2.3 Using conversation to construct environmental responsibility
If conversation is a creative exercise, in what sense might this be applied to the concept of responsibility around climate change? As David Cooper implies (Box 3), global ideas about the environment, such as climate change, are necessarily abstract and therefore lack the meaning and significance required to nurture appropriate responsibility. So the task for an appropriate ecological conversation is to make the subject matter more meaningful.
Take, for example, the concepts of mitigation and adaptation described in Box 4, which contains a synopsis of the BBC Analysis programme The wrong way to a warmer world?. This was a radio programme, first broadcast in April 2008, that discussed the tension between mitigation and adaptation in conversations about climate change. The language of adaptation can be understood in terms of a new language tool for ‘talking to’ climate change.
Box 4 The wrong way to a warmer world?
Mitigation and adaptation. Two words we’re going to have to get used to in the latest battle over climate change.
Over the past few years the key debate has been about the science – is the world really hotting up and, if so, are humans responsible?
There’s still a minority of sceptics who question the idea of man-made global warming. The consensus, though, is that the earth is getting warmer – and that humans have helped turn up the thermostat.
The new debate that’s splitting scientists, economists and politicians is not about whether the world is getting hotter but about how we should respond.
In this week’s ‘Analysis’, Kenan Malik examines whether we should pour all our resources into mitigation – reducing our carbon emissions individually and collectively?
Or whether we should accept that the world is going to get warmer anyway and rather than worry too much about emissions, we should adapt to global warming by building better flood defences or developing drought-resistant crops?
For many environmentalists, shifting the debate from mitigation to adaptation is tantamount to treason, nothing short of genocide according to the biologist Tim Flannery, author of The Weather Makers and voted Australian of the Year for his campaigning on climate change.
He tells Analysis that the extent to which any of us can adapt to a warming planet is directly related to our economic wealth.
The Netherlands may be able to pay for large dyking infrastructure in the face of rising sea levels. But the people of Bangladesh cannot and will simply be washed away.
On the other side of the argument, economist Richard Tol, from the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin, tells Analysis that pouring international resources into stringent greenhouse gas emission reduction is actually putting lives at risk in the poorest and most vulnerable parts of the world.
Reducing our carbon emissions will be costly and will slow down economic growth in the West, taking money directly away from development aid.
Furthermore by restricting industrial progress in the developing world, these countries will have less income to adapt their infrastructures to cope with inevitable rising sea levels and higher temperatures.
In a significant change in language, the Minister responsible for Climate Change policy, Joan Ruddock, says that adaptation now has to be considered alongside mitigation.
(Source: BBC, 2008)
Any measures that might be introduced to prevent further global warming must have at least as much support as measures that will help us adapt to its current consequences. However, with the perceived shift of emphasis from mitigation to adaptation, there is a corresponding shift of responsibility away from carbon emitters and the principle of ‘polluter pays’. The more formalised conversation around scientific management and adaptation may also effectively further disengage not only big industrial polluters but also ordinary citizens, by providing comforting reassurance on their affluent lifestyles.
On the other hand, ‘adaptation’ can be viewed as a metaphor that provides a means of eliciting a more creative perspective on the issue, as described in Box 5.
Box 5 Adaptation to climate change?
The word ‘adaptation’ has always been important in scientific fields associated with evolution, ecology and environmental change … The advent of anthropogenic climate change has again positioned ‘adaptation’ as a key term and concept, along with ‘mitigation’… Etymologically ‘adapted’ means ‘fitted or suited’ and to adapt is ‘to fit’ or ‘make suitable’. At the level of metaphor two possible conceptions arise from these meanings which have significant practical and policy implications.
The first metaphor, and we argue, the most widespread understanding, is that of ‘adaptation as fitting into’. In this metaphor something (predetermined) is fitted into a situation (also predetermined or knowable in advance) to which it is fit-able or suited, like when doing a jigsaw. It can be argued that this is a common understanding that informs many policies and practices for climate change adaptation such as: ‘New investment … will … provide new technologies and strategies to enable them [farmers] to adapt their … farming systems and practices to climate change’ [Department of Primary Industries, Australia].
The other metaphor is that of ‘adaptation as a good pair of shoes’.
This metaphor requires a little more explication. What makes a good pair of shoes at a given moment? Well, usually because you have worn them in, they are comfortable, flexible etc. But these same shoes may not be a good pair of shoes if you were to put them in a cupboard for a year before wearing them again. Why? Because your feet will have changed and the shoes may have become stiff and unbending through lack of use. Within this metaphor a good pair of shoes arises from the recurrent interactions between shoes and feet – this is an example of co-evolution. This has also been described as the structural coupling of a system to its environment over time …
For those who understand the dynamics of co-evolution, and are not so interested in shoes, then the metaphor can become ‘adaptation as co-evolution’. Rather than seeing adaptation as one way, co-evolution is different – the idea of a separate environment is set aside in favour of processes of mutual interaction which in human social systems can be seen as processes of learning and development.
