Care is a relationship: Exploring climate distress and what it means for place, self and community

As part of their 2023 Ethics Centre residency, researchers Dr Chloe Watfern and Dr Priya Vaughan collaborated with researchers, artists and service providers to explore creative approaches to climate distress, and the ethics of care for place, self, and community in the context of ecological crisis.

Why is it that we are touched most by the things closest to us? Touched, as in, made to feel something strongly, to care in its meanings as both a verb and a noun – to feel concern for and to want to protect or nurture a child, a parent, a special place, a garden, or the bird out the window. It’s a question with an obvious answer. Because they are close. Because they can be felt, sometimes even touched.  

Traditional moral theories require us to be unemotional, rational, and logical. For example, we are thought (or urged) to objectively calculate the extent to which our actions will lead to a good outcome for the greatest number of people. However, in the context of our daily lives, an ethics of care highlights the pull of relationships and feelings, like love and compassion, in our moral decision-making.

Tentacle, n.
Zoology: A slender flexible process in animals, esp. invertebrates, serving as an organ of touch or feeling. (Oxford English Dictionary) 

The first recorded use of the word “tentacle” in the English language was in 1764, when A. P. Du Pont wrote that “the fingers, or tentacles, end in a deep blue.”  

At about this time, the industrial revolution was just beginning in Great Britain, continental Europe, and the United States. Humans in these places gradually, and then very rapidly, moved away from producing things by hand. Coal, iron and water were the core elements of this rapid transformation in societies, extraction and exploitation its drivers. Today, we are at the coal face of its legacy.  

Where will all this lead? To a deep blue? To a burning world? To unaddressable environmental collapse? To rubble, ash, and mud?  

Care in an era of climate distress

Certainly, we know and feel that the living systems of the earth have been deeply compromised by human activities. This knowledge is a source of intense distress for many of us. At the same time, the collapse of systems creates new and ancient forms of distress, as homes and lives are destroyed or radically altered.  

More and more of us care as more and more of us are touched by the effects of our collective actions: biodiversity loss, pollution, global boiling. What might we do with our bare hands, our sentient bodies, to make up for all the loss on our horizon? And where is the horizon anyway?  

Tentacular detail
Tentacular detail, collage, drawing and found objects

Professor Timothy Morton refers to global warming, like evolution, or relativity, as a “hyperobject”: something that is very difficult to comprehend using the cognitive tools that we humans have evolved to possess. Climate is everywhere and nowhere, in Antarctic ice sheets and cow belches, in bees and babies, in the cloud and the web, in bushfire smoke and too much (or not enough) rain on a tin roof.  

Does Earth’s climate care that it is boiling? We don’t know, because we don’t know how to ask. We can only guess. 

Stories of care

During our residency at the Ethics Centre in May 2023, we asked humans to share their stories of care. Colleagues, friends, family members, clinicians, artists, researchers, elders, and knowledge keepers each brought an object that connected to community, self, or planetary care in the climate crisis. These objects – a clay pot, a biodegradable bin bag, leaves collected on country, a handful of seeds – held and evoked memories of grief and loss, but above all, connection with humans, more-than-humans, and places. Close encounters filled with care. 

Seeking a way to capture and share these memories, we asked these humans to help us create a tentacular creature: part cephalopod, part bird, part plant, part insect, part fungi, part human, part bacteria, part virus, part landscape.

For us, this tentacular creation was the perfect creature to hold stories of care, responsibility, hope, and fear in the context of our precarious and precious world.

Neither and both human and animal, nature and artifice, Tentacular collapses fictious binaries that have, historically, enabled the climate crisis to be seen as a problem with ‘nature’, rather than the total phenomenon it is.   

Tentacular participants at The Ethics Centre

Each tentacle of this collective artwork reaches outwards, seeking connection and offering stories that speak to the ways we might care, in responsible and responsive ways, for ourselves, each other, and the wounded world. Here, we share some evocative snippets from the stories of care that each person offered:  

Gadigal, Bidjigal and Yuin elder Aunty Rhonda DixonGrovenor grew up being taught to respect and care for country. She tells people “If we are in nature and enjoy it and care for it, then it nourishes us… Care is a relationship, it’s a two-way, it’s not just one person dominating.”  

“Care is a relationship, it’s a two-way, it’s not just one person dominating.” – Aunty Rhonda Dixon-Grovenor

Dr Priya Vaughan and Aunty Rhonda Dixon-Grovenor

Academic Dr Barbara Doran reflects on the tuition of a beehive: “The bees connected me to a more nuanced relationship with nature… Now, I’m more aware of rain, of flowering patterns, of birds: the ecosystem is amplified in my eyes. But after the fires, I’ve noticed an echo-effect. They have been splitting more than they usually do. This year is the first season with no honey. I’m noticing these resonant patterns in a climate changed world. The hive is my teacher, healer and sharpener of antennas.”  

Psychotherapist and Group Facilitator at We Al-li, Georgie Igoe asks us to consider threshold experiences: “For me, care means sitting with discomfort and uncertainty, opening ourselves up to the unknown – in the muck, in the grief, not sidestepping it but acknowledging its power.”  

Installation artist and theatre-maker Brownyn Vaughan shares the wisdom of her favourite writers and of her favourite swimming place: “The Mahon pool brought me up, it’s my go-to-place… Professor Astrida Neimanis tells us we must stop trying to ascend and transform. Instead, we must submerge, become part of the water.” 

Artist-survivor, and lived experience advocate, Lea Richards, mourns and advocates for the mountains: “Snow melt is mountain’s blood. I weep for the glaciers, so far from arid Australia, yet not separate. I imagine connections to those vanishing snows– a flow of water between us. If I conserve this precious blood, can I tend those far places, postpone the melting?”  

