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AT THE HEIGHT OF the Cold War, America’s national security policy depended on a deterrence doctrine called “MAD,” or Mutual Assured Destruction. The idea was that if both the United States and the Soviet Union could obliterate each other with a nuclear exchange, neither side would be inclined to launch a first strike. While some saw this as an equilibrium, many feared that nuclear war was inevitable, as evidenced by school drills where children prepared for an attack by squeezing under their desks. Less than a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, concerned that proliferation would bring us even closer to a tipping point, John F. Kennedy used a commencement address at American University to express his conviction that peace with the Soviet Union was possible if both sides remembered their common humanity: “For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.” The approach he proceeded to lay out, including test ban and non-proliferation treaties, would take a while to implement; but, as Jeffrey Sachs argues in “JFK and the Power of Practical Idealism,” Kennedy helped us back away from a precipice and “proved that soaring vision could be harnessed for on-the-ground effects.” 

Sixty years later, as the world faces a different existential threat in the form of climate change, it’s tempting to recycle Kennedy’s language as we rally to face it. After all, the planet seems smaller than ever, with the early consequences of climate change already reminding us of our mortality, some of them even making it hard to breathe.  However, there’s one part of Kennedy’s speech we’d have to cut in order to be true to this historical moment; there’s no evidence that we cherish our children’s future. In fact, we don’t even give them the consideration we ought to give strangers.

At the end of the 18th century, Immanuel Kant provided a method for determining our obligations to everybody, strangers included, and he enlisted what he called “good will” in the project because he thought it was the only thing that was good without qualification. A person of good will is one who acts according to the moral law, regardless of personal benefit. To determine what this law requires, we should follow the “categorical imperative,” the command to “act only according to that maxim by which [we] can, at the same time, will that it should be the universal moral law.” If my actions harm vulnerable populations now and everybody else in the long run by intensifying storms, raising the sea level, wiping out island chains, flooding coastal areas, lengthening droughts, or killing ecosystems; I should change what I’m doing because I wouldn’t want any of these things to happen when and where I live. It’s a simple formula, and a familiar one.  And yet I ignore it, and so do most people I know.

I have good intentions and occasionally express concern about the environment, but I rarely follow initial gestures with meaningful action if nobody is watching or if it doesn’t benefit me somehow. I recycle, but that’s because my town tells me to. I keep the temperature of my house low in the winter, but doing that saves me money, and I’d conserve more energy if I weren’t too lazy to deal with windows and walls that leak heat. I drive alone in a car that uses more gas than it should, I eat too much beef, and I don’t do anything to offset my carbon footprint, my denial keeping me from taking steps that long-term environmental justice requires.  

For all of this, David Hume would have called me a “sensible knave,” one who “observes the general rule, and takes advantage of exceptions.” In Hume’s view, knaves like me who fail to act on their duties forfeit the “inward peace of mind [and] consciousness of integrity” that are “requisite to happiness.” In theory, I’d be less likely to enjoy my baseball team’s yearly trip to Florida if I thought about the greenhouse gasses my flights were generating. But the consequences of these emissions are remote; and, as Hume concedes, there’s not much he can do to sway somebody who’s so mired in selfishness that they can no longer discern the gleam of conscience.

Aristotle might have explained my failure in terms of “akrasia,” a weakness of will that keeps people from acting on what they know to be right. At times, this is experienced as a kind of malaise, an enervation of the will combined with pessimism regarding our ability to challenge the status quo. We know we could weatherize our houses, drive electric cars, eat less meat, and plant more trees; but in lieu of following our duty, sensible knaves like me, aware of the opportunities for ease or personal advantage, avail ourselves of both at the expense of future generations. At every turn, we spot an escape route away from responsibility, knowing, in the backs of our minds, that we’ll turn down those paths at the first sign of inconvenience and justify the retreat by telling ourselves that our actions wouldn’t amount to much anyways.

In avoiding our duties, we’ve opted for the kind of immediacy prescribed by Nietzsche, who offered an antidote to Kant’s deontological ethics because he thought most people were too hemmed in by duty to live fully in this world: “I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth and do not believe those who speak to you of extraterrestrial hopes.” Ironically, the man who told us to be faithful to the earth espoused a philosophy whose destructive short-sightedness, taken to its logical extreme, threatens the planet. Nietzsche wanted more life, more leeway for the exercise of his will, so he imagined a demon who would shift our focus from what we owe to what we want by telling us we’d relive the same moments repeatedly. The consequence, he thought, was that we’d replace universalizability as the principle of action with infinite repeatability, the operative question now being, “Do you desire this once more and infinite times more?”. Of course, this begs the ethical question rather than answering it, the focus on “desire” tilting us toward selfish impulses without ever engaging the good will. Free to act on these impulses, with no concern about the future because the “eternal hourglass” is inverted before we ever have to consider the consequences of our actions, we’d be relieved of guilt and energized by the release from responsibility to future generations. We’d do what we want because we exist now and our descendants don’t. 

In America, nationalist myths sanction our Nietzschean instincts, and a sick parody of our Manifest Destiny unfolds before our eyes as the predictions of climate scientists are fulfilled. Our reaction to climate change is a predictable result of our social and economic structures, but we don’t see it this way because it’s in the imagined best interests of people who materially benefit from these structures to perpetuate them. So we’ve ennobled selfish advantage, justified it by framing economic choices as questions of freedom; but in the process we’ve conflated freedom with license, opting for the latter because it strips away responsibility. We might fool ourselves by imagining that we’re in a “Nash Equilibrium,” a reassuring name for a status quo in which none of the major players in a game theory scenario can improve their position by withdrawing from the current approach. However, this is no game, and while no single country can avert a destructive climate future with unilateral action, all countries will suffer more if we don’t make a collective effort. Once we control for time, the purely selfish arguments fall apart because it was a false equilibrium to begin with, one that guarantees our mutual destruction even more surely than the MAD doctrines of past because we can’t actually turn the hourglass over; environmental consequences multiply with time rather than disappearing.

