Let us bin the moral fable of climate change

Essay: Eco-ethics, with its rules about waste, water and energy-use, is a new brand of conservatism that is sucking the fun out of life.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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This is an edited version of a speech given by Josie Appleton, convenor of the Manifesto Club, at the 6/20 club, a philosophy salon in central London, on 6 August 2007.

Climate change as parable

There is a phrase that one hears again and again these days: ‘Climate change is happening, and humans are responsible.’

This phrase is used to open articles, or at the start of speeches, and it is always used with great gravity and meaning. It appears to be a factual statement about an environmental problem, or a scientific observation about cause and effect. But that is not really what it is. It is really a morality tale: it is a statement about the meaning of human activity, and a call for us to change our ways.

The parable of climate change involves the three following steps:

  1. unrestrained human action/energy-use has dangerous unintended consequences on the natural world
  2. we need to take responsibility for this, and be ‘aware of our impact’
  3. we need to change our behaviour, to check our energy-use and consumption of resources.

The dominant impulse is not so much solving climate change, as reorganising life around it. Restraint becomes the primary ethic in life. Cutting back carbon emissions becomes the way you show that you are a good person, or a good institution.

This parable has such force that people move seamlessly from an account of Arctic sea ice melt to a call for personal energy cutbacks. One recent list of what ‘the science demands’ in response to climate change included such measures as: the banning of outdoor heaters and garden lighting; abandoning all road-building; freezing and then reducing airport capacity; even the closing of all out-of-town shopping centres.

By asking a few critical questions, we can start to separate the morality tale from the physical reality of carbon dioxide emissions.

First: Why is the production of carbon dioxide described as a matter of ‘guilt’? Why is climate change something that each of us has to take to heart and reflect on deeply, and admit our personal responsibility for? Why do people say that they buy carbon offsets to clear their conscience? In the past, pollution was not seen as a question of guilt. It was seen as unfortunate, a mistake, something that we had not intended to happen. No factory intended to blacken the sky; it was a byproduct of the only available energy source at the time. Pollution was a problem to be solved, with alternative energy sources, filters, and the like.

Over the past 100 years, a number of different scientists formulated the theory of the greenhouse effect – indeed, some predictions generated by one Swedish scientist in the 1890s are pretty similar to those we have today. But nobody, not once, saw the warming effect of carbon dioxide emissions as a question of ‘guilt’.

Second, why should climate change demand a reduction in energy consumption? In the early twentieth century, Londoners’ coal fires were causing smog over the city, but nobody told them to consider the impact of their actions, to change their behaviour, to perhaps limit themselves to one coal fire a day. Instead they said: switch to smoke-free fuels. Because the fact is that people use the energy source that is available. In a rational, civilised society, policymakers would respond to climate change by developing new sources of energy. The aim would be to allow people to continue with their lives, with minimum disturbance.

Such policy options might include rolling out nuclear power, or developing nuclear fusion, or using engineering to counteract the warming of the atmosphere. There are scientists working on all of these questions, but they are doing so with very little funding and with very little support.

Indeed, there is actually great resistance to the idea that climate change can be solved. Those who propose manmade solutions to climate change are often called ‘naive’; they are accused of ‘evading the question’, or ‘avoiding taking responsibility’. Indeed, they are probably suffering from a form of ‘climate change denial’.

The account of climate change is not an account of the production of a particular gas, which is having particular effects. Instead, it is a moral story about the dangers of hubris, and the need for personal limitation.

At base, the climate change parable is a new brand of conservatism. It is no coincidence that we use the term ‘climate change’. In the 1980s, the phenomenon was known as the ‘greenhouse effect’; in the 1990s and early twenty-first century it was ‘global warming’. These previous terms were more concrete and descriptive, describing the mechanism of the build-up of carbon dioxide, or its result in warming the atmosphere.

‘Climate change’ refers less to a particular process or effect, than to the phenomenon of change itself. The problem, for us, is change; that our actions have caused something to change (which could mean hotter, drier, wetter, even colder). The concern is with instability itself, a fact reflected by the slogan ‘Stop Climate Chaos’, the rallying cry of green activists.

There is a great deal of angst even about the cycles of the seasons. This year in the UK, apparently, April was too warm and May was too cold, and June and July were too wet. It is reported with great gravity that certain trees are flowering a full eight days earlier than previously. Or, with more angst, that some animals and plants are ‘confused’ about the seasons. Behind all this lies the classical conservative cry, ‘things are not what they were!’ Climate change ethics represent a new conservatism, only this is a conservatism that has no social good that it wants to defend, no traditional institutions, traditional culture, or traditional communities.

With eco-ethics, both the anxiety about change and the objective of social stability are discussed in terms of the flux of wind and rain. Eco-ethics critiques social change by talking about melting ice and confused beavers; and it aims to stabilise society by gearing all aspects of life towards the goal of a stable climate.

