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A Call for a Green Enlightenment

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by Worldchanging Canada blogger, Mark Tovey

Lynn McDonald is University Professor Emerita at the University of Guelph, a former MP, and co-founder of Justearth: a Coalition for Environmental Justice. This is her first guest post for 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 5½% 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.

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I'm not sure that I'm convinced that the 18th century enlightenment has delivered us human rights, women's equality, religious tolerance, and an end to slavery. These exist today for those who are relatively well off, at best. We need a mindset where we realize that these things don't exist at all unless they exist for everyone. That's the next enlightenment. (Already begun, I think.) Once we understand that, we will begin to see more green reforms.

Posted by: Josh on 10 Feb 07

This article comes at a time when I am thinking a lot about the Enlightenment. As a Librarian, I have been re-reading "Civic Librarianship: Renewing the Social Mission of the Public Library", by McCabe. In it, he points to the Enlightenment as a model for the origins of the Public Library, as it was for the founders of the United States (where I am).

Though many here do not realize it, my field has been as conflicted as others since the 1980's, when a drive towards extreme individualism seems to have cemented a habitual level of selfishness in society. Since then, the drive (in all segments of society) has been to 'give them what they want', and so wants have become unending.

There is a large amount of resistance to even imagining that we ought to hold any views as worthy of espousal over others (for fear of curtailing private liberties). I think that before a Green Enlightenment can arise, this abdication of responsibility for future generations will have to be overcome. I speak not only of my field, but of Westernized society as a whole.

Perhaps agreement on the universal nature of the threat to humankind will be the catalyst that renews our sense of responsibility to others beyond ourselves. Thank you for envisioning this possibility!

- Heath

Posted by: Heath M Rezabek on 10 Feb 07

The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century may have been much easier to accomplish than what we face. The Enlightenment for the most part required a change in attitude more than a change in lifestyle
Although slave owners may have an arguement with that assertion, human rights and religious tolerance often only required people to recognize its legitimacy for change to happen. Climate change solutions will require not only a change in attitude but also real personal sacrifice. While scientific advancements are going to solve part of the problem I feel that they have to be clearly linked in the publics mind with changes in lifestyle. We hear calls for the oil industry to clean up their operations, car companies to design more efficient cars, timber companies to stop clear cutting and the aviation industry to provide more efficient fleets. While I see more hybrids on the road I also see an increase in horsepower in the rest of the car market. We still drive several hours every weekend for recrreational activities or trips to second homes. We blame oil company greed for gas price increases. We still build houses twice as large as those of previous generations. We still want our winter vacations in the southern climes and fresh fruit at the supermarket all year round.
I'm not a Calvinist and I am guilty of many of the offences listed but if we are to solve this problem its seems that idea of personal sacrifices, or personal changes, need to be discussed along with any discussion on technological change. Equally important will be to frame personal change in a positive light. I don't believe we are any happier than previous generations who did without much of what we take for granted.
Gerry O'Brien

Posted by: Gerry O'Brien on 11 Feb 07

To "re-examine our values, beliefs and expectations for lifestyle" and address environmental concerns, we have to look at the larger picture, at the driving forces in the current arrangement of our society. Specifically, our economic system. Currently, there is no systemic drive in the consumer market to educate the average citizen of the responsibilities we hold, and how their daily choices in the market affect their society. Right now, consumers typically buy the cheapest of what they find in the market, with no regard to its impact. We have lost sight of the impact of our total processes on our environment, from resource extraction to life after use.

More importantly, we have no mechanism in our society to teach the importance of this responsibility to care for our resources and environment. We do, indeed, need a paradigm shift. We need to acknowledge our capabilities as the dominating force on the face of our Earth, and review how far we have come in the past few hundreds of years. With power comes responsibility.

The system tools we developed to run our society, economics and bureaucracy, have completely outrun an awareness of our goals. Money does not accurately gauge what is meaningful and valuable in our society. Thus our environmental goals must constantly battle our economic system. This is due to the unwieldy growth of elaborate systems we have developed to efficiently trade goods and services--corporations and transportation. Yet we have not given a voice to our highest ideals--our goals of responsibility and that value we call our humanity. We are not operating our society as adults, with foresight and maturity, utilizing overreaching goals. What started as a tool to produce more efficient work and trade has become the only barometer of success and reward in our society.

Our governments do not provide goals, only laws to try to block complete corruption of our responsible duties. A change as deep as this would likely come from the common man himself. This change may not work from the top-down, but from the inside-out.

We must take the helm of this ship our society has made, instead of sailing along with no direction. We must have the foresight and moral realization to install a captain of this ship. We must make all citizens aware of our goals as a society, and why these goals are important. Stewardship of our natural resources--mineral, vegetable and animal. We must make all citizens aware that our society is truly codependent, and to thrive, we must help all those in the ship. We are only as strong as our weakest link, in this interdependent world market. We must help each other not only for practical reasons of self-preservation, but also for our higher calling of making the best of mankind that we can.

That is the one thing that all society has lost sight of--our over-reaching duty to strive for the best we can be. Our moral responsibility to define our highest capabilities, and turn the ship towards this goal. Money is not a goal--but a tool we developed. We cannot let our own tools shortchange our very humanity. There is no better time to accept adult responsibility as a society, and manage our foray into this life with real wisdom.

Posted by: Lisa on 12 Feb 07

Please contact me at with any responses to my comment above. :)

Posted by: Lisa on 12 Feb 07

In general the article makes a number of very inportant points, but overlooks one important aspect of modernism as embodied in the metaphor of enlightenment. The author even hints at it by saying, "Rationalism yes, but with considerable caution about the possibilities of unintended consequences."

This begs the question of the root causes of both the current state of unsustainability of both human beings and the environment. If one probes deep enough, the very problems we are trying to cope with may themselves be unintended consequences of modernity. The central idea of objective truth and reason is itself a dominating process. My favorite saying towrads this end comes from Humberto, a Chilean biollgist who says, "In this [objective reality] explanatory path, a claim of knowledge is a demand for obedience."

Posted by: John Ehrenfeld on 13 Feb 07



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