Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Why Save the Planet?
distributed 6/7/13 - ©2013

"What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?"

That question was asked by the CEO of ExxonMobil at the company's shareholder meeting 10 days ago. The article where I saw the quote called it "a rhetorical question" -- I guess because he didn't bother to answer it.

Mr. Tillerson's question deserves a response. It deserves to be dismantled and rebutted. The question is wrong, on so many levels. So today, let's think about why it is good to save the planet.

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Implicit in the question is the notion that, if we don't "save the planet" -- if we don't make the big changes needed to address environmental crisis like climate change -- then humanity won't suffer. Tillerson's question is designed to highlight any the risks and changes that come with climate action, and to hide the dangers of business as usual (and in this case it really is "business" as usual).

But the facts are clear about the suffering that is on the way if we don't act to save the planet. A consensus statement from more than 500 global scientists, released this spring, highlights five environmental crises, including climate change, and summarizes:

Earth is rapidly approaching a tipping point. Human impacts are causing alarming levels of harm to our planet. ... we agree that the evidence that humans are damaging their ecological life-support systems is overwhelming. ...

By the time today's children reach middle age, it is extremely likely that Earth's life-support systems, critical for human prosperity and existence, will be irretrievably damaged by the magnitude, global extent, and combination of these human-caused environmental stressors, unless we take concrete, immediate actions to ensure a sustainable, high-quality future.

So, on the most surface level, we can respond to the question, "What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?", by stating that humanity will suffer far more if we don't take action.

(You, as a "concerned citizen", are invited to endorse the scientists' statement of facts and possible actions.)

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For several years, I worked closely with a pastor who refused to deal with grumbling in the congregation if he only heard reports that "people are saying ...". He'd generally reply, "Tell me who is saying it, or I'll assume that you're the one who is upset and that you're afraid to speak up."

Mr. Tillerson doesn't see why we should "save the planet" if "humanity suffers." Let's get more specific -- who is it who might suffer if we take action on climate, and how?

Ryan Koronowski and Joe Romm heard the real question to shareholders as, "What good is it to save humanity if profits suffer?" I'm sure that the aspect of self-interest was a part of what he expected his audience to hear.

But he also reassured the shareholders that "an economy that runs on oil is here to stay." If you assume that fossil fuels are the essential basis of the global economy and our way of life, then forcing a dramatic cut-back of those inherently polluting fuels will cause suffering for those who are most tied to that economy.

It is not humanity as a whole that will suffer. It is the relatively small segment of humanity that lives in the "developed" world which would feel the greatest impacts if our consumption of oil were greatly reduced. There will be impacts in turning away from oil, but those need to be seen in relation to the impacts on creation from continuing on the path of devastating the biosphere.

From the perspective of Christian ethics, which often is described as having a "preference for the poor", our moral focus should be on those parts of the human community who don't have big investment portfolios and are not highly privileged. When we talk of "humanity", the poor of the world and future generations must be given priority in evaluating potential suffering.

It is also important to state that our utter dependence on fossil fuels is not necessary, and thus suffering from change is not inevitable. There are many initiatives that direct us toward other energy sources, and other viable ways of living.

We get some very different conversations if the question is re-framed: "How can we make a rapid transition away from fossil fuels, so that humanity does not suffer as we save the planet?" Mr. Tillerson apparently does not want to deal with that question.

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The limits of Mr. Tillerson's moral universe are made clear by his question. He sees a fairly sharp division between "the planet" and humanity, and -- for him -- it is the people who have moral significance.

I'm not going to say that "the planet" would be better off if humanity disappeared. But I will say that the other-than-human, and the health of the whole creation including humans, are real moral considerations.

Ethicists speak of "the integrity of creation", meaning that all species and habitats and life systems have worth in their own right. The way that humans benefit from their presence is not the only, or even the primary, moral consideration. From that ethical perspective, there are very good reasons to save the planet for its own sake.

We should save the planet because it is not ours to destroy, and because the creation has a right to exist.

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Mr. Tillerson -- the CEO of the US's most profitable oil company -- is not somebody that I look to for sophisticated ethical and philosophical reflection. He is the guy who, in an interview with BusinessWeek a few months ago, said, "My philosophy is to make money. If I can drill and make money, then that's what I want to do."

He's not a moral giant, but he is very good at framing public conversations. With a short, rhetorical question, he defined a deeply flawed but seductive perspective: that business-as-usual won't bring suffering; that the oil-based economy is essential; that those with power and privilege are the ones who matter; that the health of "the planet" does not matter.

If we don't challenge that sort of flawed morality, then simplistic sound bites will define our public ethics. I've touched on just three of the reasons Mr. Tillerson is wrong. There are many moral reasons why we should save the planet.

I urge you to deepen this moral conversation -- in your church, your community, your family. Speak up! Denounce the sort of distortions voiced by Rex Tillerson. Proclaim hopeful and valid ethical perspectives that honor the whole Earth community and that affirm creative possibilities for the future.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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