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Ethics First: Compassionate Retreat

In contrast to the management-first approach, an ethics-first approach begins by identifying the mistaken assumptions about human-environment relationships that brought on the climate crisis, and indeed the Anthropocene itself. It then seeks new rules, or a rediscovery of old ones, for right conduct that can make an ecozoic view operational as a platform for reducing impact on Earth systems in ways that are fair and just. We envision this as a compassionate retreat—a step back from conquering nature, the “lesser” people, and ourselves. It is a step toward developing rules, institutions, and practices that mend the torn fabrics of Earth's life-support systems in which we live; an opportunity to relearn the ancient wisdom still held by the world's traditional peoples and, in so doing, to free ourselves from a selfinflicted tyranny.

The ecozoic view sees the universe as a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects. It departs from the technozoic view of humans as the only active agents in the cosmos and as ecologically and morally independent. It argues that there are many degrees and kinds of agency on the planet. And it acknowledges that many other human cultures exist in traditional communities all around the world that share this belief in treating the natural world with respect and reciprocity. These offer alternate rules, practices, and institutions as management models. An ecozoic view recognizes the unforeseen consequences of conquering nature, which is the potential to undo the fabric of evolution by simplifying complex systems in support of only one form of life: that of the conqueror. It counters simplification with an emphasis on diversity, redundancy, and respect for the alternate aims and ends of other agents. It supports democratic norms conducive to life within the Anthropocene.

Compassionate retreat is a way to make an ecozoic view operational. It has three key elements. First, it is mindful of scientific uncertainties regarding Earth systems and the potentially detrimental effects of acting on limited knowledge. It does not see scientific uncertainty as something to be overcome, but as something that is intrinsic to the way that we know the world around us. Because of this, it suggests a disposition toward the human-environment relationship that is tempered by humility and respect for other forces that also have important effects on the complex systems that coproduce the climate. As a result, contests over geoengineering are seen not as technical decisions, but as social decisions about how we want to live and steward the planet in an era in which technology is not simplifying our lives, but rather making them more complicated.

Second, compassionate retreat acknowledges that the current balance of power favors a minority of the world's wealthiest over the vast majority of others, who also bear a disproportionate burden of negative climate effects. This is unjust. Compassionate retreat acknowledges that there is no neutral arena in which to adjudicate the competing demands that face us from climate challenges, which means that the very idea of geoengineering could only legitimately go forward with the consent of those affected by it—and even then, only if it would be likely to improve those who are worse off, and if it respects alternate forms of cultural organization, political decision making, and choice.

Third, and perhaps most important, compassionate retreat implies rethinking the assumptions that brought us the climate crisis and the Anthropocene. It does not begin with the assumption that humans have rightful dominion over Earth. It rejects the idea that nature exists as a set of stable background conditions that Earth systems will revert to if we simply stop perturbing them. That is unlikely, given that humans have fundamentally altered planetary systems, such as the climate, that may take thousands of years to return to pre-industrial patterns, if they return at all.

Compassionate retreat requires recognizing that our existing legal systems are not grounded in empirical knowledge about the interdependence of humans or their communities, but assume that humans are independent agents rather than fully embedded in the earth's energy and material flows and in sociocultural systems of meaning. In fact, we have created a number of such systems—across economics, finance, law, governance, ethics, religion—that legitimate and foster a technozoic relationship with life and the world. But none of these has been critically rethought in light of the fresh understandings brought to us by the scientific revolutions of the last 200 years, nor by our radically changed circumstances. They are like orphans: their intellectual parents have died but they live on in teaching and practice. As a consequence, our mental maps of the world are not maps of where we are.

Compassionate retreat is a way to think about the transition from the technozoic to the ecozoic. In practical terms, it requires a movement away from economic growth for those whose needs are already saturated and the release of ecological space for those who lack the minimums required by justice; in the already rich countries, degrowth should become a goal of macroeconomic policy. It aims for a human population that can live within the human share of the earth's energy and material budgets. And it seeks to rethink the political, ethical, and governance “orphans” that have hastened our headlong rush into the Anthropocene. We must urgently redirect investment away from a fossil fuel-based economy to renewable energy sources— ideally diverting the vast sums spent on the military to these ends; coupled with an immediate end to inappropriate subsidies of the fossil fuel industry. In reaching and living in the ecozoic, atonement must be a central virtue—it forms one dimension of a moral foundation for healing the earth. Although, taken in any literal sense, ecological restoration to a previous state is impossible, ecological function and the restoration of flourishing life are well within reach. And this provides another incentive for a return to the ecozoic: the joy of the return of life. Rather than throwing yet more money to the banks, fiscal and monetary policy should be tied directly to the regeneration of Earth's life-support capacities. In this vein, we need to develop economic and governance institutions that, as ecological economists have shown, are not premised on indefinite growth and yet produce the ability to live well and justly on a healing planet.

Engaging in geoengineering so that we can continue business as usual, or buy time to fix a failing governance system, reveals a paucity of imagination and a technozoic conception of the human place on Earth and in the universe for which there is no evidence. By contrast, compassionate retreat offers a way to frame the tasks before us in the context of the ecozoic. It honors all members of life's commonwealth with whom we share heritage and destiny. It suggests that we cultivate an open disposition toward alternate cultural ways of life whose members live on Earth with respect and reciprocity. Our task within the Anthropocene is to re-learn what it means to be a citizen; not just of our earthly community, but of the universe. And it raises sharp questions about whether geoengineering is the latest version of the Faustian bargain struck by a wealthy minority who have brought life's commonwealth to an unwanted and undeserved, yet fateful, choice.

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