The thing is…

I think we’re doomed. No, really. In the good old-fashioned apocalyptic sense. Not in the normal existential sense that death is a natural part of life. In the sense that we have taken this beautiful home and trashed it and soon it will all be gone.

I am talking about climate change. Sure, there are plenty of other sources of apocalypse—water depletion, pollution, peak oil, population—but climate change is the spectre that hangs over them all.

And I have struggled, and am struggling, with how to articulate this. I am, of course, not a scientist; so I want to avoid giving second-hand, inferior accounts of the facts. If you are wondering why I think this is so serious, when the mainstream media coverage hardly mentions the real problems, I cannot recommend a better article that Joe Rohm’s An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts: How We Know Inaction Is the Gravest Threat Humanity Faces. Read it, please. This is one of the few articles I have seen that unflinchingly looks at the actual scientific predictions, and considers the overall impact of runaway climate change. It is a little outdated now; but safe to say, things have not got better.

One of the knowledges the Buddha claimed to possess was that he could see “where all paths lead”. It doesn’t take any special powers to see that the path we are on leads to the end of civilization. We simply cannot survive in any meaningful way a temperature rise of 4 or 6 degrees, together with the myriad of other calamities wreaked by climate change. Civilizations collapse. It is normal. And they collapse because they overuse their resources. The difference is that we are doing it on a global scale.

So what are we to do? I have been involved in speaking out in conventional ways on this for a long time. But politics has failed us. Just recently I was part of an ARRCC interfaith delegation to Canberra where we spoke with Greg Hunt and a range of other politicians. It was depressing, as you might expect. Not a single one of the politicians, so far as I could see, was prepared to face the facts. I spoke to a series of them about this specific issue, saying that the course we are on leads to the end of civilization. Nobody said I was wrong on the facts, or too extreme. They were just unable to process the information. Even those most active on the issues, like Mark Dreyfus for example, simply had no intention to talk about making the kinds of changes that are really needed, like, say, leaving the coal in the ground. Many of those in the Government have simply no interest in or grasp of the basic science. We were told by a sitting member of the Liberal party that there has been no conversation on climate change in the party since 2010.

Our current government has launched what is probably the most single-minded, vicious attack on the environment and science of any Australian government in history. Yet we elected them.

The plain reality is that all of the activism that has been done for decades is a complete failure. No matter how many solar panels we put up, or how efficient our light bulbs become, the carbon in the atmosphere keeps going up, as fast or faster. Now we are at 402 ppm, higher than anytime in the past 800,000 years, at least. And so who cares? Who is actually prepared to change anything?

The IPCC claims that making the necessary changes would be incredibly cheap: the median annual growth of consumption over this century would decline by a mere 0.06%. Yet even this trifling sum is too much. To avoid paying it we have toppled governments and generated a whole new industry of denialism.

I simply don’t think that we will make the necessary changes. Of course, we can: that is not the issue. And perhaps we will. But I am an empiricist. I look at the evidence and try to make a reasonable extrapolation. And to extrapolate a survivable future, we have to assume a massive change in behaviour and values, and there is simply no evidence of this.

To forestall objections, I am not suggesting that we should do nothing. On the contrary, we should do much more. But I just don’t see any reason to think it will really make any difference, except that we get to make some good kamma. Which is reason enough, but is not the feelgood message that a good activist should be sending. So I’m not very interested in conventional activism, although I still do it. I think that we need to step back and look at the big picture, to realign our values.

In future articles I will go into details more. But here I want to just broach the basic issue. Regardless of what we think is the most likely outcome, there is at least a distinct possibility that we are headed towards the global collapse of civilization in our lifetime, or our children’s lifetime. We need to find a way to talk about this, to accept it as a reality. To ask: “What are our values, our lives, if this is where we are headed?”

And these are, at their heart, spiritual questions. I hope that we can have a sane conversation about this. And I hope that we can begin to find acceptance.

Just one final point: I will not be tolerating denialists on this blog. You will be moderated. You are most welcome to exercise your freedom of speech here, here, or even here.

Religions for Peace World Assembly, second day: more reflections

Once upon a time in a South American country (apologies for lack of details! I plead memory.) there were a lot of children getting sick with an illness that was preventable through immunisation (see above, re: details). The government, working with health organisations, came to the people with an immunisation program. But the people had homes to clean, meals to cook, jobs to do, and lives to live, so they were not interested. The government tried and tried, but only a few came for the program.

