A Catalogue of ‘Green’ Virtues
27.8.1987., From “Il margine”, a presentation given at the conference “Politics and virtues” organised by “La Rosa Bianca”, Brentonico (Trento), 27 - 30 August 1987I would like to identify, without any claim to completeness, some of the possible ‘green’ virtues which may also have some importance in political ethics. The first of these virtues which I would like to call to mind is the recognition of limits. Undoubtedly, from this point of view, the new green awareness tends to overturn a cultural paradigm which has been dominant over the last two or three centuries, during which, the attitude has become established whereby, not only for economic, but also for cultural reasons, “everything which can be done, is done”.
In fact, there are even attempts to overcome the remaining limits - that is “in the case of that which still cannot be done, one takes action so that it soon becomes possible to do it”. From the green point of view, the logic of continual growth, this logic of the expansionist spiral (“produce more, consume more, dominate more, control more, regulate more”) is a logic that is undoubtedly in crisis nowadays, and not just because, at a certain point, the resources are revealed to be finite, and thus limited. The recognition of limits is not just saying “let us not eat everything today, because if we do, tomorrow we will not have anything left”, but means rather “perhaps it is better not to do certain things that are already feasible today, but which we are in no way able to control, and for which we are perhaps not even able to forecast the consequences”.
Think, for example, about the amount of genetic experimentation and manipulation ( and not just on animals) that is already possible today. Already today, in America, as a result of a sensational Supreme Court ruling, animals are being patented. To patent an animal constructed in a laboratory according to the alleged requirements (for example, a lot of meat and no bone, a lot of meat and little fat, or accelerated growth etc.) is, therefore, a type of intervention which is technically possible nowadays. I believe, however, that a ‘green’ virtue from this point of view, to which I would really ascribe the character of a virtue, is that of self-limitation, and in particular renunciation of all that which, in some way, causes general, irreversible, consequences. Nowadays many of the choices made, not only in the field of genetic manipulation, but also in apparently more modest areas, such as the construction of roads or covering square kilometres with concrete, are choices which appear largely, if not wholly, irreversible.
In this sense, perhaps, the virtue of self-limitation (I insist on the concept of self-limitation, which I believe is more virtuous than limitation undertaken under pressure) and probably also an attitude of greater modesty regarding the possible omnipotence that humanity (or at least a part of it) would like to propagate, means revaluing an objective that everyone has undoubtedly undervalued, and that is balance. Nowadays we often speak of restoring the balance, and where this is not possible, we ask, at the least, that the states of deterioration do not get worse. Nowadays, from the ecological standpoint, particularly in certain parts of the world, and also in some parts of our country, we find ourselves in situations of environmental ‘mutilation’, and we have to learn to live with this disfigurement.
But you could say that, in a certain sense, we adopt an attitude quite similar to that of the drug addict or alcoholic. The drug addict or alcoholic knows very well that drinking, smoking and taking various substances do them harm. They can also predict in general terms within what time frame certain consequences will become evident, but they do not succeed in stopping, because they are firmly caught in a vicious circle. From this particular point of view, I believe that one of the practicable ‘green’ virtues can be that of repentance, where, by repentance, I mean the attitude of someone who has tried excess, transgression and breaking the rules, and is aware of this, and does not have the same attitude of innocence as someone who has never sinned.
From this standpoint, our civilisation (in particular the triumphant and prevailing industrialism - Europe, America, Japan) cannot simply pretend to return to nature, and undoubtedly it cannot even stop in its tracks the logic of development and growth. Individual people and communities can do this, and they are doing so, by making very strict choices of lifestyles more in line with a measured and balanced relationship with nature. But an immediate halt en bloc to our whole system of production, consumption, traffic, and social organisation, is quite unthinkable. A soft landing, however, is perhaps possible, regarding which there is much work to be done.
