Is it unethical to use up more of the Earth than your neighbor?
What we use and lose
When we use Earth wrongly, we take more than what we need. For example, taking wildlife out to the forests brought us COVID-19. Such virus spillover also happens with domestic animals, such as bird flu, or swine flu.
Are people unethical?
This question came up because I was on the mainland on business (I live in Hawaii) and went shopping. BTW, As to flygskam, I am aware. That’s why I am moving.
As I approached a grocery store, I looked around and noticed I was the only one in the entire parking lot using a reusable canvas bag as I entered the store.
Once inside the store, I did notice there was a plastic bag dispenser that allowed for people to reuse a donated bag. However, I kept glancing back at it. Not one person in view bothered to take the plastic.
Were these people unethical? Asleep? Uncaring? Marine life haters? Plastic bag stock investors?
As I looked around, I began to wonder why this should be.
Mind you, I did not give up plastic when Hawaii made an effort to ban plastic bags. No. I gave up plastic when I lived on the mainland, Seattle area to be precise, more than twenty five years ago. Yes. More than twenty-five years ago, Safeway offered durable plastic bags. I bought one of them — for less than a dollar — and have used it for years.
Signal to noise
This is not virtual signaling. This is not an effort to feel superior to anyone who chooses a single use bag. My reasons for not wanting to trash the planet are very personal. They are very much a part of my mother’s programming of my values.
I was taught that single use anything is unethical. But, probably, most people are not. I was also taught that we can’t afford to use more than there is available for everyone, including other organisms.
These internal signals are very much a part of my mother’s programming of my values. I am not so ignorant that I assume everyone had the same mother that I was most fortunate enough to have.
I think there are several things going on here. Most of them are due to awareness — or lack thereof.
The first is that I am passionately in love with nature. When I think of the life and ecosystems that died today because people want convenience, I do not feel social justice rage. I feel sadness. Suffering is suffering after all, no matter your species. If anything, I want to bond with my fellow humans against injustice, not alienate them.
A lighter shade of green
The second is that I do not think they realize what they are doing. People have a whirring background soundtrack of “be green,” but like obeying a speed limit, or jaywalking laws, humans typically ignore such rules. It becomes a non-noticed hum, much like the pirated music that at some point so many people steal with all sorts of rationalization.
Another reason is that people can’t see the damage. When I choke an albatross chick to death with my hands on a viral video, there will be backlash. When I carelessly consume millions of tons of plastic over a lifetime, (which kills far more such chicks), people just don’t see it.
Then there is herd mentality. When everybody does it, then no one takes responsibility. They honestly cannot see, psychologically, why would everyone be harmful if given a choice? They believe, sadly, that if everyone does it, there must a response in place to remedy any damage. This is much like believing as they did in the twentieth century, that smoking can’t be that bad if even doctors and leaders are doing it.
Fixed human habits that break everything
Then there are habits. Human habits are evolutionarily entrenched and almost impossible to break.
When I was a child there was no proliferation of plastic soda and water bottles. A “doggy bag” was literally a biodegradable paper bag. What we bought and sold food, and other products in, was rarely single use. But now almost no product is free of ubiquitous “trash.” And the slow trend to recycle shows that out of sight out of mind habits are as strong as our conservation ethic once was.
Another new habit is our mental absence. People are not in the present moment. I noticed when I went into the store that most people would never have the slightest chance to notice their lack of canvas bag, or availability of reusable bag dispensers. They are on their devices. This is usually a smart phone. People are no longer present in the real world, so why would they notice that there is a real world to lose?
Addiction to entitled accommodation
As in the tobacco addiction sixty years ago, there is only profit and no consequence of waste to the profiteers. An active disinformation campaign, of sorts, displays that the manufacturers of food containers, single use plastic, straws, extra “paper” copies, junk mail, junk food, and a million other products encourage sales by promoting convenience.
The social costs, pollution, micro plastic ingestion, cancer, loss of species, are for the general public. Profits are private, external costs are socialized.
Green washing is a real thing. In the psychology business of human defense mechanisms and human habits, our sustainable biosphere is at risk.
Tribalism is trash
Finally, there is a divisive aspect to doing the right thing to support your tribe.
Being woke or politically correct has a huge consequence. People, by nature of human defense mechanisms will, in fact, unconsciously, and sometimes even deliberately, make a statement about their ethics in an effort to annoy, embarrass or shame the other side.
In reality there is no “other” side.
There is just Team Earth, an entirely interdependent network where your very life depends upon other living organisms, including, gasp! “those people.”
This reason, I think, is more destructive than all the other reasons people cannot budget their use of the biosphere more sensibly. A sense of entitlement arises, and even though it is not intended as being unethical, it hurts all involved. We hurt the sustaining world because we think our species, and even our race, sex, power base, or class is just more entitled.
Can we unite against toxins, waste, destruction and division? Ideas about coping with our trash are beginning to go mainstream, even the concept of a circular economy(no waste)that learns from nature.
But human habits and psychology require a sea change in attitude, and a view to that thundering sea. For Team Earth, I see few other options.