Then they sat back and thought, “How do we win the hearts of the people?” So they went to the Church. This being a Catholic country, there was a somewhat effective organisational structure. They met with the Bishops and other leaders and demonstrated the scientific value of the program. They asked the priests to say to their congregations, “Immunisation is as important as baptism”. And they did.

And the people started taking their children to be immunised. And the lives of millions of young children were saved.

This was one of the stories we heard on the second day of the Religions for Peace conference. It’s a beautiful tale, and it illustrates a crucial point: that religions, in much of the world, can have a powerful effect for good on the lives of the people. They retain a sense of moral authority that, for much of the world’s population, has never rested in government or in science. In the experience of all too many people, governments are reliably corrupt and brutal; and all they have seen of science is the poison in the river and the darkening of the skies. But the church has always been there; it has witnessed their birth, their growth, their marriage, and the death of their relatives. Churches are intertwined in the fabric of people’s lives like no other institution.

The question for much of the second day was, how do we shift from values to action? This played out in multiple spheres, and we could get an amazing sense for how suffering is truly universal. Delegates from Nigeria, Columbia, Myanmar, and many other countries spoke. Each time, while the details varied, we heard the same questions, the same underlying humanity. What people want is, for the most part, quite simple. Food, water, health care, a place to live, safety, education. We heard again and again of how these things were entirely doable. No-one is pushing any utopian visions. Just the basics. Yet the basics seem ever further out of reach.

In the previous post I quoted from the conference handbook some of the achievements of the Millennium Development Goals, including a reduction in global poverty. These blog posts are written quickly, and I didn’t check my facts: I should have. In one of the discussions on the second day, a delegate from South Africa talked about these, and said that the reports they had been hearing from governments all too often had no resemblance to what was happening on the ground. Her experience was not of decreasing, but of increasing poverty, and especially of increasing inequality.

So for every story of inspiration, we heard another of despair. The First Peoples from South America spoke of the interconnectedness of all creatures; from Kentucky we heard of vivid orange water flowing down from destroyed mountains into people’s taps; from Myanmar we heard of a Muslim leader and a Buddhist monk going to a torched village and rebuilding the school and health centre together; and from Senegal we saw laughing children living in chronically flooded villages, being taken with their priest to dry land, where they were taught how to plant trees.

One panel was devoted to the role of women in religion, and that was—predictably!—powerful and moving. Rape, domestic violence, trafficking in women, forced prostitution, maternal mortality: these are all-to-painful realities for many women; and meanwhile male-dominated religious morality obsesses about correct doctrine and stopping gays. The suffering of women is rarely featured in religious discourse, and as one of the delegates said, when it is mentioned it is tepid and equivocal. Yet, as those working in development know well, empowerment of women is the single most effective means of lifting countries out of poverty.

The lunch break on this day was intended as a space for the religions to gather and discuss among themselves. So we had a Buddhism section. Of course, since this is Buddhism, there was supposed to be a moderator, but they were nowhere to be seen. So after some casual chat, a few of us got up and had a short session. We heard about interfaith work in Hong Kong, which has been effective in the past several decades in maintaining harmony. I spoke of our concerns regarding increasing violence in our region between Buddhists and Muslims. A representative from the European Buddhist Union said that, while interfaith was essential, we needed to heal the rifts between the various Buddhist traditions.

Our final session discussed actions that we could take as religions to respond to our various challenges, including climate change. Some good ideas were floated; but I couldn’t help feeling a little depressed. For all the experience, enthusiasm and noble intentions, it seemed like so very little we could do. Skip a meal? I’ve been doing that for 20 years (as do thousands of other Buddhist monastics): I can’t see that it’s made a scrap of difference to the environment. The changes that are needed are so huge, and the responses so tiny.

And I had a growing sense that they seem to miss the point. For me, the potency of religion lies not in its social effectiveness, but in its depth. It points to the causes; but all we spoke of were symptoms. Underlying all this is greed, hatred, and delusion. The reason people are so obsessed with getting and having, with identifying as “consumers”, is because they are lacking something. What are they lacking? That is masked, hidden beneath delusion. And this delusion is actively fostered by the consumption industries. All advertisements say one thing: you are inadequate. To begin any kind of meaningful response, we need to start with the causes. We need to fill that space.