Tentacular, Care is a Relationship, UNSW Library

Embedded in many, perhaps all, of these stories is a conviction that we need to, as Bronwyn said, submerge, to acknowledge our place in the meshwork of the world, and in so doing, to learn with and from the environment. This means burying ego, rejecting a hierarchy where humans are at the apex, and attending in quotidian ways to what is happening to us and around us. Let’s become like tentacles, feeling our way into a better relationship with the world we care so much about. 


Tentacular, as part of the exhibition: Care is a Relationship is on display at UNSW Library until 17 November.

Applications for 2024 Residencies are now open until 30 November. Find out more about The Ethics Centre Residency Program.

ESG is not just about ticking boxes, it’s about earning the public’s trust

If businesses want to earn the public’s trust, they need to take ESG seriously, and communicate what they’re doing authentically and transparently.

In the eyes of today’s public, businesses must do more than just provide quality products and services, they also have a responsibility to be good corporate citizens and make a positive contribution to society and the environment. This is one reason why so many businesses have made a commitment to Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) standards.  

ESG is a framework used to assess a business’s activities and performance on ethical and sustainable issues. This includes an organisation’s ability to safeguard the environment, manage relationships with employees, supply chains and the community, and how company leadership, shareholder rights and internal controls monitor the outcomes. Importantly, the framework serves as a tool to assess how an organisation manages risks and opportunities in our changing world. 

The problem is that most members of the public don’t have a good understanding of ESG. According to the SEC Newgate ESG Monitor report, only 12% of Australians had a “good understanding” of ESG. This disconnect between ESG activities and public perception is a problem because it undermines trust in business, especially if ESG activities have been misrepresented.

Members of the Ethics Alliance gathered in April 2023 to discuss the importance of SEC Newgate’s research and consider challenges that organisations face in the way they address ESG and community expectations.  

For starters, the ESG Monitor indicated that 38% of Australians feel completely uninformed about companies’ ESG activities. Interestingly, it also suggested 72% of people either “never” or “rarely” look at the ESG reporting, while only a mere 8% of people trust ESG reporting. 

Some of this scepticism around ESG may have been cultivated due to it politicisation. In April 2023 the leader of the opposition, Peter Dutton, commented: “To be frank, some business leaders need to stop craving popularity on social media by signing up to every social cause, even though they may not believe in it.” This attitude acts in contrast to the global research from the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer that shows 82% of people expect CEOs to take a public stand on climate change. And to Dutton’s point, they certainly expect authenticity. 

The public holds high expectations for businesses to use their influence for good. SEC Newgate’s study showed that of those surveyed, 80% agree that companies have a responsibility to behave like good citizens and consider their impact on other people and the planet. It also showed that 66% of people are also willing to give a company a second chance if it was transparent about its mistake and stated how it would do better in the future. 

If businesses want to live up to community expectations and strengthen their social value, then they need to carefully choose which ESG initiatives to focus on and ensure they have legitimacy in those areas. When evaluating, they should ask the following: Is it genuine? Is it meaningful? Is the organisation committed? And how do I know for sure or where is the proof?  

By demonstrating a clear link between sustainability efforts and overall strategy, businesses can better align their initiatives with community expectations.

One starting point is a materiality assessment, which is a process to identify and prioritise the most relevant and significant ESG factors that have a substantial impact on the business’s operations, financial performance and stakeholder interests. This exploration can help identify the most pressing issues that align with the purpose and resonate with the community. 

Other principles for organisations to consider when developing their ESG framework that emerged from The Alliance’s discussions were:

  1. Ethical conduct – including treating employees fairly, avoiding unethical practices, and minimising environmental harm.
  2. Giving back – which may involve investing in local communities, adopting environmentally friendly practices, or supporting social initiatives. 
  3. Transparency and accountability –stakeholders, including consumers, employees, and shareholders, often have differing perspectives on ESG issues, making it challenging for businesses to balance these conflicting demands and trade-offs. 

Communication also needs to be well considered by organisations in order to address the disconnect between the community’s need for transparent ESG information and their desire to learn about it. Connecting with stakeholders transparently about an organisation’s progress and mistakes can help meet these challenges. 

ESG is about more than just accounting. It’s demonstrating a business’s responsibility and recognising the importance of sustainable practices in safeguarding our planet. ESG needs to be a whole company effort that is undertaken authentically and communicated transparently to the public that reflects its purpose, values and principles. The more businesses that do this, the more the public will understand what ESG is and the more they will come to trust businesses as being responsible corporate citizens.

Big Thinker: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Committed to individualism and credited as the father of transcendentalism, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was an American essayist, lecturer, philosopher and poet.  

Initially on a path to follow his father’s footsteps and serve in the Christian ministry, Emerson attended Harvard’s Divinity School to become a pastor. But as time went on and he delved deeper into his religious studies, he realised an unignorable sense of detachment and divergence from the traditional religious values he was immersed in. And so he left the Second Unitarian Church and decided to forge his own path.  

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”

Emerson’s influential career began with public lectures in Boston that would inspire some of his most renowned essays and ideas. His lectures centred on human culture, English literature, biography and philosophy. He was known for popularising the major movement known as transcendentalism.  

The Father of Transcendentalism  

“Transcendental” was initially coined by philosopher Immanuel Kant in his theory of transcendental idealism. It’s a theory of perception that holds space and time, along with our five senses, are all subjective experiences and don’t exist outside of the human experience.  

Even though Kant coined the term, Emerson is regarded as the father of transcendentalism.  

Emerson’s transcendentalism, which became one of America’s first literature and philosophical movements, holds that we ought to be doubtful of knowledge we get from our five senses or even logic and reason; the only trustworthy source of knowledge manifests itself in our personal intuition and self-revelations. 

