False Friends and Moral Hazards by Daniel Garrett

By Daniel Garrett:
I read not long ago an interesting study by scientists at McGill University published in “Global Ecology and Biogeography.”1) The conclusion was basically that the greatest impacts of climate change would be felt by the poor, by those least responsible for causing it. The title really interested me: “Geographic disparities and moral hazards in the predicted impacts of climate change on human populations.” The idea of a scientific paper containing the idea of a “moral hazard” gave me great hope. I have been taught that Tibetans, live, or try to live, in a profoundly moral universe. Everything is connected (Tb: trenjung) and every action has its result (Tb: lay). Knowing that Tibetans tend to be somewhat “materially poor” and except perhaps for the occasional passing of gas by yaks, not responsible for the looming calamity of climate change, I felt sure Tibet would be included amongst the regions to be most profoundly affected. So I was very disappointed to see that in the article’s map of the Climate Vulnerability Index (Figure 4) Tibet is mostly white, with just a few red (dangerous areas) and a few blue (less dangerous) areas. Reading the key it seems that: “White regions correspond to human density values of zero in the global gridded population database.”

Well yes. Tibetans know they don’t rank all that high in terms of “human density.” I think also most Tibetans I know try to spend their precious human lives hopefully not increasing the level of moral hazard. One can even say that much of Tibetan civilization is devoted to the creation of happiness by showing the way to escaping the suffering caused by desire. Tibetans largely determined as a people some time ago that an attachment to “things” is not a recipe for success. Don’t get me wrong. Tibetans are human. There are of course greedy Tibetans, too, and I myself am a typical “enji” with a long way to go before running through the extensive list of desires that still attract me, forewarned though I am about the inevitable suffering this will entail.

And I guess it can be said, that the desire of Tibetans to save their homeland, the unique and spiritually significant ecology of the Tibetan Plateau is a kind of an attachment. But is not the desire to save and protect, if not the mother of, than surely the sister at least, of compassion? Climate change is hitting Tibet hard, and its effects will only get much worse with time. Between the ravages of Chinese and multinational corporations’ raping of the sacred landscape for minerals, and what is predicted for climate change, one might think there is not much to choose from. But like all things, these two are also connected. It is the greed for things, and for the economy of things (as opposed say to the economy of mind or the economy of soul or the economy of compassion) that drives the despoliation, and then further dumps greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere which then further drives the engine of climate change.

Beyond the ravages of resource exploitation, it is climate change though that, unless mitigation efforts begin soon massively and in earnest, will probably toll the death knell for the plateau. Can anyone tell the Tibetans how to stop the loss of the permafrost which holds the moisture in the soil so that the grasslands are luxuriously productive and beautiful? If someone could tell them, they would find a way to husband the land. Can someone tell the Tibetans how to survive the alternations of violent weather events (massive snowstorms and downpours) punctuated by extended periods of drought? If someone would show them, they, of all people would survive. Tibetans have survived an attempt at physical annihilation. Tibetans will survive the present attempt at cultural annihilation, but how can they survive the loss of the land itself? Tibetans are the land of Tibet and it is them: it is their mother and their father: it does not have “low density values” but is thickly populated with every manner of god and goddess and spirit. And though some will accuse me of romanticizing I for one would not exchange that spiritual landscape for the one that science describes to me (though I will of course respect and use science as a tool: it is just that, one kind of a tool, one kind of a way of looking, one kind of a science).

I do not make this plea just for Tibet. It is the poor and those least responsible (as the report shows) that will suffer the most from climate change. No, I make this plea to those responsible. Please avoid the moral hazard you are placing on yourselves by ignoring the results of how you live your lives. As an American among Americans, I ask the United States in particular to lead: it is we who have the most responsibility for what is happening to the Tibetans and the poor everywhere. Though China now has surpassed us in terms of annual emissions of greenhouse gasses, we still hold the record for cumulative total emissions. The United States wants to be a friend to Tibetans. We have showed this in many ways. But in this, the most important issue of all, the physical survival of the Tibetan land itself, and it’s unearthly and yet very earthly spiritual beauty, its ecological profundity and ecological soaring into the highest heights of the Earth: in this issue, we must not be a false friend. We must move away as fast as possible from the technologies that are spewing slow poisons into our atmosphere. We must find a way to live in harmony with the earth systems that sustain all life. Only in this way can we be a true friend of Tibetans and of the Earth. And we ourselves will be happier.

The author is a former Foreign Service Officer, Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, U.S. Department of State.

The views expressed herein are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. Government.

The views expressed in this piece are that of the author and the publication of the piece on this website does not necessarily reflect their endorsement by the website.

1) “Geographic disparities and moral hazards in the predicted impacts of climate change on human populations.” J. Samson, D. Berteaux, B. J. McGill and M. M. Humphries, Global Ecology and Biogeography, (Global Ecol. Biogeogr.) (2011) http://chairedb.uqar.ca/documents/2011Samsonetal.GEB.pdf

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