This is where religions should be the experts. But the sad truth is that we are not. Religions for the most part deal with semblances no less unreal than those of advertising. The semblance of holiness; the semblance of the sacred; the semblance of profundity. This semblance is the essence of all ritual, and of all religious doctrine. It is not an expression of meaning, but a substitute for it. It is the ashes of depth.

To re-awaken meaning we need to step out of the way. To have the guts to ask the hard questions, and let silence be an answer.

Religion for Peace Global Assembly, first day: some reflections

The 9th World Assembly of the global interfaith network Religions for Peace got properly underway on 20/11/2013. I say properly, because there were some pre-Assembly events that I didn’t attend. I’m here as a representative of the Australian Partnership of Religious Organisations (APRO), of which I am a member on behalf of the Australian Sangha Association and the Federation of Australian Buddhist Councils. The theme of this year’s conference is “Welcoming the Other”.

I’ve been very kindly and warmly received in Vienna, firstly by some members of the local Buddhist community, who took me on my first ever tour of catacombs; an experience that was enlivened by the breezy humour of the tour guide, who took obvious delight in discussing of the plagues and wars that have populated the catacombs; and, even better, the growing pollution of rotting corpses that required the catacombs be emptied. Down there, among the piles of bones, the mummified corpses of long-dead bishops, and the distorted gargoyles of horror, I could not help but feel that I had discovered the unconscious of Freud’s Vienna.

My accommodations have been no less intriguing, with an equally easygoing acceptance of light and dark. I’m at the famous Capuchin Monastery, right in the heart of Vienna. There’s a lovely small community of Franciscan friars here, about 12 or so. Mostly they don’t speak much English, but there’s a couple of Indian monks who are quite fluent. But language doesn’t matter so much when the people are so warm and friendly. There’s plenty of smiles and laughter over breakfast, and a manifest feeling of contentment. The monks live very simply, especially considering the heritage of the monastery: some bread and cheese for breakfast; clean, basic accommodation; and a regular program of service for prayer. They very kindly invited me to take part in their services, but I declined, as I will mostly be away at the conference.

Perhaps it’s easier to be light of heart when you have under your feet the desiccated corpses of kings. This monastery is most famous as the resting place of the Hapsburgs, the rulers of the mighty Austrian Empire for 500 years. Now they have gone the way of all kings, succumbed to the one monarch none could overcome: Lord Death. They’ve been entombed in increasingly elaborate sacrophogi of tin; gorgeous figures, grinning skulls, angels and swords adorn them. Once rulers of the wide earth, now they are the objects of school excursions, with earnest teachers and bored, uncomprehending children more interested in making click-clack noise in the echoing corridors with their stone floors.

If any of the monks were dubious about the sudden arrival of this strange and very large Australian Buddhist monk, here to attend an event sponsored by the Saudis, they didn’t show it. But they were, so I was told, pleased to see that in the daily paper there was a message from Pope Frances, giving his blessing for our conference. So that’s all right, then.

As for the conference itself, it is held in the Vienna Hilton, and many of the attendees stayed there. The main organisers of the event are Religions for Peace, but the co-sponsors are the Kaiciid Dialogue Centre, sponsored by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. This centre was established here in Vienna as a world interfaith hub. Obviously, this raises some interesting questions. Saudi Arabia was one of 15 nations identified by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom as being a “Country of Particular Concern”. The report found that:

During the reporting period, systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom continued in Saudi Arabia despite improvements. More than 10 years since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, the Saudi government has failed to implement a number of promised reforms related to promoting freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief. The Saudi government persists in banning all forms of public religious expression other than that of the government’s own interpretation of one school of Sunni Islam; prohibits churches, synagogues, temples, and other non-Muslim places of worship; uses in its schools and posts online state textbooks that continue to espouse intolerance and incite violence; and periodically interferes with private religious practice. There have been numerous arrests and detentions of Shi’a Muslim dissidents, partly as a result of increasing protests and demonstrations related to 2011 uprisings in the region, and Ismaili Shi’a Muslims continue to suffer repression on account of their religious identity. Members of the Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice (CPVPV) continue to commit abuses, although their public presence has diminished slightly and the number of reported incidents of abuse has decreased in some parts of the country. In addition, the government continues to be involved in supporting activities globally that promote an extremist ideology, and in some cases, violence toward non-Muslims and disfavored Muslims.

