SUMI: Okay, so, shall I read out the little Acknowledgement line? All planning, recording, and interviews for this episode have taken place on Ngunnawal Country, within which sits the city of Canberra.
This is The Grass Ceiling, a guided tour of sustainability. Sustainability is ever-changing and complex, so join us as we break it down and figure it out. My name is Sumi, and I’m one of the hosts of this show.
NICK: And my name is Nick, and I’m the other host.
SUMI: Alright, Nick, can I be real with you for one second?
NICK: Sure. [laughs] Yep, absolutely. Sorry, I thought it was rhetorical. Be real with me.
SUMI: I’ve been feeling really stumped and overwhelmed by all this climate change stuff; it feels like the earth is dying, and we’re not acting fast enough. I would just lie in bed and think to myself, “What’s the point of all of this? What are we even fighting for? What’s the goal?” You feel me?
NICK: I do feel you; I go through the same thing myself. I think it is an unspoken and under-addressed issue in sustainability. Not just within climate change, but within the broader sustainability issue. What are we really trying to do here, what’s the goal? – have we talked about that enough?
SUMI: So far, we’ve talked about the history of sustainability and how we’ve come here, and the need for sustainability and working across disciplines. But I think, fundamentally, underpinning everything is … What’s the reason for sustainability? What’s it about? We could talk about definitions and what “sustainability” in itself means, and underpinning that is the philosophy behind it.
NICK: Mm-hm. That’s an interesting way to look at it. We’ve got all these different definitions, and I think in previous episodes we’ve talked about that. Say, for example, one definition of sustainability is the three pillars framework. Sustainability in that context is looking not just at the economic bottom line, but also the social good and environmental good that comes out of what you’re doing, whether it’s practising actual business, or just running any kind of organisation.
You can look at another definition, like intergenerational equity, which says sustainability – or, in this case, sustainable development, which is kind of like one practice of sustainability – is meeting the needs of people today without compromising the needs of people in the future.
For our project, we’ve provided a much simpler, starting definition, which is almost circular, referring back to itself: sustainability is the ability of a society or environment to persist over time.
SUMI: Earlier, when you were talking about intergenerational equity, which is one possible principle of sustainability, you were talking about the future. My question is: when we talk about the future, how far in the future are we looking? We can think back to how long humans have existed on this earth, then we can think forward to how long we might exist into the future, and to what extent past generations have an obligation to us, to what extent do we have an obligation to people living a million years from now – we can’t even really conceive of what the world will be like then!
NICK: Yeah, it’s a huge question for me personally. I think a lot of people walk through life with this assumption that humans will always be around, that we’ll be here forever. You see that assumption and belief echo in a lot of popular culture; you look at science fiction in particular, and there’s humanity out colonising the stars – they’ve been around for thousands, hundreds of thousands, or maybe even millions of years! There’s this assumption that that’s just a painting of the future that’s ahead of us. It’s usually very technocratic; it’s usually driven by the idea that technology will allow us to exist far, far into the future.
But then if you look at the basic facts of ecology, there is a cycle of life and death. For pretty much any ecosystem on earth to work, things need to die.
SUMI: The circle of life.
NICK: Yeah, the circle of life, man! To what extent are we not being ecologically-conscious, or grounding ourselves in our environment, when we imagine ourselves persisting over such long timescales. The futility of aspiring towards an infinitely-long existence, and that ties into a favourite quote by the author Chuck Palahniuk, who wrote the fairly well-known novel – and subsequently turned into a movie – Fight Club. In Fight Club, one of the characters has this wonderful line; he says, “On a long enough time scale, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.” This is kind of questioning that narrative that we’ll be around forever.
Sometimes, when I’ve given talks on sustainability and on this idea, I get the room to put their hand up if they think we’re going to be around in 50 years. Keep your hand raised if you think we’ll be around in a hundred. And I just keep ramping the numbers up: thousand, ten thousand, hundred thousand, a million, a hundred million, a billion, a hundred billion, a trillion … On a long enough time scale, it’s very hard to imagine that we’re going to be around.
We can talk, maybe a bit later, about the nuances or subtleties of what “we” means in that; so, humans might have died off, but we may not have been annihilated, we may have just transcended – or ascended – to another species. We might be brains uploaded into robots or something, at which point we might not be “human” and the human species has fallen away, but something is still carrying the torch for us … who knows! Don’t want to get too side-tracked into that but the point is that, yeah there is a cycle of life and death. There is this idea in at least some aspects of sustainability, and human culture more broadly, that we’re going to be around forever. And I think we need to question that.
If we question it, if we sort of agree, “Okay, yeah, we’re not going to be around forever,” then the question is, what’s the expiry date on this whole experiment? What is an acceptable time to just cut it off and say, “You know what, we’ve had a pretty good run.” To bring it back to intergenerational equity, to what extent does that represent an ethical or moral obligation to future generations being ignored or shirked – you know, people who don’t get to exist or experience the amazingness of life.
SUMI: Just recently, I was at a botanic gardens exhibition walk thing, which was talking about – it’s in far north Queensland – how the plants evolved over time, from the period when all the continents were one in … what was it called?
