Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Call for a Green Enlightenment

This article was written by Lynn McDonald in February 2007. Lynn McDonald is University Professor Emerita at the University of Guelph, a former MP, and co-founder of Justearth: a Coalition for Environmental Justice. We're republishing it as part of our month-long WorldChanging Canada editorial retrospective, celebrating two years of WorldChanging Canada.


The principles of the 18th century Enlightenment, especially universalism, liberty and sympathy, prompted the great reforms of the 19th and 20th centuries from which we now benefit. We need a comparable "green Enlightenment" to prompt the next set of reforms: those necessary to combat climate change.

The great advances in social justice (human rights, women's equality, religious toleration, the end of slavery), great as they are, apply only to people in the here and now. They do nothing to ensure rights to future generations, or to people who live in distant, drought-struck, countries, let alone other species on Earth.

As an example of the needed rethinking of our philosophical foundations let us look at Jeremy Bentham's treatment of the principle of sympathy in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1780. There he describes utility theory as tending "to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good or happiness--all this is the same thing--or to prevent mischief, pain, evil or unhappiness." As our objects "are more numerous" our affections are enlarged, or our sympathy can range from the narrow to the broad, from:

  1. Certain individuals
  2. Any subordinate class of individuals
  3. The whole nation
  4. Humankind in general
  5. The whole sensitive creation

Bentham broke a lot of barriers by taking his theory to all of "humankind," and even entertained sympathy with non-human species. Now I would argue that we have to add a No. 6, "future generations."

What right have we in rich industrial countries to use up the last of the relatively accessible oil and gas for our luxurious lifestyles? What right have we to leave the planet overheated and the oceans rising, with badly depleted natural resources, declining biodiversity and increasing pollution?

We don't, and we have now to start thinking and planning for the benefit of these future generations. We need a comprehensive plan for climate change, with targets and dates for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The mere 5.5% reduction envisaged in the Kyoto Protocol is surely too small. Whether the reduction needs to go as far as the prodigious 90% George Monbiot claims in his book, Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning, is not clear. But we need to set goals in accordance with need, determined by the best science available, not what is easy and unobjectionable to do.

But change of the scope needed will require a major "paradigm shift," for which we will have to re-examine our values, beliefs and expectations for lifestyle. And so far, governments have failed to give leadership. Several provincial and more municipal governments have at least acknowledged the need for concerted action on climate change, short of coming up with concrete plans, which cannot go far enough without federal involvement.

All this will require careful work. Citizens can help start the process by setting out a framework for a climate change plan. The fine tuning can only be done in concert with government departments and technical experts, but citizens can and should lead. Just as the initiative for change in the 18th century Enlightenment came from outside government, so also might this.

Town hall meetings and "think-ins" at universities, colleges and community meetings could help to spark ideas and promote citizen involvement. Professional associations, faith communities, First Nations, unions, all kinds of voluntary organizations, should be asked to draw on their particular experience and expertise. We have a long way to go to, but there is now a growing consensus that fundamental change is needed.

The Earth Charter is a good example of citizen-initiated thinking, with a call to new ideas and practical action.

In Canada we have had for the last 25 years a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a fine legacy of the best Enlightenment thinking and the work of two centuries of social and political reformers. As it does not serve us now when we have to contend with climate change it, too, needs to be revisited in the light of today's challenges.

Amendments to the Charter of Rights, the broader Constitution, many statutes (notably corporations acts), tax policy, electoral reform and government procurement codes are all needed. Environmentalists have proposed such radical ideas as a total ban on advertising. George Monbiot suggests a moratorium on airport runways—to stop increasing what is most harmful—while working out measures for actual reductions in greenhouse gases.

A former premier of Alberta, Peter Lougheed, has proposed a moratorium on the tar sands extraction project. Again, the object is to simply to curtail an obvious problem, leaving positive actions to be determined later.

Enlightenment rationalism and science are needed now as much as its great moral principles. In that earlier period scientific agriculture, educational and technological advances were crucial. At a time when people starved when crops failed more was clearly better. Now, with obesity a problem and vastly expanded scientific agriculture in many countries (causing water and air pollution and soil depletion) we need to be more cautious. Rationalism yes, but with considerable caution about the possibilities of unintended consequences.

The 18th century Enlightenment aimed at reforms political, economic, cultural, legal, scientific and technological. So must the green Enlightenment now called for. And, unlike the case of that earlier time, we do not have two further centuries in which to make the changes envisaged. For climate change we have to act now. Fortunately, with technological change speeding up communications and collaboration, we have that capacity.

A Call for a Green Enlightenment by Lynn McDonald is part of our month long retrospective celebrating the second anniversary of WorldChanging Canada on October 31. For the month of November, we'll celebrate two years of bright green Canadian ideas, models, and solutions.