The report acknowledges the interfaith work done internationally by the King, while noting that since it began in 2006 it has not been reflected in any meaningful improvements in his own country.

So, we all know this: Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s most repressive counties when it comes to religion and related matters. So what are they doing taking centre stage in the world interfaith space? Is this nothing more than a hypocritical attempt to whitewash their international reputation while avoiding the real problems? Or is it a genuine attempt to move towards openness, setting an example internationally for much-needed reforms at home? I don’t know, and it would seem that Religions for Peace is committed, for the time being anyway, to furthering a partnership. They’re smart people, with no illusions, and so I don’t dismiss it out of hand. At the same time, the Saudis have buckets and buckets of money, and that is the most basic corrupting influence on all genuine spiritual movements.

In fact the Saudi presence at the Religions for Peace conference is muted. This stands in contrast with the pre-conference event organised by Kaiciid, which some reports say was dominated by ostentatious displays of wealth, and platitudes by Saudi princes on how they will have to take the lead on interfaith.

There was none of this at the actual RfP conference. There has been a nicely representative mix of speakers, plenty of women taking part; perhaps a slight under representation of East Asian religions, which was acknowledged.

In the opening session, the delegates were asked to accept the new nominated committees. And a remarkable thing happened. The floor was invited to make suggestions, and one suggestion was: that the committee include a young person. And, astonishingly, the panel said, “Fine, let the Youth Group nominate their own representative.” Then there was another committee to elect, and the panel said, “Well, we’ll probably want a young person for that as well.” Then someone said, “But shouldn’t we have two young people on each committee, male and female”; and this was accepted just as readily. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed such an accepting and meaningful display of genuine democracy in action. That, more than anything, gave me hope.

The speeches themselves were for the most part unremarkable, and I felt that far too much time was taken with matters of too little substance. A great speech should be either informative or inspirational, and these were for the most part neither.

Pale Blue dotHaving said which, the presentations touched on some important matters. For me perhaps the most memorable was a speech by a Japanese delegate, who reflected along the lines of Carl Sagan’s pale blue dot. He noted that Voyager 1, which took the famous photo of earth, has now left our solar system. All around, for as far as we can see, space is cold, dark, and lifeless; the only place we can live is here. And we have disrespected and exploited our tiny precious planet, using up everything we can get our hands on: all for what, exactly?

One of the major themes, which was the focus of the excellent speech by RfP’s Secretary-General, Dr. William F. Vendley. He spoke about the challenges and development of interfaith in the decades since RfP’s inception; but the defining focus of his speech was the idea of a “rising tide” of hostility. He argued that since the previous conference in 2006 we have seen ever greater intolerance and religious divisiveness. He offered some troubling statistics: 3/4 of the world now live in countries with high levels of restriction on religion, with the percentage of countries with such high levels of intolerance rising for 29% in 2007 to 40% in 2011.

Worrying as this is, I was not convinced. In the same period we have seen great and meaningful progress, for example in the acceptance of same sex marriage, or the role of women in religious life. It seems to me that these trends are not separate. Our times are not characterised by a greater repression in religious matters, but a greater polarisation. The good get better, while the worse get worse; and the gulf between the two, which once we could hide beneath the formalities of ritual and custom, has become so vast as to paralyse, quite literally: think of the US government shut-down, the horrific morasses in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, climate change reform, or, within my own tradition, the continuing failure by some monks to accept bhikkhunis. In all these cases, and many more, we see an ideological gulf that has religion as a driving force.

And the source of the polarisation, underlying all these, is change. Accelerating, chaotic, destablizing change. Change that uproots everything, trashes all that is of value, and casually devastates family, faith, and culture in its blithe indifference. Modernity is experienced by all too many people as a waking nightmare: children continue to die in their millions due to entirely preventable causes. Those with the money and technology to make a difference waste it on guns and geegaws, obsessed with accumulating more and more. Why do we continue to be surprised that people cling so desperately, so irrationally, to an imagined past?

