I’m tempted to take the high moral ground when it comes to issues like the mining of coal seam gas, or whether climate change has its origins in human activity. The trouble is, ethical arguments emerge on both sides of the polarising debate that inevitably surrounds the resource development sector:
The CSG industry will provide jobs, export earnings, taxes to fund schools and hospitals;
Burning fossil fuels causes global warming;
Exporting energy can help developing nations improve their living standards;
Tree clearing will cause the extinction of species;
And so on.
So when Pope Frances brands the destruction of South American rainforests and other forms of environmental exploitation as a ‘sin of our times’, the Anglican Communion Environmental Networks declares the wilful destruction of the environment as a sin, and the Prime Minister of Australia states that blocking the Adani coal mine on environmental grounds would be ‘dangerous’ for Australia and ‘tragic’ for the world, I wonder what benchmark to use to find the right balance when there are competing ethical considerations:
Is the absolute integrity of the environment to be preserved, regardless of the cost?
Can assessments be made about maximising the common good, as a way of reducing reliance on an ‘emotional’ appeal to a sense of morality?
Can we rely on policy decision makers to be ethically and ideologically responsible in their exercise of considered informed judgements?
I find myself between a ‘rock’ and a ‘hard place’.
Initial impressions of Ross Garnaut (who advised the Australian Government on climate change) declaring that climate change is a ‘wicked problem’ suggest more of the same. But it’s not. He means that the problem is intractable, that the nature of the problem changes as you seek to find solutions. A bit like finding alligators, when your original task was to drain the swamp and you didn’t know the alligators were there!
A wicked problem is like an iceberg, where most of the iceberg’s mass lies beneath the surface. Developing solutions can give rise to new problems, as instanced by the difficulty in achieving international consensus on climate change action. The nature and complexity of the problem alter as solutions are explored.
But how do we respond to wicked problems? We seek to ‘tame’ them by reducing their complexity to a few simple propositions:
Humanity does/does not cause global warming.
CSG mining is OK so long as we have sufficient environmental protection in place.
All we need is informed, rational decision-making.
It’s simply a matter of finding the right balance that maximises the common good.
And therein lies part of the ‘wickedness’ of the problem. We delude ourselves into thinking that we can solve such problems by breaking them down into a few simple and manageable elements rather than wrestling with their evolving, dynamic complexity.
But even more insidious than this is our lack of consideration of the interests of Land. It is the forgotten ‘other’ that barely gets mentioned in policy debates without reference to human utility. So should I even seek to aspire to taking the high moral ground if such action just reflects self-interest?
Yes, I conclude, mining CSG is a truly wicked problem, but not just because of its complexity. For it also presents the strong temptation to ‘pass by on the other side’ in pursuit of my own welfare, as solving wicked problems is just too hard for me. Where is there hope for the future in this?