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Decarbonizing Fairness in the Age of the Anthropocene

Investigation of how our sense of fairness has been shaped by our use of coal, oil, and gas.

Published onMay 05, 2022
Decarbonizing Fairness in the Age of the Anthropocene

“Human activity has brought my kind to the brink of extinction, but I don’t blame them for it. They didn’t do it maliciously. They just weren’t paying attention.”1


This may feel strange for a minute but imagine you are a parrot. You are watching as humankind searches for extraterrestrial life. Their desire to make a connection is so strong that they’ve “created an ear capable of hearing across the universe.”2 Yet, you wonder why they aren't interested in listening to your voice? As a non-human species capable of communicating with them, you feel like you are exactly what humans are looking for. Yet rather than receiving appreciation, you watch as they bring your kind to the brink of extinction. You think if only they knew what they were doing, and if only they paid attention.

Sometimes, as human beings, we must take a step back from our practices and norms to appreciate how truly strange they can be. It is easy to get caught up in our day-to-day routines and we often fail to really question our values. Yet, we are currently living in an epoch titled the Anthropocene, marked by conspicuous human effects on the planet. Many of us have grown to see nature without intrinsic value, reducing it simply to its use for human projects. Think about it this way, in our current economy, a tree or a whale is worth more dead than alive.

This year’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirmed what we have been hearing for years: climate change is not a future threat, it is happening right now, and it’s getting worse. The IPCC report called this moment a “code red for humanity.”3 The time to act is now, not tomorrow, or next year. We are responsible for the future, and those who dedicate themselves to understanding the science of climate change are at one in charging that it is time to collectively act like it.

In this chapter, I investigate how our sense of fairness and justice is shaped by the use of coal, oil, and gas. I argue that our understanding of fairness has been carbonized, warped into by becoming an anthropocentric virtue under the regime of fossil fuels. I explore the oppressive structures perpetuating environmental injustice, drawing on ecofeminist and Indigenous thought in order to decarbonize fairness and cultivate a more relational and ecological kind of fairness. This leads to the hope of growing towards a kind of fairness that cares for the webs of life that keep generating life into the future.

There's this big problem of unfairness, injustice, and broken relationships that lie at the root of climate change. Our environment provides us with many services including ecosystem services, provisioning services, regulating services, supporting services, and cultural services, and yet we tend to still view nature without intrinsic value. If you examine our large-scale agricultural system, you can observe the increasing scale and decreasing diversity. The treatment of animals in large-scale concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) is a case in point: animals are forced to spend their entire lives in extreme confinement with a lack of pasture, fresh air, or natural light. I am not saying that the eating of animals is unjust, that is something for you to decide for yourself. Rather I am saying that CAFOs reduce animals' lives to their barest utility value to humans. Animals are bred and kept alive to slaughter. We often forget or maybe it's easier to neglect the fact that animals feel stress, anxiety, and fear like humans. However, our environmental crisis does not only expose a lack of fairness towards animals and the environment; it also reveals a lack of fairness towards certain groups of people.

It is not only the non-human facing the wrath of our fossil fuel obsession. We are living in the age where carbon fuels the global economy, a situation that is not predicted to change anytime soon. Our cheap fossil fuels come at a cost and this current energy system is highly unjust. For instance, 1.1 billion people are still living without any access to electricity.4 Beyond this, the costs of fossil fuels have largely been shifted onto the economically vulnerable and the politically disenfranchised. Environmental injustice can be seen throughout communities across the globe. For example, many areas in rural India, Nepal, and Pakistan do not have sufficient infrastructure for handling women’s menstruation which causes environmental degradation to local water and pollution.5 In India alone, “128,000 schools do not have functioning toilets, and 61,000 more have no running water.”6 Therefore, many girls and women are forced to stay home during their menstruation because of the lack of necessary sanitary equipment. Marginalized groups, like these women, have been systematically excluded from the decision-making process concerning both water and sanitation despite being the ones who have the most knowledge on this issue since they directly experience it.7 Unfortunately, the true costs of fossil fuels aren't always obvious, and their impacts can be disastrous.