There was an unexpected contribution from one of the Islamic leaders. There had been some confusion earlier on the subject of circumsicision, whether it referred to male or female. Dr. Mustafa Ceric, who in good cheer and self-deprecating style, informed us that as the former Grand Mufti of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and currently “Grand Mufti at large”, he had the authority to issue fatwas for all of us. And so he did, two of them. One, that female gential mutilation was wrong, that it contadicted Islamic principles, and that it should be banned everywhere; and two, that all Muslims should work for interfaith harmony. Those are my kind of fatwas!

The final session of the day was a commission on “Human Development that Respects the Earth”. This was far more satisfying than the plenary sessions; we had spilt into four different sessions, so there was much greater participation, and many interesting voices. An emerging theme was the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, for which the deadline is approaching in 2015. These have been partially successful, with a global reduction of extreme poverty by half (yay!), improved access to drinking water for 2 billion people, gains in the fight against malaria and TB, and more. Areas noted as needing improvement are the environment, HIV, maternal and child survival, and education.

But for me the most urgent presentation came from Dr. Nigel Crawhall, director of the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Co-ordinating Committee, who spoke on global warming; in fact he had just come from the discussions at Warsaw. (I chatted with him after the presentation; it tuns out he’s a Buddhist from South Africa, who’s connected with the community of my friend and sometime bloggist Thanissara.) It was fascinating to hear of the energy that is in this space at the moment; the desperation of the activists, the despair showing even in leaders like Christiana Figueres; and the glazed denial of the technocrats. Every time I get in a conversation with knowledgeable people on this topic, I hear numbers that are just unbelievable. But you hear them so many times, from such reliable sources, that they start to become normal. Like, for example, the UN report that predicted numbers of displaced people by 2020 at 250 million. Or the prediction that the oceans will be fished out by 2030.

The coming century will, I believe, see the end of our civilisation in any recognizable form. I simply can’t see any other outcome, given the dogged commitment to inaction on the part of everyone who matters. At last, Christiana Figueres has started to go beyond the polite fiction that having a little tax or sponsor some solar cells will save us. It won’t. The only thing that really counts is that we leave the coal in the ground. If we don’t do that, we’re finished. And, as crucial as all the other issues that we discussed are, none of it really matters if our environment collapses. None of us will have education, or health care, or reliable food and water, or jobs.

It is no longer a question of whether climate change is real. Nor is it a question that it it will go over the long-cherished limit of 2°C. Nor is it a question that this will be catastrophic. The only questions are how bad will it be, and what can we do to minimise it. The latest IPCC report suggests that we may well see a 4.5°C rise this century; I think this is too conservative; analysts not committed to the IPCC’s consensus approach frequently speak of 6°C this century, and this is by no means the maximum. And of course, that’s just this century: it keeps going up for a long time.

What can we do? I don’t know. For a long time I have wanted to write more on this subject, but it is so big and so overwhelming that I have not known how to start. But here’s one idea: go to a monastery and stay in a cave. It may turn out to be a useful survival skill.

Nigel said that the message they had received from the UN was that politics had failed. Decades of negotiations have led nowhere. Figures at the highest levels are now looking to religion for a solution. Despite all of the problems that religions have faced, and continue to struggle with, it is still the case that religions speak to the people in a way that no other can. And we have the potential, at least, to speak with a moral authority, to draw a line in the sand. One speaker spoke of the “madness, the madness!” of our world, in that we have allowed economics to triumph over life. For all the distortions of their tiny parochial moralities, their embarassing obsessions with controlling sex and women, at the heart of all religions there is the respect for life. And in that, perhaps, we may find hope.

Should we ban live sheep exports?

In 1986 I was an active member of Animal Liberation. Due to some quirk of regulations, the Government issued us with special passes that allowed us to enter and inspect without notification any place where animals were kept for commercial purposes. At the time, live sheep export was a key animal rights issue in WA. So we made a point to visit the various places involved in this trade: sale-yards, holding facilities, ships, and the abattoir (for those that weren’t exported). We were granted access to all these places except the ship, and we had quite extensive and frank conversations with the workers on site.

What is it like for the sheep?

