Is it wrong to go to a Canucks game?

Most everybody would say "No, of course not". But what if you are the father of a young family and money is tight? If the kids need school supplies and clothes then perhaps dropping a hundred bucks on the game would be wrong

Context is key. Morality and ethics are mutually agreed upon rules to beneficially organize our social lives; rules about what is right and wrong. The Canucks example shows us that in the context of our wider moral duties, many actions that we normally take for granted can be wrong.

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You can splash, wade, swim, snorkel, scuba or surf. You can paddle, row or sail. Given the catastrophic potential of fossil fuel caused global warming, aren’t power yachts and Sea-doos obscene? Isn’t all motorized recreation a luxury that we can ill afford?
Increasing global integration is rapidly changing our moral context. Since 1900, the world's population has multiplied more than three times. The economy has grown twenty-fold, the consumption of fossil fuels by a factor of 30, and industrial production by a factor of 50. Most of that growth, about four-fifths of it, has occurred since 1950. Developed countries use the world's resources at a rate, on average, thirty times more than those in the underdeveloped world with the equivalent ratio of waste and pollution resulting.

In "The Future of Life", arguably the most important book of our time, eminent biologist Edward O. Wilson reasonably and meticulously makes the case that the scale of humanity’s present actions on this small blue planet are causing ecosystem destruction and species extinction at an unprecedented rate; at a rate high enough to threaten humanity's very future. The combination of increasing population and increasing consumption is creating what Wilson calls the bottleneck*, a treacherous multi-decade passage to, hopefully, a future safer more prosperous but environmentally benign human society.

The world’s population is expected to increase from today’s six billion to nine or ten billion in 2050. A recent study* estimated that the human population began exceeding Earth's sustainable capacity in the 1970s. By 2000 it was 1.2 times capacity – the deficit comes out of the diminishing natural capital of forests, grasslands, etc.. For every person in the world to reach present U.S. levels of consumption – and we’re all trying - with existing technology would require four more planet Earths. Our kids and their kids face a wall. Right now our family house is near full and Earth’s support systems are stretched and fraying.

Kenneth Boulding described the full world change in moral context several decades ago in his metaphor of the cowboy and the astronaut*. In a frontier economy, a cowboy can spit and smoke, pee in the bush, burn down whole mountainsides; his actions don’t negatively effect anybody. But in the spaceship economy everyone must carefully recycle the precious necessities of life and interdependence demands a much more restrictive ethics, etiquette and moral order.

The poorest billion people in our world live on less than a dollar a day.  The cost of a pack of smokes in B.C. could be the difference between life and death for a young family in the Third World. Fostering a child in a third world country for thirty dollars a month*, a pittance for most of us, buys food and the chance of an education for a kid who will be a lifeline for his whole family and quite likely for his community in the future. Given this opportunity to use our wealth for the good of our 'family', should any of us frequent GM Place?

Empathy and recognition of our global village interdependence must change our moral context:

  • If you can look gorgeous in a $200 dress, is a $2,000 dress an admission that greed has overwhelmed need? If you can buy a modest and efficient car for $10,000, isn't a great big expensive SUV or sports car a sure sign that you're uncaring? Or unaware?
  • What about spending a thousand dollars a day at a rustic lodge to fish salmon in the
    Great  Bear Rainforest? Or flying to California for golf in the late December sun. How about a luxury vacation in Hawaii to reward yourself for a profitable year during which care of family and generosity to charity set new personal records?

These are individual moral choices, but shouldn’t it haunts us all that so many have so little and lead such desperate lives when we can do something about it? One shouldn’t judge others individual moral choices from outside, without full understanding of their moral thinking and situation. But while being careful in judging each other’s individual morality, it is imperative to confront and decry the immorality of institutions, especially governments, which are endangering our human future.

Governments such as the Bush Administration and BC’s Campbell Liberal government are determined to roll back the present, already inadequate, environmental legislation in order to stimulate even higher levels of production. Instead of ending fossil fuel subsidies and accelerating investment to get to a future clean energy economy, our governments are encouraging increasing oil, gas and now methane exploration and production in ecologically fragile ecosystems. At the very moment when forestry, fisheries and agriculture must shift to an ecologically sustainable management regime, governments are rolling back endangered species legislation, minimal forestry practices, and fisheries regulations, while continuing to increase subsidies to an environmentally and socially destructive complex of agri-business.

These economic ideologue governments are encouraging increased consumption and waste because economic expansion makes governing easier and political success more easily attainable in the next election. They are not educating the public about the "bottleneck" approaching; about the dangers of wasteful consumption from increasingly degraded and fragmented natural ecosystems. They are not leading change from a cowboy to an astronaut economy in order to protect the human opportunity for future generations.

Dr. Wilson points out that if you were born after 1960 half of the Earth’s biodiversity could be extinct in just your lifetime. This, he suggests, will be the one thing we will most regret about how we live our lives. Global warming, global pathogens, terrorism (the revenge of the poor and disaffected) and other accidental byproducts of our rush into the "bottleneck" also require change to a new moral order for our family’s survival. Leadership by government is essential.

If we change then there is a very optimistic future at the other end of the "bottleneck" Growth doesn’t have to mean increased inequity and environmental degradation. A future is possible where the supporters of the Beijing Ice Comets can afford to take the whole family to the game. These global-family hockey fans will get there without any CO2 emissions, and even if they end up sad about losing to the Canucks, they can go to a clean safe home in a world where they don’t have to worry about catastrophe, war and extinction.

But for us, in the short term, the reality is that increasing global interdependence is, to paraphrase General Motors’ Alfred Sloan Jr., turning everyday ‘necessities’ into luxuries that we can ill afford.

* The Bottleneck chapter from Wilson's The Future of Life

*The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth  By Kenneth E. Boulding, 1966

* The Ecological Footprint of Nations, Redefining Progress, 2002

* Save the Children Fund

After I put up this IS IT WRONG? page, part of my 'the brain in the birth canal' / bottleneck series, I read Peter Singer's superb ONE WORLD: the Ethics of Globalization and I found his haunting The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle essay. If my take on going to a Canucks game in our emerging global ethical context speaks to you at all, check out Mr. Singer's work. 

Had lots of help. Thanks esp to Colin Campbell who translated an early draft into readable English and to Dan Rubin for his comments and improving blue pencil.

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