This attitude, which I referred to as ‘repentance’, or perhaps potential ecological ‘conversion’, is undoubtedly an important ‘green’ virtue. ‘Conversion’ is not just a spiritual term (it is that, in a very strong sense) but also a term that can relate to production and economics. To reconvert, or convert, our economy, our social organisation towards relations with greater ecological compatibility and greater social compatibility, less injustice, less social divergence, and a smaller gap between privilege, on the one hand, and privation, on the other, is certainly a ‘green’ virtue.
Another ‘green’ virtue which I should like to mention is conscientious objection. I do this with particular conviction and emotion in an environment which recalls the “Rosa Bianca”1. It is the capacity to say no to the powerful (and not only the government, the carabinieri, the Ministry of Defence who sends the call-up papers, or other such things) but also the capacity to make anti-consumer objections, objections to television conformism, objections on the part of workers or technicians to the production of weapons. Even in Italy there have been some cases of workers or technicians, who have refused to consider themselves simply a link in a production line, a cog wheel which never carries any responsibility for the system as a whole.
In every criminal system, all those who were not at the top have defended themselves with the opposite argument, saying “I was a small cog, I couldn’t influence the mechanism as a whole”. Nowadays we find ourselves increasingly, in the daily experience of many, facing mechanisms which are so perfect, so all-embracing and totalitarian, that in practice it is not enough, in my view, and in the practical conviction of many greens, to struggle to change the system (something of which we will not deny the fundamental importance). It is necessary, additionally, to refuse to make one’s own contribution, even under compulsion - extorted by means of the law, and sometimes even with violence going slightly beyond the law - which would make us pieces of the mechanism.
In this sense, I support, while knowing it to be a hopeless struggle, refusal to pay taxes for military expenditure. Nowadays there are a certain number of people - I am one of them, and by now there are hundreds - who are expecting judicial action to recover our “ill-gotten gains” - that is, what we have in this way subtracted and allocated to projects in the Third World, or for projects to develop methods of non-violent defence etc.
I would like to mention briefly two other aspects of virtue (or rather, ways of thinking) that I consider particularly important. One is to give priority to the utility value over the exchange value. Nowadays we are strongly conditioned by such a profit-orientated system, and are such slaves of a purely economic logic, that everything is valued according to what it can earn in the marketplace. Giving priority to the utility value over the exchange value can mean many things: from recycling used goods, to the matter of recognising the value of everything that we use. This includes those things that are now treated as commodities, like drinking water or breathable air, and their reduction to the exchange value (water, for the time being, costs little; the water company asks little for it) results in harmful effects - for example, water can be left to run and go to waste.
The second of these ways of looking at things, which I wish to mention, is an application of this hypothesis. It is the decision to favour subsistence over profit and the market. What does this mean? I think the greens must work a lot on this, to see if there exist feasible models (even in an industrialised society) in which the economy, instead of being orientated entirely towards the market, is mainly favourable to subsistence - that is to getting by, living, probably with a more frugal quality of life, but not, as a result, one less rich in satisfaction.
Nowadays, in countries like ours, we have somewhat limited zones of subsistence economy. Undoubtedly, in certain Alpine areas, in many southern areas, there are still many things which are not bought and sold. These include mutual help between neighbours, many agricultural products, and assistance to the old and infirm. But we know very well that the tendency is to commercialise everything, to buy everything, to sell everything.
To favour subsistence over the market means to put oneself in opposition, and to try, in some way, to bring about a re-conversion in respect of this dominant trend. To attempt a summing up, I would like to offer you the following thought. It may be that I am saying something risky and not fully verified, but it is as follows. Perhaps the quintessence of what we are accustomed to call progress, and to emphasise as progress, is the growing capacity humanity has reached (at least in industrialised lands) thanks to science and technology, to disconnect, to remove from each other as far as possible, costs and benefits.
I realise that, put like that, it sounds abstract, and I will try to explain it. Nowadays, for example, someone who turns on the tap and lets water come out, has the advantage of clean drinking water. But everything that exists in the mountains and valleys, the whole hydrological economy, everything that is necessary so that we have the water, and everything that happens to the water after we have used it, is beyond our horizons. Similarly the genetic manipulation of animals is an attempt to have only the advantages and reduce to the minimum the disadvantages.