These problems all point to a growing sense of ecological awareness that we are all interconnected; the atmosphere, the land, humans, plants, and animals all rely on and affect each other. It is time to consider and recognize the human and non-human costs of our actions toward the environment. Oftentimes we hear that new technologies will save us from our environmental crisis. Yet, if humans perpetuate this belief that they are separate from and superior to nature, technologies that are not even invented yet will not be enough. Beyond not being enough, rather if we fail to address the root problem, these technologies might simply exacerbate the problem. This is because the environmental crisis is also a humanitarian crisis, and we must begin to treat it this way.

We as humans have a “limited local” view as no one can see the world globally and no two organisms experience life the same way. However, our ecological crisis has become globalized, “‘which often function to mask and whitewash/greenwash the lived realities and responsibilities of different groups of people across the world in the name of totalizations such as ‘Our Common Future’, ‘Spaceship Earth’, ‘The Anthropocene’ or ‘Sustainability.’”8 This active globalization of an issue that disproportionately affects people based on race, religion, gender, and class, totally disregards the experiences of those who have been systematically marginalized. Natural disasters may be unbiased but human-made disasters are not. As climate-driven natural disasters continue, it is apparent that our current ways of thinking are not sustainable. Many people think it is our actions that need to change, which is definitely true. But it is essential to realize that our actions reflect our values, cultures, and morals. So, in order to have a just energy transition, we must rethink what it means to be fair.

Investigating Fairness

According to the Values in Action (VIA) Institute, the character trait of fairness falls under the virtue of justice. The VIA describes a fair person as someone who “adheres to principles of justice, doesn’t let feelings bias decisions, and offers equal opportunity to all.”9 To understand fairness one must understand that what is fair for one person may not be fair for another. Fairness is a cognitive judgment capacity that involves reasoning and making judgments.10 It can be broken down into two types of reasoning, justice reasoning and care reasoning. Justice reasoning emphasizes logic and determining moral rights, whereas care reasoning includes empathy and compassion. Care reasoning emphasizes the need for the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

It is important to note that fairness is more than just a concept. It is valuable in guiding one’s moral character and bringing positive change to the world. This is because fair-minded people are more likely to engage in prosocial behaviors as they are able to think outside of themselves.11 By taking on other perspectives and putting away one’s own bias they can make powerful connections. Research shows that thinking about others and growing in fairness brings about higher personal well-being.12 Compassion, compromise, and a sensitivity to social justice are essential components of fairness and help promote the ability to understand people's differences and value those differences.13 Fairness is critical because having a good moral compass allows one to navigate conflicts more effectively. And right now, we are facing one of the biggest conflicts to date, climate change.

Carbonizing Fairness

Fairness encourages respect, responsibility, leadership, and trust. All these things are extremely important as they not only affect an individual but also a community. However, a lot of what we define fairness as today is anthropocentric or human-centered. Our common conceptions of fairness often always leave the non-human out of the picture. One everyday example is a mother who expresses that her contribution to the concept of worldwide fairness is to raise aware, empathetic, and loving children.14 She says this because she hopes that their home is fair enough that they can see a difference between how she treats them and how others treat them. This is a valuable lesson to learn as a young child as learning and applying the concept of fairness helps lay the foundation for developing empathy and sensitivity towards others. Yet, we must also acknowledge that we are often teaching children that fairness centers around only treating other humans right; the nonhuman is almost always left out of the equation. This is troubling because it is common to hear that in order to begin to combat our climate crisis, we must treat nature with empathy and reestablish our relationship with the non-human. We frequently listen to our mothers to learn how to be fair and just. But how often do we listen and try to learn from Mother Nature about this concept, as without her we would all cease to exist? When industrial societies unleashed the power of fossil fuels, they unleashed a new mentality where humans believed that they are separated from and above nature, a mere machine.15 This mentality, which can still be seen today, drove new ideas of what it means to be fair, as we feel that we are separated and above anything organic. It may seem strange to think but when we embody traits we carry fossil fuel histories with them, so it is important to investigate how our sense of fairness may be shaped by the use of coal, oil, and gas.

But how? Szeman, the director of the research group Petrocultures Research Group, brings light to the idea that our desires, identities, practices, expectations, characteristics, and habits have all been massively shaped through our use and dependency on fossil fuels.16 Fossil fuels have sculpted our understanding of the world, like how we imagine ourselves in relation to nature, and in relation to one another. We use them to get from one place to another, to communicate with each other, and we use them to make the foods we eat. The list goes on and on. Our everyday lives are made possible by their existence. But how come we fail to really notice this? Szeman explains that energy is part of what can be described as our “social unconscious”, meaning that it is fundamental to who and what we are. However, it also means that we as humans have preferred to not (or have not been able) to recognize the broad cultural and social significance of fossil fuels.17 Therefore, the energy transition must involve a thoroughgoing social transition, too. So, in order to make an adequate energy transition, we must first change how we think, imagine, see, and hear.