In one of his first lectures, “The Uses of Natural History”, Emerson planted the initial seed for the movement when he explained science as something innately human. He emphasised nature to be an extension of one’s self: “the whole of Nature is a metaphor or image of the human mind.”  

His book-length 1836 essay “Nature” is what officially and explicitly defined transcendentalism.   

In essence, transcendentalists believe nature is paramount: all their ideals are rooted in the natural world. They believe all things are inherently good, humans and nature alike. In much the same way, transcendentalists see the divinity – the “God” – in everything and everyone. As Emerson wrote, “I am part or particle of God.” Transcendentalists also believe in the human potential for achieving greatness and genius. 

Emerson is responsible for introducing a number of people to metaphysical concepts for the first time. A group he helped found in the late 1830’s called the Transcendental Club had dangerous conversations that critiqued societal institutions of the time, such as organised religion and slavery. Its members included prominent thinkers of the time, like Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller, and allowed a space for transcendentalist ideas to grow.  


As the title of one of his most famous essays, “Self-Reliance” describes one of his principal philosophies: relying solely on ourselves. Emerson’s transcendentalism has been equated to romantic individualism because of his emphasis on the self. For understanding and greatness, Emerson believed we ought only to rely on ourselves and trust our intuition. In fact, he believed the only thing separating the common person from “greatness” is that the “greats” have the gall to admit precisely what they’re feeling when they feel it. As humans, much of our experiences and emotions are shared, and Emerson saw beauty in such commonalities.  

At the same time, he cited conformity as a major barrier to achieving greatness. He thought we should be comfortable and proud of being distinctly ourselves. He praised individuality and the pursuit of achieving “an original relation to the universe” by tuning inwards.   

The key to unlocking genius is listening to what Emerson called our “creative insight”. He felt such insight was decidedly divine, God’s way of individually speaking to us. This insight is necessary for anyone to accomplish anything meaningful, and so Emerson encouraged everyone to trust their own creative insight over societal ones. Listening to our divinity, our creative insight, yields a life lived authentically. 

“It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

It’s these transcendentalist ideologies that would eventually inspire philosopher Henry David Thoreau to reject society and go into the woods in order “to live deliberately and front only the essential facts of life”. And that same line of thinking is what inspired Christopher McCandless, an infamous American adventurer, to abandon family and escape to Fairbanks, Alaska in the 1990s. His story of living in the solitude of wilderness was later popularised in the film and novel Into the Wild.     

Although some find wisdom and beauty in Emerson’s fierce admiration of solitude and complete rejection of groupthink, others see privilege in his ideals. Not everyone is able to exercise free will; not everyone can afford to stray from the norm and escape their social circumstances. And so to some, his ideas are lofty and unattainable, less you have the power of class and money on your side.  

Beyond privilege, others see selfishness in his philosophies. By tuning inwards and considering only our own needs and desires, what is lost? What might we sacrifice when we neglect those around us? When we disregard even our loved ones? And yet, Emerson never said anything definitively: 

“But it is the fault of our own rhetoric that we cannot strongly state one fact without seeming to belie some other. I hold our actual knowledge is very cheap.”

Donation? More like dump nation

In the desire to clean up our living and mental spaces, we need not create a costly mess for charitable organisations receiving our donations.

Several years ago when I was producing for radio, I found myself knee-deep in the topic of minimalism. I was fascinated by the concept: living with a minimal number of possessions, replacing rather than accumulating, being ‘timeless’ rather than at the mercy of trends. At the forefront of the movement were Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, aka The Minimalists, whom The New Yorker called ‘Sincere prophets of anti-consumerism’. They rose to fame with documentaries, a podcast and a best-selling book, all of which promoted this ‘minimalist lifestyle’.

A minimalist approach does not preclude you from purchasing the latest smartphone, it resists desiring that smartphone, which, like most on-trend technology, will either get superseded by a newer version within a year, or break the moment its two-year warranty has expired. (Remember your childhood TV that worked for 17 years?)

I interviewed Nicodemus and easily understood how his austere approach to housekeeping might have its appeal. What would it be like to not be weighed down by your possessions? To actually derive full use out of what you already owned? To simply not want the newest shiny thing?

At the heart of this approach is a mental philosophy that fuels a mindset, not just a way of life. Being a minimalist will mean you’re not part of the problem in what seems to be an ever-expanding consumerist wasteland. You’re better for the environment because you don’t accumulate. You’re not someone who, in the process of divesting yourself of unneeded possessions, overloads your local op shop because you have five different versions of a favourite item.

While the ability to not accumulate possessions may be harder to achieve for most people, as each new year rolls in with the proclamation of a ‘New Year, New Me’, we tend to become minimalists.

In a fever, we rule out bad habits and embrace healthy ones. Invariably, this involves some level of decluttering because we acknowledge that we are wasting money on things we don’t need.

And this is why it’s not uncommon to drive past a Vinnie’s in January and see half-opened bags of donations strewn across the pavement.

That ardent desire to strip away the baggage in our lives ends up becoming someone else’s problem when we dump donations, rather than engaging with charitable organisations and op-shops directly.

Unfortunately, this is a cumbersome, costly problem for the charitable organisations receiving these donations. Rather than an orderly, well-packed offering of useable items, charities are reporting the prevalence of irresponsible offloading of unusable items. As Tory Shepherd reported for The Guardian, “Australian charities are forking out millions of dollars to deal with donation ‘dumping’ at the same time that they are seeing rising demand for their services ‘as the cost-of-living crisis bites’”.