The entire process is one of great suffering. From their mostly-adequate sheeply existence on a farm, they are herded on the trucks in crowded conditions, driven over noisy and confusing roads to a saleyard, where they are repeatedly moved and shuffled around, prodded by powerful electric prods. Then back on to more trucks, into unfamiliar fields, then on trucks again to the shipyards. More herding and prodding, then weeks on a crowded, unfamiliar ship, with the smells of oil, metal, and sea. Then to port, through the whole procedure a few more times, only to end up in a killing field having their throat cut. It is a barbarous and cruel business.

There are those who will argue that we should not anthropomorphize the sheep. They like being crowded together. We can’t just assume that they would feel as we would feel.

But this is what I saw at the sale-yards on the outskirts of Perth. At the back, out of public eye, behind the sheds, is a pile of dying sheep. Most are not dead yet; they kick, bleat, and quiver from time to time. They are there every day that sales are on. And every day someone from the RSPCA, whose job is to minimize animal suffering, kills them and removes their carcases.

Why are they there? According to the workers we spoke to, these are animals who were too feeble to survive the truck journey. They are old, or weak, or ill. They said that the farmers should really have killed them themselves, but it is cheaper and easier to put them on a truck, so that they are someone else’s problem. And who knows, maybe some will survive and actually fetch a price.

This is, let us remember, just the first stage of the journey. At each stage, there are similar stresses and sufferings for the animals, and at each stage some animals simply cannot stand it and collapse or die. Imagine if, whenever you caught a train, the conditions were so bad that a dozen or more elderly and unwell people died of stress, and this was considered a normal part of train travel. That is comparable to the situation for sheep in the live export trade.

In consequence of this grievous and gratuitous suffering, the live sheep export trade, among the countless atrocities perpetrated on animals by we civilized humans, has consistently been singled out by animal rights activists as particularly heinous.

What has changed?

In the last year or so, as Australian readers will be aware, this has become a hot-button political issue in Australia. A number of high-profile reports on the ABC (the national broadcaster) have depicted the gruesome conditions which the sheep are subjected to in Indonesia and the Middle East. This has sparked an astonishing public response, temporary bans, and new conditions imposed on our trading partners.

To an old animal rights activist like myself, this is all very curious. We have been saying these things for decades, and no-one was interested. Why now? What has changed?

I can only think of one thing that has changed, and that must be at the root of the public’s emotional response: Islamophobia. The ostensible purpose of the trade is, of course, so that the sheep can be slaughtered halal. It is a religious thing, and if one thing has changed in Australian, and more generally Western society, in recent years, it is a growing distrust and dislike of all things Islam. This is why the scenes of mistreatment of sheep in foreign, dusty countries of dark-skinned people cause such outrage, while no-one knows or cares about the dying sheep that are daily tossed on to the pile at the back of a shed in Perth.

This makes the whole issue much more ambiguous. If the trade is such a source of suffering, then is it not justified to leverage the public’s Islamophobia to create a better outcome for the animals? Dubious at best; hypocritical, manipulative, and dangerous at worst.

The best of bad choices

For me the renewed interest in the issue has had one benefit, though. I have thought more carefully about the ethical issues, and I am no longer convinced that we should ban the live sheep export. In fact, strange as it may seem, I think it may well be ethically the best practical outcome for the sheep’s welfare.

I arrived at this counter-intuitive conclusion by simply applying the Golden Rule: do unto others. Consider the options, and ask yourself which you would prefer.

On the one hand, you have the option of being sold for the live export trade, with all its inherent suffering.

On the other hand, you could be slaughtered locally. Doing so you miss out on all the weeks of suffering. But, and here is the crux of the matter, your life would be cut short by several weeks. Sure, several weeks of cruel, suffering, undignified, pointless life; but life nonetheless.

And at the core of all our ethical intuitions is one simple fact: beings love life. They will cling to it even in the most adverse of circumstances. We can all imagine cases where we would prefer death to life. But they are extreme circumstances indeed, and I pray that none of you have to make such a choice.

What would you do if faced with such a choice? Several weeks of uncomfortable, cruel travel towards an inevitable death, or an immediate death? I suspect most of us would choose the longer, more painful journey. Perhaps some would choose to end life quickly. But in either case, there is no clear-cut case that one alternative or the other is really better.

If we are so unsure about our ethical choices for ourselves, how much more uncertain we are in evaluating the sheep’s welfare. We can say, with high confidence, that the sheep suffer on their journey. But can we say that they are worse off than if they had been killed here in Australia? I don’t think so. Perhaps, in truth, we prefer the idea of a quicker kill so that we don’t have to witness their suffering.