Failures of Fairness

In order to change how we think, imagine, see, and hear, we must first look at the histories that brought us here. Ecofeminist thought provides a way to understand how an anthropocentric form of fairness became normal. The Western way of thinking has stemmed from dualism, which divides entities in half, giving one entity more power over the other. It follows a hierarchy that separates “mind from body, spirit from matter, male from female, and humans from nature.”18 ​​As ecofeminist thinker Ariel Salleh argues, this unconscious hierarchy places emphasis on humanity over nature, production over reproduction, and reason over chaos.19 This places nature and those closely related like women, peasants, and indigenous people as an outsider. As Salleh points out, we need to accept that we as humans are nature, and not separate or more powerful entities. In regard to humankind, we need to understand that our differences in humanity like gender, religion, social status, race, and age, must all be valued and heard. To begin to do this, we must deeply examine the systematic structures that lead us to this place.

Our history is dark, founded on deep racism, sexism, colonialism, and exploitation of people and nature. The documentary Rise by Vice investigates the ongoing environmental rights battles still facing many Native American and Indigenous citizens.20 The stories reflect the ongoing history of native resistance to colonization and give a face to communities fighting for their most basic rights. It displays the consequences of the greed of the fossil fuel industry and the troubles they have brought upon Indigenous communities and nature. For example, oil, gas, and coal activity in the United States has overwhelmingly taken place on the ancestral lands of Indigenous peoples. The fossil fuel industry often benefits from the externalization of their care, land, and culture. For example, in rural North Dakota, oil and gas plants have been constructed with little regard for the impact they would have on the Fort Berthold Indigenous community that populates this area. Lisa Deville, a resident of Mandaree, North Dakota, expresses her concern for the toxic methane gas that is constantly polluting this reservation’s air. She shares her distress about “how oil and gas production is disproportionately impacting Native American lands, having seen its devastating effect on Fort Berthold Reservation.”21 On this reservation alone, there are around 1,500 oil and gas wells, which are flaring constantly. Deville describes how “you can see gas flares in every direction you look. They sound like the roaring of a jet engine, and they can light up the night sky as bright as day.”22 Therefore, it seems as though the fossil fuel industry lacks compassion, compromise, and a sensitivity to social justice which are essential to fairness.

Indigenous populations have continuously been left out of political, social, and economic conversations. Many of the environmental problems that Indigenous communities must confront today are directly rooted in colonial thought leading to “a history of violence against indigenous peoples and the appropriation and exploitation of indigenous land and resources.”23 Colonialism, as a construct, has served as a way for the dominant culture to try to erase their traditions, and the impacts of this are still seen today. However, it is a principle of justice to keep these traditions alive. So maybe it is time to think, what can be learned about decarbonizing fairness by those who have been the objects of unfairness?

Chandra Mohanty, a feminist postcolonial scholar, explains how “Western feminists leading development projects tend to depict Third World Women as victims in need of Western help; such homogenizing portrayals deny the diversity of women’s locations, experiences, and knowledges.”24 In the article The Gender and Environmental Debate: Lessons from India, Shiva describes how “Third World Women” have specialized knowledge of “species varieties and the process of natural regeneration” due to their roles in society since they are the ones engaging with nature at the forefront.25 This important knowledge has been systematically marginalized in modern science and the Western worldview. These women are victims of the destruction of nature while also being the ones with the perspective to help stop environmental degradation. Similarly, in the chapter Mothering in an Age of Extinction, Amy Westervelt explains how climate anxiety amongst mothers is rarely addressed and often dismissed. Yet in many marginalized communities “community mothers” are the ones leading the charge to clean up the water, get transit working, and protect and care for their neighbors.26 Rather than being praised, these women are often viewed as politically immature. Yet, this sort of backward thinking can be linked to what got us into this crisis. Marginalized communities and women often carry the burden of the climate crisis and yet are left out of the conversation when it comes to political change. How is this fair? The answer is simple, it is not.

