Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Climate Change, Vanishing Lifestyles, and Children

So in a previous post, I discussed a case in which rising sea levels, resulting from a warming of the Earth, caused the salinization of a Bangladeshi farmer's land, so that he could no longer grow rice on it in the way to which he was accustomed. I concluded that as the owner of the land, with full property rights, he should be entitled to compensation for any damage done to him by those contributing to climate change. And it seems like this could be extended to any member of the contributors' generation who were harmed by climate change.

But costs associated with climate change will not only be incurred by individuals who are alive now, they will be realized by future people as well. The nature of the cost to future people, however, is less clear than the nature of the costs to existing people. This post will explore a sort of impact which seems to be central to people's concern about climate change, but which is difficult to deal with in the framework of human rights. Namely, many communities will be impacted in a way that makes it difficult for them to continue their cultural existence, making it necessary for the children of those cultures to find fundamentally different ways of living.

For example, indigenous communities in Africa will see progressively more significant alterations to their natural setting as the climate continues to change. Plants and animals which were once prevalent in the region will no longer be fit for survival there, and new species will move in. Knowledge developed over centuries will no longer be effective. Being ill adapted for life in a fundamentally different climate, it is conceivable that these communities will be unable to survive in the manner in which they have for countless generations. They would have to find a new way to live.

What do we say about this? It is clear that a great number of people are concerned about precisely this sort of problem, and cite it as a reason to be worried about climate change. But does it tell a story of injustice? Many people's intuitions say yes.

However, we might point out that the above case sounds a lot like a story where an agrarian community is "destroyed" by industrialization and mass production. Small scale family farms can't keep up with the low prices generated by the advanced practices of a local agribusiness concern, and can no longer support their old way of life. It's a sad story, but we wouldn't want to claim that any injustice has occurred. Perhaps as a society, we would want to help these farmers get back on their feet and find a new place in the market. But we wouldn't want to blame the agribusiness for doing something wrong.

If there is no wrongdoing in the industrialization case, where communities might be unable to sustain their old lifestyles as the result of the actions of others, then can we consistently hold that there is injustice being done to indigenous people by climate change? Or are we simply setting indigenous communities on a pedestal because they're different and mysterious, and we somehow think that by being so unusual, these individuals come to have different rights than the rest of us?

It seems to me that there is a critical difference between the destruction of the indigenous community caused by climate change and the destruction of the agrarian community caused by industrialization. In the industrialization case, it's not as if the agribusiness made it impossible for the family farmers to continue farming. Rather, the problem arises because the family farmers were depending on the support of their customers in order to sustain themselves. Given that their customers had the right to remove their support at any time, it should be clear that the farmers were depending on others making choices which they could permissibly not make, or stop making at any time. The agribusiness, with its greater efficiency, could offer much lower prices than the family farmers, and their customers decided to withdraw their support, as was their right. It should be clear that in our story, the agribusiness never did anything to the family farmers. It simply revealed the fact that the family farmers could only continue to sustain themselves in their traditional manner if their customers continued to voluntarily purchase their products. The family farmers never had any right to that support, and so when it was withdrawn, no right was violated.

On the other hand, it doesn't seem like the indigenous communities in question depend on anyone for their continued survival. They require only that their environments not be modified so as to make them incompatible with their lifestyles. And as far as these indigenous communities have been making use of their environments for centuries, it seems fair to say that they have some legitimate claim to their not being negatively affected by the actions of other people.

I suspect that if we told the agrarian story in a way that matched the indigenous story, our intuitions would tell us that we were dealing with a rights violation. For example, let's say an agrarian community depended on an underground stream to bring water to the region with which to grow crops. Now imagine that someone diverted the flow of water through the area so that the community's land ran dry. Surely we would say that the diversion of the water flow represented a wrong done to the farmers, right?

In the same way, it seems that changing the climate in a way that would negatively impact indigenous peoples' ability to continue living in their traditional manner would be unjust. But this is not new ground. This conclusion is pretty much the same as the one I reached in my post about the Bangladeshi farmer and the rising sea levels. I want to go one step further here.

As I mentioned before, the intuition that people have about this sort of case is not simply that our alteration of the climate is wrong because it harms currently existing indigenous peoples' ability to live in the manner to which they are accustomed. The problem is also that their children will be unable to live in that manner. That is, the issue is not just what happens to the people whose lives are made difficult by climate change, but also what happens to the people who will be unable to live in the traditional manner dictated by their culture, and what consequently happens to the culture itself.

In order to isolate these factors from the harm done to the currently existing indigenous individuals, we might imagine that these individuals have been fully compensated for the damage done to them as individuals. This compensation not only takes into account the damage to their property, but also the damage to their character and psyche; the currently existing indigenous individuals recognize they were wronged, but acknowledge that they have been compensated adequately for all that they personally have endured.

Now we might imagine that one of these indigenous individuals has a child, Akiko. Akiko is raised in the indigenous culture, but sees that she will be unable to support herself in the traditional way. She will need to live a fundamentally different lifestyle from that of her people in order to survive. If we are to sustain that climate change will result in injustice to people like Akiko, then we must say that Akiko is wronged by having to find a way of life which differs from her culture's traditions.

At first glance, this might seem absurd. I grew up in Westport, CT; do I have the right to a house there? I have a friend who comes from a family of doctors; does he have the right to be one too? Surely we don't want to say that people have a right to live like the people who brought them up lived. We must find some other way to explain what is wrong with Akiko's situation if we are to be taken seriously.

A clue can be found in the fact that just like in the example with the agribusiness and the family farmers, my demands about a house in Westport and my friend's demands for a doctor job require things of others. Given that I have no right to anything from these people, it seems ridiculous to suggest that I am wronged if they do not provide me with something. I do have the right to try to buy a house in Westport, and my friend has the right to try to be a doctor. But given that having a house or being a doctor require the voluntary consent of others (in my case, the consent of the house's previous owner; in my friends case, the consent of the hiring institution and of the customers who choose to purchase his services), we cannot have the right to these things.

Akiko's demands would also be rooted in her getting others' consent. That is, she does not own her people's land; the older members of her culture do. But the kind of consent Akiko requires is very different from the kind of consent I would need in order to get a house, in that Akiko has that consent. Akiko's people, we presume, would gladly allow Akiko to use, and even to own, the group's land. In the absence of climate change, Akiko would be able to support herself in the traditional way using nothing but this land. But because of the effects of climate change, the land will not be able to support her in the traditional way. The substance of Akiko's complaint, then, might seem to be that she should have inherited enough resources to sustain herself, but that climate change diminished those resources to make it impossible for her to use them in the way her culture would have suggested.

This leads us to an interesting idea. Remember, we have said that the current owners of the land were fully compensated for all of the damage done to them by the effects of climate change on their land. Akiko's complaint is that there is a gap between what she should have inherited and what she actually did inherit. In order to satisfy Akiko (if we have interpreted her complaint correctly), we would need to take the view that by damaging the indigenous people's land, we not only wronged those people, but also the people who stood to inherit the land later. The "damage done" would be the damage done to the current owners, as well as the "damage" done to the future owners who "should have" inherited the land in its original condition, but instead inherited it in a damaged and less useful state. Accordingly, Akiko too would be entitled to compensation.

Of course, from Akiko's standpoint, this seems like it would be a fair solution. Because climate change destroyed her people's ability to live off the land, every generation of people in her community would be compensated for the damage done to the land. I'm not sure if this would actually be right, though. It seems to go completely against the way we normally think about damage and liability. I'd like to think about this some more, but I think this was a good place to start.

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