SUMI: Pangea, yeah! It was talking about how ferns evolved to be, and which plants came first. Just looking at that massive time scale, and thinking about when humans sort of, came into that. The physical world that we have today has taken so many millions and billions of years to be what it is, that if, say, we were to do time travel to a billion years ago or something… if we were to look at the world around us, it’d look so different. Is there a fundamental assumption within the word “sustainability” that assumes this level of being static? And is that a problem?
NICK: There is that kind of static element to it isn’t there, that the unchanging constant is us. That’s what remains static, is that humans are still around, and that we’ve found some way to stick around, to persist – and maybe not only to persist, but to thrive. Yeah, it’s a hell of an assumption, and it goes under the radar in a lot of sustainability discourse. I don’t think people like to talk about the end of the species. And if you do, you’re typically labelled an alarmist or a defeatist or a nihilist, all these sorts of things.
There’s a lot of positivity that we can draw out of this idea. I’ll just take a segue here for a moment. So, the idea of euthanasia is this idea that what matters, at a certain point when you are terminally ill, is the quality of your life, not the length of it. So if we are terminally ill as a species, then we have a species-wide euthanasia question to ask ourselves. Rather than flutily trying to eke out another couple of years, should we instead focus on the quality of time we have left? In that sense, it can be – still sounds kind of pessimistic but – it still does have an element of positivity to it.
SUMI: Sure, but we still do have a certain level of control over how long that timeline is. We can say, “All of human life is going to die within the next fifty years, so let’s have a big freakin’ party, and ruin everything within that time, because this is the timeline that we’ve set for ourselves.” But we could also say that, “No, we want to last a hundred million years,” and then the story is very different.
So, while we can say that there may be this finite timeline that does exist, and we need to acknowledge that it does exist and we need to bear that in mind, we also do have a fair bit of wiggle room as to how long that timeline is. And that’s determined by the actions that we take.
NICK: Here’s an idea: maybe it’s not hypothetical, this idea that you threw out, “let’s have a big party before the end of the world”. Maybe that’s exactly what we’re doing right now. I look around the world, and it feels like a lot of people have – maybe not consciously but at least subconsciously – made that decision already.
SUMI: Yeah, I agree.
NICK: If you let actions speak, instead of words, I look around the world and I’m just seeing people say, “You know what? Fuck it. Let’s just enjoy the time we’ve got left. I like my cheeseburgers, I like my SUVs, I like my international flights; I’m not willing to give these things up. I’d rather the quality of life that these things give me, even if it means I have less life left.” We might look at those people and say, “Well that’s really unethical, it’s immoral of you to make that decision because you’re dooming future generations,” but within the context of the conversation we’re having, maybe there’s a bit more to it than that. Maybe we can’t fault them too much, if we are terminally ill … and it’s hard to tell! We can’t tell whether we are or not, you know, we don’t know the future. But, if we are terminally ill, then maybe there is some justification for their decision to just enjoy the time that we have left.
SUMI: Alright, let’s take this “terminally ill” … would you say it’s a metaphor, or do you think it’s more concrete than that?
NICK: Well, I don’t know, it could be a metaphor or it could be –
SUMI: Okay, so I’m just going to scale it down to something that maybe might be a bit more conceivable. Let’s talk about a really polluted city. A couple of decades ago, that city may not have been as polluted because it wasn’t as industrialised, and it didn’t have so many cars and whatever it is. But, the people in there might be a lot more rich, in terms of they might have higher incomes that they did prior to the cars and everything being brought in. Maybe there are more buildings, and there are banks that are thriving off the business in that city and all that sort of stuff.
But then, on a physical level, having a really polluted city causes health problems for the people who live within it. The people who are old now may have had to live the past thirty to forty years of their live with the pollution. The kids that are born now, are going to have to live probably their entire life with this pollution, unless something is done about it.
So when we talk about the quality of life, it can also vary a lot depending on what we consider to be a good life.
NICK: True, absolutely. Quality of life is a very important idea to define when you’re discussing terminating life, certainly in philosophical discussions of euthanasia and so on. I’ve done a little bit of this in philosophy courses, and you do spend a lot of time worrying about that kind of question. What constitutes a good quality of life? I think that’s an excellent point – and for who, as well.
SUMI: Like who gets to decide?
NICK: There’s all these issues of colonialism and patriarchy and so on, baked into the ideas of sustainability. So it might be a good quality of life for a rich white man, in those dying fifty years for the species, but it might still be just shit for some.
SUMI: I think there’s an important binary we need to address in this case, and that’s this idea of immortality versus an-annihilation? Is that how you pronounce it?
NICK: Yup, sure. Yup.
SUMI: Annihilation. So it’s this assumption that we either live forever, or we’re absolutely gone.
SUMI: Where does this transformation space fit into this?
NICK: Mm, yeah. To what extent is that a false dichotomy, right. To what extent do we have other choices than either dying or living forever? On one level it’s hard to imagine that there is a third option, because physically we’re either going to be here or we’re not. But, as I was getting at earlier, maybe annihilation can mean different things. And also maybe immortality and annihilation can kind of be the same thing; we annihilate ourselves in a way that allows something of us to persist on. Maybe sustainability isn’t about living forever, and again that doesn’t get addressed or talked about by sustainability scholars and so on, but maybe they just want a bit more time. And that’s not a hard argument to make, I think.