Neither option is good. Neither would obtain if we lived in a world that truly valued the happiness and welfare of all sentient beings. But of the two, it seems to me that the extra weeks of life are likely to be of more value for the sheep than the avoidance of the suffering encountered in these weeks.

What, then, are we to do?

Regardless of what one might think of this, however, the main point is this: there is no clear case that one alternative or the other is significantly better for the sheep.

For this reason, I think that we should not waste our efforts trying to have the trade banned. There are plenty of clear, unambiguous ethical issues where our energies are better directed.

None of this is in any way a justification for the trade. I am not saying it is right or good. On the contrary, I believe, as I have for all my adult years, that all commercial use of animals is wrong. In an ideal world, it would be illegal to use another sentient being as a commercial product, full stop. Animals are, like people, ends in themselves, and should not be reduced to merely a means for profit or pleasure.

But this ideal world is a long way from our world. Ethics must, if they are to be anything, be practical. And the practical options in this case are to ban the export, or regulate it to minimize suffering. The latter seems to be the approach taken by the Australian Government so far, and on balance, I think it’s the right thing to do.

Clean Energy Act

At last Australia has passed a Clean Energy Act to begin addressing the mammoth threat posed by climate change. I visited the PM Julia Gillard earlier this year with an interfaith delegation from Australian Religious Response to Climate Change. She assured us that this Act was merely the first step, a beginning of the process of addressing what she recognized as a tremendous problem. The year previous I also spoke with Tony Abbott as a member of ARRCC, and he was very clear that he regarded climate change as unsupported by science, and that a sea level rise of 1 meter would be manageable for Australia. Little wonder he has vowed a ‘blood oath’ to repeal the legislation.

Here’s a response to this legislation from Al Gore:

History is Made in Australia November 7, 2011 : 9:00 PM

This is a historic moment. Australia’s Parliament has put the nation’s first carbon price into law. With this vote, the world has turned a pivotal corner in the collective effort to solve the climate crisis. This success is the result of the tireless work of an unprecedented coalition that came together to support the legislation, the leadership of Prime Minister Gillard, and the courage of legislators to take a vote that helps to safeguard the future of all Australians.
I have spent enough time in Australia to know that their spirit of independence as a people cannot be underestimated. As the world’s leading coal exporter, there’s no doubt that opposition to this legislation was fierce. But through determination and commitment, the voice of the people of Australia has rung out loud and clear.
Today, we celebrate. Tomorrow, we do everything we can to ensure that this legislation is successful.

Just in case you thought we could get, you know, happy, the global picture on climate change looks worse than ever. Despite the financial crisis, levels of CO2 continue to rise. The International Energy Agency warns that the current rate of production of carbon-expensive infrastructure means that we are becoming locked into a pattern of increasing carbon levels and the inevitable global warming that that entails. From today’s Guardian:

“The door is closing,” Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency, said. “I am very worried – if we don’t change direction now on how we use energy, we will end up beyond what scientists tell us is the minimum [for safety]. The door will be closed forever.”

Astonishingly, the IAE claims that the fossil fuels industry is being subsidised to the tune of $400 billion/year! With such figures demonstrating the shallowness of true commitment to change, it is difficult to remain optimistic. Just remember: kamma is kamma! Do the best you can, that’s all you can do.

On utilitarianism and climate change

Climate change is back – with a vengeance. We’ve been distracted by financial crisis, the Arab spring, and Fukushima. Now, the International Energy Agency has revealed that the financial crisis did not, as was expected, lead to any significant drop in carbon levels. While media interests continue to befuddle by presenting denialism as if it were an actual scientific position, we’re looking increasingly unlikely to keep the global temperature rise down to 2C. A catastrophic rise of 4C is looking increasingly likely by the end of the century. (There’s descriptions here of what the impact of these temperature rises will look like).

This week I’m going to Canberra with the good folks of ARRCC to speak with the politicians. We want to present to them that climate change is not just an economic or technological problem. It is, at heart, a moral problem.

I believe that all the world’s religions embody values that can, and should, provide for the protection of the environment. It is such a clear cut issue that it can serve as a test case for a system of ethics: if an ethical system does not justify saving the environment, it cannot be correct.