(Source: Collins and Ison, 2008)
The authors in Box 5 go on to argue for an understanding of adaptation in line with ideas on social learning (which will be introduced in Part 3). What is important here is the endeavour to use language as a creative tool rather than as a formalised constraint. Building on a similar notion, another interesting proposal that attempts to alter the language of climate change is presented in Box 6.
Box 6 Creative climate
The creative climate proposal comes directly out of my experience of working in broadcasting, in outreach and in teaching. But, of course, I’ve experienced those as three things that had been boxed off in the past. I’m really interested in the possibilities we’ve now got to thread those together. Creative climate is a proposal for a ten-year project, which would see us working in broadcast, online, with a wide public, global public, and in generating learning materials for our students. But we want to break the walls down between those three …
So, in the case of creative climate, we know that we’re going to be giving digital media equipment to two groups of Amerindians in Guyana, who we’re going to be visiting every year over a decade. Visiting via web media, we’re going to be web conferencing with them, and they’re going to be showing their experiences of environmental change in the Amazon. It’s an example of how we can give a global reach and depth of knowledge to our students, but also be setting up conversations that are of interest to much wider groups and really globally.
(Source: extracts from transcript of interview with Joe Smith, Senior Lecturer in Geography, The Open University, April 2008)
Activity 4 Climate change: adaptation, mitigation or being creative?
Listen to the two podcasts featuring a later interview with Joe Smith. To what extent might the creative climate project shift the conversation from the formal to the less formal?
Transcript: Audio 1
Transcript: Audio 2
The advantage of using ‘conversation’ as a metaphor towards appreciating environmental responsibility lies with its sense of vibrancy, flux and continual change – ‘All conversation, then, is inventive, continually escaping its previous bounds’ (Talbott, 2004, p. 43). Conversation does not stand still. Similarly, the values attributed to nature – whether intrinsic or instrumental – are subject to change along with the flow of cultural change that shapes those values.
Ray Ison also uses the conversation metaphor (2002, p. 246):
As a species conversation is our unique selling point! We engage in conversation and in the process we bring forth ourselves and our world … To converse is to turn together, to dance, and thus an ecological conversation is a tango of responsibility. A conversation is inventive, unpredictable and is always particularizing to place and people … Engaging with this metaphor is not to turn away from doing science or ecology, or any other practice.
Ison considers the practices associated with environmental responsibility – whether science, policy design or everyday practices such as shopping – to be actual engagements with responding to nature. He defines ‘response-ability’ as the capacity to engage in responding (p. 237):
Early 21st century life has evolved many ways to undermine ‘response-ability’ – one can see it in highly prescribed curricula, in imposed targets from policy makers, in performance measures etc. It is also undermined when the outcomes of practices such as science are used to claim that ‘I am right and you are wrong’.
Response-ability might also be undermined when science (natural or social), or any other formalised professional practice, makes a definitive claim on what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’. Moral judgements on good and bad, and right and wrong, are conditioned by particular circumstances at the time. Such constructs might be further reinforced by some fixed notions of value and obligation relating to an intuitive sense of care, or measure of well-intentioned guidance, constructed at a particular time and in a particular circumstance.
The two moral dilemmas associated with doing what’s good (not harmful) and doing what’s right (not wrong) relate to the ethical traditions of consequentialism and deontology. Response-abilities might be interpreted on these two fronts: first, a consequentialist concern about being responsive to the potential harm done to the natural environment; and second, a deontological concern about being responsive to the potential wrongdoing of human activity, either individually or collectively.
Both Ison and Talbott suggest that environmental responsibility involves the need to keep a conversation ongoing with nature without falling into the trap of generating fixed, intransigent values and perspectives. Values and perspectives need continual revision, depending on the circumstances and any changes in the situation.
I have translated Talbott’s description of two types of ecological conversation in terms of informal and formal. Environmental responsibility can be thought of in terms of an informal dimension of obligations and entitlements alongside a complementary, though more formalised, dimension of codified rights and duties. To some extent these expressions of informal and formal complement each other in a similar way to the concepts of caring for an environment and being accountable for harm and wrong done to the environment. Caring for an environment usually involves recognising the obligations associated with addressing the entitlements of non-human entities. Ensuring accountability for harm or wrong, on the other hand, tends to be more formalised and is associated with duties and rights.
Figure 8 attempts to capture the notion of environmental responsibility in terms of a conversation involving rights, duties, obligations and entitlements. This representation uses the distinction between ‘nature’ as a codified construction and Nature as an extra-discursive reality. Expressing responsibility in this way may allow an appreciation of the idea of continual flux and change.
The Nature that we converse with includes the whole complex world of which our codified notions of ‘nature’ are an integral part. The obligations and duties that we have are not just a response to present generations of human and non-human nature, but future generations as well. Similarly, our entitlements in relation to Nature, informed by rights, are a response to both human and non-human nature.