Kathleen Dean Moore

Nature writer and activist Kathleen Dean Moore was formerly Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Oregon State University. She now devotes herself to freelance writing and lecturing full time.

Please tell us about your work.

Until very recently I was a professor of philosophy at Oregon State University, but I left that position because I was hoping to devote my life full time to writing and thinking about climate change and how we might honor our obligations to future generations. I am a writer — I mostly write about the edges of water — and I am an activist concerned very much with a moral problem of climate change. It’s hard to be a nature writer these days, as the subjects that you are writing about are disappearing one after another, and so I have turned to a different kind of writing and a different kind of public speaking that focuses more on what our obligations are to the future, and how we might fulfill those obligations in ways that are transformative both for us and for the future itself. I write about the natural world from my home in Corvallis, Oregon and from a cabin that we have up in Alaska where two bear trails and a creek meet a tidal flow. My writing concerns the natural world and it’s a very difficult writing to be doing these days because, even as I’m celebrating frog song, some corporation is bulldozing the marsh to create a new parking lot, and as I celebrate whales, seismic oil explorations are making their lives very difficult. So I find that I have to use both my philosophy and my study of ethics, as well as my interest in nature writing, to make any sense of the situation and of our obligations in the context of that situation. So I’m also in some sense an activists and I do a lot of writing that’s intended to move people from their love of places towards action in defense of those places. I have a number of books that do that but most recently I have launched a project with a concert pianist and we’re using a theme in variations by Sergei Rachmaninoff to try to encapsulate the grief and the hope and the intensity of our obligation to save species on the planet.

What are the obligations of present generations to the future of the earth?

My colleague and I embarked on a project where we asked a hundred of the world’s moral leaders, ‘Do we have an obligation to the future to leave a world as rich in possibilities as our own?’ We got back answers from all parts of the world, beautiful responses, and we put them together into a book we call Moral Ground.

Some of the reasons why we have an obligation to the future have to do with just plain pragmatism. Climate change, species destruction environmental degradation, [all] threaten the human species. And so just in the interest of egoism and self-interest we ought to be addressing those issues.

Some of the reasons have to do with justice. The degradation of the world is reaping a terrible injustice on people who have no blame. The industrialized economy is focusing its worst effects on those beings that have no ability to speak in their own defense. That would be plants and animals, children, people who are on the margins of the economy and on the margins of continents, and future generations. And the grief that is coming to them, the trials that they will face, are deeply underserved. Children and future generations are the very definition of the innocent and yet they are the ones who will absorb the terrible pain and disruption climate change will bring.

The third set of reasons has to do with virtue. There are ideas that we have for ourselves…ways in which we think a virtuous person ought to act, primarily in terms of our own integrity. So a person of Integrity will live simply because she doesn’t believe in taking more than her fair share. Or a person who loves the earth will act lovingly towards it because she loves it. And a person of integrity who feels grateful toward the earth will act with gratitude and respect. And so many of the reasons that we have an obligation to the future have to do with our own sense of ourselves as moral beings. How do I act toward the future in a way that makes me proud to be a human being?

So you see there are many, many ways to approach this question of our obligation to the future. It’s wonderful to me to see that so many different knowledge systems are coming together around this very issue, the indigenous cultures, the ecological scientists, the evolutionary scientists. All of the revolutions of the world, save for a couple fringe monotheistic religions, are all saying the same thing — we are part of a great, a beautiful resilient whole. It is deeply interconnected, deeply interdependent, and we ourselves are privileged to live as part of this beautiful whole and that creates certain obligations in us, obligations to treat the earth with respect, obligations to act with restraint, obligations to embody our love for this planet, our love for these webs of connection, in our own actions, so that we can make our lives into works of art that express our deepest values. I think that’s the point.

What gives me hope that we can find a way out of the present environmental crisis?

I teach a course on the ethics of climate change and I have 24 students, all of whom are reading as much as they possibly can about climate change, about the justice issues, about the calamities that [will] befall us if we can’t find some way out. And on the very first day of class I ask the students to rate themselves on a hopefulness scale, where zero is ‘There’s just no way we’re going to get out of this mess’ and 10 is ‘There will be no problem getting out of this mess.’ And at the beginning of the term the students are always at about 4 or 5, just slightly not too hopeful. And after we’ve learned all these terrible things about climate change, all these frightening stories about migrations of people, about starvation and water, I asked them at the end of the term — after this whole consideration of their moral obligations in the face of these problems — now where are you on this hopefulness scale? And it’s always fascinating to me to find that on that same scale their hope level has increased to maybe around 6. And I say how could it possibly be that you have increased hope? And they say because I have spent the whole term together with 25 other people who really, really care. They’re smart, they’re active, they’re well educated, and if we can get it done we’ll get it done together. I came into the class as one person, I left as one of 25. And that’s going to be the answer to how we solve some of the problems of the world — it will be together.