Not for the first time, we are seeing op shops plead with their local communities to not dump and run, leaving behind what is often rubbish, or items that the shop cannot accommodate, such as furniture. Following Covid lockdowns, we saw a similar phenomenon as people took stock of their lives and possessions—and left it to charities to take care of their unwanted items. The NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) and Charitable Recycling Australia are pushing this message of responsible donating.

As a deeply consumerist society, we’re at the mercy of goods that are not built to last.

There is a need for donations; organisations like Vinnies are clearly welcoming of reusable, recyclable goods that can be repurposed. However, instead of owning the act of throwing something away, we might pass on the responsibility by giving it away and making it a charitable act. There are deeply-felt financial and practical impacts on these organisations when they have to clean up the mess of people who don’t take the time to sort through their possessions, or who are careless in how they deliver their donations. The resounding advice is that if it’s something you’d give to a friend, it’s suitable for a donation.

Not everyone can afford goods made of recyclable or sustainable material. But we can try to create a new way forward. We can reconsider our approach to ownership and divestment; buy what we need and try to purchase higher quality, sustainable goods whenever possible. We can also appeal to businesses to enact more sustainable practices. We can lobby local councils and government.

In the meantime, while it’s a positive that we don’t want to just throw things out, it does not take much to do a stocktake before offering up donations: is what am I giving away something I would give to someone I care about? Is it in working order? For large items, check with your op shop or organisation before delivering them. Don’t leave items in front of a closed shopfront. Don’t treat charities like a garbage dump.

There is tidying a la Marie Kondo but then there is medically-reviewed physical decluttering that research suggests is good for our mental health. Even digital decluttering can have a positive impact on our productivity. But it’s worth considering, when we divest ourselves of unwanted goods, whether we are making sustainable donations or trashing items simply to upgrade.

If we can accept that decluttering is good for us, does that not also suggest that having cleaner spaces with fewer possessions is a better way to live? Perhaps a more worthy and sustainable goal is to take some cues from the minimalist mindset. I’m all for annual purges but even better would be to not need to declutter in the first place.

Who is to blame? Moral responsibility and the case for reparations

Reparations recently made the news after the COP27, with poorer countries demanding richer countries pay for damages caused by global warming. But, are reparations the best way to achieve justice for previous harms, and what do they tell us about moral responsibility?

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, western countries developed and industrialised without many (or any) regulations. Coal burning factories produced new technologies, new agricultural practices led to chemical runoff and land clearing, and global trade and travel have accelerated the production of man-made greenhouse gases. Historically, developed countries have contributed to just under 80% of total carbon emissions.

As a result, devastating floods, bush fires, droughts and storms have ruinous impacts on communities and countries. Rising sea levels threaten small island nations and coastal towns alike. The countries and populations feeling the biggest impacts tend to be poorer and have fewer resources to deal with the fallout of climate related catastrophes.

Climate change is a global issue, and it’s clearly impacting poorer, less developed countries in more drastic ways than wealthier ones. Can reparations really be a solution to such a complex issue?

What are reparations?  

Reparations are usually monetary (or something else that transfers wealth, like land) compensation, paid by a dominant group to an individual or a group that has been wronged or harmed. Reparations are usually viewed as one mechanism for remedying a past injustice. Given past injustices have created present-day inequalities and much of this inequality is socioeconomic, reparations are one way to make amends and “even the playing field.

The controversy surrounding reparations

Reparations become controversial when we overlay our common conceptions of moral responsibility. We typically view someone as morally responsible for something if they caused that thing to happen. For example, if you steal something from a store and are fully aware and in control of yourself, most people would view you as morally responsible for that action, and therefore deserving of the repercussions that come from stealing.

But, who is morally responsible for the global climate crisis? European countries have some of the most progressive climate change policies in the world today, but were responsible for the majority of emissions during the 19th and 20th centuries. On the other hand, China and India haven’t historically been big emitters, but today they are. It’s unclear who is more responsible for the state of the climate today. So, if we can’t find someone or some group directly morally responsible, should reparations be paid at all?

The case for reparations

There are two main reasons why I think our common notion of moral responsibility translates into a good enough argument in favour of reparations.

Firstly, we need to think about what inequality looks like in the world. Much of the inequality that we can observe is economic, and it is often the direct result of past injustices.

If we truly want to live in a just world, we are going to need to level the playing field, and money is one of the most effective ways to do that.

The question is: where should this money come from? Whether or not someone from a dominant group actively participated in or committed one of these wrongs, they likely experienced either direct or indirect benefits.

For example, industrialised countries have benefited from the use of fossil fuels, and generated their wealth through manufacturing and trade, which compounded over decades and centuries. To the extent that individuals and groups today have benefited from past injustices, then they owe some reparations to the groups that are disadvantaged because of those past injustices. Wealthy countries, therefore, that have compounded wealth that came from industrialising during a time where carbon emissions remained unchecked should pay reparations, even though none of the people alive today actively contributed to the climate emissions of the past.

Second, reparations acknowledge that the payer has some responsibility for the wrongs committed towards the payee. As former prime minister Scott Morrison said about $280 million of reparations that Aboriginal communities received in 2017, “This is a long-called-for step… to say formally not just that we’re deeply sorry for what happened, but that we will take responsibility for it”. Paying reparations acknowledges that harm occurred to a group of people because it recognises that there is lasting inequality that has occurred from that harm. In addition, the person or group paying the reparations recognises that they have benefitted from the harm or inequality, even if they didn’t directly cause it.

While reparations don’t promise to remove all inequality or solve every injustice, they are an important step for dominant groups to acknowledge and accept responsibility for harms of the past, as well as taking an important step to close present socioeconomic gaps.