I personally feel like we’ve got a lot of great horizons ahead of us as a species. I would like to see us continue, because I think it’ll be interesting and exciting and awe-inspiring. It’s pretty cool, what humans get up to, and we should encourage us to continue to innovate, continue to build things, continue to try to build a better society tomorrow than we had yesterday. I think that’s all great, and I think that’s really noble, to fight for that in the face of what looks like a pretty impossible challenge, whether that’s climate change or sustainability more broadly.
But again, we have to circle back to, “Okay, well if it’s not a forever thing, and if we do want to fight against annihilation then how long? How long is long enough?” And everybody’s going to have a different answer. Another thing to tie this back into colonialism and so on is, if you’re a rich, white family and you’ve been wealthy intergenerationally for seven generations or whatever, you might be like, “Yeah, I’ve had a pretty good run.” But if you’ve just lifted yourself out of poverty or some second generation immigrant family, you’d be like, “No, we’re just getting started! We just got to the party, we want to have some more time to enjoy this ride. It just became a fun ride for us, you know.”
SUMI: And for some people, they may feel that they’re point of doom happened at the point of colonisation, where the agency to be able to take control of their own fates was no longer in their hands. Then what happens is, you’re kind of working within this sub-optimal existence as a society, as a community. When we talk about annihilation or whatever –
NICK: Annihilation has already happened for a whole lot of people, a whole lot of cultures. I think that’s a fantastic point to make, and that’s just me showing my white bias, to be quite honest, talking about annihilation as if it hasn’t already happened. It has already happened, it’s happened for species on a massive scale, but it’s happened for people too.
SUMI: Now would probably be a good time to touch on what we mean by “us”. We talk about how humans are screwing up the earth, and we as a race should be wiped out to save all other species from our ridiculous, destructive shenanigans. It’s well-known that some people’s actions have more of an impact than other people’s actions. You have a few corporations and companies that are responsible for so much more pollution than millions and millions of people. I’m not saying necessarily you and I, but I hear from other people who have this sense of despair around the climate. I hear people saying that humans, we’re too greedy, we don’t know how to care for the world around us, and we should all just die. Is this a problem at a species level?
NICK: Yeah, fantastic point. It’s pretty rich to say we’re all too greedy when eight men have more wealth than half the people in the world. If you and I, Sumi, have access to US$2,250, that makes us richer than half the world. Half the world doesn’t have access to that amount of money; that’s how poor half the world is. So when we do say it’s a species level responsibility, it’s kind of unfair to a lot of people, because they’re just trying to get out of grinding poverty, they’re just trying to feed themselves. Typically, disproportionately, it’s the rich, white, industrialised countries that have the biggest ecological footprints; the poorer you are, the smaller your ecological footprint becomes.
SUMI: But I guess poverty by a certain measure, right? We’re talking about this GDP, monetary income-focused idea of wealth.
NICK: Yeah, income and wealth inequality.
SUMI: Some people may be physical in poverty, and they probably struggle to make ends meet. But that is also within a system that sees a good life with a certain –
NICK: It assumes a good life requires a certain amount of money. Absolutely. I’m loving that you’re calling out all these assumptions, it’s fantastic.
SUMI: I mean, it’s the political economic system that we’re in. And that legacy, we could say, arises from colonisation, where most, if not all, communities and peoples in the world, are either forced to participate in this capitalist system, or ostracised and you know –
NICK: Just cast out, absolutely. Yeah, if we’re going to have a discussion about who’s responsible and who bears the biggest burden, we also need to be mindful of what you’re talking about. It doesn’t just come down to money; for a lot of people, money isn’t the important thing, family is, having a health environment is … all these things that aren’t really economic, that in a western, liberal global economy, these are the things that we often commoditise. The environment, in particular, we commoditise. So, we view it through that capitalist, economic lens, but they don’t necessarily do the same thing. And that’s worth keeping in mind, when we’re having a discussion about who’s rich, who’s poor, what does a fairer world look like. It may not just be about redistributing the wealth, it might be about some deeper structural things – just rethinking our whole worldview, too, what do we value?
SUMI: How important are humans in the world? I know that we’ve had a great, big impact, and a lot of the changes that are happening physically in the world can be attributed to human actions, but in the grand scheme of things, how important are we, really? If we were to disappear off the face of the earth, right now, yes there will be some ongoing issues due to our actions and the impacts that we’ve had, but there is this new point of equilibrium that the earth is likely to come to. It may not be optimal for our existence and maybe not for some other species’ existence, but …
I guess if we think about the evolution of species to adapt to the current climate, you know, through ice ages, through hot periods and cold periods, through volcanic activity, there is going to be some form of life, likely. It may not be recognisable to what exists today, but I think that the possible death and annihilation of human existence may not necessarily mean the end of the earth, it may just be the end of the earth as we know it.