A few weeks ago I ran some posts arguing that Buddhist ethics were, at base, a utilitarian ethics. That means that what is ‘right’ is closely linked with happiness or suffering. The great advantage of such an ethic is that it is empirical: it is based on the actual experience of pleasure, not on an assumption of some abstract quality of ‘the good’.

The most famous secular utilitarian of our age is of course Peter Singer. He’s an Australian ethical philosopher who founded the worldwide animal liberation movement – I had the pleasure to meet him at one of our meetings for Animal Lib many years ago.

A recent article in the Guardian intrigued me, since it suggests that the ethics of climate change have challenged Peter Singer to question whether his utilitarian philosophy was adequate to address the subject of global warming, and to reconsider the possibility of some kind of ethical absolute – a position that in western philosophy is usually associated with Christianity. I wondered why Singer would make such a concession, and figured that there must be some pretty hard arguments. If that’s the case, perhaps Buddhist ethics might run into problems as well – so best to check it out.

I wanted to consider whether the things that Singer considers a problem for his form of ‘preference utilitarianism‘ would also be a problem for Buddhist ethics. Note that I’m not going to consider whether they are a genuine problem for Singer’s own ethics. The article says there are two main problems.

the problem of reducing the carbon output of humanity is tied to the problem of rising human populations. The more people there are, the greater becomes the difficulty of tackling climate change.

If there are more people, then there are more people who can be happy, make good kamma, and so on; but there are also more people who will be unhappy and make bad kamma. In particular, as population grows and pressure for scarce resources increases it becomes harder to maintain a reasonable level of happiness. I would also suspect that, on a large scale, less happiness would in turn lead to more unskillful acts: prisons are full of people who were plenty unhappy even before they got locked away. So there is no particular reason to think that a bigger population, beyond a certain level, is intrinsically good, and hence no reason to think that limiting population to control climate change is inherently ethically problematic. Furthermore, a limited population, one must assume, is more likely to be sustainable over the long term, and thus allow for a greater total number of people, even if the number at any one time is less.

This is, of course just to focus on the basic principle and leaving aside the dubious question of whether we can really equate, say, carbon emissions with population growth. Carbon emissions are, rather, closely associated with economic growth, and studies repeatedly show that, beyond satisfying reasonable needs, economic growth does not lead to happiness. So this argument lacks traction.

climate change requires that we consider the preferences not only of existing human beings, but of those yet to come. And we can have no confidence about that, when it comes to generations far into the future. Perhaps they won’t much care about Earth because the consumptive delights of life on other planets will be even greater. Perhaps they won’t much care because a virtual life, with its brilliant fantasies, will seem far more preferable than a real one.

This argument falls flat, too. Utilitarianism, whether of Buddhist or other forms, is essentially empirical – it infers from what we know. And what we know is that human life exists in interrelationship with all other forms of life on this planet, and it always has done. We can imagine a possible world where we all live as brains-in-jars enjoying our matrix-reality, but this has no empirical basis. Serious ethical choices shouldn’t be made on these kinds of fantasies. (This question relates to Hume’s Problem of Induction, but I won’t get into that here.)

So I think these arguments fail, and are surprisingly weak, in fact. The author of the article, who is a Christian, relishes Singer’s slight weakening of his position, however, as he sees the alternative thusly:

Only faith in a good God finally secures the conviction that living morally coincides with living well.

A rash assessment indeed, this ‘only’! How about this as a Buddhist rephrasing: “reasoned faith in a coherent moral order (kamma) secures the conviction that living morally coincides with living well.” If this is acceptable then the ‘only’ needs to go.

The article is a mixed bag: while I cannot agree with the author’s claim that ‘Only a doctrine of creation can affirm that we are fundamentally linked to the natural order manifest on Earth,’ I think we can all concur that ‘Our island home matters because the lives of human beings go well only when her natural systems go well too.’

But even this falls short; it still privileges humanity over other species, and sets human life as somehow separate from ‘natural systems’. In truth, we are part of nature, nothing more, nothing less. Our special position is not that we are a separate moral order, but that we are conscious, so we can reflect on and operate on the world in ways that other aspects of nature cannot. And with moral awareness comes moral responsibility.