It’s the Biosphere, Stupid

Scott Deshefy


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America is broken, shattered by two-party political rifts and hateful partisanship. The resulting anger and capitalist stress act as shear forces, splitting a society already layered into economic castes. If not mended, these fracture lines produce tiny fissures and then shards. Repairing the nation, if possible, will require an intellectual kintsugi, “golden joinery,” the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by mending fragmented areas with glues and lacquers, then dusting cracks with powdered platinum, silver or gold to highlight the breakage. The method, evolving from maki-e ceramic artistry, philosophically treats repairs as part of the object’s history by accentuating and enhancing instead of obscuring or disguising them. The 500-year old tradition which embraces imperfection and entropy, human flaws and frailties, not only emphasizes kindness and resilience but actually makes the ceramics stronger.

If this young democratic experiment we call the United States is to survive today’s tumults, truth and evidence-based knowledge need to be the adhesives and finishes that reassemble and hold us together. That means fidelity to science-based logic and commonalities of fact with which the public agrees overwhelmingly. Breaking apart at the seams, forming piles of disjointed pieces, we fail to exist as a nation, and if we can’t agree on reality, we can’t adapt to changing conditions. Societal kintsugi not only entails replacing unsubstantiated belief systems and reckless hearsay with empirical institutions, it also means emphasizing justice and accountability for one’s actions. Justice should determine guilt or innocence based on established standards of proof, treating everyone the same, equals regardless of wealth, celebrity or control of public opinion. Instead of appeals to vox populi, conjecture, spins, and bogus victimization conspiracies posted on social media, justice relies on “preponderance of evidence” (or “balance of probabilities”) in civil cases and proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” in criminal trials.

Unless we better curate information, gleaning facts from reliable sources that are demonstrably objective and verifiable, we won’t become better informed citizens, and partisanship and extremism will continue to endanger the American project. Determinants of success in that undertaking have always been civil dialogue, growth of knowledge and pursuit of facts on which most people agree. We can no longer abort the kind of argumentation and debate espoused by ancient Greeks and Romans, the Iroquois Nation and other forerunner democracies. Thomas Jefferson’s advice is as relevant today as ever, challenging seekers of office to engage the issues and positions, not the person. Ad hominem attacks and out-of-court insistences of innocence, despite mounting charges, may raise contributions for legal fees, but widen the political divide and breakage, doing nothing to acknowledge or resolve problems, many urgent, some existential.

In Plato’s Republic Socrates first reminds his gathering (and by extension us) that philosophy began not in universities, but in marketplaces, where it runs through our daily lives. As for justice Socrates asks, “Do we really know what it means?” The first suggestion ─ giving back what you receive ─ is rapidly disproven when Socrates brings up the hypothetical counterexample of whether or not to “return a weapon to a friend who appears at your door looking drunk and crazy.” In further analysis, giving all people what’s due them sounds like a good, if oversimplified, mantra for justice until it’s ripped apart by another Socratic challenge. “Is the same thing due to your enemies as your friends?” When the gathering insists friends are owed goodness and enemies evil, Socrates digs in. “Should we help apparent friends or only true ones? Do we always know the difference? What do you do when true friends are doing something bad? Can it ever be right to do harm, especially when it makes enemies even worse?” The principle, help your friends, hurt your foes, Socrates suggests, while a common default position, is morally indefensible and only could come from someone like Xerxes, “a rich and mighty man whose opinion of his power is high.”

When Thrasymachus bursts in, the discussion gets heated. He taunts Socrates, insisting virtue and justice have no meaning at all. There is only “victors’ justice,” if anything, used by people in power to retain their power, leading ultimately to injustice. Furthermore, Thrasymachus insists, given that everyone is out for their own interests, injustice better suits our egocentric opportunism. He additionally singles out Socrates as foolish to believe any shepherd’s concerns and labors are primarily devoted to his sheep’s welfare. Socrates responds by saying Thrasymachus’ opinions scare him, and spends the next ten books of The Republic refuting the position that justice is always provincial and merely an illusion to manipulate masses.

Recent surveys suggest public trust in the judiciary and legal systems in America has reached a new low. Not surprisingly, those who see only tribal justice will eventually despair there’s no justice at all, just a brief road stop before nihilism and anarchy. Unprincipled allegiances therefore are no different from honor among thieves in which case, as Socrates expounded, loyalty is a contingent virtue, and unconditional loyalty has nothing to do with justice. If loyalty to friends, or perhaps candidates, leads one to cover-up, ignore or fail to acknowledge their crimes, commitment to justice is hypocritical. Plato’s idealism, as expressed by Socrates in The Republic, has had plenty of notables willing to take on the role of Thrasymachus. Machiavelli and Hobbes, for instance, and the German legal philosopher Carl Schmitt, who farmed out his talents to the Nazis, took positions that stronger factions always triumph over weaker ones, and neutral frameworks for justice to settle opposing claims don’t really exist. Yet, civil, women’s and animal rights movements all really began as demands to realize Socratic principles the Enlightenment maintained. That is, rights to justice, freedom from oppression, freedom from suffering, and the right to live a full life itself are universal and nonnegotiable. The environmental movement likewise has roots in presumptions of equality, just as today’s push to ameliorate climate change and global warming is really a matter of environmental justice on a planetary scale. Drawing on insights of deep ecology, Green politics, animal liberation and feminism, “ecofeminist” philosophy also draws on Socratic ideals of equal justice for everyone. Its basic premise is that ideologies which authorize oppression based on race, gender, class, species, physical abilities and sexuality are the same ideology that sanctions oppression of nature. Carolyn Merchant (among others) has written how Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes and Robert Boyle encouraged such exploitation and domination of nature with female, mechanical and “slave of mankind” imagery that’s shocking today.

