Trump, The Ontologist

A full NZ cultural integration involves paying far too close attention to U.S. politics, and word has finally made it across the pond that Donald Trump has pulled us out of the Paris Climate Agreement. In doing so, Trump has added to his already impressive CV a new line: Executive Ontologist.

What’s an ontologist, you ask? Ontology is the study of what is, what exists. Trump, in his decision to to pull out of Paris, is entering this budding field, appointing himself as a decider of what will exist in the future. It’s natural, really: Trump already has lots of experience in this line of work. He’s focused and dedicated to making certain things exist: a ‘wall,’ ‘coal-fired power plants,’ ‘unborn fetuses.’ He’s well suited, then, for a promotion: deciding what won’t exist. Coral Reefs? Snow? Antarctic Ice Sheets? Trump plays an active role in whether these jumbles of letters will refer to anything real in the future.

It makes sense, then, that environmentalism is largely focused on keeping things around. We advocate to #protectourparks and #saveourwinters, we catalog lists of endangered species, we enact legislation like the Whanganui River Settlement Bill, and we, as Obama stated, hope to ‘protect for future generations the one planet we’ve got.’ The ‘planet’ here, in the broadest sense, is another ‘thing’ we feel must persist.

Intuitively, especially given the environmental tendencies of those who will likely read this, that makes perfect sense. Of course this beautiful river ought to exist into eternity. Of course a future world devoid of flowers and old growth forests and elephants would be inarguably bad, or at least worse than a world that contains these things. Some might even want to say that a world with flowers would be better than a world without flowers even if there were no humans left to appreciate them.

Latter claims aside, though, it is clear that couched in the ever-trendy ‘sustainability’ conversation, in these urgent appeals to ‘save things,’ is a deep concern for the welfare of future humans. The central concept here is non-substitutability of natural resources: there is something about these natural things such that future generations will be harmed if they don’t have access to them, even if they have more money and more ‘human capital’ than we do now. We want to say that, in this way future people will be wronged by Trump’s actions, supposing for the purposes of argument that pulling out of Paris will have some irreversal effect on the existence of certain natural features of the world. This kind of strong sustainability seems to imply that the existence of certain things is a necessary condition for human well-being and flourishing.

It seems, though, that this intuition isn’t so easily justified.

Let’s think about 200 years from now, and all the possible versions of earth that might exist.

World A has rivers and flowers, World B does not. But each world does have humans, and our second world does reap the rewards that the desecration of our natural world has been shown to cause: this natural capital has been transformed via our labor into human capital, and world B has some cool virtual-reality rivers and flowers that provide pretty similar benefits, and furthermore there’s some extra change around to pay people to write more books and do more scientific studies. The people in world A and world B experience and equal level of wellbeing — they live different lives but their lives are equally ‘good.’

This is not inconceivable, so long as you divorce yourself from your own well-being, which may very well depend on rivers and flowers. It doesn’t seem that there’s a direct relationship between the ‘wellbeing’ of the natural world (as it can be seen as having a well-being apart from humans) and the wellbeing of humans, doesn’t seem that coral reefs or polar bears or mountains are necessary conditions for human well being. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. It’s called the ‘environmentalist’s paradox: human well-being has actually improved as ecological well-being has declined.

So we might not be able to appeal to the notion that a life spent in nature is objectively better than a different kind of life. Even more damaging, though, to the #saveourwinters mentality is the notion that future people ‘won’t know what they’re missing’. In world B, future people will likely be just as happy with their virtual reality rivers, because, the thing is, Trump isn’t merely deciding the kinds of things that will exist in the world, but he’s determining the kind of preferences, or, more strongly, the kind of people. To clarify: What Trump entities decides will exist will constitute the set of options available to those that come after us, which will, in turn, determine their preferences, what kinds of things they choose to satisfy their well-being requirements.

Let’s say you’re trying to decide where to buy a summer family vacation home: Miami beach or a cabin in the Adirondacks (try to reserve your personal judgment on which one is better here). You ask your small children, but they are too young to respond. The thing is, though, if you buy the Miami house, your child will have a set of summer fun options that are far different from those at the cabin. She might get to choose between surfing and going to the mall, whereas in the deep forests of the Adirondack she might get to choose between hiking and swimming. Her set of options is different, the way in which she attains well being, her preferences and loyalties are shaped by her list of choices.

There’s a lot of objections to this little experiment, but the general point is this: future people, like your young daughter, don’t yet have a preference as to the kind of world they want to live in. Their preferences are determined by the world we leave for them, by our Executive Ontologist. Trump is deciding the set of options available to future generations, and, importantly, the set of options not available. If your daughter really hates Miami, she could look farther than her set of immediately available options to attain well-being. But in the case of future generations, if we destroy and denigrate the environment, this is not the case. If picking flowers is not a choice for wellbeing generation of future people simply because flowers don’t exist, future people aren’t having some freedom of choice denied to them because the option doesn’t exist in the first place. If your daughter is upset because she wishes she has the choice to spend her summer vacation living in Narnia, her sadness is unfounded: ‘Narnia doesn’t exist, honey. But look at all the fun things you can do in Miami!” In deciding upon the objects necessary to our wellbeing, we don’t add the impossible to our list, we don’t feel wronged that we can’t live in Narnia.

A world without flowers feels like an injustice, but it seems there might be a strong argument for Trump’s blatant presentism: if what we care about is the well-being of future people, and if their wellbeing can be obtained just as well in world B (virtual reality flower world) as world A (flower world), what obligation do we have to save the things that would make up world A? Given this, what are we to make of Obama’s statement that Trump is ‘rejecting the future?’ What moral reasons do we have for condemning Trump for saying things like “I try to learn from the past, but I plan for the future by focusing exclusively on the present. That’s where the fun is.”

I have some ideas up my sleeve, some moral reasons that might justify ‘saving things’ in a language other than the polarizing notion that ‘life spent in nature is just better.’ But I’ll stop here for now, let this ardent apathy and pessimism sit for a while, if only to give us some time to enjoy the mountains and rivers and forests that are, today and for me, undoubtedly necessary.