A moral defense to the economic pragmatist’s profits from suffering

Image: Practical Action

Thinking about climate change, poverty or war, for me, quickly boils down to thinking about suffering. To considering the scope and scale of grief, loss, desperation and anger.

When I contemplate the seemingly insurmountable challenges we face today, I find myself trying to extend the reach of my imagination to grasp the extent of suffering in the world. And further, to follow the rational but terrible fears of how much greater the suffering will be if we continue to blindly follow the path we’re on, rising and rampant inequality, environmental degradation, the looming threat of ever more catastrophic climate change, competition and conflict over resources, all fueled by a too often unexamined obsession with growth growth growth. Humanity, for all its wonders, is capable of both feeling and of inflicting (directly or indirectly) appalling  suffering.

For me, these are the thoughts behind, and the reasons why, I care so much about changing the way we live in the world. It is the hope that suffering is not allowed to endure and grow. Just as:

“hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.”

– Vaclav Havel

Thinking about suffering is fundamental to thinking about climate change or poverty. Much about the lives we are born into living, wherever we are, is determined, to a large extent, by whether our geographical vicinity was historically the Ravaged or the Ravager, the Winners or the Losers. War does not only cause suffering for its own generation – it shapes the world far into the future. War is about power, resources, acquisition. It has often come when competition or conflict over resources is resolved through bloodshed, exploitation or colonisation.

The video above, war for resources, from the brilliant film The Age of Stupid, points out the historical transition whereby the fuel of  Western Europe’s economic engine changed from slaves to oil. But there is another parallel with the days of slavery that is evident today.

When our governments and legislators try to be ambitious and create new environmentally-led policy proposals – be they fuel efficiency standards in the auto-industry or more ambitious emissions reductions or energy savings targets – big business and industry interests tend to loudly proclaim;

“It cannot be done! If you make us do what this legislation proposes, it will damage our competitiveness,  jobs will be lost, GDP will be dented…”

Yet, time after time, a couple of years after these protestations of impossibility, companies have done it. They meet the demands of the new legislation, and it becomes evident that the change was possible. This argument had a parallel in the days leading up to the abolition of slavery, as noted in Caryl Phillips’ book The Atlantic Sound.

The slave trader’s defense was simple – how will you employ the thousands of sailors employed on slaving vessels, or the workmen on land, the carpenters, joiners, builders, riggers, gunsmiths, plumbers and labourers? Port cities will fall into decline, as will the manufacturing centers that depend on the slave trade for the export of their goods and import of raw materials. But what these merchants “omitted to mention were the huge profits that were being made by a handful of the richest among them”.

What is beyond any doubt however is that there was a moral imperative to end slavery that outweighed any possible economic consideration. Climate change, resource scarcity and conflict over resources, have the potential to harm even more people than the heinous practice of slavery did. There is a moral and practical imperative to mitigate climate change and reduce our energy and resource consumption, particularly in the rich, over-consuming Global North, to enable the countries of Global South to make the transition onto cleaner development paths, without, in the mean time, dramatically overshooting the earth’s capacity to support us all.

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