Written by Jon Kahler
I can’t say that I had a very unique upbringing. Raised in suburban Brisbane in an upper middle-class family, there was nothing exceptional about my childhood. My family was never very environmental, and between my ten fingers not one of them were green. However, my parents always placed a strong emphasise on right and wrong, good and bad. Like any child this was instilled in me from a young age. Upon finding out about what was then known simply as global warming, I remember writing a letter to the Prime Minister at the time, John Howard. 7-year-old me had an amazing plan to create a machine that mimicked trees and sucked all the greenhouse gas out of the air, instantly solving the climate crisis. You can’t say I wasn’t ambitious. A few weeks later, I got a stock standard reply talking about the aspiration and innovation of future generations. My dream to single-handedly fix climate change was halted.
Flash forward to my late teen years, and I found myself reading the works of Australian philosopher Peter Singer. In reading his work on Animal Liberation, I was first exposed to the power of ideas. Not just theoretical or metaphysical ideas either, but the tangible change that is possible through applied ethics. From reading his work and seeing the concurrent vegan movement taking a stand against animal injustice, I was inspired by the possibility of true ethical change within our society. Not convenient change either, but fundamental shifts that questioned the norms of our society. If people were willing change their habits for animals, why can’t we inspire others to do the same for our ecosystems? This is what motivated me to pursue environmental ethics.
The word ‘ethical’ is used a lot nowadays. We hear of ethical brands, ethical fashion, ethical influencers and ethical businesses – a mostly contradictory term. I think many people use it, in part because they want to believe it is true. No one would want to consider themselves unethical. I know that is true of me at least. I want to strive to be an ethical person even though I know I will fall short. However, it took me some time to come to this realisation. Heading down a career of environmental philosophy, I came to understand that acting ethically is not easily done; being an ethical person is even harder. For a long time I was hoping that studying ethics would enable me to be a more moral person, but I quickly came to realise that studying ethics is not guarantee of a more moral character. When looking at the demanding-ness of any appealing ethical theory, it seemed hard to imagine myself upholding it. Sure, we have clothes that use hemp, people who don’t use single use plastics, or those who have given up international travel. But to be truly ethical, and devote oneself to the good life, requires a sacrifice most aren’t willing to make.
For some time, this plagued me. Despite studying a degree that emphasised both the individual and societal change necessary to create a more ethical world, I was not able to act on those ethical conclusions. Here I was asking ‘how we ought to act’, and then not following through. Instead I found myself criticising my every action. Any time I did something remotely anti-environmental I would feel dejected. Every time I used a single use plastic, bought something unnecessary, didn’t ride my bike or wasn’t campaigning, I had this sense of shame that I could be doing better; I could always do more. I think this is something that any environmentalist can relate to. For each waking moment you’re working against a clock. As time ticks towards doomsday, each minute is a loss. Habitats gone, species pushed further to extinction and pollution continuing to plume. It is easy for anyone in the environmental sector to see time away from work as time wasted. Or dare I say, unethical. Naturally, this can lead to stressful, self-destructive, or even counterproductive habits. And so, we must first look after ourselves, before we begin to tackle the larger issues of environmentalism.
For me, that meant coming to terms with ethical imperfection. I was never under the impression that I was morally infallible. But understanding how hard it was to even strive for an ethical life was tantamount to pushing a boulder up a hill. However, there is something to be said about the imperfection of our ethical decisions. It is only through those imperfections that we can more readily decide to be better. If we don’t question our actions – and more importantly learn from them – how can we ever expect moral change to occur? It is through our mistakes or our struggles that we can develop a greater pool of moral knowledge from which to draw from.
Whether we be environmental ethicists, conservationists, marine biologists or environmental activists, we can be humbled by our imperfection. Submitting ourselves to this fact can allow us to start acting with greater insight, not only in our moral life but also in our professional life too. Since realising my limits – both physically and mentally – I am able to make the best decisions in the now, for greater return in the future. So when I feel defeated or I feel the need to remove myself from the insurmountable odds that environmental work poses, I can be content in that choice. I can know full well that in doing so, I am saving myself, so that I can do my best to save the world tomorrow.
For more of Jon, check out @jon.kahler on Instagram