The distinguishing features of eco-ethics

There are three ways in which eco-ethics is distinctive, compared to previous forms of ethics.

First, eco-ethics is preoccupied with making less impact. ‘Erase your carbon footprint’, we are told. The overriding aim of eco-ethics is to use fewer resources, and produce less waste. It becomes a profound and meaningful thing to examine the contents of your dustbin, or to scrutinise your electricity bill. These measures of consumption and impact become the way to judge your life, and the less the impact, the better the life.

So if you wanted to evaluate the success of this salon [in central London, where this speech was first given], you would ask: how many plastic cups, empty bottles of wine, and plastic wrappers did it produce? And the fewer wrappers and cups, the better would be your evaluation of the event. You might set targets for future salons, perhaps by reducing attendees, or having us swigging straight from the bottle. Then you might realise that some people came by car or took long journeys, and in future you might only allow those who could come on foot or by bike.

Such calculations are now performed on everything from the Superbowl to flushing the toilet. We are judged by the trail we leave behind. The question is not what our activity adds to the world in human terms, only the resources it takes away.

Ethics and morality has taken very many guises in the past, some better than others. But at base they were always about the questions of how to live more, and how to live better.

Think about ethicists’ obsessions: that we shouldn’t be jealous, bitter or rancorous; that we shouldn’t lie in bed all morning or eat too much for lunch. The recommendations are different, but the aim is the same: to yield a vital, productive individual, somebody who develops their powers and focuses them in the wisest and most effective way, for their own good and the good of others.

Benjamin Franklin asked himself every morning, ‘What good will I do today?’; and every night he asked, ‘What good have I done today?’ All the vices – sloth, jealousy, lying, conceit – are essentially negative energies that eat you up and demoralise you, and corrode relationships. All the virtues – resolution, industry, honesty, self-control – are about focusing on your task, and working effectively with others.

So ethics should be about doing more, and doing better. Eco-ethics, however, is about making less mess.

Second, eco-ethics abstracts from the meaning of our actions. Think of the carbon calculator, our current measure of virtue. This is a form of measurement that completely abstracts from the meaning of the things we do. So the value of a plane flight is measured in terms of the carbon dioxide molecules spewed out by the plane’s engines. You could have been taking a plane to see a sick relative, or to see a prostitute, but your action is measured the same way: in parts per million.

Environmentalists often say: the planet doesn’t care either way. The planet doesn’t care why you did something, because the damage is the same. Here they are taking the vantage point of nonhuman life to evaluate the things that we humans do. This is an alienated, indifferent eye, which knows nothing of love or obligations or goals, or any of the other reasons that we act.

Augustine recommended faith, hope and charity as three pillars of Christian morality. The French revolution gave us liberty, equality and fraternity. These are very different, but they are in their own ways resonant, meaningful principles by which to live life. Now, with eco-ethics, what do schoolchildren get? Water, waste, energy. When children now are encouraged to engage in self-reflection, or self-restraint, it is in relation to the water they use, the waste they produce, and the energy they consume.

When I was at school, I remember plotting ecological pyramids of exchanges of energy and resources between layers of organisms, from plants at the bottom to carnivores at the top. This is how schoolchildren are now asked to evaluate their own lives – as organisms, exchanging substances with their surrounding environment. This is an ecological worldview, not a human worldview.

Third, eco-ethics avoids the question of choice. Eco-ethics is not really a matter of moral choice, but of behaviour change. Eco-ethics handbooks are really just lists of things to do. They are full of instructions for how to behave. Five things that you can do to save the planet; 10 things to save the planet; 77 things; 99 things. You just need to read the instruction, ‘turn your washing machine down to 30 degrees’, and do it. Then the next instruction, ‘Wash your windows with vinegar’. Some books even have one instruction for every day of the year, so you don’t even have to decide which thing to do when.

Individual reflection is not involved, which is why it is possible to have an ‘ethical makeover’. Somebody can come into your house, change your brand of washing powder, tell you what to do differently, and you now are an ethical person.

But really there is no morality without choice. Morality is based on the moral agent, whose life is a choice for him, who can consider and decide on the right thing to do. Socrates asked ‘How should we live?’, and ethics was born with that question. Morality was born with the person who is not a cog in a social machine, but a free, conscious being, who aims to develop himself and others. The process of self-development cannot be about reproducing a series of instructions. It must be about reflecting on the options, deciding what to do, doing it, evaluating your actions, deciding again.

Before the question ‘How should we live?’ was raised, life was essentially pre-ethical. The aim was to reproduce expected patterns of behaviour, performing your allotted role as a father or husband, as a person of particular station in a particular place. Certain duties were expected of you. You could rebel and fail to fulfil them, but there was no question, ‘What is best for me to do?’ Confucius is an example of a pre-ethical philosophy. He gives great lists of instructions: you have to wear this kind of fur with this colour; you have to greet somebody in such a way; you have to lie in bed facing this direction; your bedclothes must be a certain length.