What isn’t happening in human culture (but needs to happen) that will enable us to get through the present climate and biodiversity crises?

It’s interesting to think about what has to happen that hasn’t happened [yet]. We at least in the Western world live in a world that is governed by utilitarian ethics. That is, we measure the virtue or the goodness or the rightness of what we do by its consequences. And if we’re living in a world where no matter what we do the consequences are going to be dire, then it’s very difficult to act in a way that you think is moral. And so we find ourselves utterly paralyzed. On the one hand, we could give into blind hope. But if we give into blind hope, thinking no matter what we do everything will be fine, then we are abdicating any responsibility to do anything. On the other hand, if we give into this blinding despair, where no matter what we do everything will go to ruin, then once again we have abdicated any responsibility whatsoever to do anything. And so, [whether] hopeful or despairing, we don’t have to do anything.

But that’s a fallacy…of false dichotomy. Because between hope and despair, there’s this broad moral ground that we call integrity. That’s not acting because you think you can make a huge difference or failing to act because you think you can’t, but doing what you think is right because of who you are as a moral being, acting lovingly towards the Earth because you love it, not taking more than your fair share because you don’t believe in it, acting justly because you believe in justice. So when my students come to me and ask me if I am hopeful, I encourage them to think beyond hope, to think beyond the categories of hope and despair, towards the categories of what it means to be a decent human being in a very difficult time.

What is the knowledge-deficit theorum and how do we overcome that fallacy?

One of the most important aspects of our life that has gone almost silent is a public discourse about what we value, about what is more beautiful, what is ugly, what is good, what is bad, what is just, what is deeply unfair. It used to be that society would debate these things in the universities and in the churches and in the arts, and in their families and in their politics. But maybe some decades ago it became sort of out of fashion to talk about values, and that has had a terrible, terrible effect on the public discourse about, for example, climate change.

Because what happened with climate change is that the scientists struggled so hard to find out what was true, what in the world was happening here on this planet, and when they found out they were alarmed enough that they wanted to share that news with everyone. So they went out into the world and they told us all about these facts. ‘Here is the way the world is.’ ‘Here’s the way the world will be if we continue in this way.’ Now they expected that people would take action on the assumption that if people knew, if they only knew, then they would act. And I call that the knowledge deficit theorem…and it’s simply false.

You can’t draw a conclusion about what you ought to do on the basis of facts alone. For that, you need a second premise, and that is an affirmation of what you value — ‘this is good,’ ‘this is what I should seek,’ ‘this is worthy of me as a human being,’ ‘this is what a human being could be,’ ‘these are the goals that we ought to pursue’…

So if you know how the world is (a scientific assessment of that — how the world is and how it will be if we continue in this way) and — and only if — you also have a deep understanding of what you value and how you think the world ought to be, then you can draw a conclusion about what you ought to do, what policies you ought to adopt. But in the absence of this discourse about values it’s simply impossible, as we find, to get from the facts to a course of action. So what I call for is a huge public discourse, a huge debate about what is important to us — what do we truly love? what do we love too much to lose? what would we give our lives for? what values do we hold? — and these will become a compass… that we can use to get from where we are to where we think we ought to be.

What is encouraging in our present efforts to right the ship of environmental degradation?

One thing that gives me some excitement about the possibility that we might be able to solve all these problems that we have on earth is the sudden realization (and I think it’s only been in the last couple years)…this realization that all of these issues that we face — climate change, species disappearance, water degradation, poverty, refugee issues — they’re all one problem. They cannot be disconnected and the problem has its basis in this view that we are separate from the earth and it exists for our profit and exploitation. If you believe that, then all these other things follow — that the immoral and illegal actions of corporations, the dumping of poisons on agricultural lands, the pushing of people out of their homes because of war or poverty or disease…all these things can happen if you think you don’t have any obligation to the earth and to the creatures of the earth.

And so when people realize the interconnectedness of all these problems, now we have a chance to dig deep, and now we have a chance to really go after the fundamental changes that we need to make in our worldview — our view of what the world is and what our place in that world actually is. So I’m excited about the way that environmental justice movements, for example, are linking up the people’s need for water, homes, and clean air and using that as a way of claiming the rights of the land or the rights against pipelines and so forth.

I’m also hugely encouraged by new alliances — the alliance of the First Nations people or in the United States the Native American people who are affirming these wonderful values about their relationship to the land, and putting that together with scientific knowledge about the effects of these practices on the land and coming up with very strong statements about what we as a people ought to do and what we absolutely ought to never do, this degradation of the land, this disrespect.

So the new alliances — this new connection between the needs of the earth and the needs of the people, the absolute interconnection between those two sets of needs — is a really important insight, I think. The Pope said it when he said we need to listen to both the cries of the earth and the cries of the poor. And I would go on to say it’s the same voice screaming.

