By Nicholas Caleb of Portland, Oregon. Nicholas is a local attorney and professor of government, cultural geography, and public speaking at Concordia University. Previously he contributed "Can Portland beat King Coal?"
I saw your coal article while checking my email on a camping trip in the Olympic National Forest. It made me spit my coffee out all over the campfire. I couldn’t wait to get back to Portland to write a response.
So, let me get this straight. You have the political support to oppose a harmful and "evil" (your word) energy source that is also a major contributor to climate change -- “the overriding issue of our time” -- and you instead propose to risk the immediate health of the people of Portland, that of their existing and yet unborn children, gamble the integrity of the regional environment, and allow further climate instability, all in order to save us from hypocrisy? And then, you invoke a dead moral philosopher and his influence on your moral code to justify it?
At first, I thought you were joking since the reasoning is almost too bizarre to be believed. Soon, it became obvious that yes, you intend to punt on coal trains, where you might actually have some authority, and instead run into the land of wouldn’t-it-be-nice-istan.
Ok, whatever. If we’ve elected someone who retreats into the world of abstract philosophy when pressed on issues that have real-life consequences, let’s play on your field.
Regarding Kant, you’ve completely misread the categorical imperative. The type of reasoning that says “if I don’t do it, someone else will” is the complete opposite of what Kant said, which is essentially that: you should never do a thing unless it would be unproblematic for everyone else to do it as well. In other words, we do not lie because, if we did, there would be no truth in the world. We do not murder because we do not want to be murdered. It doesn’t work to say “if I didn’t lie to you, someone else would!” This is the race-to-the-bottom mentality that creates the collective action problem, and is precisely the mindset that is responsible for global warming in the first place. If no one starts to take responsibility, no one else will join them. Worrying that you shouldn’t do the right thing, because then maybe you don’t get the devil’s benefits (as you imagine others do), and that maybe, then, you’re the sucker isn't moral reasoning. It's cowardly thinking.
Furthermore, if you continue to read past the categorical imperative, you’ll eventually come upon the second formulation, which has even more relevance for what we should do about the coal trains. It reads:
Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.
In other words, don’t use people to achieve your ends because we all have intrinsic value and dignity. If you treat people with dignity up front, their interests will be better served, and you’ll be better off in the ethics category. Means-to-ends behavior causes you to devalue and objectify the things that are truly important in life. A modern, secular version of Kant’s second formulation, with all we now know about ecology, public health, and systems sciences, would almost certainly expand the field of justice to the natural environment.
So, how can we apply the second formulation to the coal train issue? Well, consider your desired end: not being hypocrites (don’t even try to stop coal trains if some of your energy comes from other coal sources). To achieve this end, you’re obviously willing to risk the health and safety of flesh and blood human beings. To be sure, taking no action to prevent coal trains from coming through our community, when you actually have the means to fight, in order to avoid hypocrisy is not only means-to-ends strategizing, but an absurd notion in its own right. (It’s almost as silly as pushing the false dichotomy we must either reduce coal demand or interrupt its supply. One has to wonder: why not do both?) The logic of Kant points to your approach as unethical; perhaps even more so because of your position of power and unwillingness to treat people and the environment as ends in themselves.
Personally, I think that Kant was scratching the surface of a much deeper issue, the problem of abstraction versus what we can actually know and possibly have any control over. This problem is even more pronounced now than it was in Kant’s time since we are more acutely aware of the world’s complexity and of our complete inability to predict the future (read Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan to catch up on the cutting edge of uncertainty studies). This complexity is why the second formulation, unlike the categorical imperative, is actually a relevant and important guiding principle in a complex world. We observe a world where people with influence continually assert the morality and necessity of using people & using the environment as means to the end of “progress”, despite our awareness of the destruction this has caused, and the nightmarish future that awaits us if we continue to do so. We knowingly risk unprecedented harm as we fail to take necessary, direct action. If we flip our approach and actually deal with issues directly, rather than creating artificial barriers to responsibility and action, we prefigure the type of world we want to live in. You can’t abuse people and the environment and expect some hero or miracle technology to come provide us with a solution to all of our ills. Simply put, we must do justice if we want a just world.
