Backyard Naturalist: Food for Thought

This column being devoted to the perennial goings-on in the backyard, I would like to say a few more words about climate change. But first let me tell you a seemingly unrelated story.

In our roughly two years in China, we got to meet a lot of interesting people. At a lunch in Nanjing one afternoon we sat around the conventional round table cluttered with dishes of food, talking with Chinese academic colleagues. Food was always a topic of conversation at these things because often the dishes were unrecognizable to us. What, for example, was that long brown slimy thing I just plucked from a pot and put in my mouth only to discover it had a bone in it?
It was a duck tongue. A valued delicacy to our Chinese colleagues.

One of the professors had spent several years in an American university, so Bonnie asked him what Western food gave him a problem. Without hesitation he replied, “Cheese. I don’t know how you can eat that.”

We all got a kick out of this, and the conversation morphed into a discussion of the sometimes strange, sometimes delightful, sometimes disturbing differences between our two cultures. Our moral values, it developed, could be as disparate as our food.

It came up that Chairman Mao had once remarked, in a conversation about the prospect of a nuclear war, that China had an advantage because it could afford to lose 10 million people with no strategic problem, while Western countries could not. We said this seemed shocking. The professor said, in all earnest sincerity, “Yes, it does to you. But our value of an individual life is different from yours.”

One thing you can gather from this is that moral values ​​take different shape in different contexts, kind of like food. Cheese is prized in one culture and repulsive in another; similarly for chickens feet. But it’s all food. In both China and North America, no one is eating gravel and murder is illegal.
Furthermore, in both places honesty, moderation, courage, friendship, loyalty, good health, and fairness are all viewed as admirable traits, while dishonesty, profligacy (such as debauchery), cowardliness, enmity, betrayal, sickness, and injustice are recognized as destructive.

What’s interesting is that, in my professional study of the perennial philosophies, I saw that these core moral values ​​are upheld in practically all human cultures. But they look different in different situations. Ten million dead looks like barbarism in one context, and stoicism in another. Loyalty to a community can look very different from loyalty to a person; they can even conflict, and they can be in reality something completely different from what they appear to be on the surface. Whenever you try to fix a definition of any one of those core moral values ​​that applies in all circumstances, your try fails. Socrates discovered and taught this 2,400 years ago.

Despite this profound difficulty, humans everywhere recognize that these values ​​are real and intangibly inform our behavior and sense of meaning. For some mysterious reason hard to fathom, things in general work better where the core moral values ​​are practiced. Much better. (There is famously “honor among thieves.”) Everybody learns, to different extents, how these values ​​affect their families and schoolrooms when very young, and tends to hang onto them. In fact, they get transmitted perennially from generation to generation.

Forms of those values ​​get turned into laws, which are in a way enforced definitions. The trouble is, the more specific you make a definition (a law) stemming from a particular moral value, the cloudier that moral value gets because the definition rarely applies exactly the same way to every situation. Pretty soon you have so many rules for specific situations that people start wondering if they mean anything at all.

So humans throughout the ages have constantly discussed, revised and re-revised what the core moral virtues mean. Our view nowadays of how history works invites us to compare how moral values ​​were understood in earlier times to how they are understood now.

For example, most of us can never, as we understand moral reality right now, condone slavery or the institution of slavery. It seems outrageously unjust to most people. But 250 years ago, slavery was a fact of social, economic and moral life. People grew up with it. While some could see that slavery was an outrageous form of injustice, others didn’t. They were bound into that age-old social and economic system, which was pervasively destroying lives. So now, we’re quick to wonder what in the world Thomas Jefferson was thinking 200 years ago by continuing to hold slaves — he knew better, but he did it anyway!

It seems so clear to us, here in 2022. We’ve outlawed overt forms of slavery.

At the same time, we are bound into a social and economic system in which oil burning is pervasively causing the Earth to heat up. The heating is disrupting weather and ecosystems. If it’s not abated immediately, droughts, wildfires, ocean changes, floods, severe weather, loss of wildlife such as insect pollinators, are going to lead to mass suffering through famine, displacement, and war. All these disruptions are already happening, and they’re going to persist for hundreds of years, at least. The turbulence at the US southern border is a direct result of terrible drought in Central America that is almost certainly induced by climate change.

Two hundred years from now, people are going to wonder what in the world we were thinking by continuing to drive our carbon-spewing cars and trucks — we know better, but we do it anyway.

This graphic shows how global land and ocean surface temperatures in March through May have varied from the overall average for that period, each year since 1880. The temperature has been higher than the average every year since the late 1970s. Graphic courtesy of NOAA

Moral reality is not usually recognized with crystal clarity by humans because, like food, it can look very different in different situations. Debates over racial tensions are at their core debates about justice — the specifics of what’s just look different to different people, but the sense that there’s such a thing as justice guides everyone’s opinion about it. Slavery was a fact of life practically everywhere on Earth for thousands of years, until an especially brutal form of it practiced by Europeans revealed its inherent injustice starting about 300 years ago, and sparked a collective moral epiphany to dismantle it.

The fact that we all recognize the same fundamental moral values ​​strongly suggests they are all springing from the same source, the same way we recognize the same fundamental foods, which all spring from the Earth.

We have a moral responsibility to the health of the Earth. If we don’t abate the warming, things are going to stop working. Climate change will lead to starvation, war — and probably more slavery. Our grandchildren, and their grandchildren, will live in a world where the suffering is so great it makes the moral virtues more difficult than ever to recognize, let alone practice.

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected] His book “Summer to Fall: Notes and Numina from the Maine Woods” is available from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.

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