More generally, our capitalist system (but this applies also where the organisation is not capitalist, even if to a lesser extent) has achieved a great capacity to devolve the costs on to others in relation to those who receive the benefits. On to others - in the sense of devolving the reckoning, devolving the payment to them, to other social classes, to other geographic areas, such as the southern hemisphere, the Third World etc., or devolving it in time, to the generations who will come afterwards. Here, in our region, we have zones in which the woods felled by the Venetians of the time to fit out their fleets for sailing to the Orient, the deforestation of that time, still manifests to this day its damaging effects. But compared with the damage we are doing now, of course, this is a very small matter.
This, then, is the separation between costs and benefits, benefits for us and costs off-loaded elsewhere. All our economic cycles are a confirmation of it, it seems to me, in the sense that our economic system has fictitiously transformed costs into money, but the true cost does not appear anywhere. This system of separation is undoubtedly very difficult to change, especially because it involves the share that each one of us knows they have available, and often also consume. If we were to multiply it by five billion (the size of our world’s population) our energy standard, that is, our energy ‘expenditure’ (not in financial terms, but in terms of energy which we consume that is not ours) would undoubtedly be insufficient for everyone. Even in this case there are those who consume too much.
The idea of getting everyone to an energy standard, such as ours, is clearly impossible, assuming that we do not want to spread nuclear power stations all over the globe. From this point of view, it seems to me that there is a great difficulty (and this is, of course, a political question) in somehow finding a place, a centre, where the ecological arguments, the arguments for present and future ecological survival, can be reconciled with the arguments of democracy. Democracy, as we know it today, is the democracy of the big consumers of energy, the democracy of those with full stomachs. Relative to the rest of the world, it is the democracy of those who administer the relatively privileged part of society and of the planet, often according to criteria showing little ecological responsibility towards the planet and humanity as a whole.
So I believe that the context in which one can, to some extent, establish for people a perceptible, and therefore convincing, link between ecological arguments and our choices, can only be a local one. Only in a very local context is it possible to say “I do not pollute the water, not because there is a policeman to fine me, but because there are all the others who need to use it, and after me there will be yet more”. Only in the context of a recognisable community - not abstract and artificial, not purely on paper, and not ideally conceived - do I believe that an ecological argument - an argument thus inviting self-limitation and the practice of some of the virtues I have mentioned - can be convincing.
Then it can become established - not because there is an enlightened ecological dictator who says “you must drink only a little water, you must use only a little electric current, you must limit your use of the car, you are forbidden to go on the roads in the forests, we are putting the carabinieri alongside the mushrooms to check that you do not take too many” - but from an independent conviction. A logic of purely bureaucratic, authoritarian or repressive administration of the resources, and the ecological and social balance of our planet, is a logic that is difficult to find convincing or motivating. From this point of view, I believe that a strong ethical impulse, in a positive sense, is needed - not just the fear of not managing to survive - but also a recognisable context, a liveable context, within which the ecological balance has a sense that everyone can share and check the validity of. Something which, I think, also has contraindications. Often the local community can be the one that says - “So that the tourists will come, we will build another seven ski lifts, and if necessary, we will construct a new mountain, because the old one is no longer big enough for the number of tourists we want to accommodate”.
It is not the case that the local community, local autonomy, is automatically the decisive factor, but if one does not find a circle within which (as in almost every real recognisable community) self-limitations make sense, which is not just the fear of a fine, or penalty, or repression, the argument will not stand up. If one does not find a context within which the ecological argument can be combined with democracy, then, probably, the virtues of which I spoke earlier, risk being a noble, minority, exercise in ecological asceticism, a noble exercise in solidarity, but not an exercise capable of reversing the tendency, or even slowing down or halting the decline, which is something that, on the other hand, we would like to achieve.
From “Il margine”, a presentation given at the conference “Politics and virtues” organised by “La Rosa Bianca”,
Brentonico (Trento), 27 - 30 August 1987