Carbon Ethics and Future Worlds

The Walt Disney company calls some of its imagineers “futureologists”, specifically if they work on Tommorowland or on the Future Worlds Pavilion at Epcot Centre. They are charged with visioning and representing futures. Futures are aspects of the present that project forward in time rather than space, so that we can anticipate what is to-come. We prepare for the future, and we are often wrong about it. Dropping the Disney reference, Futurology is also a study in its own right – an interdisciplinary discipline charged with predicting and helping us prepare for the time that is always arriving.

Climate change is an ethical issue which is particularly characterized by a relationship with the future. The logic of reducing one’s own carbon emmissions is that the carbon we produce literally warms the climate, if only a tiny amount, and contributes to the future devastation which climate warming will have on millions of people, mostly the poor.  So, according to this logic, it might make sense to take a bus across Canada rather than an airplane – since the bus produces less Co2 to do the same journey. Milan has made this argument here, and backed it up with a decision to actually travel between Ottawa and Vancouver by bus. I respect him highly for making this decision.

However, there is another way to look at climate change ethics. One can easily point out that my individual actions, if they remain merely the actions of one individual, will not have much effect on the future. The reason why lone voices can have power in history is only because they do not remain lone voices, but create organizing effects, popular movements, etc… Thus, carbon ethics must be not only about my personal actions and the damage they produce or don’t produce, but how my personal actions are part of a larger community of actors and actions. In other words, how my choice to travel in a certain way will encourage others to make similar choices. Put yet another way, (and I think this is more elegant), we need to choose with our actions the world we want to live in, and in such a way that our actions help bring that world around.

Not to say that Milan is somehow unfamiliar or ignorant of this argument. He has stated that his reasoning in taking the Bus includes “to show that there really are low-carbon, cross-country options – even for those with full time jobs”. He believes this demonstration will have a psychological effect on others making decisions about how to get across Canada, because the “concrete action of someone you know has more psychological potency than the hypothetical action of a stranger”. I agree with him on both of these point – taking the bus absolutely is a way to encourage others to make low carbon choices in situations where they previously might have dismissed the bus as too unpleasant and slow.

Personally, however, I think the train is the best option for slower, lower carbon intensive transportation in a future low or zero carbon economy. Milan has repeatedly pointed out that the existing trans-Continental rail service is more carbon intensive than a Bus. Also, it is much less convenient since it leaves every 3 days rather than daily, and does not travel directly from Ottawa to Sudbury. On these points, he is of course correct.

However, thinking about the future, it is possible to conceive of a future where rail travel in Canada is more convenient – I have recently talked about how in the 1980s when The Canadian and the Super Continental were both still running running, there were daily departures east and west from every Major Canadian city between Montreal and Vancouver, travelling through both the northern and southern prairies. Also in those days the transcontinental rail trip took the same 3 days as the bus trip takes now (the schedule has recently been revised to 3 days 12 hours so it includes an extra night and more cushion time so as to run on time more often). On the other hand, it’s impossible to imagine a future where bus travel is much nicer than it is now. The food could be improved, there could be wireless internet and TV consoles, perhaps there could even be slightly more legroom. But for multi day journeys, you need showers, beds, a coffee shop, dome cars, lounges, bars – the kind of thing a long distance train offers, but a bus never could.

Furthermore, it’s possible to electrify rail, or to build engines that run on hydrogen fuel cells – such as Japan is currently working on. It is of course possible to make a fuel cell bus also – I believe Translink already has some in experimental service. However, since trains have lower rolling resistance than trucks, they will always be more efficient for hauling heavy freight. And even if rail travel is always more energy intensive than bus travel for passengers, we can not only consider “how little energy can you consume”, but also “how great a proportion of the population can you get to switch” (from private automobiles). I believe that encourage train travel reaches out to many more people than encouraging bus travel. To some extent efficiency is less important than adoption because a zero-carbon transportation system is zero carbon whether it is high efficiency or not. Thus, I would say the more important value is encouraging more people to adopt into a system which is potentially carbon-neutral, rather than encouraging some people to adopt into a system which is slightly less carbon intensive at present.

This is really the fundamental point of futurology and ethics – how to we weigh “how good a choice is right now” with “how good a choice might it enable in the future”. My question explicitly is “is it right to do more damage now if you are encouraging something which in the future can do less damage?” Certainly the question, however it is parsed, is about being strategic – I don’t think Milan and I disagree about this. However, we disagree with whether each other is being strategic in the right way.

What I hope we are both opposed to is the blind utilitarian calculus which tries to minimize the damage my actions cause looking only at the effects of my actions insofar as I am an individual, and not affecting the actions of others. In other words, an ethics that ignores the fact our actions msut be directed towards a future world we’d like to live in, and be strategic with respect to producing that world. British Television presenter Jeremy Clarkson rightly points out that the logic of merely reducing the amount of violence I do (in the direction towards zero) logically results in the “I ought commit suicide” conclusion (at the zero point) – because, insofar as I ignore every social aspect of my life, the best way to do the least violence is simply to stop existing. This is of course based on an absurd assumption – that we are individuals and not social beings. In fact, the logic includes a fallacious contradiction, because it is only because we are social beings that we have any moral requirement to care about the violence we do to others implicitly in my actions.




4 thoughts on “Carbon Ethics and Future Worlds

  1. From Patrick Littlejohn, (posted on facebook)

    Good post. Interesting extension of the argument at the end there about suicide. An extension in the other direction is Al Gore, or someone like him. Arguably he has a large impact in terms of climate change/alt energy lobbying etc, but does he do enough to offset his constant jetsetting and 10 house lifestyle?

    If you could do the cost benefit … Read Moremath and draw two lines, one for the impact of your personal actions, and another for the effect your actions have on others, where would your net effect switch signs from positive to negative? Along a similar line, could you have someone who was so terrible at consumption that their life could inspire others to not be like them enough to offset their own life of materialism and wastage?

    Just a thought experiment, and a stupid one at that. I’ve been drinking.

  2. “build engines that run on hydrogen fuel cells”

    Hydrogen fuel cells seem unlikely to ever be an important low-carbon technology. Hydrogen just takes too much energy to produce, and is inconvenient as a fuel for too many reasons.

    That said, if someone can overcome the many problems associated with fuel cells, they might be a more suitable technology for heavy vehicles than batteries.

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