And Why the Sea Is Boiling Hot…

Posted on August 24, 2012

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Climate denial and morality

If the “The Walrus and the Carpenter” were versified by Edgar Allan Poe rather than Lewis Carroll, it would, without changing a single detail, be a truly disturbing tale.  The Walrus is a Pied Piper-type figure, luring innocents with words rather than with music, and his eloquence enchants even us.

We like to quote:

     “The time has come,” the Walrus said,

      “To talk of many things:

     Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—

      Of cabbages—and kings—

     And why the sea is boiling hot—

      And whether pigs have wings.”

And quoting him thus, we like to forget that the Walrus’ words are a prelude to betrayal and slaughter, where all the cute, anthropomorphized oysters with the shoes and shiny faces, which he and the Carpenter have lured from safety, are subsequently eaten.

Alice too is a victim of his eloquence, as are all of us who accept a little evil so long as it has hypocrisy smeared on top of it.

‘I like the Walrus best,’ said Alice: ‘because you see he was a LITTLE sorry for the poor oysters.’

‘He ate more than the Carpenter, though,’ said Tweedledee. ‘You see he held his handkerchief in front, so that the Carpenter couldn’t count how many he took: contrariwise.’

‘That was mean!’ Alice said indignantly. ‘Then I like the Carpenter best—if he didn’t eat so many as the Walrus.’

‘But he ate as many as he could get,’ said Tweedledum.

This was a puzzler. After a pause, Alice began, ‘Well! They were BOTH very unpleasant characters—’

Of course what Alice has stumbled into, as Martin Gardner pointed out in The Annotated Alice, is the ancient question of whether, in judging evil, we look at intention or effect.

For instance, if we compare Jack the Ripper to Columbus, Jack the Ripper, by committing five gory murders of prostitutes in Victorian London, is surely the worst in respect of intention.  He was clearly driven by a frenzy of hate and misogyny.

Christopher Columbus, on the other hand, was at best indifferent towards his victims.  But he personally enslaved thousands of Aboriginal people and was responsible for the deaths of 10s of thousands more.  I’m not sure the moral loophole—intentionality—that Columbus and his defenders drove these deaths through is quite enough to justify naming national holidays after him.

Looking at the issue practically, weighing 10s of thousands of lives against 5, I’ll have to say I prefer Jack to Chris.  The kind of morality that favours indifferent genocide over mere murder is, as far as I’m concerned, hardly worthy of the name.  It’s a species of hypocrisy that might make the Walrus weep.

The Tsimshian had a different way of examining the issue.

I remember reading about a Tsimshian case from very early in the nineteenth century, from before any colonies or colonial laws had been introduced into British Columbia.  A chief was treated in an insulting way in an encounter with a trading vessel, and retaliated with violent attack on the vessel.  Subsequently, the vessel took revenge against another group of Tsimshian who had nothing to do with the original incident or the original violence.  The relatives of those hurt by the vessel’s act of revenge sought and received compensation from the chief who started it all.

The chief could have dealt with his insult by throwing a potlatch.  Instead, he chose to attack the traders.

It was like provoking a bear.  The trading vessels’ act of randomly attacking other Tsimshian in revenge was the direct result of a choice the chief had made to resort to violence himself.  Therefore, according to Tsimshian thinking, the victims of the trading vessel’s violence could rightly go to the chief for compensation.

This case says that if you make a choice that could conceivably lead to harm to others, regardless of what your reasons are for making that choice, then you are responsible for that harm.

Tsimshian morality would condemn Columbus more than Jack the Ripper because Columbus’ acts damaged vastly more people, and it was obvious that they would.

It would also highlight a new sort of villain, professional and successful climate deniers like Senator Inhofe, Rupert Murdoch, the Koch brothers, Canada’s Stephen Harper, the Republican Party of the United States, the Heartland Institute, and so on, the consequence of whose acts, arguably, would make Columbus look like a piker.

Proportionately, Columbus is to Jack the Ripper as these climate deniers and science obfusticators are to Columbus himself, because these people are messing with the entire future of civilization, not a generation or two of West Indies islanders like Columbus.  Or five women, like Jack.

If climate deniers like Inhofe, Canada’s Prime Minister or the Koch Brothers win their propaganda war and manage to put off or interfere with humanity’s battle against climate change until it’s too late to do anything, then, let’s not be coy, people are going to die in the billions.  Our children.  Our grandchildren.  People in Pakistan and Africa.  In war.  In famine.  In heatwave and storm.

We have 7 billion people on Earth now.  That number is going to go up another billion or two before it starts coming down.  But a world with rising seas (and shrinking continents), with lands turning to desert and other territories becoming uninhabitable, with the ocean turned to acid and with mass extinctions of lifeforms everywhere, with a worldwide destabilization of governments, that’s not a world which will be able to feed 9 or 8 or 7 billion people.

Billions will inevitably die and the billions remaining will be fighting for the scraps.

Billions are not millions.  Hitler was a monster almost beyond comprehension.  Stalin is the same.  Both are justly held up as the very essence of evil.  But they dealt in mere millions.  Neither was ever responsible for the death of billions, or the fall of civilization itself.

If the Republican Party wins and their friends in the fossil fuel lobby succeed in preventing the world from acting on climate change, if people like Stephen Harper succeed in extracting and burning every particle of fossil fuel we have in the ground, we may create a future where Hitler and Stalin are seen as a mere immoral prelude to the real disaster.

Humanity doesn’t need villains on that scale.  Hitler and Stalin are hellish enough.

The climate deniers cannot be allowed to succeed.

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See http://www.skepticalscience.com/climate-change-irreversibility-and-urgency.html