This is what we have now with eco-ethics: a list of duties, a series of instructions about how to behave. You can choose to follow or to ignore these instructions, but not to debate them.

At base, eco-ethics is a way out of moral dilemmas. Genuine morality is difficult, and involves evaluating and deciding for yourself. It is hard to choose between two courses of action, both of which have something for and against them. It is hard to add something to the world. The question ‘What good did I do today?’ is scary, because on many days we do not do any real good; we do not add anything discernible to the world. It is uncomfortable to have that kind of reckoning.

It is much easier to fall back on the application of rules, and to say that the good life comes in lists of 10/35/100 things to do. It is much easier to ask not ‘what did I add?’ but ‘how did I limit my impact?’

Yet, of course, we do not live in ancient China, or pre-Socratic Greece. Nor do we live as organisms in an ecological pyramid. We live as free individuals. We do in fact have to build and direct our own lives. We face tens of meaningful choices a day, about how we spend our time, whom we associate with, and what work we do. We face the dilemmas of competing demands and competing ambitions, between work and relationships, friends and family. Ethical thinking should help us to understand everyday dilemmas, to pose them as part of human condition, so that they become a question of the direction of human energy towards human goals.

In a time of eco-ethics, we still make these personal choices, but they are unguided and unscrutinised. The things that are of consequence go on – work, friends, lovers, holidays – but they are seen as of no consequence. Meanwhile, the things that really are of no meaningful consequence – our rubbish, our energy bills – are the focus of great introspection and dialogue.

The social/political role of eco-ethics

The first important role for eco-ethics is providing a mission for institutions. The second is to provide a meaning and structure for consumerism.

Over the past two years, there has been a rapid take-up of eco-ethics by institutions. A huge range of public institutions, including scientific, political, educational, religious, business, even artistic institutions, are now promoting awareness about climate change, and calling on the public to limit their energy consumption.

These institutions have done this, not in response to an environmental emergency, but to an internal crisis of mission. These are public institutions largely built up in the nineteenth-century world, with its bourgeois self-confidence and engaged public culture. They have found it hard to deal with today’s more atomised and uncertain times, and have for the past decade or so been casting around, redefining themselves as agents of social inclusion, or as businesses, or whatever they could get their hands on. Now, wherever you see institutions with doubt about what it means to be a good politician, or a good school, or a good museum, you will see that they have made tackling climate change one of their priorities.

Indeed, when you see a wind turbine or solar panel on top of a public building, it is a sure sign that people inside the building do not know what they are doing. Look at St James’ Church, just down the road in Piccadilly: if its spire was a sign of spiritual aspiration, the roof covered in solar panels is a sign of spiritual angst.

Institutions start to justify themselves in terms of their own energy efficiency. I was recently asked to a museums conference about ‘museums and sustainability’, which I thought must be about how long objects will last and what to do when they corrode, and so on. But it was actually about the energy efficiency of museum buildings. Curators were spending two days talking about cavity wall insulation.

Eco-ethics allows institutions to short-circuit the question of their own purpose, and their relationship to the public, and to make a mission of restraint. It is astounding just how many institutions have issued the public with instructions on how one should boil a kettle.

Eco-ethics has moved with a particular force into the political sphere. The whole question of democratic legitimacy has been a nagging preoccupation since the 1990s. Political parties have all struggled to reposition themselves after the erosion of their mass, class-based social foundations. Through climate change, politicians have discovered that they can escape the problem of democratic legitimacy. Their role is now not to represent the public, but to safeguard a stable climate, and to tell the public how to ‘do their bit’ towards this end. It is no doubt more attractive, and simpler, to be managers of climate stability than it is to be the representatives of an unruly, unpredictable electorate.

Eco-ethics is a continuation of trends in politics over the past decade or more. Politics since the 1990s has essentially been about maintaining social stability. Think about the buzzwords of policy, from ‘governance’ to ‘social inclusion’; or the wars that elites have fought – the war on drugs, the war on crime, the war on terror – which were about maintaining order in the face of unpredictable, destablising threats. Climate change ethics is really the latest war for social order. The period when Tony Blair started talking about climate change was in 2005 and 2006 – the period when the war on terror really started to stall. What you see is Blair using exactly the same language as the war on terror, only in reference to climate change: ‘This is the greatest threat facing humanity; it is our duty to act now before the threat materialises; to allow us to live in peace and security….’ etc.

The fight against climate change answers the same essential needs as the war on terror, but for politicians it is potentially less controversial and problematic. Terrorists answer back and fight back. Any war that involves a human enemy is going to be complicated; your rhetoric will be tested. Eco-ethics is directed at the skies, at the mysterious forces of the atmosphere. Here there are no political interests, no enemies, no parties – it is a pristine terrain, on which a politician such as Al Gore can conduct his own performance without fear of consequence.