NICK: There’s a terrible tragedy in this idea of annihilation to me. Again, I could be being very anthropocentric, but we are special. As Carl Sagan once said, “We are a way for the universe to experience itself,” and that’s a pretty profound thing when you think about it. I remember when I read that, I had to put the book down and chill for a couple of days. It kind of blew my mind. We are special, and for all we know, ants can do the same thing, I’m not trying to get at that point.
I’m just saying, if there is a future for us, and that future involves us leaving this planet and expanding out into the cosmos, then we have to entertain the possibility that we may be the only people out there with that ability. If that were the case, and we’re the smartest thing in the universe, then for us to be annihilated would be kind of a terrible tragedy in a way, because what amazing things could have happened if we were able to stick around?
To take it back to ethics and morality and duty and obligation, maybe it’s not just future generations of humans that we are responsible for, but the environment more broadly. I’ll give you a wild, far future example. Say there is some sort of mechanism to cause the universe to collapse back on itself in a billion trillion years, and we can stop that, and maybe through stopping that, we allow countless more life to flourish and experience the cosmos and –
SUMI: But isn’t that messing with the way that the universe has existed and worked for billions and billions of years?
NICK: Well, “messing with”, if we assume that we aren’t part of nature, and that what we’re doing by changing these forces isn’t also – I mean otters, for example, will dam up a river, so are they messing with nature of are they part of nature? It’s a great question: are we interfering with nature or are we nature interfering with itself as Sagan said, we’re a way for the universe to experience itself. So maybe we’re a way for the universe to modify itself, too. And if we are, if we entertain that possibility, then the idea of us getting annihilated it is deeply tragic. We were the brightest, greatest hope for the universe to achieve something special, and we died off, because of bloody fossil fuels or something! What a tragic, pitiful ending. What a terrible ending to that story that would be.
SUMI: A concept that’s central to the idea of species survival and species thriving and adaptation is the theory of evolution. It’s interesting to think about humans’ use of technology as being a sped-up form of evolution, in the sense that we – as physical species – haven’t grown more eyes on our head to be able to see more predators, but we have things like surveillance technology to be able to watch our eyes can’t physically see at a particular point in time –
NICK: Or even just fences to be able to keep all of the things we want to prey on in … you know, keep all the cows in an area so we don’t even need to hunt them anymore. Something as simple as a fence changes the game entirely.
SUMI: Yeah. Tools are something that throws a bit of a spanner in the mix when we talk about evolution, because then it’s no longer about what humans physically, intrinsically, biologically are, but rather what our capability to do things with the things around us is.
NICK: That’s what I mean, we’re a game changer, in this whole formula, this whole equation. And a game changer unlike anything else that we know of. So given that, do we have a responsibility to persist and stick around, because we’re the only people who can potentially stop something calamitous from happening further down the line? Yeah [laughs] it’s a big one.
SUMI: I can’t help but think, it’s kind of a saviour mindset, isn’t it? The idea of, we have the capacity to stop something that we perceive to be bad from happening, therefore we should stop it. And it makes me think of colonial narratives of “floods are bad, fires are bad, we need to stop them from happening. Let’s build dams, or let’s put out fires and let’s not manage Country in the way that it has been previously”. But then there are flow-on effects. It’s hard to think of taking action in the future when there are unknown unknowns.
NICK: Yeah, totally.
SUMI: We don’t know the impact of us, say, stopping an asteroid hitting another planet might be. Because what if that changes the initial trajectory of that asteroid, and that causes so much more destruction elsewhere.
NICK: But we also equally don’t know what the consequences of inaction are. Again, to bring it back, we don’t know that in a million years we might have some important role to play in the cosmos. So if we just make the decision today to have the big party and let it all fall to hell in 150 years or whatever, there’s this unknown unknown that we didn’t realise was happening out there – that if we’d known about, we’d be like, “Oh no, we’ve got to survive, so we can be there in a million years to, you know, stop the universe imploding.”
SUMI: ‘Cause we’re so important.
NICK: It’s not necessarily about our importance, but our capacity as you were getting at before. I realise that it paints us as this big saviour but, maybe that’s the truth. Maybe we are the only saviours. Or maybe not. I’m just trying to entertain this possibility that if it were true, then there is this huge question about ethical responsibility. And also, it would change how we feel about how long we should last.
SUMI: When we’re thinking and talking about the idea of human importance and do we have an obligation to protect other species or the universe more broadly or whatever it is, we’re fundamentally being anthropocentric. Anthropocentrism is this idea that we put humans at the centre, and we see everything through – whether it’s morality, whether it’s prioritisation of various issues – it’s always with the human front and centre in mind.
NICK: One of the roots of anthropocentrism is this idea of what separates us from everything else, that’s sort of the starting point of anthropocentrism. You have to have an anthro-, a human, and why are we singling out humans, what’s so special about humans? In almost every case, what it is, is our mind, our consciousness. If you go back through the philosophers over the last millennia talking about consciousness and the human mind, it’s just a recurring theme whether you’re talking about some medieval philosopher or about an ancient Greek, whether it’s Plato or Thomas Aquinas.
