By Richard D. Lamm
There is, in the Christian tradition, the 13th century story of Martin of Tours, who was riding outside the city gates on a cold and windy night when he came across a starving beggar. In a gesture that was to get him sainted 400 years later, Martin divided his cloak and his dinner in half and gave it to the desperate man.
Now, Berthold Brecht, in one of his plays, raises this issue: What if instead of one cold and starving beggar, there were 100? What does the ethical traveler do now? Traditional moral reasoning is inadequate to the magnitude of the problem.
I suggest that this is the metaphor that the world will soon be facing. Climate change, poverty, civil war and civil strife, drought, and myriad other causes are causing massive movement of people. It will most certainly grow much worse.
The Pentagon issued a report in 2002 that stated, "Abrupt climate change is likely to stretch (the Earth's) carrying capacity well beyond its already precarious limits." In this new reality, how many dislocated people can any nation take without ruining its own economic and social fabric?
What if it were hubris, not reality, to think that humans are the only species that can grow without limits? The population of sub-Saharan Africa, already putting unprecedented pressure on Europe, is expected to double in the next 30 years. Similarly, high birth rates and political unrest in most of the Middle East and Africa guarantee continued massive migration from that volatile area. Is Europe's only ethical response to take them all in?
The U.S. has its own substantial pressure from south of its boarder. A moral response to an individual or a manageable group might not make sense if there are hundreds of thousands. Sheer numbers can totally change the ethical implications. Every snowflake in an avalanche pleads "not guilty," but it is still an avalanche. Numbers matter. The maximum generosity of the developed world cannot absorb the staggering numbers fleeing political chaos, war, violence and lack of economic opportunity.
Looming over the current chaos is the coming dislocation from global warming. What happens when hundreds of millions of people are dislocated by flooding, starvation and chaos? The melting of the glaciers in the Himalayas threatens the food supply of as many as 2 billion people. There are no lessons from the past that can guide us in the new world of dislocation we are approaching. We are sailing into uncharted ethical waters.
Traditional ethics assume an infinite world. They have been set in the domain of abstract thought, a product of the thought world, not the real world. But nature bats last. In the new world we are moving into, ethical behavior must not only make moral sense but ecological sense. No nation can be expected to commit social and cultural suicide. No ethics can demand what the ecosystem or the social fabric of a society cannot support. We cannot continue to ignore the real world consequences of our abstract beliefs.
A new moral dilemma is forming that demands a new dialogue. There is a substantial likelihood that global warming will cause chaos on a massive scale. If acting "moral" causes further compromise to the ecosystem or threatens the very social fabric of a nation (or group of nations) then that ethic must be rethought. Moral codes, no matter how logical or well-reasoned, and human rights, no matter how compassionate, must be capable of being practiced within the limitations of a finite ecosystem and the absorptive capacity of a nation's social systems. Moral life cannot be constructed solely in a thought-world; it has to also make ecological sense.
We must recognize that in the new world of ethics, quantities and numbers matter. The Good Samaritan of the Bible is going to meet not one traveler in need, but thousands.
We need new ways of thinking about these new realities.
Richard D. Lamm is former governor of Colorado and a professor at the University of Denver. He is also a member of CAPS Advisory Board.