Ethics Explainer: Longtermism

Longtermism argues that we should prioritise the interests of the vast number of people who might live in the distant future rather that the relatively few people who do live today.

Do we have a responsibility to care for the welfare of people in future generations? Given the tremendous efforts people are making to prevent dangerous climate change today, it seems that many people do feel some responsibility to consider how their actions impact those who are yet to be born. 

But if you take this responsibility seriously, it could have profound implications. These implications are maximally embraced by an ethical stance called ‘longtermism,’ which argues we must consider how our actions affect the long-term future of humanity and that we should prioritise actions that will have the greatest positive impact on future generations, even if they come at a high cost today. 

Longtermism is a view that emerged from the effective altruism movement, which seeks to find the best ways to make a positive impact on the world. But where effective altruism focuses on making the current or near-future world as good as it can be, longtermism takes a much broader perspective. 

Billions and billions

The longtermist argument starts by asserting that the welfare of someone living a thousand years from now is no less important than the welfare of someone living today. This is similar to Peter Singer’s argument that the welfare of someone living on the other side of the world is no less ethically important than the welfare of your family, friends or local community. We might have a stronger emotional connection to those nearer to us, but we have no reason to preference their welfare over that of people more spatially or temporally removed from us. 

Longtermists then urge us to consider that there will likely be many more people in the future than there are alive today. Indeed, humanity might persist for many thousands or even millions of years, perhaps even colonising other planets. This means there could be hundreds of billions of people, not to mention other sentient species or artificial intelligences that also experience pain or happiness, throughout the lifetime of the universe.  

The numbers escalate quickly, so if there’s even a 0.1% chance that our species colonises the galaxy and persists for a billion years, then that means the expected number of future people could number in the hundreds of trillions.  

The longtermism argument concludes that if we believe we have some responsibility to future people, and if there are many times more future people than there are people alive today, then we ought to prioritise the interests of future generations over the interests of those alive today.  

This is no trivial conclusion. It implies that we should make whatever sacrifices necessary today to benefit those who might live many thousands of years in the future. This means doing everything we can to eliminate existential threats that might snuff out humanity, which would not only be a tragedy for those who die as a result of that event but also a tragedy for the many more people who were denied an opportunity to be born. It also means we should invest everything we can in developing technology and infrastructure to benefit future generations, even if that means our own welfare is diminished today. 

Not without cost

Longtermism has captured the attention and support of some very wealthy and influential individuals, such as Skype c0-founder Jaan Tallinn and Dustin Moskovitz, who co-founded Facebook. Organisations such as 80,000 Hours also use longtermism as a framework to help guide career decisions for people looking to do the most good over their lifetime.  

However, it also has its detractors, who warn about it distracting us from present and near-term suffering and threats like climate change, or accelerating the development of technologies that could end up being more harmful than beneficial, like superintelligent AI.  

Even supporters of longtermism have debated its plausibility as an ethical theory. Some argue that it might promote ‘fanaticism,’ where we end up prioritising actions that have a very low chance of benefiting a very high number of people in the distant future rather than focusing on achievable actions that could reliably benefit people living today. 

Others question the idea that we can reliably predict the impacts of our actions on the distant future. It might be that even our most ardent efforts today ‘wash out’ into historical insignificance only a few centuries from now and have no impact on people living a thousand or a million years hence. Thus, we ought to focus on the near-term rather than the long-term. 

Longtermism is an ethical theory with real impact. It redirects our attention from those alive today to those who might live in the distant future. Some of the implications are relatively uncontroversial, such as suggesting we should work hard to prevent existential threats. But its bolder conclusions might be cold comfort for those who see suffering and injustice in the world today and would rather focus on correcting that than helping build a world for people who may or may not live a million years from now. 

The business who cried ‘woke’: The ethics of corporate moral grandstanding

Consumer responses are crucial to holding businesses accountable for their social and environmental responsibilities.

As of this year, over half of the highest polluting companies in Australia have committed to net-zero emissions targets. Meanwhile, in the Twitter-verse, dating apps and chocolate bars proclaim an end to police brutality, sexism, and the Uighur genocide.

Out of nowhere, big business has seemingly grown a social consciousness – and an impressive marketing budget to match. From fast fashion to mining, you’d be hard-pressed to find a company that doesn’t claim to be doing the right thing by their employees and the environment.

Moral grandstanding: When businesses fail to put their money where their mouth is

Unfortunately, a lot of this moral messaging is nothing more than opportunistic marketing, designed to profit from a societal shift towards conscious consumption. As recent reporting by Greenpeace highlights, of those Australian companies that claim to be going green, only a small fraction are actually taking effective steps by switching to cleaner energy sources.

Likewise, many brands divert attention from dubious business operations by aligning themselves with the popular side of trending moral discourse, tweeting out support for social justice movements while simultaneously being accused of the very issues they rally against. As in the following advertisement, which seemingly suggests that the solution to America’s police brutality problem is drinking Pepsi, even at best case, such messaging can come across as offensively tone-deaf.



This phenomenon is what philosophers Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke describe as ‘moral grandstanding’ – the insincere use of principled arguments to self-promote or seek status. Similarly, the terms ‘virtue signalling’, ‘performative activism’, ‘green-washing’ and ‘woke capitalism’ describe how moral concerns can be deployed as a front for self-serving behaviour.

Ultimately, all these phrases describe the same thing, which is the failure of businesses to practice what they preach.

This hypocrisy is a problem because it prevents meaningful change from occurring while simultaneously misleading consumers into believing that we are well on the way to a better world when actually, progress flounders.

Doing something is better than doing nothing, except when it isn’t

Consequentialism asserts that actions are good if they cause more benefit than harm. Using this line of reasoning, many argue that insincerity is a small price to pay for having big business commit to less harmful commercial practices, which diminishes moral grandstanding to a largely trivial concern.

