Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Babies, shoes, climate change

I'm a long-time lover of philosophy. Yesterday, I was watching the philosopher Peter Singer in the film Examined Life (2008), which I am pleased to say is available instantly on Netflix and was distributed by my cousin's company Zeitgeist.

Singer was standing in front of a Manhattan shoe store, selling, I believe, Manolo Blahniks--Carrie Bradshaw's favorite shoes in Sex and the City. Singer said that the setting reminded him of a hypothetical that he developed early in his career.

Suppose you were walking along and saw an infant in a very shallow body of water. You quickly determine that the infant will drown unless you instantly rescue her, but you will destroy your shoes as you run into the water.

Singer reports that nearly everyone says that they will save the child and damn the shoes. Yet for the price of a pair of expensive shoes, several starving children might be saved.

I see some limitations to Singer's argument, but it did get me thinking: What would people do if they realized that our current activities will be condemning billions of children to horrible and unnecessary deaths by starvation and dehydration?

The answer isn't obvious. At the website "Global Issues," Anup Shah reports that around the world 25,000 children die everyday:
The silent killers are poverty, hunger, easily preventable diseases and illnesses, and other related causes. In spite of the scale of this daily/ongoing catastrophe, it rarely manages to achieve, much less sustain, prime-time, headline coverage.
The question that floats through my head is how do we present the risk of global catastrophe in a way that compels action. Normally reasonable people who would never have a second thought about ruining their shoes to save a baby will argue that we need to build more coal-burning power plants.

An optimistic friend of mine believes that we will develop the technology to mitigate the effects of carbon and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. I sure hope he's right.

In the meantime, thank the Goddess for Annie Leonard, the creator of The Story of Stuff and this new video on cap and trade, who turns these complex issues into messages that are easy to understand and share.

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