintings,” he protests. Do we think the fire chief should let him in just because others were able to? Would it matter at all if the one painting this collector had inside was his only belonging in the entire world? Would it matter if he told us it was uninsured and the loss would devastate him financially?

The analogies aren’t perfect — no analogy is — but I guess it seems to me that if industrialization as practiced until now is not environmentally sustainable, then all people of the world, rich and poor, have a moral obligation to move toward sustainability. It is one moral obligation among many, of course; compassion for the poor would be another, as would respect for the moral autonomy of people in less developed regions. But neither of the latter two rest exclusively on the shoulders of environmentalists, and I don’t see any reason why a spirited discussion of our obligations toward the third world should focus on Greenpeace any more than it should focus on the Canadian mining company that paid for this film.

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4 Responses to “Mine your own moral obligations”

  1. Rod Apfelbeck Says:

    (I haven’t seen the movie so these are really general comments instead of
    specifically about the movie.)

    I disagree fundamentally that the argument here is “overtly one about
    motives” as Mark claims. And I do think that I can “generalize about the
    mental states of hundreds of thousands of individuals as if they were all
    the same.” They are environmentalists. I think they care about
    protecting the environment.

    It is not about their motive at all, but instead about the price they are
    willing to exact from others in service of that motive. Mark writes:

    The gist of the documentary (or the trailer for it, anyway) is that
    environmentalists are only willing to sacrifice economic development for
    environmental preservation because the environmentalists are already
    (relatively) rich — that is, like most people in the developed West, they
    tend almost universally to have indoor plumbing, enough food to eat,
    medicine, etc. Accordingly, environmentalism is analogous to climbing out
    of a hole and then pulling up the ladder behind you.

    Obviously it is makes for good cinema to film the guy showing off his
    new, $25,000 catamaran and then earnestly saying that the poor are as
    happy as the rich. However, to use Mark’s terms, would it be any better
    if the guy was in the hole with you and threw the ladder out? He is
    making a decision for you that he has no right to make. And what is worse
    is that the decision is often made with bad information.

    I’ll get to Mark’s analogies in a second, but let’s look at something that
    really happened. The US used DDT with excellent results for decades. Then
    the environmentalists got it banned more or less world-wide. Millions of
    Africans, mainly small children, died as a result. The science that
    supported the ban – that DDT is a carcinogen in humans, that it causes
    bird egg shell thinning, that is was responsible for the decline in
    various bird populations – is highly questionable. So much so that DDT is
    once again being used and even being paid for by the US government. The
    environmentalists were willing to have millions of young Africans die
    because DDT might cause some of the problems noted. That was the price of
    their undisputed motive.

    As to Mark’s analogies, the problem I have with them is in their basic construction.
    He asks, “Should I be forbidden from taking the car keys of an inebriated
    friend unless I can demonstrate that I myself have never driven while
    legally intoxicated?” No. But that’s not even close to what’s happening.
    A more appropriate analogy is, “Should I be forbidden from banning alcohol
    in Destitute-istan because I’ve tried to take the car keys from my
    inebriated friend and it was too hard to get them?” The answer to that is
    “Yes!” Why are they trying to take the splinter out of the poor people’s
    eye when we’ve got a log in our own? It’s really just preying on those
    least able to defend themselves.

  2. Mark Grannis Says:

    Three responses.

    First, I hope I haven’t suggested that either the material needs of the poor or their autonomy should necessarily take a back seat to concern about the environment. But I hope I have argued persuasively enough that concern about the environment should not necessarily take a back seat to the other values either. We have, as usual, competing moral values, and our task is not to choose one at the expense of all others but to find ways of accommodating them to each other insofar as possible.

    Nor should environmentalism be dismissed as hypocritical folly simply because we are more sensitive to it than we used to be. I take it from Rod’s “throw the ladder out” hypothetical that he agrees: It simply does not matter whether we are in or out of the hole when we get rid of the ladder.

    Finally, the splinter/log dichotomy works for a surprisingly large number of moral questions, including allegations of insensitivity to the cry of the poor. Whatever our obligations toward “Destitute-istan” may be, I repeat that they do not fall solely on the backs of Greenpeace activists. I hope the mining company that produced this film is as intent on fighting poverty as it is on fighting Greenpeace. Otherwise, the stated concern for the welfare of the poor might appear to be shameless opportunism.

    Whether the film is overtly about motive should perhaps be debated by people who have watched the whole film, instead of by Rod and me.

    Robert Samuelson has a nice piece in today’s Washington Post about how empty our current gestures regarding global warming are. His suggestion of increased taxes and increased R&D neatly suggests simultaneously the economic drag that environmental measures may exert but also the economic opportunity that they may create.

  3. ukridge Says:

    Mark,

    on one hand I’m happy that a film like this could finally be produced. Environmentist organizations tend to loose factual basis more and more often. People tend to take whatever these orgs say granted. The DDT story is a good example. Nowadays as WHO suggests and supports using DDT fro inhouse spraying against malaria, greens worldwide protesting, claiming ‘harms’ that was already proven to be false. Also claiming harms which aren’t. They do not understand the differencce between spraying DDT agriculture pesticide and inhouse spraying.

    In the old times, greens used to dig out facts that companies liked to hide away. They claimed to be factual and mostly they were. Not these days anymore. Of course these should be many small green groups which follow the ‘traditional’, factual way.

    On the other hand this particular movie is badly wrong. I live in Hungary, and quite worrying about the impact of the Romanian mine -should it be opened. In 2000, a mine using similar technology had a disaster, flowing cyanid to the river Tisza, killing 1200 tons of fish and tuining the tapwater of hundreds of housands in Hungary. So speaking about foreign and wealthy environmentist, one should be clear not to include those, who are effected by the proposed mine. Not only the inhabitants of the small Romanian village are part of the problem.

    So finally, I think, if this movie can raise attention about the common misinterpretation and onesideness of some loud greens, then it was a great job, but would be far greater job would this film be not onesided as well (I mean the other side).

  4. Mark Grannis Says:

    Dear ukridge:

    Thanks very much for the comment. It is wonderful to hear from someone as close to the situation as you are.

    Mark


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