Yet, when we contemplate the opportunity cost of accepting such half-baked behaviour from those who have the most power to affect change, this argument quickly becomes self-defeating. Consider what would happen if businesses diverted the money and resources spent on advertising their moral character towards researching and enacting reforms that put substance behind these self-proclaimed progressive values.

As consumers, we cannot accept anything less than this because to do so would cause our planet and people to needlessly suffer – a harm that far outweighs any benefit gained from morally grandstanding promises to “do better”.

Additionally, from a deontological perspective, it can be argued that the intention behind moral actions is what truly determines their worth. Since morally grandstanding companies aren’t motivated by a principled duty, but rather, by a profit outcome, they can hardly be considered good (in a Kantian sense, anyway).

How to spot a moral grandstander

In the past half-decade, energy giant AGL has heavily advertised their pledge to decarbonise while simultaneously remaining Australia’s largest greenhouse emitter. Meanwhile, companies such as Woolworths, Coles and Telstra have quietly gotten on with transitioning to almost 100 per cent renewable energy.

Greenpeace campaign takes aim at AGL. Image by Monster Children Creative


Evidently, some businesses are being genuine with their environmental and social commitments. The problem with moral grandstanders is that they take the spotlight away from such efforts. As consumers, we can have a meaningful impact on our world by choosing to spend our money with the former, but the question remains of how to distinguish between the two:

  • Consumers can start by asking themselves about the nature of the company which is making the moral appeal –are harmful business practices embedded in the industry they operate in? Does the business themselves have a poor social or environmental track record? If the answer to either of these questions is ‘yes’, then their claims should be viewed suspiciously.
  • Be on the lookout for weasel words – buzz-wordy claims which are deliberately vague. Saying something is “green” or “eco-friendly” isn’t a qualifiable statement. Also, note that the validity of some credentials relating to fair trade and carbon emissions are being increasingly challenged.
  • As with any investment, if you’re going to put your money into a business based on their moral claims, fact-checking is always a good idea. This can be done through a quick internet search or a skim through related news results.

Remember that in many countries (including Australia), consumer rights laws exist to ensure companies cannot get away with making false claims about their products. Holding businesses to account for their moral grandstanding is therefore not just an ethical imperative – but a legal one also.


Kendall Jenner advertisement and images courtesy of Pespi

How can we travel more ethically?

I used to be an inveterate traveller – so much so that I would take, on average, a minimum of two flights per week. That is no longer the case.

I have trouble recalling the last time I was on an aeroplane. That will change this week, when I board a flight for Tasmania – my third attempt, in two years, to join family there. So, is this the beginning of a return to a life of endless travel – both at home and abroad? Or will a trip to the airport continue to be a relatively rare experience?

Of course, such questions apply to all modes of transport – whether they be by road, rail, air or sea. Perhaps we have become conditioned to think that the answers lie in the hands of public health officials and government ministers who, between them, can stop us in our tracks.

However, every journey begins with us – with a personal decision to travel. So, what should we take into account when making such a decision?

Perhaps one of the most important considerations is to do with who bears the burden of our decision. A 2018 article published in Nature Climate Change estimated that tourism contributes to 8% of the world’s climate emissions, with those emissions likely to grow at the rate of 4% per annum. Of these emissions, 49% were attributable to transport alone. And this was just tourism.

One also needs to add to this the emissions of people, like me, largely travelling for reasons of work rather than leisure. One of the effects of the current global pandemic has been to reduce, to a massive degree, the level of emissions caused by travel. This is welcome news to those most likely to be affected by predicted changes caused by anthropogenic warming – notably those living on low-lying islands and others whose lives (and livelihoods) are at risk of devastating harm.

Yet, it’s easy enough to find advertisements enticing us to travel to the very same low-lying islands whose economies rely on tourism. The paradoxes don’t end there. Another criticism of tourism is that it tends to commodify the cultures of those most visited – and in some cases does so to the point of corruption. Those who mount this criticism argue that we should value the diversity of ‘pristine’ cultures in the same way that we value pristine diversity in nature. Retaining one’s culture free from influences from the wider world is not necessarily the choice that people living within those cultures would make for themselves. Some hold fast to an unsullied form of life. Others are keen to share their experience with the world – not only as a source of income, but also out of a very human sense of curiosity and a desire to share the human experience.

To make matters even more complex, not all travel is for reasons of leisure or work. It is sometimes driven by necessity or a sense of obligation to others, such as when joining a loved one who is sick or dying, or to attend a family ceremony. Even those obliged to travel have, of late, been asked to ‘think twice’ or, in some cases, had the decision taken out of their hands due to border closures that have allowed few (if any) exemptions. And even those few exemptions tend to have been offered only to the very rich, powerful or popular.

This might seem to suggest that we should calibrate our decisions about travel according to its purpose. If one can achieve the same outcome by other means (such as using a video conference rather than meeting in person), then that should be the preferred option. However, I have discovered that this approach only gets you so far (excuse the pun). Some meetings only really work if people are in the same room – especially if the issues require nuanced judgement and there are some obligations (like those owed to a sick or dying relative) that can only be discharged in person.

Despite this, the causes of climate change or life-threatening viruses don’t have any regard for our motives for travelling. A virus can just as easily hitch a ride with a person rushing to the side of an ailing parent as a person off to relax on a beach. All other things being equal, they have the same impact on the environment.

Given this, how should we approach the ethical dimension of travel?

First, I think we need to be ‘mindful travellers’. That is, we should not simply ‘get up and go’ just because we can. We need to think about the implications of our doing so – including the unintended, adverse consequences of whatever decision we make.

