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Decarbonizing Prudence: How Realigning Present Pleasure and Long-Term Thinking is Climate Action

The connection between prudence and carbon explained through aspects of character and community.

Published onAug 30, 2022
Decarbonizing Prudence: How Realigning Present Pleasure and Long-Term Thinking is Climate Action

“The people I love the best

jump into work head first

without dallying in the shallows

and swim off with sure strikes almost out of sight.

They seem to become the natives of that element,

the black sleek heads of seals

bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,

who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,

who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward

who do what has to be done, again and again.”

-To Be of Use by Marge Pierce


Morality is an under-appreciated answer to the question: what can we do about the climate crisis? It makes sense to think about how having good morals produces good decisions and therefore a better world, but achieving this beneficial loop is something that requires prudence. “Stay prudent” is something my parents would always tell me, but others may have heard prudence being spoken about in church, as it is one of the Cardinal Virtues. Additionally, hope aligns with prudence as a positive force that drives goals and objectives to occur based on one’s own merit. Wherever you have experienced prudence and hope in the past must now come full circle and be exemplified through sustainable acts against climate change. 

According to the VIA Institute on Character, prudence is defined as being careful about your choices, stopping and thinking before acting, considering long-term consequences, and exhibiting restraint.1 Prudence relies on the human basis of necessity and pleasure yet ties cautiousness into the decision-making process. The virtue of temperance, or the understanding of moderation and restraint, reflects these subjects in a grander scheme.  The trait of prudence influences people greatly, but something that’s pleasurable in the present may lead to something negative in the future. This is where prudence comes in. Taking time to comprehend that every decision you make has an impact on your future and therefore choosing options that are beneficial in the long-run epitomizes prudence. For example, smoking a cigarette may lead to what feels like pleasure in the moment, but down the line this can be cause for addiction and/or cancer. A person who has prudence understands that the small amount of pleasure derived from a cigarette is not worth the long-term outcome, therefore they would choose not to smoke.

There has been an increase in awareness regarding how character and climate change interact. At the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, a plea was made by saying “the dialogue and our response to the challenge of climate change must be rooted in the virtue of prudence.”2 This speech continues to detail how necessary it is to take into account that prudence is not only being cautious about one’s own decisions, but being prudent protects entire communities and ultimately the entire world. This is just one example of many that have been used in today’s  forms of publication and communication. Whether it's from a religious conference or through social media, the ties between morality and sustainable practices are everywhere and growing.

The morality behind being prudent about climate change allows for everyone to take a step forward into a better future with a healthier earth. It may lead to discomfort or a change in what has been normalized for you, but it’s worth the internal and external growth. Prudence has been carbonized, meaning an increase  in use and necessity of fossil-fuel/carbon-derived products, through things like the economy, material products, health, and transportation but as our world is changing and fossil fuel resources are being depleted, it is more important to understand how prudence is being decarbonized. Electric vehicles, the practice of carpooling, sustainable clothing choices, and politics are examples of this. Taking prudence and hope, as well as character in general, into account allows us to make better decisions for ourselves and for the environment. 

Carbonizing Prudence

Among our “carbonized” world today, it is difficult to surround yourself with only sustainable and eco-friendly options. By “carbonized”, I mean the world around us runs on carbon products derived from fossil fuels. Without carbon use, our way of life would be completely different and, in the opinion of many, inferior. In the past, we were unable to see that the use of carbon products would have such an impact on our entire world today and into the unforeseeable future.

The United States and its rise to global dominance is linked directly with the discovery and use of fossil fuels. Not only did America quickly grow to run this industry internally and overseas, creating a strong U.S.-based global economy, but carbon materials were employed by military use as well, allowing for a foot-up when it came to the World Wars and the Cold War.3 From the mid-1800’s up until the Obama Administration in 2008, little was done to examine the environmental effects of this American dominance, in fact much was done and continues to be done to keep our carbon-based life functional to the utmost potential. 

This potential of high-standard fossil fuel use is powered by the government. This can be seen through fossil-fuel heavy international trade and a lack of policy regarding sustainability. Politically, it has been easier to run on a campaign about better economics and more impressive technology than ozone depletion and the greenhouse effect - examining past presidential campaigns can exemplify this. The government stayed prudent on this end. The American people cared about what they saw in front of them and climate change policy was not a part of this. Speaking out against climate change had the risk of losing voters that did not believe in the science or did not believe that the decreased use of fossil fuels would be the proper next step for human-kind. This risk was not worth taking for many decades. The government’s perspective resided in the morality of hope as shown through how fossil fuels provide a strong material society that has proven to benefit the human race. There was no reason for them to change, therefore hope allowed them to lean into the fossil fuel industry and pay less attention to the climate change movement. 

