by Michael P. Nelson
We know the outcome. On September 10th, 2010, President Barack Obama refused to accept a solar panel from author and activist Bill McKibben and 350.org. What is now perhaps the most famous (or at least well travelled) solar panel in history was originally installed on the White House roof by Jimmy Carter in 1979, then removed by Ronald Regan in 1986, then set atop a cafeteria at Unity College in 1991 where it has remained in service until offered to President Obama. The Obama administration – an administration that not so long ago held the hopes of all in love with this good green earth – offered no reason for their refusal.
While the simple gesture of accepting the solar panel would have been appropriate (not to mention polite), the simple gesture of saying “thanks, but no thanks” to that solar panel sent an hugely important signal: Barack Obama is not going to save us, he never was going to save us, and that’s okay. We need to abandon the hope that some politician or political process will save us. We need to abandon hope because hope is the poison that forever weakens our will to do what is good and important and beautiful simply because it is good and important and beautiful. The decision to act from a sense of moral obligation frees us and empowers us. We have been let down not by what we have hoped for, but rather by our own naïve commitment to hope in the first place. We need to care and to act without hope, without faith in politicians, international meetings, protocols, proclamations, or IPCC reports.
While putting together essays for our book Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, and while on tour this Fall with the book, Kathleen Dean Moore and I have been taking a different tack – an appeal to ethics. Here’s the basic idea, as professors of philosophy we know that any formal argument leading to a conclusion about how we ought to act or what policies we ought to adopt must have two premises, one about facts and one about values. So, when scientists tell the world of the harms threatened by environmental degradation and global climate change, they provide the first premise: environmental harms are real, they are dangerous, and they are upon us. But science alone will not, cannot logically save us, since you cannot simply string together a series of facts and somehow magic-out a prescription for action. There is a second premise, a premise we almost never speak of, but a premise that is critical if we want to conclude that we have an affirmative moral duty to prevent or reduce the effects of climate change and other environmental harms. This missing, Voldemortian premise lies outside the scientific purview, in the world of social and ethical values, a normative principle affirming our responsibility to prevent such harm to the future. Only by this combination of facts and values, but from neither alone, can we reach conclusions about what we ought to do.
Our book tests that second premise. Does the world’s collective moral wisdom suggest we have an affirmative moral responsibility to leave a world as rich in life and possibility as the world that was left to us? We asked the world’s moral, religious, scientific, philosophical, literary, business, and political leaders (including President Obama, whose essay is a beautiful affirmation of his sense of obligation to the future, and runs absolutely contrary to the implications of his solar panel rejection). Here is the collected human wisdom about what is of value, an affirmation of what is worthy and worth doing. Essays, songs, proclamations, even poems poured in. Each, in their own way, affirming our moral obligation to the future to act now, to act boldly, to act for all time to avert the impacts of climate change and other environmental horrors. Though we speak from different countries, ethnicities, ages, worldviews, religions, and cultures, on the question of our moral obligation to the future we speak with one voice!
Most certainly, and deliciously, September 10, 2010 should be acknowledged as the day hope died. But that means September 10, 2010 is our day of liberation. Would it not be amazing if, five years from now, we looked back on this moment when President Obama turned a cold shoulder to that old solar panel as the day we grew up. In 2015 we might say this was a wonderful day, a day when we finally realized that those in political office (red or blue, tea or coffee), those in scientific laboratories, those working for engineering firms were not our salvation, and we were not going to wait for them to be. And we might say to President Obama, thank you.
Postscript – On October 5th, 2010, less than a month after I wrote what’s above, the Obama Administration announced that it would be installing solar panels and a solar water heater on roof of the White House residence. Though it may take a bit of steam out of my rhetoric, this doesn’t matter one lick. The argument here is precisely the same.