This might seem a bit out of the blue, but something in what you have said makes me wonder what your thoughts are on E.O. Wilson’s ideas on biophilia?

I’m a big fan of E.O. Wilson and E.O. Wilson’s idea of biophilia. You know, there are a lot of philosophers, particularly in centuries before, who thought that human beings are basically selfish and violent and competitive beings that — as Thomas Hobbes said, without some sort of control from the government or from the church, without some sort of control — we would have lives of constant warfare, and our lives would be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. I do not believe that for a minute.

Everything I see tells me a different story about how human beings are. Human beings are born in love. Human beings reach out with their very first movements towards love. They are creatures who are constitutionally born to love. And of course they are born into loving situations too. And I truly do believe that that people understand that the world around them is an object of love and they reach out towards that as well.

So…I think |E.O. Wilson] is right that we have an innate capacity, an innate proclivity, to love the natural world…to love the beauty of the natural world…to love the nourishing of the natural world…to love — I’m going to say a funny word — to love the motherhood of the world.

And that, if it’s left unfettered, will lead us in directions that are positive and healthy for the planet. The problem, of course, is that they are not left unfettered. [As loving beings] we are born also…into a profoundly dislocated world where we are encouraged and taught at every step to be independent and competitive, where we are told that that the very best thing we can possibly be is some sort of cartoon superhero disconnected from the earth, in competition with one another, better than the earth, the lords of all creation…

And this is the old paradigm that does not serve us. And of course everyone is saying that we are in this paradigm shift where we are leaving that world behind, and coming up with a new worldview. Of course, anytime there’s a big shift in paradigm, there’s a big shift in power. And every time there’s a big shift in power, there will be bullies. There will be shouting. There will be violence in the streets. No one gives up power readily. So we find ourselves in this time when there’s a new worldview that is yearning to be born. And this is the view that we were born understanding — that we are connected to the world. We’re not better than it. We’re not in charge. Certainly we’re not in charge. And we thrive when we find ourselves in concert with the earth rather than in competition with one another or in a relationship with the earth that is one of master and servant.

What are your views on the rights of nature?

I was just down in Ecuador where they have passed a constitutional amendment that affirms the rights of nature, or Pachamama, the earth mother. It’s a very interesting idea and I think it’s a massive step forward. The idea is that — in the United States, for example, where I come from — natural objects have no standing. They cannot come into court and make a complaint on their own behalf. If I despoil a river, the river can’t come into court and complain and ask me to stop. But under this new legislation the river has standing. The river has value as almost a person in this new system. So for example, in a famous case in Ecuador, road builders dumped a bunch of rock in the river, and that river sued that highway company. It sued it for damages and the remedy went towards repairing the damage that was done to it, which is a remarkable change. In fact, they won that case — the river won that case. Unfortunately no one ever did anything to enforce the judgment. So while it’s one thing to say, ‘Yes! I truly believe and will vote for a constitutional amendment that grants rights to natural objects, rivers and mountains and streams and fields, the soil’…Until there’s a broader consensus it will be very difficult to make that happen in actual litigation.

What role can and should our imaginations play in our efforts to achieve a sustainable world?

I am desperately, deathly tired of this ethic of regulation — where people say how much damage am I allowed to do before someone will stop me? The corporate question — how much damage can I do before it becomes against the law and I get fined? And I am deeply yearning for, hungry for, desperate for an ethic of aspiration, where instead of asking ‘How much harm can I do?’, we ask ‘What can I aspire to?’…’What vision of the good can I create?’…’How can I use my moral imagination to put myself inside the hearts and minds of other people and understand how we might go forward together?’…’What is an honorable harvest?’…’Is it possible to raise crops in the land without wrecking it?’…’What is an honorable harvest of trees? Is that possible?’…’What is a truly honorable corporation? What would that even look like?’

So have our imaginations gone stale and dim? Or can we put our human genius (to imagine things might be different) to work? And to try to imagine (and imagine into being) new ways of interacting with one another and with the earth — that’s our challenge right now. We know what went wrong. We know the challenges we face. So we have to imagine the next world. We have to imagine ourselves into this Worldview 2, where we live in quite a different way on the earth. But imagine how beautiful it can be. Imagine how joyful it can be. Imagine how quiet it will be when we no longer have internal combustion engines. Image the clarity of the sky when the airplanes aren’t burning oil. Imagine…and that will be our way towards the future.

Bifrost gratefully acknowledges Prof. Robert Boschman of Mount Royal University, the conference Under Western Skies 2016 and the leadership of the research network NIES for making this interview possible. Grateful acknowledgment is also made to the Peace and Justice Studies Association for transcription assistance.

Credit: Moore, Kathleen Dean, Steven Hartman (interviewer and editing), Peter Norrman (recording) and Lea Rekow (transcript and editing). Transcript of full Bifrost Interview. Originally published in bifrostonline.org, 18 June 2018 (CC BY-SA 2.0).