Having grown up in the 1950s and 60s, George Reeve’s eponymous role in TV’s “The Adventures of Superman” and the show’s introductory “never-ending battle for truth and justice” still has currency for me. John Rawls suggested we think of justice from the standpoint of how we might design a society if we didn’t know how we would turn out within it. Those who conclude that justice is only the triumph of power and helping friends while hindering competing groups would no doubt design a system that rewarded themselves. If poor, they would not want a judicial system that favored the rich. Women would construct a society that finally favored them. In contrast, however, Rawls thought experiment presupposes a society in which we might have any race, faith, economic stratum, species or gender. Justice, therefore, would mean a society that favors and privileges no one, treating everyone the same.

Confronting crises affecting the country and the planet as a whole, we can think of environmental justice as a kind of kintsugi and Earth’s ecosystem crockery in need of repair. To accomplish such “golden joinery” requires the world’s largest economies, the U.S. and China, to mutually agree to cut their military budgets ($900+ billion and $300 billion, respectively) and use the savings to aggressively move towards sustainable energy, improve energy efficiency and end our nations’ dependencies on coal and oil. Cooperative overtures have been made before to soften geopolitical rivalries. On the brink of mutual destruction, JFK and Nikita Khrushchev averted nuclear war and initiated an arms reduction plan. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan relieved counterproductive tensions between the U.S., Soviet Union and China which threatened the entire world. Nixon’s foreign policy turnabout was one of the boldest international achievements in recent centuries. Ecuador’s recent decision (by referendum vote) to entirely stop drilling for oil shows the fossil fuel paradigm is shifting, setting an example for everyone that the biosphere is the #1 priority not the economy, which will ultimately and robustly take care of itself once transitions to clean energy are made. 

After the hottest July on record, breaking more than 3,200 daily temperature marks, 2023 is on track to be the warmest year in recorded history joining the last eight as hottest ever. Miami, El Paso and Austin were among many cities suffering record-breaking stretches of extreme and dangerous heat, Phoenix experiencing 31 days in a row of temps at or above 110ºF. Unprecedented wildfires continue in Canada, where 20,000 Yellow Knife citizens were evacuated by airlifts to avert the kind of tragedy that occurred in Lahaina, on Maui. In China, recent flooding displaced 1.5 million people and the country set a new all-time temperature extreme, a deadly 126ºF (52.2ºC). Vast, lush woodlands in Greece have been incinerated by forest fires. In Iran, the heat index hit 158ºF (70ºC), testing the limits of survival for innumerable species, including our own. In South America, where it’s mid-winter, temps have exceeded 100ºF in some places. And when terrestrial regions warm, aquatic environments follow. The Mediterranean Sea is experiencing its warmest temperatures ever recorded, 9ºF hotter than average, and off the coast of Newfoundland, waters are as much as 18ºF above normal, forcing many marine organisms north, fish species included, in order to survive.

On the plus side, China spent $546 billion on clean energy last year, manufacturing and deploying more renewable energy than the rest of the world combined. By decade’s end, the Chinese expect to produce enough clean, fossil-free energy to meet the power demand of the U.S. electrical grid three times over. Equally committed, the EU expects to spend over $1 trillion on renewable energy in the next ten years to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55% relative to 1990 levels. Here, in the U.S., thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act, $300 billion in clean energy investments are hoped to reduce atmospheric carbon emissions by 40% by 2035, doubling wind energy production and increasing solar energy by a factor of 5.

Unfortunately, because we procrastinated nearly half a century in addressing climate change/global warming, investments to alleviate the crises are still falling short of what’s needed. Without more urgent action, the IPCC advises, sometime early next decade Earth will exceed its critical 1.5 ºC (2.7ºF) threshold for average temperature increase. Not only will conditions we’re currently experiencing worsen, but irreversible climate change tipping points may trigger, making the planet less habitable for nearly every form of life. In other words, nibbling around the edges of global warming and climate change by making inadequate commitments is only acceptable if our grandkids are jellyfish. National efforts towards environmental justice and stemming mass extinction are now, above all, the measure of a country’s power, rectitude, and global stature. We can’t dramatically cut our carbon emissions in the U.S. by remaining the world’s #1 per capita greenhouse gas emitter, nor can China by continuing to build more coal-fired power plants than anyone else. To correct James Carville’s damaging political slogan from 1992, it’s NOT “the economy, stupid,” it’s the biosphere! Since the Industrial Revolution, America, by far, has emitted more carbon into the atmosphere than any other country. Given restitution is a subset of justice, America is obligated to own up to that history, taking a lead role in mitigating climate change/global warming by altering geopolitical dynamics to limit the destruction. As major contributors to the crisis, every other industrialized nation has a supporting role as well. Actions (and inactions) have consequences, and taking responsibility for them makes “justice for all” not just a mechanical schoolhouse recitation but a virtue. We can still organize allies to press Beijing on human rights and other issues while appealing to China’s mutual interests and moral concerns over saving the planet, cooperating jointly to accomplish that end. Both globally and domestically, centuries of pollution or scores of indictments, propensities for harmfulness must be held accountable.

Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.