It is a terrain on which politicians can call for their primary wishes – social stability and social restraint – only they can do so outside the problematic terms of political vocabulary. They can draw their authority from the heavens; the climate becomes the phantom demos to which they appeal. They speak on behalf of the planet, just as Egyptian pharaohs would draw their authority from the sun. Eco-ethics provides a conservative mechanism through which society can be managed, a cause in the name of which energies can be dampened, tensions calmed. It is a public mission that avoids the question of the purpose of the public.

Eco-ethics also provides a meaning and structure for consumerism. As individuals, our role as consumers structures our relationships with others, and in many cases provides our main source of meaning and identity. We not only do not produce, but we do not identify with the process of production. Products often seem to appear as if from nowhere, and our consumption of them appears as a purely private matter; we find it hard to see the cooperation or creativity that went into making them. This personal reliance on consumption produces a great deal of angst. Our use of energy and materials appears often as selfish, erratic and insatiable, and we feel a need for some kind of structure, or mechanism for control.

This is the need that eco-ethics answers. Only in appearance is it anti-consumption: in actual fact, it is a restrained, hyper-aware form of consumption.

Nobody is saying that we should go to live in the woods, or give up our cars, washing machines, TVs or cookers. You can drive, we are told, but you should drive the right kind of car – not a 4×4, not too big or too fast, but preferably one that is half-electric. And you should drive it in a ‘restrained manner’, a technique known as eco-driving, which is now part of the driving test. Eco-driving means no abrupt acceleration or deceleration, keeping the tires pumped up, and removing surplus baggage from the boot.

You don’t have to throw away your washing machine, but you should wash at 30 degrees. When you cook, turn off the oven five minutes before the dish is done, and don’t open the oven door during cooking. Buy an energy-efficient TV, and unplug it at the socket when you have finished watching.

The main thing is that you are aware of your impact, and you make these small gestures of restraint. You must be conscious of the downsides of your actions, and you must take steps to check yourself. It doesn’t matter whether this has much practical impact or not: Princess Anne explained recently that she was green because she sometimes took the train to London, instead of being driven in a car.

The response to consumerist angst is therefore a state of extreme self-consciousness and self-restraint, where our passions are not so much channelled to more productive ends as they are kept in check. It is an ethics of restraint that seeks to absorb tensions and dissatisfactions, by simply dampening them down. Climate change ethics also imbues consumer choices with a universal purpose. Every time you half-fill the kettle, you are saving the world. Every time you change a lightbulb, history is on your shoulders.

It is only through the mediating link of the climate that we now think that we can work towards the common good, that our acts add up to more than the sum of their parts. Liberals once said that if every man pursued his private interest, he served the public good. Now, apparently, we are connected not through the development of the market, but through personal acts of restraint in the name of climate stability.

Life beyond eco-ethics

My main concern with eco-ethics is that it allows us to stop thinking about the meaning and point to life. It is like a layer of scaffolding built across society, which allows every individual, and every institution, to avoid the questions that they find hard to answer. Eco-ethics allows us to avoid the question of human purpose, by directing all our actions towards the clouds.

None of this is an inevitable response to environmental emergency. We put instructions for living into the mouth of the climate, just as men once did with the mouths of the gods. The climate change parable, just like the Bible, was written by humans – and just like the Bible, it expresses our own peculiar breed of fears and preoccupations. Questioning eco-ethics will encourage us, as both individuals and institutions, to stand on our own two feet, to choose for ourselves, and to justify our work in its own terms. Because all the apparent problems of our times could actually be our advantage. All the moral angst, the uncertainty about how to live, the lack of fixed political frameworks or associations – all of this, which we experience as a problem, could actually be turned to our benefit.

At present we flee from uncertainty, and seek eco-handbooks for living. But there is another option: to grasp this situation as an opportunity. Indeed, in the course of history, it is often the periods of flux and uncertainty that have been the most productive. These are periods where things are rethought from scratch, presumptions questioned, and new schools of thought are born and new ways of living invented.

And that, I guess, is our choice: between a future of managing climactic stability, or the messy, tumultuous business of building our lives on their own foundations.

This is an edited version of a speech given by Josie Appleton, convenor of the Manifesto Club, at the 6/20 club, a philosophy salon in central London, on 6 August 2007. It was previously published on the website,

Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club (, a pro-human campaigning network. Email her at {encode=”” title=””}.

Previously on spiked

Josie Appleton talked about how the world would be without human beings and criticised the way that our carbon footprint is a poor substitute for proper ethics. James Heartfield celebrated the ‘human footprint’. Rob Lyons suggested the craze for ethical shopping was unethically overstated. Or read more at spiked issue Environment.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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