What makes humans special is out minds, and our ability to possess consciousness and rationality and reason, and this is why we are a light on an uncivilised world and so on… Shades of colonialism starting to re-enter, again because the colonisers typically looked at the indigenous peoples as less conscious, less than human. And so we use this consciousness idea as a differentiating point between us. From that flows everything, the bias towards humans and so on.
But then, if you look at it, there’s evidence from all sorts of angles that suggest maybe consciousness is a bit more common than we originally thought it was. That, then, turns the anthropocentric argument on its head. It’s like, oh, maybe other things are conscious too, it’s just we don’t have any way of telling or we don’t have that special access to be able to tell. This has baked the noodles of philosophers for millennia: how do you test for consciousness, what is consciousness? They get really caught up in the whole problem. The point is, if that’s not the thing that makes us special, then it changes the whole equation, really, doesn’t it.
SUMI: We know that humans are conscious. We know that other people within our species have the same worth as every other person. Therefore it’s not right for us to do violence to those people. Then we enter into these other philosophical questions of, what if someone is mentally incapacitated, and they don’t have the ability to make decisions on their own part. Is it therefore moral to make decisions on their part? We come back to that example that you gave of euthanasia. If someone is terminally ill, and doesn’t have the physical ability to talk or even think – maybe their brain function is incapacitated … Where do we draw this line?
We can just say everything that we recognise to be human, that’s our starting point. Everything we look at and point, “This is a human, that’s a human, that’s a human,” then we can say, okay, we have this obligation to people that we classify as human. Once again, there is this question of, who is we? And then everything else, is something else.
If, say, we’re genetically closer to a dolphin than we are to that plant over there, do we therefore have a greater moral obligation to the dolphin than we do to the plant? Or do we just say, there’s humans and there’s non-humans, or does it end up being a more graded scale?
NICK: The philosopher Martha Nussbaum has said a lot about that idea you were talking about before. Say, you have a disability, and yet you also have a legal right to vote in an election. What she’s saying should happen in this case is that a guardian sort of takes on that role for you – and again, this is bringing in the whole saviour narrative. So the guardian, recognising that you don’t have the cognitive capacity or capability to perform this action, does it for you in your best interests – or what they can surmise are your best interests.
In that same way, you can argue that that’s what we do. Well, that’s what we sometimes do with the environment, right. It’s certainly what environment advocates try and do for the environment; they try and speak on its behalf because it doesn’t have a human voice that carries into human spaces. It does have a voice in other ways but, it doesn’t have a human voice. And so they speak on its behalf, which is an interesting idea.
SUMI: When humans die, we might have a will, which says that you get my house, you get my car, and you get this, you get that. Sounds a bit like Oprah if you ask me – “you get a car, you get a house, you get this, you get that”. If what we’re saying is the environment can’t talk, then how can we read the environment’s will?
NICK: I’m not sure that question makes sense. If we’re at the point where the environment has died, what’s it going to be leaving us? If the environment’s dead, we’re probably dead along with it. And here I am separating us from the environment – which is a whole other thing we should really be talking about, if we’re going to talk about anthropocentricism is that, it’s used to differentiate us from the environment, and that’s deeply problematic according to some people.
There’s this neo-Marxist theory called metabolic rift. Marx himself – this is Karl Marx – talked about this idea of metabolic rift, which is the separation of man from nature. Well, humans from nature, but he said man because you know, back in the day –
SUMI: Women didn’t exist? [laughs]
NICK: Yeah women didn’t exist back then! Even by coming up with that separation of humans and nature, we’ve already started down the path of ruin, because by separating ourselves from nature, we’ve suddenly justified the subjugation of nature. We’ve suddenly justified the commoditisation of nature. If we see ourselves as separate from nature, then it’s certainly possible that we can destroy nature, and we’ll continue – you know, nature will leave us a will. But it’s not the reality. The reality is: if nature dies, we die, because we are nature.
I’m guilty of it. We’re all guilty of it. It’s so deeply baked into our language, and it’s so deeply baked into the way we think, our cognition, this idea that we are separate from nature. And to an extent we are!
If you look at the population of yeast in a petri dish, and you feed yeast sugar, the population will just go up and up and up; it’ll just rise exponentially. It actually looks quite similar to the human population graph, you can track the two things. The yeast will consume all that sugar and precipitously just drop off, the population. That could be the future for us too.
But there is a chance, that it won’t be. In that sense, we aren’t nature – or we’re not like some forms of nature. We’re maybe nature plus.
SUMI: What if the yeast had tractors and they could farm sugar?
NICK: Right! The yeast is too simple, it’s not conscious enough to invent agriculture, so it just consumes the sugar and makes alcohol and dies. So, in a sense, we shouldn’t think that we are separate from nature. And in a sense, we really should recognise that we are separate from nature, because in doing so, we can say that nature would just overpopulate and ride itself off that cliff. We can see what’s happening, we can see into the future, we should be avoiding that. In that way, we sort of become non-natural – well, maybe not non-natural, but different from other parts of nature. Still natural, but natural in a different way.
