Ethical dilemmas Parts I, II, and III

20 January 2012 – It’s the start of the year so let’s take a big picture look at what’s in store.

Starting globally.

In India, they’re throwing nervous glances over the Himalayas at China.

A new book, Asia’s New Battleground, by Brahma Chellaney, profiled in India Today focuses on China’s alarming habit of building dams, especially outside their own country. At last count it had notched up about 100 dams in developing nations alone. More alarming are the transnational rivers that have fallen prey to the quest for sustainable energy in China’s hands: the Mekong, Salween, Brahmaputra, Irtysh, Illy and Amur rivers, the book says.

Fallen “prey” to sustainable energy? Well, yes. After the innocence of the first environmentalists, who wanted to preserve the wilderness, sustainability is running into the ethical conflicts that were perhaps always inevitable.

In China the quest for clean energy has driven more than 33 million people from their homes.

A article on the book in the high profile India Today is scathing about China’s damn building proclivity, and on its water disputes with almost all neighbours, even North Korea.

“The time has come to exert concerted external pressure on Beijing to rein in its dam frenzy and embrace international environmental standards,” it urges.

But India is not blameless on this score of dam building. In an article last year in The Fifth Estate, Lynne Blundell uncovered some of the reality about India’s own renewable energy targets and its conflicts with social and ethical concerns.

Blundell discovered that in Sikkim, in the foothills of the Himalayas, there are currently more than 20 dams planned or in progress, “several within the boundaries of the Dzongu Lepcha Reserve, an area set aside for the exclusive use of Lepchas and protected by legislation.”

However, the dams threaten traditional communities, their sacred river and lifestyle and have led to protracted hunger strikes by local activists.

“And as the world inevitably moves to a less carbon intensive future and seeks alternative sources of power, the balancing act between making the most of natural resources and exploiting them, along with local communities, will become increasingly difficult,” Blundell concludes.

What really is a green agenda?
This is a prescient insight. It sets up a philosophical debate taken full frontal by long term British environmentalist  Paul Kingsnorth, writing in Orion magazine, which we point to here.

Kingsnorth takes a penetrating look at what he says we are starting to sacrifice in the name of sustainability. It all started with environmentalism, he says, the drive to preserve the beauty and wildness of nature for its own poignant sake.

In a challenge to the entire notion of sustainability Kingsnorth says that the social agenda has jostled its way to centre stage of the environmental movement and demands that the wild empty ridges be filled with windfarms and rivers plugged with dams because they give us clean hydro-power.

And all to serve needs of the earth’s burgeoning population that wants to extract ever more from this fragile planet.

Sadly Kingsnorth may be right, but he offers no alternatives and confesses so.

Sadly he thinks we can’t do both: preserve our wild and beautiful areas and prevent human suffering as it runs headlong into climate change or resources depletion or whatever else rings the green alarm bells.

His essay is long ­­– overlong actually – but it’s well worth reading because it highlights the dilemmas that we all will increasingly face and need to face if we think the path to sustainability can also be ethical ­­– and should be ethical.

A visit to a developing country such as India will show how little is actually necessary to exist, at a reasonable level of quality of life. But it’s stripped of big houses, upmarket cars, fancy furniture, over consumption of food, large variety of food, virtually any meat, almost all paper products, and wood, daily commuting, café life, fashion conscious clothing and footwear, manicures and pedicures, makeup and facials. Still, there can be laughter, community, strong family ties and support, reasonable education and ambitious teenagers. That’s lesson number one. If it’s in a rural town, there is even little in the way of the dense toxic smog that hangs over cities such as Delhi.

Pirates and fishers
In Bathurst Burr this issue, Michael Mobbs takes us on another ethical thinking tour ­– this time to Somalia where its pirates are much reviled. But is this revulsion so clearly grounded: a clear case of good versus evil?

Now a force to be reckoned with, these pirates stem from former fishers, Mobbs contends ­– people whose livelihoods from the sea were irrevocably pillaged by foreigners who “clear felled” their fish stock and underwater hunting grounds. It’s the face of hunger that bred this new way to earn a living from the sea.

Unethical leads to unethical. We know this, but often we don’t connect the dots.

In our quest for a more sustainable quality of life there will be countless more dilemmas that will become as increasingly acute as the environmental changes that are on the way.

– Tina Perinotto