A fire burns in the Amazon jungle near Porto Velho, Brazil, September 9 2019. Picture: REUTERS/Bruno Kelly
A fire burns in the Amazon jungle near Porto Velho, Brazil, September 9 2019. Picture: REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

 I always felt sorry for Prometheus, the Greek Titan who was condemned by Zeus to eternal torture. His fate seemed particularly heinous – Prometheus was chained to a rock, and for eternity an eagle would eat his liver, which overnight would grow back only to be pecked out mercilessly again the next day.

Beyond the agony, the reason for his punishment was equally puzzling. Prometheus took fire from the gods and gave it to an undeveloped and pitiful humanity. His sin, in other words, was being a champion of humanity, and the herald of modern progress.  

Watching humanity wielding the Promethean flame to gormandise the Amazon rainforest — one of many activities that make our species something reminiscent of Monty Python’s obese Mr Creosote — I am tempted to think Zeus’s punishment was fair, even clairvoyant. Perhaps Zeus knew that giving man industry was not the gift Prometheus assumed it to be.

It would be a mistake, however, to lay the blame for our ecological tragedy at Brazil’s door. While the human and environmental injustice (some say “criminality”) playing out in Brazil surely deserves scorn, it must be placed in the context of a fairly recent mode of human existence,  driven by consumption, profit and waste, in which we are all too complicit.

The health of the planet (much like inequality) simply fails to activate our moral impulses, or to agitate our moral sensibilities.

Brazilian leaders should therefore not be dismissed when they implore the West to first remove the plank from their own eyes before attending to the forests in another.

How serious the crisis is and how much time we have  are matters better discussed by scientists. It is worth noting, however, that theorists such as Noam Chomsky refer to global warming as an unprecedented existential threat to humanity, and warn that “… we have to make decisions now which will literally determine whether organised human life can survive in any decent form”.

Global warming is certainly a problem requiring a global political response. It seems uncontroversial, however, that it is also inseparable from individual ethics, or that simple and central question, “How should I live?”. If we were to ask that question today, any answer would be incomplete that did not include how we as individuals, communities and nations relate to the environment.

Yet while the majority of us think of ourselves as generally good and responsible human beings, relatively few of us feel an urgent need to change how we live or to join movements that put pressure on governments to lessen the reliance on fossil fuels. The health of the planet (much like inequality) simply fails to activate our moral impulses, or to agitate our moral sensibilities.

So, if you are one of the many who have been caught fiddling to finally start recycling while the Amazon burns, it is probably not your fault. We are subject to “bounded ethicality” which means many of us systematically and unknowingly participate in unethical conduct. At least three factors regarding environmental concerns add to bounded ethicality, with the end result that climate concerns don’t keep us up at night.

First, time has a negative impact on our moral experiences. We struggle to imagine consequences that are temporally removed, and therefore experience those consequences as less “intense”. This explains why Faust was willing to sign up for eternal damnation in return for an instantly successful life; and why we are willing to sign a Faustian contract today for quick and dirty profit and energy. The ecological timeline has clearly shrunk, and we are already experiencing the effects of the climate crisis.

Yet the delirium of consumption still blinds us to the ecological hangover that awaits. This is sometimes referred to as “over-discounting the future”, while the eminent philosopher, Hannah Arendt, diagnoses this cognitive quirk as a lack of moral imagination. It means, unfortunately, that even if people started taking the reports of climate scientists seriously, it may not lead to behaviour change.

We know that not everyone believes what scientists are trying to tell us. This is partly because we cannot imagine such dystopian consequences, but also because a lot of effort goes into denying the consequences of the way we live today. For every climate report there is an equal and opposite crisis denial. In circumstances where uncertainty exists, a second cognitive habit predicts against responsible decision-making, namely “status quo bias”, or favouring the way things are. Uncertainty magnifies egocentrism and promotes inertia.

A third reason why environmental concerns are not high up on our moral priority list is our experience of responsibility and agency. On the one hand, the destruction of forests, the poisoning of rivers and the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere do not trigger personal guilt. Because the increase in the earth’s temperature is the effect of cumulative human actions (mostly that of big businesses), it is easy to morally disengage through a strategy called “diffusion of responsibility”, something akin to the excuse that “everyone does it”.

 Environmentalists try to explain to the general populace how serious and how advanced the situation is, and also how hellish the future will look. 

The flipside is that individuals are not convinced that they have the kind of agency that could make an impact. Even if there is a crisis, so the thinking goes, it would not help for me to respond as I can make little to no difference. The responsibility it therefore displaced to governments and world leaders whose constituencies show little support for environmental action.

Taken together, the above characteristics of our relation to nature make it less likely that current and world-historical ecological events will stir our moral impulses. The climate crisis seems temporally distant from us, is surrounded with uncertainty, and is a responsibility we share with the human race as a whole. When something is everyone’s responsibility, however, it quickly becomes no-one’s.  

Given that our conscience fails us on matters environmental, how are we to start caring? The current approach is to raise the alarm ever louder. Environmentalists try to explain to the general populace how serious and how advanced the situation is, and also how hellish the future will look. Politicians also warn of the price that future generations (our children and grandchildren) will pay. There are two problems with this approach.

First, if the well-being of our futures selves does not motivate action, how effective can an appeal on behalf of future others be?

Second, the approach relies on fear, a notoriously ineffective motivator of change.

An alternative (if complementary) approach is therefore prudent. If impending catastrophe or the interests of future generations (or even the interests of trees and of indigenous people in the Amazon) doesn’t light your fire, consider instead that cultivating ecologically responsible habits is a choice in favour of a flourishing or meaningful life. It is preferable because a carbon-heavy lifestyle is wrong and graceless. We should frame “harmony with nature” not as an unfortunate sacrifice to ensure continued existence, but instead as an immediate existential gain that unlocks the meaning and virtue our current way of life still seems to lack.

An analogy would be to the practical steps we often take towards living more healthily. We take these seemingly difficult steps to improve ourselves and to get closer to a good and happy life. Adopting habits so that one’s life is more in harmony with nature would achieve something similar. The moral motivation is also more urgent — the benefits are immediate; I alone can take responsibility for the way I live; and I have the agency to effect changes.

The individual changes you make will probably not avert the impending climate crisis. Preventing global warming from spinning beyond the reach of human regret would require radical governmental intervention, and the transformation of economies.

We are probably too late to do what is required. This is the unfortunate consequence of Prometheus’s first “gift” to man. Before giving us fire, Prometheus deprived humanity of the power to foresee their own deaths, and thereby “gifted” us with blind hopefulness — a gift that turns into a poisoned chalice where the environment is concerned.

The seeming hopelessness of the state of the climate should not prevent us from changing our individual lifestyles. If more individuals prioritised a lifestyle in harmony with nature (through their consumptive behaviour, their votes and their local activism), the political impetus could finally be created to act.

But even if our individual efforts end up making no difference, or if we turn out to be wrong about the impending catastrophe, living in a more harmonious and austere fashion would not be in vain. We may just end up with a more graceful life, acknowledging what the American poet Walt Whitman learnt a long time ago:

“After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains? Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.”

• Engelbrecht is research associate at the Centre for Applied Ethics, University of Stellenbosch.