The avoidance of energy transition from carbon to sustainable resources is not unfounded. Fossil fuel use and life expectancy are positively correlated, therefore it’s reasonable to assume that fossil fuels are good and the continuation of them would lead to a long, prosperous life.4 Hope was sustained because of this. The extraction of fossil fuel products from the earth also grew the economy and provided goods to people who would not have been able to afford them. The jobs and money in the fossil fuel industry created an overwhelming amount of possibilities for Americans. If you wanted a successful life, invest in fossil fuels. If you needed a job, work in the coal mines or -a more present example- work for a drilling company. Making these decisions were prudent acts. Prudence was necessary when people reevaluated what their life should be like, and this reevaluation generally contained fossil fuels.

Even today, people may feel it is wise to invest in companies that are based on fossil fuels, such as BP. They see money and fortune in gas and oil companies because the products they create are widespread in everyday use by most people. Since the reliance on gas and oil is so prevalent within our society, it indeed seems to be a safe -and prudent- choice to put money into companies that embark on these measures. This has been true for a while now, but because of the decreasing fossil fuel reserves, an energy impasse has been created. For reference, an energy impasse refers to a point in which no further progress can easily be made, generally stemming from two disagreeing sides that are stuck in a stalemate with each other.5

When it comes to the economic benefits of fossil fuels, this impasse means that there has seemingly always been and will always be -until we simply run out- the belief of consistent economic benefit from the fossil fuel industry. The world runs on fossil fuels and therefore would have to change drastically for there to be no more financial or business opportunity in this field. The impasse here is one between morals, time, and money -where money has been on a winning streak. 

Besides the economic benefits of a carbon-based society, the products associated with this change resembled prudence as well. Take plastic for example: plastic is generally marketed as being able to last basically forever, it's reusable, and can be formed to create almost anything. It would be natural for people to choose plastic over another material to make things with because of these reasons. The smart, long-term choice for a person to make seems to be to purchase plastic. Nowadays there are 24.4 trillion pieces of microplastics in the ocean.6 This number is continuing to grow by the minute. Although the state of the world is now degrading, the idea of this was nowhere in sight at the beginning of the creation and use of plastics.

Consider another case of carbonized prudence: cars, which are purchased with the intent of them being the safest and/or newest around. The vast majority of cars on the market are not electric or anywhere near eco-friendly, yet they are continuing to be bought and driven. Our society is based on petromodernity, being that our lives run on oil and the energy that it creates.7

The continuous prevalence of cars that need oil to run and the people that support this traditional make of car are big components of our continued petromodernity. Even electric vehicles (EV’s) are fossil fuel-derived products. They require plastics and coal-powered heat that allow for the making and shaping of their metals. Our petromodernity is prevalent no matter what perspective you take.

A personal example can demonstrate my point. My parents purchased a vehicle and labeled it the “family car” until I was able to get a license and drive that car myself. When they picked out this car, they wanted to make sure it was going to be safe for a new driver and would protect me if I ever got into an accident. With this in mind they exhibited prudence and hope with the cautiousness of their decision -just like most other car owners in the world. My parents ended up purchasing a completely metal -therefore heavy- SUV that gets maybe 13 miles per gallon. This means that the new family car was going to be responsible for using many gallons of gasoline a week for years. Although there were very few electric vehicles on the market when my parents were car shopping, with safety in mind we ended up with a greatly carbonized car in the making and the fueling of it.

Hope and prudence allow for the ties between morality and carbonization to be made. Whether it's because of economics, safety, or another important aspect of how the world works, using fossil fuels can be viewed as a necessary and a prudent choice to make. 

Decarbonizing Prudence

Vehicles are a form in which prudence has been carbonized, as previously stated, but they can also be a form in which prudence is decarbonized. 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide are emitted per year by cars, greatly contributing to the greenhouse effect and the climate crisis.8  Cars and other forms of oil-powered transportation were created by humans, and as they are a contributor to climate change this is proof of our anthropocene age, meaning the time in which we live as a human species having an impact on the climate and environment around us.9 Although the carbon that we have been using is naturally occurring, it wasn't until we began using it in grand amounts did climate change really start, fueling the idea of climate change being anthropogenic.10 Because of our use and abuse of these natural resources, our climate has changed and is becoming less suited for the success of many species, including humans. 

