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Deepwater Horizon and the education of desire: A review of “Everyday Ethics and Social Change”

Anna L. Peterson’s “Everyday Ethics and Social Change: The Education of Desire (EE) concedes that is it is our nature to hope, even “when nothing in our world indicates progress is possible” (Pg. 1). She’s not a Pollyanna, noting there are no “valid arguments to justify moral and political hope… This book is about the connection between ‘that which is hoped for’ in our everyday lives and the possibility of [bringing about] this good on a larger and more lasting scale” (Pg.2).

With this premise, EE explores ways of overcoming what Americans are culturally “educated” to desire (I’d use the less poetic term “socialized”) –which is expressed in the American Dream- by realizing the imperative to create a sustainable society.

“[N]ot only do very few people achieve the ‘American Dream’ of limitless wealth and consumption, but even when it is attained, affluence rarely ‘buys happiness,’ as even its pursuers admit. [It] also creates all sorts of unhappiness, through excessive consumption of natural resources and the exploitation of poorly paid and treated workers …” (Pg. 153).

But how to overcome and transform the instrumental, cost-benefit obsessed, money-valued and widely corrupt social world of today into a diametrically opposed “utopian” world based on an ethic of ecological sustainability? Can this change occur incrementally and individually, ‘Bird-by-Bird’? Or is it most likely to occur through Gotterdammerung on a sudden revolutionary scale? There’s no final answer to this question, of course, but there is provocative reflection in EE on how individuals might contribute to this transformation. And with imagination one can have a virtual debate with Peterson about the many obstacles to be overcome as the existing unsustainable social order unwinds.

Further, EE asks how this unwind will affect the ethical principles that underlie all social life. Peterson covers the philosophical questions of, 1) Are we motivated by a universal code of ethics that we rationally learn –the education of our desires- to guide our behavior regardless of social conditions, and probably social change? Or 2) do our experiences adjust our values and, sometimes, re-educate our desire into new ethical perspectives? Peterson has a nuanced discussion of these two philosophical stances of the source of ethics: the former is an overarching “Kantian” categorical imperative-like system; and the latter is rooted in experiential knowledge as the fundamental source of ethics and morality. She comes down on the side of the latter, which is also called embodied knowledge: the power of tacit, tactile physical knowing gained from lived experience. As such it is a dialectical view of ethics as anchored in–not hovering above- the sinews of corporeal life in the social empirical world.

“As practice [life experiences] change us and the world, we reflect upon these new experiences … [A]nd practices constitute the starting point of, the repository of, [ethical] theory. We do not apply already perfected ideas … but rather we work our ideas in and through work in the world [where] practice and ideas mutually critique and transform each other” (Pg. 129).

I’m a pragmatist and therefore think that Peterson is right about how experience affects the ethical models in our heads. This gives me (some) hope that an ethics of sustainability could replace conspicuous consumption and perpetual economic growth. But it will not without human effort. Thus far our nation has not realized that peak oil coupled to the unresolved fiscal and economic crisis places us in checkmate with the limits to growth. It follows that the current debate about “austerity” versus “stimulus” is misguided because theses are different tactics pursuing the common goal of growth. The premise of this debate should be about what kind of society –the distribution of wealth, status and power- is now possible.

This means ethical codes will dramatically change as the existing order of knowledge, feelings, values, judgment, and interpretation –call it culture, ideology or religion, thought collective, frame of reference or cardinal metaphors, paradigm, institutional thinking, episteme- comes undone. This undoing, which is proceeding in my opinion, does not guarantee that the ethics –and epistemology- of ecological sustainability Peterson and I value/hope for will inevitably follow. How will our human desires respond to resource scarcity? This is an uncharted sea Peterson does not explore in this book.

On good days I believe that enough of us will realize that our pernicious and impudent relationship to the ecosystems of the earth is the ultimate source of our misery. If we do we can then judiciously delegitimize those possessing political and economic power who surely will deny ecological reality and exploit the growth paradigm as long as possible.

Peterson’s book helped me regard Deepwater Horizon as an allegory of the fate of the American Dream. The failure to “plug the leak, Daddy” erodes confidence in American exceptionalism; it renders politicians foolish and impotent (more so than usual); and it mocks our old acquaintances, Mr. Market and technological know-how as masters of nature. Deepwater Horizon exposes the inevitable end game of a culture that works –and poorly at that- only if its economy is continually consuming more and more natural resources. One commenter on Deepwater at the Naked Capitalism website expresses the incommensurability of growth-based ethics with those of an ecologically sustainable world:

“What presumptuous asses these corporatists are, waving their price guns at priceless treasures without understanding the real value of anything. For not even two fiscal quarters’ profits, Obama ensures the survival of BP and Tony Haywire, but for how many people, creatures, habitats, and beautiful places will this be an extinction event, now and over decades? The damage is incalculable; costs cannot ever be paid by BP.”

Personifying the audacity of corporate cluelessness, President Obama said, “BP is a strong and viable company, and it is in all of our interests that it remain so.”

Many are recalling Jimmy Carter’s energy speech of 1979, which was a political –and therefore tepid- version of what M. King Hubbert, Fredrick Soddy, Hyman Rickover and others had warned of decades earlier: peak oil and its feedback consequences for economy and finance. In the big picture of sustainability peak oil is the most pressing resource constraint and if unheeded will lead to collapse –also now incipient. Climate change, fresh water scarcity, and other ecological disasters –like the fate of the Gulf of Mexico and its aquatic inhabitants after Deepwater- are other aspects of this sustainability crisis.

Meanwhile the world’s governments, financial and economic institutions continue on the path of “extend and pretend.” Public relations will not work with Deepwater Horizon.

Peterson concludes EE, “Despite the lack of guarantees, we need glimpses of the not yet in order to see the possibilities in our already” (Pg. 161). Now more than ever.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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