Insofar as it keeps us from looking further down the road, our mortality is part of the problem here. We know the planet is too small to hide indefinitely from the impact of our bad choices, but we figure we’ll be gone by the time the planet sees the worst of the storms and flooding, droughts and famine, disease and wildfire; so we don’t really care if we’re on the verge of a tipping point where the oceans can no longer absorb carbon. Maybe what we need is a version of Nietzsche’s “eternal return” without the inversion of the hourglass, one where we’d have to live through each successive stage of environmental degradation, sort of like Dante’s Inferno but with full experience of the hell we’re creating since mere observation of other people’s suffering doesn’t move us.

Ethicist John Rawls offered a method to help us see our duties in the fullness of time, without the threat of hellfire. Rawls asks us to imagine what behavior we’d tolerate if we were returned to an “original position,” blind to the time, place, and situation we were destined to occupy. A “veil of ignorance” would conceal the good fortune that was to bless us or pass us by, leaving us to consider the fate of the less fortunate as our own possible future and impelling us to consider basic notions of fairness (or, in this case, of environmental justice) as we constructed our society. Assuming none of us would want to be drowned, starved, or poisoned; the obligation to take basic steps toward reducing carbon emissions seems obvious. Unfortunately, instead of using the figurative veil of ignorance to hide selfish considerations, Americans have lately covered ourselves with a thick blanket of ignorance to hide the implications of climate science, led by a recent climate-denier-in-chief who cited cold days as proof that climate change was a Chinese hoax and who dismissed the impacts on equatorial areas that he deemed “shithole countries.”

Early Christian leaders couldn’t have foreseen such a figure, but they saw the need to address the psychology of denial and akrasia, so on top of the “negative justice” derived from earlier takes on the categorical imperative (like Hillel’s “what is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow”), they added the positive expectation to love universally.  Later, when John Winthrop tried to set up a Christian community in America, he hoped that members would be guided by both justice and mercy. American apologists would confuse this prescription of what America could be with a description of what we were, and Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity” became the prologue to a distorted narrative of American exceptionalism. A habit of self-deception was born and later nourished by our remarkable prosperity, which seemed to indicate we were favored somehow, but which was actually a consequence of the way we exploited people and the land. Now we’re so enamored of our way of life that we can’t see we’re failing to love our own children and grandchildren, let alone mustering a universal love. As the biggest per capita polluters and carbon emitters in the world, we are the least Christian community with regard to environmental issues because we constantly violate the laws of justice and mercy. We are not who we thought we were.

John Milton, a Puritan who never crossed the ocean, wrestled with a different question of justice in Paradise Lost, arguing, from God’s point of view, that divine foreknowledge was consistent with man’s culpability for the fall from grace:

Whose fault?
Whose but his own?  Ingrate, he had of me
All he could have; I made him just and right,
Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.

In Milton’s view, some of God’s knowledge implies necessity, but his “scientia media” (a “middle knowledge” that seems to exist outside of time) does not, its contingency in this case emerging from man’s free will, and free will justifying the blame for doing what God knew humankind would do in the first place. This argument has left many unsatisfied, but we can rest assured that there will be less ambiguity when we look at our next fall–the destruction of our planet’s habitats.  In this situation, it is science that paints the picture of the radical contingencies emerging from our free will. We know that if we don’t cut greenhouse gas emissions now, there will be irreversible consequences for our posterity, with no sign of divine grace giving them a way out of it. In our fall, they’ll suffer all.  

In the voices that dissuade us from taking real action is a kind of dread, a fear of freedom that is concealed by lazy sophism, or fatalistic arguments that assume that we aren’t free to act in a way that makes a difference. We don’t know if the other kids in the international sandbox will follow our lead if we take meaningful action to clean it up, but we do know that it will be ruined for all of us if we don’t, so we need to take a leap of faith. Soren Kierkegaard offers the Old Testament figure of Abraham as the model for such a leap. According to the story, God promises Abraham that his descendants, through Isaac, would be the keepers of the covenant, the chosen people. But then, absurdly, God tells Abraham to kill Isaac.  Perhaps even more absurdly, Abraham starts to obey, preparing the sacrifice until an angel swoops in at the last second, at which point Abraham spots a ram to burn in Isaac’s place. For his illogical embrace of a paradoxical faith, for his willingness to sacrifice his son and all the generations that would come from him, Kierkegaard calls Abraham a “Knight of Faith.”  By contrast, as we grapple with the dread attending the freedom to choose, our job is simpler. The new knights of faith, acting in the absence of a divine directive but following clear moral imperatives, can choose to save future generations instead of sacrificing them.

Just as Kierkegaard’s God sends Isaac a reprieve, so does Milton’s God give the sons of Adam another chance. Near the end of Paradise Lost, the angel Michael gives Adam a few drops from the well of life and takes him to Speculation, the “Hill of extensive view,” where Adam can watch human history unfold, his descendants acting on their freedom to shape a course that curves toward redemption. Now science gives us a similar foreknowledge, albeit a conditional one. If we don’t cap emissions, develop renewable energy sources, and bolster natural methods of carbon absorption, we will cause irreversible damage. It’s in our power to stop acting like knaves and start moving toward a redemptive version of our future by taking responsibility instead of hiding from it. The only question is whether we’ll avert our eyes from the extensive view science gives us or cherish our children sufficiently to act on what we see.


Michael Gracey teaches English at Pingree School in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, and he lives with his family in Newburyport. His work has appeared in several literary journals and has been cited among the “Noteworthy Essays” in Best American Essays.