Second, we should seek to minimise the unintended, adverse consequences. For example, can we choose a mode of travel that has minimal negative impact? It is this kind of question driving people to explore new forms of low-carbon transport options.

Third, can we mitigate unintended harm – for example, by purchasing offsets (for carbon) or looking to support Indigenous cultures where we might encounter them?

Finally, can we maximise the good that might be done by our travelling?

Thought Experiment: The Last Man on Earth

Imagine for a second that the entire human race has gone extinct, with the exception of one man.

There is no hope for humankind to continue. We know, as a matter of certainty, that when this person dies, so too does the human race.

Got it? Good. Now, imagine that this last person spends their remaining time on Earth as an arbiter of extinction. Being themselves functionally extinct, they make it their purpose to eliminate, painlessly and efficiently, as much life on Earth as possible. Every living thing: animal, plant, microbe is meticulously and painlessly put down when this person finds it.

Intuitively, it seems like this man is doing something wrong. But according to New Zealand philosopher Richard Sylvan (though his argument was published under the name Richard Routley before he took his wife’s name when he married in 1983), traditional ethical theories struggle to articulate exactly why what they’re doing is wrong.

Sylvan, developing this argument in the 1960’s, argues that traditional Western ethics – which at the time consisted largely of variations of utilitarianism and deontology – rested on a single “super-ethic”, which states that people should be able to do what they wish, so long as they don’t harm anyone – or harm themselves irreparably.

A result of this super-ethic is that the dominant Western ethical traditions are “simply inconsistent with an environmental ethic; for according to it nature is the dominion of man and he is free to deal with it as he pleases,” according to Sylvan. And he has a point: traditional formulations of Western ethics have tended to exclude non-human animals (and even some humans) from the sphere of ethical concern.

Traditional formulations of Western ethics have tended to exclude non-human animals (and even some humans) from the sphere of ethical concern.

In fairness, utilitarianism has a better history with considering non-human animals. The founder of the theory, Jeremy Bentham, insisted that since animals can suffer, they deserve moral concern. But even that can’t criticise the actions of our last person, who delivers painless death, free of suffering.

Plus, most versions of utilitarianism focus on the instrumental value of things (basically, their usefulness). Rarely do we consider the fact that when we ask “is it useful?” we’re making an assumption about the user – that they’re human.

Immanuel Kant’s deontology begins with the belief that it is human reason that gives rise to our dignity and autonomy. This means any ethical responsibilities and claims only exist for those who have the right kind of ability: to reason.

Now, some Kantian scholars will argue that we still shouldn’t treat animals or the environment badly because it would make us worse people, ethically speaking. But that’s different to saying that the environment deserves our ethical consideration in its own right. It’s like saying bullying is wrong because it makes you a bad person, instead of saying bullying is wrong because it causes another person to suffer. It’s not all about you!

Sylvan describes this view as “human chauvinism”. Today, it’s usually called “anthropocentrism”, and it’s at the heart of Sylvan’s critique. What kind of a theory can condone the kind of pointless destruction that the Last Man thought experiment describes?

Since Sylvan published, a lot has changed – especially with regard to the animal rights movement. Indeed, Australian philosopher Peter Singer developed his own version of consequentialism precisely so he could address some of the problems the theory had in explaining the moral value of animals. And we can now pretty easily say that modern ethical theories would condemn the wholesale extinction of animal life from the planet, just because humans were gone.

But the questions go deeper than this. American philosopher Mary Anne Warren creates a similar thought experiment. Imagine a lab-grown virus gone wrong, that wipes out all human and animal life. That would be bad. Now, imagine the same virus, but one that wiped out all human, animal and plant life. That would, she thinks, be worse. But why?

What is it that gives plants their ethical status? Do they have intrinsic value – a value in and of themselves, or is their value instrumental – meaning they’re good because they help other things that really matter?

One way to think about this is to imagine a garden on a planet with no sentient life. Is it better, all things considered, for this garden to exist than not? Does it matter if this garden withers and dies?

Or to use a real-life example: who suffered as a result of the destruction of the Jukaan Gorge – a sacred site to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people? Western thought conceptualises this as wrong to destroy this site because it was sacred to people. But for Indigenous philosophical traditions, the destruction was a harm done to the land itself. The land was murdered. The suffering of people is secondary.

Sylvan and others who call for an ecological ethic, believe the failure for Western ethical thought to conceptualise of murdered land or what is good for plants is an obvious shortcoming.

This is revealed by our intuition that the careless destruction of the Last Man on Earth is wrong, even if we can’t quite say why.

Space: the final ethical frontier

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant once famously said “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and the more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within.”

It probably didn’t occur to Kant that there would come a day when the moral law and the starry heavens would find themselves in a staring contest with one another. In fairness though, it’s been almost 250 years since he wrote that quote. Today, those starry heavens play an increasingly important role in human affairs. And wherever there are people making decisions, ethical issues are sure to follow.

To get to know this final ethical frontier, I had a chat with Dr Nikki Coleman, Senior Chaplain Ethicist with the Australian Air Force. Nikki is a bona fide space ethicist to help us get up to (hyper) speed with all the new issues around ethics in space.


Is space an environment?

One of the largest contributions of the field of environmental ethics has been to encourage people to consider the environment as having value independent of its usefulness to humans. Before environmental ethics emerged as a field, many indigenous cultures and religions had already embedded these beliefs in the way they lived and related to land.

“The idea of space is that it’s a ‘global commons’,” says Coleman. “It belongs to all of us on the planet, but also to future generations. We can’t just dump space debris. We have to be careful about how we utilise resources. Like the resources on Earth, these resources are finite. They don’t go on forever,” she says.

