Ethical orientations toward repair in climate change

Hamburg, 21 April 2022

(this was the access copy for the live version of this talk)

Jesuit priest, pacifist, and anti-nuclear activist Danial Berrigan once gave a famously short convocation speech at a New York high school. He came on stage and said only: “Know where you stand and stand there.” I’m interested in both parts of this instruction, the epistemic and the active. Knowing where we stand is a complex collective endeavor, in which we rely on networks of other people. Standing there is an activity, a form of holding space in the present and shaping the world to come. Knowing where we stand and standing there are achievements in which we express our personal, specific self. And they necessarily involve engaging the whole world, whether that’s in collaboration or opposition.

Part of the reason I come back to the intertwined injunction to know and to do involves Berrigan himself offering it. How can I think about this man, a Catholic priest who seems to have unflinchingly understood the wrongs of his church, remaining a Catholic priest in the face of fellow members of his faith using their position to harm others? Or knowing that the church promulgated “just war” doctrines? Or that it had historically been the motor for genocidal oppression through the church’s role in colonization? Berrigan interests me precisely because of his implication in horrific wrongs, and his formulation of what it means to respond to that implication by refusing to abandon the relationship. I think of my relationship with human-caused global warming, ecosystem damage, and ongoing extinction crises as similar in some way with Berrigan’s relationship with Catholicism – with the difference that there is no priesthood I can renounce as regards climate change.

I live in what is currently Canada. As a state, Canada relies on extractive industries and the colonial land-theft that sustains them. Canada seems to be committed to doing anything and violating anything in order to continue current practices around oil (not to mention trees, uranium, nickel, and many other substances rendered as extractible resources for profit). My relationship with oil, as an immigrant to Canada, is complex. I believe Canada should respect the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and thus Indigenous law, live up to our commitments to address global warming and thus not build new oil pipelines, fulfill the explicit and implicit treaty agreements that founded the nation, end military interventions in other nations (including within our borders), and much more. As a Canadian, I pay into an unregulated pension plan that invests heavily in oil futures, as well as tobacco advertising, and migrant detention facilities on the US-Mexico border; I cannot change this investment. My taxes pay for military interventions and fund the politicians who ignore treaty relationships. I drive a car, turn on heat and lights, and fly to conferences. I’m complicit in Canada’s protection of resource extraction from pretty much any angle I think of, simply in virtue of the complex web of relations through which I live and breathe. I benefit differentially as a white immigrant mortgage-owner from histories of and present social relations of land theft and colonial oppression. In complex situations like, let’s be honest, just being alive, we make all sorts of compromises and become complicit in all sorts of things we would like to wash our hands of. I’m implicated, and perhaps complicit.