SUMI: Let’s say that we’re separate to nature, and therefore we define our relationship with nature. We can choose how we want to use it. We can choose to value nature based on how useful it is to us, or based on how much value we think it has within itself. Making that distinction between instrumental versus intrinsic value is quite important because that defines our relationship with the environment around us.
NICK: Let’s tease out those two definitions. We had instrumental: if something has instrumental value, then that means it’s useful – you know, an instrument. So, a fork, or a car, you might look at that and draw the primary amount of value from that thing, the value you see in it is to pick up the food and put it in your mouth! Or to drive you from point A to point B.
But then you look at something like a sunset, or a work of art, or just a beautiful little bug. And you might say, that sunset isn’t doing anything, it isn’t an instrument, but it’s beautiful. It has some value in and of itself, and that’s what we’d call intrinsic value; the value is just inherent to it. We might say the same thing about humans: humans can be instrumentally useful – they can do things – but they also have value in and of themselves. The human life is just precious in and of itself.
SUMI: And that’s where morality sort of stems from.
SUMI: That’s interesting. You said, under the instrumental category, you said cars, and under the intrinsic category, you said art. But at the same time, someone who’s a car enthusiast may think that cars are absolutely beautiful, and has a car physically sitting around in the garage which they tinker around with – they never drive it around. They don’t change the … engine? I don’t know, what do you do with a car?
NICK: They’re seeing intrinsic value in something that others would see instrumental value in.
SUMI: Exactly. Similarly, with art, may make a piece of art in order to –
NICK: Look at advertising – that’s art that’s being used in an instrumental way.
SUMI: Yeah, to make people change their behaviour and do something.
NICK: Yeah it varies.
SUMI: So, things can have both an instrumental and an intrinsic value. We might think that seeing something instrumentally – seeing it as having a use to us – we could see that as an exploitative relationship. But does that mean that it’s necessarily unsustainable?
NICK: Fantastic question. A lot of the time, we get facile. I love the word facile. Facile means oversimplified. We get oversimplified arguments about sustainability, and you see this a lot when people talk about the instrumental use of nature. They will make the argument – fallacious in my view – that nature is just purely intrinsically valuable, and to think of it in instrumental terms is to take the first step in the path towards ruin, because the second you see it as something to be used, you start commoditising it and exploiting it and so on.
It’s a fair argument. It’s not an argument without a lot of really good points. But, say, an ecosystem service: an oyster can be valuable in and of itself, but it’s also instrumentally useful for cleaning the water. I mean, that’s what an oyster does, is it sucks the pollutants out of the water. Or, you know, sphagnum moss soaks up the water … Ecosystem services, the idea of an organism providing some sort of instrumental value to the greater ecosystem that exists, just shows you quite clearly that we can value things for their instrumental utility without necessarily exploiting them.
We can even find intrinsic value in that instrumental value – we’re getting really meta now, but we can look at the oyster cleaning the river and say, “That’s beautiful, how it all works.”
SUMI: “That’s art.”
NICK: Yeah, it’s art! And I kind of do, I think it’s kind of beautiful when I learn about all these tiny, little ways that everything all works together. Man, it’s beautiful. I find it more beautiful than a sunset, frankly. So, we can see the intrinsic in the instrumental. We have to be careful when we use these definitions – first of all, we have to be mindful of these different ways we value things. From that, I think we have to be careful about not judging too harshly this idea that things have instrumental value.
SUMI: For example, we could take tourism – or eco-tourism. So, you go out into a beautiful tropical rainforest that’s a national park or something. You’re walking around and you’re admiring how beautiful it is. But you’ve got to pay an entry fee, which allows the national parks department – or national parks and wildlife service, wherever you are – to maintain it, to keep invasive species out, to be able to make sure you don’t have massive bushfires, and all these sorts of things that they need to do.
It’s interesting, because eco-tourism gives some people business; it brings in incomes for some people. In that sense, it’s instrumental to those people. It might be intrinsic to those people as well; maybe they have a spiritual connection with the landscape. Sometimes that spiritual connection may be practised instrumentally through ritual, or whatever it is. To the person visiting that place, it may be instrumental in that you get a break from your boring desk job. So you’re having some use for yourself, to your own mental and psychological well-being – and maybe even physical well-being – but also, that place is intrinsically beautiful, and you appreciate it for what it is.
You might interact with it in different ways to other people … It’s really complex, because it’s hard to just look at one thing and say, “This is absolutely instrumental,” or, “This is absolutely intrinsic.”
NICK: It very rarely is, because it’s going to vary by the context or the perspective, who is making that value judgement. It’s going to vary so much, I think that’s why it’s so important that we be mindful of these things and that we be open-minded to the idea that nature can be instrumentally useful. Eco-tourism is a fantastic example of that.
SUMI: Mining is an extremely political and forefront environmental issue that, environmentalists are like, “Don’t dig the ground,” and you have Indigenous communities that are like, “Don’t dig our Country.” These companies and the government, by standing behind these companies, is going to say, “We need that stuff.” A lot of the things that we mine are useful for us: we can’t have these smartphones if we didn’t have the precious materials that we get through mining.
