No individual action is 'too insignificant' in face of climate crisis; examining moral worth of what we do is need of the hour

I was an 18-year-old law student when I first became acquainted with Jonathan Glover’s analysis of the cognitive process behind choice determinations. In ‘It Makes No Difference Whether Or Not I Do It’ (Oxford University Press), which he co-authored with MJ Scott-Taggart, Glover broke down the rationale behind acts and omissions into two categories: 1. My doing it makes an insignificant difference and 2. My doing it makes no difference.

The claims that exist, as Glover identified them, are along the lines of — “If I don’t do it, someone else will, so it makes no difference, or an insignificant difference, if I am the person to do it”. I was absorbed by this thesis on human apathy, ecstatic to see articulated as academic discourse a concept that I had until then simply accepted as human behaviour. It was simple yet significant, and stayed with me.

Eight years down the line, all our dystopian nightmares are coming true. Chennai has almost run out of water. The forecast according to the Composite Water Management Index by Niti Aayog and the UN Report on Water Conservation is that by 2020, 21 cities — including Bengaluru, Delhi and Hyderabad — will run out of groundwater; by 2030, 40 percent of Indians will have no access to drinking water; and by 2040, there will be no drinking water in almost all of India. Social media is witnessing a frantic sharing of developments pertaining to the water crisis and pleas to change our lifestyles — and I wonder if this is the jolt our bravado needed. I wonder if being pushed beyond the brink, which we all thought we were safe at, will do the trick. And I fear if it is too late.

In the midst of this climate emergency, I go back to Glover’s article, and it seems more relevant now than ever. For years, we, the urban elite, have been living in the comfort of believing that our individual actions or omissions would not truly make a difference or truly be insidious. We took comfort in the fact that other people out there were doing enough to cancel out the effects of our actions. I refuse to believe that ignorance or oblivion was at play here. I look around me, and I see people who are aware of the climate change phenomenon, who know what implications it would have for life on earth as we know it, and yet, how could we polarise implications for ourselves and implications for the earth? Isn’t the living earth one, as we know it? Why should we think that the melting of glaciers is a phenomenon nestling far away in the mountains, which would never catch up with us?

The lack of sensitivity and receptiveness towards the increasingly disastrous changes in our environment, even where knowledge and information is pervasive, is truly astounding. We are truly the victims of indifference. We are indifferent to our conscience, and we are indifferent to all our instincts.

Glover argued that an action’s moral worth was not based on whether the difference it made was insignificant/negligible. I think we have failed the underlying presumption of that argument: the presumption that moral worth is relevant. We are indifferent to the moral worth of our actions, reveling in the brazenness, uninterested in the consequences. We bask in the luxury of short-sightedness. Either we have become apocalyptic conspirators or we are foolishly certain that there will be no consequences. Both events discredit the intelligence that we, as human beings, are supposedly blessed with.

 No individual action is too insignificant in face of climate crisis; examining moral worth of what we do is need of the hour

The inconvenient truth we need to face is that our priorities will have no world to survive in, for we have been apathetic to our topmost priority | Image for representation only. REUTERS

The temptation to despair and do nothing, which Glover addresses, is characteristic of this era. The argument from the insignificant difference point of view makes the harm done by a single person seem small in the context of a catastrophe. We have all come to be beneficiaries of this size illusion. We live conveniently, and we want it all. We think it is our right to own all luxury. If the next person is pacing on, why should I stop? Counterarguments such as “it is the government’s responsibility”, “who can stop industrialisation now”, “there are bigger contributors to the carbon footprint” are conceived. We are masters of passing the buck. We are also supporters of the “we have but one life to have it all” theory. The only thing we are missing is the reality that is not only glaring at us, but also has been prodding us for decades.

The inconvenient truth we need to face is that our priorities will have no world to survive in, for we have been apathetic to our topmost priority.

The approach that moral grounds for choosing one course of action rather than another must depend on some difference in total outcome, as Glover points out, is wrong. Our actions are at the absolute threshold when there is a sharp boundary between the two outcomes they can lead to. However, where an act will push a situation slightly further in a certain direction, but the contribution (although real) maybe too small to be detected when its efforts are spread throughout the community, it still stands at the threshold of discrimination. It is a matter of degree; things get worse as more people do the same. Glover rightly points out that harm should be assessed as a fraction of a discriminable unit rather than as zero. Where a hundred acts like one are necessary to cause harm, that one act has caused 1/100th of the harm.

The real question to be asked is not “what difference would it make if I did this?” but “what difference would it make if everyone did this?” We never reach that stage of inquiry though. There are side effects where the numbers of actions of a certain type have an influence, and if repeated, create a spiral. The difficulty with spirals, Glover points out, is the uncertainty and their pace. It is this very uncertainty that has become our safety net, that we have blissfully taken advantage of, even when the warning gongs were loud and clear. We ignored all the red flags, and we chanted “economy, development, jobs”. We thought it was all or nothing, when the middle ground would have been modifications — changes in lifestyle, in consumption patterns, in how corporations function, in institutional and individual outlooks.

We shouted that we can’t stop living and demanded that nothing be asked of us. We didn’t shirk responsibility, we just never acknowledged it. We speak of justice, but ignore the claims of fairness wherein we, as individuals, have prima facie obligations to co-operate in practices that we benefit from, even where the threshold is reached without an individual doing so. When we seek justice, it’s for the inconveniences we have to face, not climate justice. We still haven’t realised that there’s no “us” and the “environment”.

Maybe people who say the planet will save itself are right. Maybe it will, and we will perish. Even today, as the urge to travel and see every nook of the world is growing, we contribute to its cold-blooded murder, standing at the very vantage point we were appreciating it from — as if we own it and it will stop mattering after we are done with it. We might be fighting for our monetary economy every minute, but we have marched far ahead on the path that’s killing our natural economy. Soon enough we will realise that we can’t drink money, and we could have made all the difference.

Updated Date: Jul 25, 2019 10:45:34 IST