Responsibility of consumers
August 13, 2006
In Turkmenistan, my friend worked on an oil and gas drill rig in a desert where the daytime highs hit 120 degrees. My friend, whom I’ve known since high school, is now looking for work in more hospitable environs, so he came to western Colorado.”I was on a high mesa above DeBeque for an interview,” he told me, “and it was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, it was also a drill site.””Yeah,” I grimaced. “Too bad it has to be drilled at all.””Well,” he said with irony, “you see, we have these very demanding customers who desperately want our product.””You mean the American public,” I nodded.”I mean you and me,” he grinned.Oil and gas drilling in western Garfield County is symptomatic of a rapacious consumer culture whose customer base is the entire world. Finger pointing doesn’t work when you’re looking in the mirror, and sacrifice zones are difficult to assign amid the beauty my friend described on the mesa above DeBeque.Consumer responsibility becomes a charge few of us are willing to evaluate honestly as we claim rights to our share of energy and other resources. Our denial of responsibility resides in our deepest cultural traditions.In the Bible, Genesis describes man’s dominion over the earth as God-given. Aristotle reasoned that nature created plants and animals for the sake of man alone. Aquinas concluded that sins against the natural world are acquitted by man’s superior station.More recently, philosophy has extended ethics to nature by assigning human beings moral judgments for our actions. Global warming is the most overarching moral challenge in the way we live and work within a shared ecosystem – the commons.Global warming is on everybody’s radar, but still our dominant social traditions often fail to examine the long-term implications of how we do life. The myopia of economists who assign a discount rate to all future goods defers the costs of business and condemns us to crisis management.Aldo Leopold admonished: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”Few of us are capable or even interested in grasping this idea, so far removed are we from the biota, at least intellectually. Physically and psychically, we’re attached to it, but usually without knowing or feeling. The natural world is a mere backdrop to our machinations.Bioethics philosopher Peter Singer calls for an environmental ethic that “rejects the ideals of a materialist society in which success is gauged by the number of consumer goods one can accumulate.” Singer’s ethic equates the reckless waste of resources with vandalism and insists that we “re-assess our notion of extravagance.”A “drive in the country” is no longer an innocent pastime, but a dereliction of responsibility. A World War II poster advocating gas rationing in the 1940s asked: “Is your journey really necessary?” The reasons are different today, but the same question ought to be posed by anyone aspiring to leave a small footprint in the commons.The “voluntary simplicity” espoused by Thoreau does not rule out pleasure, but finds pleasure in responsible living. If we can do that, we might one day redefine “dominion” as “stewardship,” and the beautiful mesa above DeBeque will be spared.Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.
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