(Also cross-posted to Medium.com)
An online course I took on the state of higher education in the USA introduced me to the popular online lecture series called Justice by Michael Sandel, a professor at Harvard University. Originally intended to show a refreshing approach to online education, I also took some fascination from the content. We were asked to watch Episode 11, entitled “The Claims of Community.” In this episode, Sandel had the students debate the “obligations of solidarity and membership.”
The full 1-hour is worth the watch if you have the time, but I’ll briefly describe the most intriguing part according to my own lens. Competing obligations may arise based on our memberships in different communities. How do you choose which is more important? The debate ventured into this very question. A student suggested that we can view ourselves as ultimately a member of the human community, and this most universal community should take precedent over the smaller spheres of solidarity, such as the country or the university you belong to. Another student objected, claiming that he can as easily choose the most specific of his obligations — for instance, his family first, followed by his town and then his country. Should one’s loyalty lie more with a community where one interacts with more frequently, intimately or with more obvious reciprocity? Sandel posed a fascinating question: “Is patriotism a virtue, or a prejudice for one’s own kind?”
Many students seemed drawn to the notion that due to the closer connection — let’s call it kinship — that one feels to the smaller communities that one belong to, they would be more inclined to act in favor of these small units over the larger/more universal identities. A student named Dan gave a common example: If he saw his roommate cheat on a problem set, he would not turn his roommate in despite knowing that cheating is not the right thing to do. A more public example given by Sandel is the story of Billy Bulger, then the President of the University of Massachusetts, refusing to reveal information about his brother, Whitey Bulger, a gang leader who wreaked havoc on the Massachusetts community. Many students seemed to agree with Dan and Billy Bulger; the more immediate community prevails.
This provoked me to think about whether this is the basis of the climate crisis. Many people believe that their obligations to the units of family and community take precedent over their obligations as a homo sapien. In fact, this tends to be the prevailing belief of our time. Is this wrong? I don’t have an answer to this question, but what I do know is that it is understandable for someone to feel this way. The physical association and the intimacy one feels as part of a smaller community are so much more palpable than the connection one has with humans from a different continent for example. However, we must admit that the connection is there, whether through global trade, the flow of money across borders, or the limited collective resources. I’ll give an example. Let’s go back assume that this was before the shale gas boom in the US, where the American lifestyle was heavily dependent on foreign oil. If OPEC decides to stop selling oil to the US, the American lifestyle would be severely disrupted. One could then argue that Americans owe a large part of their livelihood from foreign oil. Did Americans feel a sense of solidarity with the OPEC countries back in those days? They probably felt the opposite. My point is that these global connections are less palpable than the physical connections, but they are there nonetheless. Even more obscure than the foreign oil example would be the sweatshops that your clothes are manufactured in or the classic climate change dilemma — the impact of your greenhouse gas emissions on your fellow beings.
I personally believe it is dangerous to hold your moral obligation to your family and your country to be more important than your responsibility as a human. Many people take the resources that Earth offers for granted. They believe they have a right to these resources. What they fail to recognize is that people are using more than their fair share of resources. In fact, the Earth Overshoot Day this year is on August 13 — a week earlier than in 2014. This day keeps getting earlier and earlier. Currently, as you read this, we are borrowing — no, stealing — resources from the future generations.
For mankind to make any meaningful progress on the climate crisis, people must start to ask “To what do we owe this planet?” And the answer is a whole lot. Technology can only successfully mitigate climate change insofar as the moral crisis is averted. This would take nothing short of a revolution in the hearts and mind of the people — our livelihood, our thought process, and our understanding of the interconnectedness of our planet. In fact — dare I say it — the planet has to become as — if not more — important as one’s family.
Is this achievable? I’m not so optimistic. But perhaps there is no need to distinguish between one’s duty to the planet and the family. I feel great solidarity with the tiny community of people that are working to usher in this new paradigm of consciousness; they are my family. Judging by the conversations I’ve had with this community, many of them are so passionate about their work because they are deeply concerned about the well-being of their grandchildren. So the choice between familial obligation and environmentalism is perhaps a false distinction. Neither is more important than the other. They are one and the same — the obligation to sustain the well-being of all generations of mankind.