Climate change promises disruptions, and nations must develop policies to manage waves of refugees.
By Richard D. Lamm*
There is an ancient, perhaps apocryphal story in the Christian tradition of Martin of Tours, who was riding outside an unnamed city gate on a cold and windy night in the 3rd century when he came across a cold and starving beggar. In a gesture of compassion that would win him sainthood hundreds of years later, Martin divided his cloak and dinner, giving half to the destitute man.
Playwright Berthold Brecht raises this haunting issue in 1939’s Mother Courage and Her Children: What if instead of one cold and starving beggar, there were a hundred? What does the ethical traveler do? With tens of thousands of desperate refugees knocking at Europe’s door, this is no longer a philosophical quandary, but rather, a life-and-death issue of a multitude of cold and starving people seeking survival.
Traditional moral reasoning is inadequate to address the magnitude of the problem. Climate change, poverty, civil war and civil strife, and myriad other threats are causing massive movement of people. Last summer’s Mediterranean crisis, a migration of Biblical proportions from Syria to Europe, is likely merely a preview of the dislocation to come. It is not too apocalyptic to consider the possibility that ultimately a warming world cannot support the 9 billion human beings anticipated by 2050. The Pentagon issued a 2002 report that states, “Abrupt climate change is likely to stretch (the Earth’s) carrying capacity well beyond its already precarious limits.” National leaders must ponder this new reality, asking how many dislocated people any nation can take without ruining its own economic and social fabric.
The academic community overwhelmingly recognizes the threat of global warming, but few venture to address the consequences on refugee policy if hundreds of millions of people are dislocated by flooding, starvation and chaos. Melting glaciers in the Himalayas threaten the food supply of as many as 2 billion people. The population of sub-Saharan Africa is expected to double in the next 30 years. Similarly, high birth rates and political unrest in most of the Middle East and Africa suggest continued massive migration from that volatile area. The world sails into uncharted ethical waters.
Public policy cannot, ultimately, be at variance with ecological reality. The new challenges require rethinking of our economic, social and ethical assumptions. As oceans warm, deserts creep and seas rise, the time has come to debate how our ethical principles fit into a finite world challenged by infinite demand. The limits may require us to rethink the very basis of our ethics and public policy along with cherished concepts of individual and human rights.
The developed world’s standard of living, economic system and political stability require expanded use of energy and resources. Much of our political, economic and social thinking assumes ongoing expansion of population and economic activity with little or no restraint on resource use. All feel entitled to grow richer every year, and concepts of social justice require an expanded pie to share with the less fortunate. Progress is growth, and the economy of all developed nations requires steady increases in consumption. Yet such scenarios are unsustainable, and a new reality may force the world to learn to live with finitude.
Herschel Elliott, a philosopher and retired professor described as living off the grid, has considered the world beyond all “human centered ethics.” Human hubris notwithstanding, he expresses doubt that growth can ultimately solve growth-related problems and suggests we ultimately must live within a limited and increasingly fragile ecosystem. He calls for sustainability in public policy and everyday thinking and admits that this would require rejecting much of the paradigm on which the human-centered ethical thinking of Western culture is based.
Traditional ethics, based on reason, often assume a world without limits. But in a world of limits, public policy must not only make moral sense but ecological sense. We cannot ignore the real-world consequences of our abstract beliefs, argues Elliott. We cannot have a moral duty to supply something when the act of supplying further harms the ecosystem and makes life on Earth unsustainable. He postulates that no ethical system or value system can be valid if it cumulatively destroys the ecosystem of which it is a part: “The culture of growth that drives the ethical, political, economic thinking in the Western nations confuses the two domains (mental world and physical world). It assumes the open-ended, infinite expansion that is possible in the mental-cultural domain is also possible in the physical world.”
The ecosystem will not give priority to humans over every other living thing, and he warns, “It is extremely improbable that human ingenuity could devise a system that would be as stable and secure as the one which nature has already designed.” Likewise, neither religious nor ethical thinking can trump ecological limits: “When the man-made bio-system fails because of some ethical misconception about how human beings ought to live in the world, it will be irrelevant that Christians, Muslims and Jews had believed that the true morality was revealed to man in the eternal word of God.” Understandably, this may be heresy to the well-meaning, dedicated people of the traditional thought world. Paradigms die hard.
It is facile to dismiss the argument as Malthusian. As George Bernard Shaw observed, “All great truths begin as blasphemies.” No trees grow to the sky, and the relentless geometry of compounding will at some point smash status quo assumptions.
The world cannot avoid the collective consequences of wrong assumptions as humans march on to a tragic destination. Population growth and economic growth cannot go on indefinitely, and the ecosystem has little use for elegantly reasoned ethical systems. To be valid, public policy and ethics must be sustainable. As Elliott concludes, “If living by a system of ethics should make human life physically impossible, that ethics is absurd.”
Policies and culture must be reconciled with the ecological system. The historic vision for the world, regardless of how attractive or elegantly reasoned it may be, must ultimately fit within the reality of the physical world.
Too often, ethics disregards extreme physical constraints. The world is living on the shoulders of some awesome exponential curves. Ethical codes cannot demand duties and behaviors that nature cannot support. Constructing a moral code based not on human rights but on human sustainability will be a Copernican undertaking.
The exploration should start now. Moral codes, no matter how logical and reasoned, and human rights, no matter how compassionate, must make sense within the limitations of the ecosystem. This does not mean that no rules apply. The world should not return to the laws of the jungle. Geopolitics require the developed world to help deal with problems that, at least in the case of global warming, they helped cause. Few argue with the principle that a nation owes its first duty to its own citizens, but nations will struggle to remain islands of plenty amidst a world of chaos.
The West needs a dose of reality therapy. Maximum generosity of the developed world may meet the refugee demand this year, but the problems of a warming world promise to stretch for decades. The Sisyphean problem requires honest dialogue. Is Europe doomed to absorb all or part of the high birthrates south and east of its borders? How many people dislocated by global warming does even a compassionate United States America take? Yes, the wealthiest nations helped cause a warming world, but are they obligated to commit demographic suicide?
The time has come for new debates on refugee policy in a warming world.
*Richard D. Lamm was governor of Colorado from 1975 to 1987.
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