In that situation, you can see a tension between the instrumental versus intrinsic value in the sense that some people may believe that the land has something that is so important that you can’t mess with it too much. You also see a use for what’s under the ground. But at the same time, if you do mine a certain place, then you’re taking away other instrumental uses for that place.
NICK: I worry about that a lot of the time, with fossil fuels. We use them so much today, but what if in a hundred years, we discover, ah crap, we could have used this for some other amazingly powerful thing, and we’ve used 90 percent of it. That’s a really good point, to think of potential future instrumental value.
We’ve had this conversation once before, you were talking about the idea that maybe certain species go extinct along the way due to human things, and it turns out – we discover down the line – the little weed we exterminated could have been used to cure cancer! Ah, bummer. So yeah, another interesting way to think about instrumental value, and how we can’t fully know what the uses of any one thing are at a given time.
SUMI: Something I tell myself, on a very personal level when I’m having a bad day or something is, “Do what you can do with what you have.” If I’m not feeling up to writing 50 essays today, it’s fine, I can just do the laundry and that can be my one achievement for today. Maybe we should think about that on a bigger scale. Like, on a species level, we’re doing what we can with what we have.
Maybe we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves by saying we should have really foreseen this thing that we couldn’t possibly have foreseen with the technology and knowledge that we have in this current day. But, at the same time, there’s also some other things that we do know, and we’re still not doing anything about.
NICK: One of the big criticisms about the whole fossil fuels use is, just like big tobacco knew that cigarettes were unhealthy well before the public did, the fossil fuel companies were talking about climate change in the 80s. They were talking about CO2 emissions back in the 80s, they knew where this was heading. They’ve burned all those documents, but we know pretty much for a fact that many of them did. Some of the memos have survived, and it’s quite damning to see that they realised all this. Certainly in some situations, you can say, “We didn’t see this coming and we’re doing the best we can,” but in others, we have to circle back to the global capitalist system that we live in, which perpetuates a lot of this unsustainable behaviour. Intentionally.
SUMI: We can trace back this Great Acceleration of environmental degradation, like ecosystem destruction, greenhouse gas emissions, all that, to the end of the Second World War. If you look at those graphs, around 1945-1950 or so, you can see this exponential increase. Some of these trends can even be traced back to the Industrial Revolution. What I mean by the Great Acceleration is the particular period where all the graphs kind of shoot up rapidly, like we’re using more water at what seems like an increasing rate like never before. That’s kind of intense to even just think about, holy shit, we’ve had this impact in just the past few decades.
NICK: We should probably mention, this phrase “Great Acceleration” refers to the work of Will Steffen, one of the people we’ve interviewed for The Grass Ceiling. In his paper, he just provides graph after graph – I think there’s 27 of them – just 27 little boxes, and they all look identical: this graph that has an exponential curve that starts skyrocketing upwards. Even though all the graphs are the same, the tings they’re graphing are wildly different. It’s worth mentioning that’s where we’re plucking this idea from.
SUMI: It’s also interesting to think about why this has happened at this particular period of time. What was so significant about the past 50 years, that we’ve had such a massive change that we can’t really detect in all of history, even prior to human existence. It’s unprecedented.
To link this to what I’ve been learning about in a development studies class, where we’ve been talking about the post-WWII development agenda. Colonisation has been taking place for centuries, and what was particularly significant about the end of WWII was that you had a lot of countries coming out of colonial rule. You had this push for the idea of development, and the US was really fundamental in that – this is because of the lead-up to the Cold War, and they didn’t want the USSR to win and all that sort of stuff. So they pushed this idea of development, and helping non-western countries to become rich –
NICK: Rich, industrialised, democratic, capitalist.
SUMI: Yeah. And so you have this massive number of populations that are now adopting this new way of conceiving wealth and well-being and the economy, which might have been different to how they operated prior to colonisation –
NICK: Almost certainly was different, so –
SUMI: During that period – and I’m just taking a typical example of a country that was colonised – during that period of colonisation, they were seen as a part of a European economy. Right, so you take the British East India Company, you have an entire subcontinent that’s perceived to be one part of the British economy.
Even during colonisation, you have this integration into this capitalist economy, but after WWII when a lot of countries started gaining independence from the colonial powers, they began to take on these so-called development trajectories of their own accord. And that’s sort of where we can see the Great Acceleration taking place.
NICK: For me, the story of the Great Acceleration is ultimately a simpler story. It’s one about energy. If you look at a lot of these graphs – human population, industrialisation, GDP growth – when I’m looking at all this, it all boils back down to energy. The reason why it has been possible for us to build these massive cities and to create global international trade is because energy has become abundant and cheap.
Without oil, natural gas, and coal, modern civilisation just doesn’t exist. If we go back to about the 1800s, it’s just not possible to have a shipping tanker loaded with millions of tonnes of wheat, and take from Australia to India or wherever, unless you have coal and so forth. So, for me, it’s ultimately a story about energy.
Perhaps we’ll discuss this in later episodes, or for those listening, I’m certain that this episode or another one will include a written article by myself called “Oil Is The Cheat Code”. And in that article I talk about this Great Acceleration, all this progress we’ve made, is based on cheap and abundant oil. That oil has effectively allowed us to cheat; if life is a video game, then we’ve got the cheat codes, and the cheat code is oil. You plug that in and everything gets easier.
