The common good and how we think about climate change

By Alex Gonzalez

All conversations concerning global ecology, the common good, and humanity in general, revolve around a single, essential concept: sustainability. How long can we live the way we are living? At the talks on Climate Change in Paris this past year, our President, Barack Obama, stated that “we are the first generation to feel the effect of climate change and the last generation who can do something about it”. Our planet is without a doubt falling victim to an endless cycle of destruction and overuse on what John Foster calls the “treadmill of production”. We are all on the treadmill as we are all a part of our planet’s ecological system. There is no getting off this treadmill because this machine is the only one humans have ever been able to walk on. What I mean to say is, we have one Earth just one planet that can sustain human life, there’s no alternative or substitute for it. We are rapidly growing past our carrying capacity so much so that we might soon deplete our bank of resources into a state of no return. This “tipping point” is something environmental ecologists and the people at large are very afraid of, but it is clear, that “this treadmill leads in a direction that is incompatible with the basic ecological cycles of the planet” (Foster).

Which leaves the question, how do we slow down the treadmill? How do we get off? What can we do to alleviate Mother Nature of some of her pain? Aldo Leopold, considered one of the fathers of the development of modern environmental ethics wrote, “examine each question in terms of what is ethically and aesthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. 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.”

Leopold believed in doing right by the common good, not just of the living, breathing people, but of the entire biotic community. From the birds and the bees to the trees and leaves, Leopold advocated for all rights of all life under the understanding that all oppression on Earth is connected. He understood, like Foster, that the way we are/were living is/was unsustainable. Foster comments that much of this overuse and abuse is money-based. Our agriculture and dairy industry have proven to be very lucrative. Because of the good this mass production business does for the economy, policy makers are quick to neglect the ecological cost of the practice. He writes about Rachel Carson and her discussion and condemnation of the use of pesticides on large crops. Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring (a 1962 environmental science book that very much helped start the environmental justice movement), found that this use of chemicals on plants to be indicative of “an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make money, at whatever cost to others, is seldom challenged.” This utilitarian idea that the “ends justifies the means” provides for a culture that has no problem taking advantage of exploiting our biotic system without a second thought.

Today, the conversation surrounding climate change has become immensely polarizing. It has gone beyond the facts and how we are affected by them and has become fueled by anti-intellectualism and anti-liberalism. Climate change has, to some, fallen victim to the “Al Gore effect” (and to those who elected our current president perhaps an “Obama effect”). Many Americans feel as though climate change will not personally affect them and was/is a “made up” agenda of the left. In March 21, 2017, the NYTimes conducted a study to find out how Americans think about climate change. The first graph, shows how people consider (or don’t consider) climate change as a threat to their livelihood:

Screen Shot 2017-11-05 at 10.19.05 PM

This data shows the geographical trends we know all too well, the coastal cities appearing in the darkest shade of orange suggesting that they recognize the threat of climate change to the country the most and the middle states recognizing this the least. Interestingly though, almost all of the second map appears blue meaning that in mass across the country less than 50% of people believe that climate change will harm them personally. This shows a contrast between our understanding of our place in the world and our biotic community vs. the rest of our communities place in it. Climate change will affect all of us in one way or another if you consider the affects on your lineage and future generations as an extension of your time and place on Earth. The article also shares geographic data regarding the areas in which climate change is discussed most often:

Screen Shot 2017-11-05 at 11.03.33 PM

This graph further exemplifies the trend of coastal cities vs. central ones. In the West, the authors explain that drought and wildfire helps drive their need to acknowledge climate change and in along the Atlantic in the East, flooding and other natural disasters further impacted by water adjacency drive their discussion of climate change.

Moreover, the common good for you is not necessarily the same common good that someone else might have in mind and the way we think about climate change is emblematic of this paradox. Just because we don’t feel personally affected as Americans by climate change doesn’t mean it isn’t happening and we have to be cognizant of the ways in which our impact is affecting others. The definition of what is “good for me” changes as each of us are conditioned in differents way depending on the societies, cultures, political institutions we are involved in. John Foster’s Rawlsian philosophy advocates for the general will of all as opposed to private interests of few. And in my opinion, the world would be a far better place if more of us and our governing bodies began to think like this as well.

Foster, John. “Global Ecology and the Common Good
Popovich, Njada. How Americans Think About Climate Change, in Six Maps. 21 Mar. 2017,


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