So, on coal, what is abstract and what is real?
It seems to me that all of your proposed actions are very convenient in that they all fall safely in the realm of the abstract -- proposing plans that completely liberate you from any direct responsibility. Instead of going after coal directly, you concern yourself with the actions of others to whom your office’s jurisdiction does not extend, and a national climate policy that may never materialize, especially without considerable pressure from the bottom-up. While a national climate policy or more responsible corporations would be great, they are irrelevant to the coal discussion, and divert attention and energy away from the most direct strategy: stopping the coal trains.
Conversely, this is what we know is real:
Coal is harmful to public health and the natural environment, not only in its transport, but in its extraction and industrial use. There is no such thing as clean coal.
Humans are destroying the environment and contributing to climatic change we cannot reverse. Burning coal is a major contributor to climate change.
We (and the growing number of us who bother to investigate the laws of our state) also know that municipalities and counties have home rule authority in Oregon: a Constitutional guarantee of power for municipalities and counties (Article XI, section 2 & Article VI, section 10, respectively) that “enable[s] local governments to serve as “proving grounds” for policies that have yet to win acceptance at the state and national levels.” (pdf) Exercises of home rule authority are presumed legitimate as long as they don’t contradict existing state laws. I know of no existing state laws that prevent cities from asserting health and safety requirements that demand the equivalent of the precautionary principle. In fact, we’ve got very strong environmental laws in the State of Oregon (largely unenforced), including a climate plan and a strong public trust doctrine. Locally, we could insist upon a comprehensive, region-wide, cumulative environmental impact assessment, or even push for an an all-out ban on the transfer of coal based on the fact that it will irreparably harm the people and the environment. Your informed and rabid electorate will support strong action all the way. As a local policy, it’s low-hanging fruit.
But when you write things like, “[...] I don't think that we're going to get anywhere asking the federal government to stop coal exports through the Northwest based on global warming concerns”, you’ve completely misunderstood the duties of your future office, and what your constituents expect of you. Of course you shouldn’t waste your time asking the federal government for favors when the damn thing is broken. No one expects that of you. We expect you to use the tools available to you: an electorate at your back (yay, democracy!), a Constitutional grant of authority, and regional alliances waiting to be forged. “[T]he overriding issue of our time” requires no less. Indeed, it demands more.
Yes, there could be battles with the federal government over the trains, but these are battles worth fighting. If we are to enter into a new paradigm and open up the niche for those renewables you seem so fond of, we’re going to have to take on the fossil fuel industries and the federal policies they’ve so clearly purchased and captured. There’s a reason why Germany just passed the 25% renewable energy mark and we’re still blowing up mountains and obliterating landscapes to export coal; it’s the broken system, silly! We’ve got to fight where we can and win where we can. The most environmentally-conscious municipality in the country seems like a good place to make a stand.
Even if we lose in a long, drawn out battle, our struggle would be an inspiration to others and a sign that government isn’t completely broken. On the other hand, the upside of beating King Coal is immense. It could ignite our country’s next environmental movement.
So, please, let’s get out of the abstract, out of the minds of philosophers long dead, and do what we can do here and now to make a better future. I love the 25% bike transport idea, and of course we should also work to reduce demand for fossil fuels. But the fact that we are still on coal energy is no reason to permit more of it. You are looking at an active movement wanting direct measures to create a world worth living in, and yet you seem content to look away and call them hypocrites. Portland has already taken steps to reduce our carbon footprint: it’s called the Climate Action plan. We should expand such efforts, and as we do so, other localities should do the same. Saying “if we don’t, someone else will” is not the kind of approach that got us such a forward-thinking policy. That’s a race-to-the-bottom logic that will take us wherever the big polluters want us.
One can forgive an attorney for misapplying freshman-year philosophy to justify bad policies. What isn’t forgivable is a city commissioner willing to risk (actually, to guarantee) real world harm for the sake of abstractions and simplistic moralizing. Real lives and the real future of the planet are at risk and YES, you can do something about it! Rise to the occasion.
Respectfully, Nicholas Caleb