 In terms of decarbonizing our anthropogenic age, more electric cars have been introduced to the market and therefore more people have stopped relying on gasoline. Elon Musk’s Tesla created a shockwave around the United States, creating a need for charging stations in addition to the basic gas stations that are around every corner. The Nissan LEAF made its debut in 2010, but did not have as much of an impact as Tesla did due to the unpopular style design.11 Tesla produced fully electric cars that carried a different style than any other brand -such as their unique cybertruck-, but Toyota and Ford also had skin in the game with their hybrid vehicles that are more affordable than Tesla and a more eco-friendly alternative to gasoline powered cars. Now Ford has approached the market with fully electric trucks, a type of vehicle that has been associated with large gasoline intake. Toyota and Ford are known to be safe and reliable cars, and now that they are taking a sustainable approach, there seems to be a shift away from gasoline cars. Style and appearance of a vehicle is sometimes just as much a factor in choosing a car, but that is no reason to turn away from electric vehicles. Tesla, Toyota, Ford, and even Porsche have options that could satisfy many choices of car style. Within this rise of options in electric vehicles, more people are given the opportunity to make the prudent choice of purchasing a sustainable car than ever before.

In keeping with the concern of prudence, electric vehicles are shown to have lasting beneficial effects for the owner as well as the environment. The decision to choose an option other than gasoline powered cars is a great one. Electric vehicles may not be as widely sold on the market as gasoline cars -yet- but over time they require less financial stress due to fewer mechanical problems as well as less pollution released by driving them. Fewer charging stations than gas stations and fewer options on the market may create difficulty in the decision making process but with a future perspective, electric cars are the prudent choice. As introduced by the previous paragraph, there are many choices for the consumer to choose from, allowing prudent aesthetic pleasure to be had in the short-term as well as the long-term. The sustainable choice now aligns with pleasure as well as long-term consequences. To be prudent is to choose a vehicle that's beneficial to oneself as well as the environment even if there are small downfalls in the present. The decision to buy an electric vehicle is a prudent one. 

Continuing from the point of prudent and sustainable transportation, public transportation is a great contributor to this aim. Although most buses, trains, and options like UberPool are still generally run on gasoline, taking one vehicle instead of multiple is still an eco-friendly alternative to driving yourself. Many people dislike the idea of public transportation or carpooling for a lot of reasons, such as germs, being around other people when you'd rather be alone, or the hustle of reaching a place in which public transportation is an option, but when considering that it is cheaper and helps in the battle against the climate crisis, it is worth it. It takes prudence to know that how you get to work or school every day has a big impact on the world, not just yourself, and consequently change your actions. Therefore public transportation is a great example of taking a step in the right direction.

Transportation is necessary for most people, but so are clothes. With companies like Walmart, Target, or Shein that offer generally affordable and stylish clothing, it is easy to overlook the environmental impact an outfit can have. The majority of clothing comes from overseas and is made in factories run on fossil fuels. Additionally, the fabric and material that is commonly used in clothes is synthetic and therefore is a carbon product itself. Even cotton, a naturally grown material, relies on machinery run on gas, oil, or coal to be made into a fabric. When searching for sustainable clothing, it's practically impossible to find something that has no connections to fossil fuels. Luckily there has been a rise in thrift culture that allows for a more environmentally prudent alternative. The idea of wearing pre-worn clothes or “out-of-style” clothes is not a fan-favorite, but clothes can easily be washed or mended to suit oneself. Thrift and consignment stores are nearly everywhere nowadays, providing the opportunity for people to gain clothes new to them at a lower price while saving the world from more accumulated waste and carbon spent on fashion. Just in 2018 there was 17 million tons of “textile waste” found in landfills.12 This number can be and should be reduced if people took a step back and examined their decisions on what they put on their body. Prudence is composed of the evaluation of pleasure, therefore the short-term pleasure gained from purchasing a new shirt from Target that may be stylish now -but won't be in a month- is overcome by the long-term pleasure of purchasing a shirt that is sustainable, your personal sense of style, and cheaper. 

This sense of pleasure that is derived from sustainable and personal clothing choices also allows for an outburst of hope. Every time a clothing item is thrifted or passed down, a good deed is being performed for the environment, allowing hope and an honest decision to be made for the betterment of the world around us. Being prudent in sustainable choices creates hope within everyday items and actions that everybody can achieve.

To examine this aspect of sustainable clothing further, we must identify a huge source of the problem: fast fashion. Fast fashion is the production of a large amount of product within a very short period to cover the newer and most fashionable trends within that moment of time. Most fast fashion is made from non-biodegradable synthetic material which allows for cheap prices for the consumer but steep prices for the earth.13 Once more, there is definitely pleasure derived from finding a cheap and stylish outfit, but the way in which it is made, the transportation it takes to get to you, and the materials it is made out of all form a dangerous threat to the world. We, as consumers, need to judge our decisions for the long-term effects, not just the short-term ones. 