The United States gets 81% of its total energy from oil, coal, and natural gas, all of which are fossil fuels.27 We often think about how we depend on those fuels to heat our homes, run our vehicles, power industry, and provide us with electricity. Yet, if you open your eyes, the presence of fossil fuels is much stronger and more ubiquitous than you may think. We wear them, eat them, and breathe them. Think about an iPhone. Most of the natural resources in an iPhone have materials that can only be obtained by mining and there are more than 100 different types of materials extracted for a single iPhone.28 There are many social impacts caused by this extraction including human rights abuse, violence, and the lack of health and safety standards. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, over 50% of the mines are controlled by armed groups or independent militias.29 Beyond this, in the assembly stage alone the total carbon footprint is at least equal to around 25%-50% of the Philippines' annual carbon emissions.30 This is a country of over 100 million people. It is crazy to think about how a phone measuring around 6 inches, can be responsible for such a large ecological and social impact. It is even more astonishing to think about how little people tend to acknowledge this. Even though it can be hard to notice sometimes, our everyday lives are made possible by the presence of fossil fuels. So, this leaves me thinking, is it possible to wean off fossil fuels in a way that is just?

Growing Towards Fairness

In a piece entitled "Growing Toward Justice," Paul Woodruff develops the idea that rather than focusing our energy on becoming just we must shift the narrative to this idea of growing towards justice. As Woodruff explains, the act of becoming just would be arriving at a state of justice after starting out from a condition without justice. However, as he argues, this is not possible for human beings. Humans cannot arrive at justice because as he states, “justice is an ideal to which we humans can aspire and toward which we can grow.”31 Additionally, humans can not start from a condition of no justice, because justice builds on itself; we become more just by practicing justice. Therefore, instead of focusing our energy on this unattainable idea of becoming just, he believes that we must center our attention on this idea of growing towards justice.

To back up his argument that we must grow towards justice, Woodruff bases his work on Plato’s theory of justice. Based on this theory, he describes how justice is a virtue of character, shared by individuals with their communities.32 This is because individual justice is fed and nourished by justice in the community. An individual cannot grow toward justice on their own because they need their communities and families to also be committed to justice. This is because as he explains, growing toward justice is like learning to speak a new language. Someone cannot learn to speak a language without first becoming a member of a community that speaks that same language. Likewise, a person's character traits cannot develop in isolation, but rather are deeply affected by the values that are seen within their communities.

This idea that individuals cannot grow toward justice on their own and need their communities' help relates to our climate crisis. The fossil fuel industry and big businesses tend to make the climate crisis an individual problem to shift the responsibility from them to the consumer. They say things like if you just recycled, ate less meat, or drove less, then we would not be in this position. They act as if the problem could be explained by individuals all lacking a sense of justice. This leaves the individual feeling helpless and tends to lead to inaction. However, if these large corporations keep with business as usual our ecological and social problems will only grow larger. As environmentalist Mary Heglar puts it “the more we focus on individual action and neglect systemic change, the more we’re just sweeping leaves on a windy day.”33 So while using paper straws can seem like a meaningful starting point, it can also be a dangerous stopping point. Therefore, in order to have a just energy transition, we can no longer act as though individual actions are enough. We must rather grow towards justice with the help of the community and the wisdom of the community’s leaders. Like Woodruff expresses in this chapter, a community that leads by example and has the goal to improve with respect to justice, can help the individuals in that community to grow towards justice. Therefore, when thinking about the climate crisis, we must emphasize how important communication and creating a collective vision is with regard to fostering change and decarbonizing our virtues.

Our sense of fairness has been shaped by our use of fossil fuels. Fairness under the regime of fossil fuels has come to be an exclusively human concern. Even worse, ecofeminists argue that it has become a concern only for a very small slice of humanity. To restore fairness as a fully relational and ecological virtue in the time of climate change requires us to decarbonize it. This can be done by listening to and learning with those who have been the primary victims of fossil fuel unfairness. They are the ones generating ideas, values, and practices for moving beyond the injustices of oil, gas, and coal, into a world after fossil fuels. As we are moving towards new energy solutions, we are given an opportunity. One where we can redefine what it means to be fair. We can keep doing more of the same, or we can decarbonize fairness and make character an ally of climate justice. We can shape a kind of fairness that not only focuses on the human but also extends to the nonhuman. If we work collectively to grow towards justice, we may be able to live in a society that embraces diversity. We must work together collectively to empower change within ourselves and in turn shape a future our children and Mother Earth would be proud of.


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