This echoes one of the most common arguments about preservation and sustainability. We take care of the planet not just for ourselves, but for future generations. The challenge is helping people to understand that custodianship of space means thinking about the long tail on the decisions we make now. In fact, it might be even more difficult when it comes to space because, well, space is big, and it’s a long way away and we’ll likely never go there ourselves.

“What happens in space is the same as what happens on Earth, but it’s more remote,” Coleman tells me. And yet, despite this, what happens in space affects us profoundly. Just as we rely on trees, ecosystems and other aspects of the natural environment, we are reliant on parts of space as well. “Even though these objects feel further away from us, we still have an interdependency and a relationship with space,” explains Coleman.


What role should private companies play?

We’ve seen a lot of noise about space being made by private companies like SpaceX and Virgin – which is an enormous change from the time when travelling to space was something you could only do from a national space agency in a wealthy nation. But these companies have very different motivations for expanding into space.

“Space,” says Coleman “has become a very congested space.” “The cost of space operations has dramatically decreased, and we’re now seeing whole organisations devoted to their own space operations rather than as part of a government.”

This is where some issues can arise, “because what’s appropriate for a commercial operator in returning profits to stakeholders is not necessarily what’s appropriate for the whole of the planet.” Space is a ‘global commons’, it should be used to serve everyone’s interests – including future generations – not just the needs and wants of a single company or nation. It’s unclear to what extent commercial operators are taking the idea of a global commons seriously.

“We have someone like Elon Musk putting a car into space – which is the ultimate litter – or talking about putting 42,000 satellites into low-earth orbit, which obviously creates problems around congestion and space debris,” Coleman explains, referring to Elon Musk’s proposed ‘Starlink’, a network of satellites that could dramatically improve broadband speeds.


The interstellar garbage dump

Space debris is a big deal. We probably all remember in primary school learning about how different parts of a rocket break apart as they launch into space. Some of that burns up in the atmosphere, but lots of it remains in orbit. And it’s not just a few parts of rockets and a random Tesla. There is a lot of junk floating around in orbit around earth.

“Why that is problematic is it actually stays there for a really long period of time,” Coleman explains. “Some of it will decay in orbit and burn up in the atmosphere, but a lot of it could stay there for tens of thousands of years.”

But it’s not just that the debris sticks around. It’s that it can wreck a whole lot of important stuff whilst it orbits around the planet.

Coleman tells me that debris can interfere with our current satellites. ”The International Space Station is actually quite vulnerable. It only takes a small puncture to make it a life-threatening situation. And the issue is growing because we’re putting more and more satellites – including small satellites that don’t manoeuvre – into space.”

The worst-case scenario when it comes to space debris was depicted in the recent film Gravity, where the debris destroys satellites, generating even more space debris in a cascading process called Kessler Syndrome.

“The idea of having a whole area of space that is full of space debris will actually have massive impacts for the future,” Coleman warns. We use satellites for so many things: communication, food security, navigation… it’s not just about posting on Twitter and putting photos on Facebook.”

“The precursor for space debris is lots of things in space, so that’s why it’s problematic when someone talks about putting tens of thousands of satellites into orbit.”


The militarisation of space isn’t new

Coleman is quick to point out that space and the military have a long history. In fact, Sputnik was a Russian military satellite, which means “we have had a militarisation of space operations right from the get go.”

However, there are some changes in the way that militaries are thinking about space today. “Currently, military operations in space predominantly look at satellites and communication and dedicated military satellites for example, we’re with starting to see an increase in aggressive uses of military uses of space,” says Coleman.

The challenges here are myriad, but one significant one is that so much of what’s up in space is infrastructure that both civilians and the military need. Usually, the law and ethics of war don’t permit the targeting of infrastructure used by civilians when that would be disproportionately harmful to them.

“I would argue that a civilian satellite is not a legitimate target because it could have catastrophic effects for the civilians that rely on that satellite.”


“Space debris is climate change 2.0”

Ok, yes, we already talked about space debris but it’s so interesting we have to do it twice. See, space debris isn’t just garbage; it’s property.

“If you throw a bottle into the ocean, anyone can pick that up. That means that all the plastic in the middle of the ocean can actually be collected and recycled and made into something commercially viable,” Coleman explains. “But everything that goes into space is actually the property of the country that launched it.”

This means even if someone wanted to tidy up space, they couldn’t. Anyone can litter the global commons, but that doesn’t mean anyone can tidy it up. The rubbish belongs to someone.

This is where Coleman sees the analogy to climate change beginning. No one person or group can solve the problem. “We need to work together internationally to search to solve the problem of space debris,” she says. “I’m really excited that at the moment there is a large amount of discussion internationally about climate change, but there isn’t a lot being done around [space debris].”

The other, more frightening, climate change analogy is in terms of the threat posed by space debris. “It has the capacity to have a much faster impact on life on the planet,” says Coleman. “It could push us back to the 1950s.”


If there’s life on Mars, can we live there?

It seems interesting that at a time when many societies are coming to grips with the harms and problems colonisation has had around the world, there are people seriously contemplating the colonisation of Mars. For Coleman, this reveals one of the central ethical questions – not just for space, but in any walk of life. How far do our moral obligations extend?

“Do we have a duty not just to ourselves but to others as well, and do we have a responsibility to future generations of humans or potentially future generations of whatever is growing on Mars?”

We accept that we have obligations to future humans, but it seems quite different to say that we have obligations to a microbial life form on Mars. However, Coleman poses a further question: do we also have duties to whatever that microbial organism might evolve to be in millions of years?

“If we find life, do we owe it the opportunity to grow and develop into something that might eventually turn into intelligent life?”

I, for one, welcome our new microbial brothers and sisters.