Our general unreflective use of unsustainable items has created our value of materialism. Studying the sociology of a materialistic society allows for the blame of our dependence to be placed on both policy and human behavior. Focusing on human behavior, it is easy to see that our social construct of fossil fuels has been normalized and institutionalized, making the reversal of our dependency very difficult to achieve.14 We are used to our world and how it functions; if we take away a particular part of this normalization then we wouldn’t know how to act. We must examine this closely and start to change on our own because soon enough our carbon-based lives will lose that base and we will be forced to change. Prudence comes into hand here. We must be very careful about the decisions we make and the things we are reliant upon. Judging every decision we make on the environmental impact it will have is now necessary for us to keep up with the degradation happening to the earth. And it's not just that this is necessary; prudence understood as an aspect of temperance reminds us that there is so much good to enjoy, so much pleasure that is worth sustaining into the future.

On the other hand, it may be easier to place blame on policy and government for our carbon-dependence. Our capitalist society based around material goods -and therefore fossil fuels- is considered a carbon democracy, being a democracy centralized on the import, export, and overall use of carbon. This poses the question: what happens when our reserves run dry? When a country is run on oil, coal, and natural gas, all political, economic, and societal norms are tied to it, leaving what would be a devastating conclusion when our resources are depleted.15 Although there were presidents in the past that advocated for a more sustainable approach, the Obama Administration was the strongest to voice and carry through with plans to better the environment and speak on the reality of the fossil fuel industry. President Obama was behind the Clean Power Plan which led to the United States’ involvement in the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015, reaching an international audience and a big step forward against climate change.16

President Obama exemplified prudence in an immense way: standing up for something that was not widely agreed upon -at least politically- during his time in office, having sagacity when it came to carbon use, and spreading cautiousness and hope about the climate crisis through his leadership. At Georgetown University in 2013, President Obama spoke about the state of affairs with fossil fuels and the rising temperatures and the effects they had been having and will continue having on Americans, such as less crop yield for farmers. He also discussed the environmental moves made by the government in the past, such as the Clean Air Act of 1970, and his own plans for a green initiative with sustainable energy.17 Although President Obama’s Administration was followed by President Trump, who held quite the opposite perspective on the climate crisis, steps were made to reverse the effects of our carbon democracy. 

Another important aspect of our carbon democracy is public health. The correlation between life expectancy and carbon use has been positive, but now that we have seemed to slow down that growth of life expectancy, it is easier to identify health problems that are associated with fossil fuels. Burning coal and oil leads to respiratory illnesses, heart diseases, organ failure, and cancer.18 Coal miners suffer quite directly from their work, developing pulmonary diseases from being exposed to the crystalline silica dust that they are surrounded by. In China and other locations with many factories run off of fossil fuels, the air quality can become so bad that people have to stay inside and be near an air purifier. Of course this is not possible for everyone, therefore causing disease and illness within the overall well-being of humans. 

These proven health problems have not slowed down the fossil fuel industry although they certainly should be enough to. Personal responsibility and prudence must be understood by people who rely on goods based on fossil fuels. Coal miners and people who work for or live around coal-run factories usually do not have a choice, probably because of financial reasons. But to help people who are suffering from carbon-induced illnesses we should take away the need for people to be around pollutants in the first place. For example, if fewer people participated in the purchasing of fast fashion, there would be less of a demand for workers in fast fashion factories that create and suffocate the people around them due to the releasing of pollutants. The simple act of not ordering a cheap but fashionable shirt from a company like Shein could aid in the health of an entire community. It takes prudence and wisdom to make this decision and claim responsibility, but that is what needs to be done to better the environment.19

To Conclude:

The climate crisis continues and so should the growth of morality. There is currently a  political and economic impasse but that does not mean the world should keep suffering. In the past, a carbon democracy was good, just like the technological advancements that came with the use of fossil fuels, but it is time to advance in a different direction. The scientific proof behind the climate crisis is becoming more widely accepted and therefore awareness is being raised. Changing something that seems so intuitive is difficult, but certainly not impossible. 

The carbonization and decarbonization of character is something that changes daily, but this allows for us to study our surroundings and make decisions for the betterment of ourselves and others. The necessities of life, such as clothing, shelter, and transportation, are difficult to change when they are set into routine, but sometimes doing things out of your comfort zone is beneficial. 

Dale Dorsey writes in his article Prudence and Past Selves, “If morality tells us what we owe to each other, prudence tells us what we owe ourselves.”20 With this in mind we must understand that our personal decisions we have made in the past are beneficial to ourselves now in that we have learned from them and we deserve to grow from them in order for us to have a better future. Our values change and so should our actions. As the climate crisis grows by the day, we must understand that all of our choices have consequences, but it is up to us to determine that those consequences should be beneficial for ourselves, our communities, and our earth.

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