Then we look at all these sustainability challenges ahead of us, and then we look back at the past and we say, “Look at how far we’ve come, look at all of this amazing stuff we’ve done. We’re kicking ass and taking names at the game of life. We’ve got this. Doesn’t matter what the future’s going to throw at us.” My problem is, I turn around and look at the past and say, we got all this way because of oil and coal and natural gas. We’re not half as clever or inventive or resourceful as we think we are; we kind of just got lucky. Lucky in the sense that the dinosaurs died off and got geologically compressed, and created fossilised sunlight that we could tap into … A lot of things had to happen for us to be able to take advantage of that.
It’s unlikely that we’re going to get a similar break like that again the future, when we’re dealing with future problems. Maybe we’re less well-positioned to tackle future sustainability challenges than we think we are; maybe we have a cheater’s sense of skill at the game of life. We think we’re good, but really we’ve been cheating the whole time and our opponent has been playing with one less chess piece on the board or something. So when we’re finally playing the game for real, we’re going to be like, “Shit, we’re not as good at this game as we thought we were.”
Just an idea about the Great Acceleration. You can view it – and some people certainly do – within this context of energy. For example, Graham Zobel has written articles about this on resilience.org, and he’s talking about how you can explain a lot of human history in terms of energy consumption and usage. If you drill down, at the end of the day, it wasn’t the rise of the automobile or the rise of modern sanitation or agriculture – all of that has a deeper cause, and that cause is being able to harness more energy.
SUMI: This episode has been so philosophical, thinking about the future and what it all means, and what do we mean by humans, all these sorts of questions. Right now, we’re facing a big threat to our existence. We know, to an extent, why we’re here. We also know, what we’ve got to do to prevent doom in – maybe we’re not even talking about the next thousand years, maybe we’re talking about the next 50 years. Maybe we don’t want to die in the next 50 years, and we’ve got to do something about it.
I think the most important thing here is urgency. We’re all going to have different reasons for why we might be taking the bus rather than driving a car, or why we’re protesting big corporations that are drilling the earth or whatever it is. Does it matter that different people have different intentions if we’re all just doing the same thing, working towards the same thing?
NICK: It’s a good question. Depending on your model of ethics, it’s going to matter or it’s not; some ethical models really care about the intention, more than they care about the result. They might say, even, that the result doesn’t matter so long as your intentions were good. Other models, say, consequentialism – which, by its name, kind of tells you what it focuses on is the consequences – worries about what is the consequence, forget about the intention; it doesn’t matter if your intentions were good if the outcome was bad.
It’s a difficult question to answer, I mean, I can’t answer it. But it’s a good question to ask. You see this so much, say, in the environment or activist groups I’m involved in. There’s a lot of people disagreeing about what the best step forward is. Some people want to do activism, some people want to do advocacy. Some people want to tear the system down, some people want to work within the system. Some people believe in collective action, some people believe in encouraging individual action. So on and so forth – all these points of difference.
And then, to further complicate things, you can say, well, what matters here is what, their intentions, or the consequences of their actions? That’s a whole other way to look at the issue and complicate it even further. I don’t have answers for any of this stuff, but I think it’s important that we’re asking these questions, and at least exposing that deeper complexity to all of this.
SUMI: Actually, in our next episode, we’re going to be talking about philosophy in action – so, how do we make sense of all of the things that we’ve talked about today. About what’s important, how do we prioritise this, what do we mean by the future … How do we operationalise all of these philosophical questions when we talk about sustainability? Philosophy can be a bit of a mindfuck, excuse my French –
NICK: Absolutely, it can totally be one. And a minefield, too.
SUMI: – and it really helps to think about how we can take action on that, and to be able to make sense of everything.
NICK: Definitely. In our next episode, there are a lot of ideas related to what we’ve been talking about today. If we do have this philosophical grappling with how long should we be around for, then there are other implications for that. As I said much earlier in the episode, what does annihilation actually mean – it could mean the end of our species, in the sense of us all just getting incinerated in a blinding flash of light or something. Or, it could mean humans no longer exist because we’ve all uploaded ourselves into machines and flown off into space or whatever. So our species no longer exists, and has been kind of willingly, happily annihilated. The more you dig into this issue, the more edge cases you have to consider and stuff. And that’ll definitely be some of what we’ll be talking about in the future episodes.
The Grass Ceiling is hosted by me, Nick Blood –
SUMI: – and hosted and produced by me, Sumithri Venketasubramanian. Our project supervisor is Edwina Fingleton-Smith. The Grass Ceiling is made possible thanks to the technical support of the ANU Centre for the Public Awareness of Science. For more TGC content, check out our website at www.thegrassceiling.net.
Of course, a big thank-you to Jackson Wiebe for all the music used in this episode, and also to the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society for all their support in making this project happen.
And now, it’s blooper time.
NICK: Well, maybe not non-natural but different from other parts of nature. Still natural, but natural in a different way, if that all makes sense.
SUMI: [laughs] No I’m just looking at the next …