Rebel Call: sustainability-based ethics in a technological world

Image: Markus Spiske

Three words have tumbled around my head repeatedly, almost prophetically for the last 12 months. Sustainability. Ethics. Technology.

Three lenses through which to address the urgent interlinked societal issues: from the environment through to education and the economy.

  • Sustainability: as it balances economic, ecological, and social values in the pursuit of long-term welfare (Kibert et al., 2011)

  • Ethics: as applying sustainability must surely be an ethical endeavour; “good” actions based on “good” decision-making, but with the health of our ecosystems prioritised over satisfying human needs more efficiently

  • Technology: a recognition that technology offers new ways to deliver a sustainable future, but requires a fair and thorough assessment of all challenges and risks, including ethical, environmental, social and human rights implications

Twelve months on, a new word has cemented into my psyche, poised to disrupt the circle: Rebellion.

The mere mention of this word may trigger uncomfortable buttock twitching, conjuring up images of riotous behaviour and disruption, especially when said buttocks are seated comfortably in a position of status or authority. Rebellion threatens change, disorder, disobedience, disruption, and to be frank, to many, profit. Yet, for centuries, human attitudes of objection, protest, and rebellion, have demonstrated undeniable potential to bring social benefit (Coman et al,. 2017).

Rebellion deconstructed

According to online dictionary Merriam-Webster ‘rebellion’ refers to an instance of defiance or resistance, an outbreak against authority. It’s not purely an opportunity to cause anarchy, but a situation created by the lack of means to be heard or effect change. In Why Men Rebel, Ted Gurr argues that people are motivated to rebellion by “relative deprivation”, a feeling and belief they’ve not received the economic benefits or political voice they believe they are entitled to. A sense of injustice thus drives the conflict.

In the case of the now globally renown ‘Extinction Rebellion’ (XR), a need to demand government attention for a time-sensitive issue, “climate emergency” and a call to halt biodiversity loss and carbon emissions by 2025 (Snaith, 2017).

So, the activities in London this week, an outrage? yes, to some,

an inconvenience? yes, that’s the point.

XR’s end goal, forcing the public and politicians to confront the climate emergency, justifiable? unsure/undecided?

Shades of grey

According to Walker & Levisoton (2019), in the context of climate change ‘denial’ and ‘inaction’ are related to one another. Making use of the late psychoanalysis sociologist Stanley Cohen’s framework in ‘States of Denial’ , they explain three forms of climate denial:

  1. Literal denial: an outright rejection that something has happened or is happening – in this case, climate change denial, or a mutated version, a denial of any human contribution to accept climate change. This can manifest collectively, in social groups, often by parties with vested interests in industry.
  2. Interpretative denial: Not an outright dismissal of the facts, but a purposeful interpretation in ways that distort their meaning or importance. In the climate context: climate change is just a natural fluctuation, not a cause of rising temperatures
  3. Implicatory Denial: Neither denying or misinterpreting the facts, ‘the psychological, political and moral implications of the facts are denied or minimised’. Plainly, ‘we fail to act when the information says we should’

The paradox of sustainable technology

Today we are subsumed by the positive messages for the potential of technology including AI to deliver diverse and innovative efficiencies. I truly hope that science, industry and academia continue to be supported in these endeavours, ones that are transformative, safe, trusted and inclusive. Yet I will no longer be blindly led, without more critical inquiry into technology’s longer-term impacts (Hazas & Nathan, 2017).

It seems all too transparent now, that a number of the very same technologies we envision will deliver a more sustainable future, will indeed entice further participation in consumerism, demand increasing power consumption, and generate inconceivable amounts of e-toxic waste (UN, 2019). And these points require more discussion and air time than they have received to date.

Pursuing good

Ethics is fundamentally focused on the pursuit of “good” actions based on “good” decision-making —decisions and actions that lead to the least possible amount of unnecessary harm or suffering. But what “good” represents is highly subjective; shaped by various influences, including political, cultural, and personal biases (Deloitte, 2018). Furthermore, much of what shapes our present and future is determined by our leaders, and a disproportionate number of key decision-makers across our industries in a form of savage capitalism (Phillips, 2018). It’s no wonder many individuals feel either intimidated or powerless to make any iota of difference.

But ethically, XR have a point. They have a clear position: raising the collective consciousness of the urgency to make ambitious, and possibly uncomfortable and disruptive changes, for the sake of more than our own lives. Let’s not forget this is not just aimed at government, it affects all of us. We all need to come clean on our position on this, and consider what we are prepared to sacrifice or change. It will involve pulling back the comfortable veil on our own involvement in this story, examining how far our own implicatoy denial reaches. I’ll be the first to admit I have some key personal and difficult challenges ahead.

Inspired to the core

In no specific order, individuals, not institutions, in the form of Andri Snær Magnason, Sam Coniff, and Greta Thunberg, to cite just a few, that have picked at my soul, at my conscience, using non-violent means. Through language, action and empowerment.

Simply, they have brought responsibility and the capacity for change, back to the individual.

Urgent action


Let’s accept, that beyond all the promises and well-intended documents and policies, the pursuit of profit and consumerism is unlikely to stop or even slow down.

The fight to preserve is not a new one, but the need for urgent intervention in our broken world is unprecedented. Technology has been the game-changer. It has endowed man with powers of great magnitude. “The artificial system it has created is aimed at achieving maximum control over things and man himself, with the result of either eliminating or subordinating the natural world and adding man himself to the objects of technology” (Armand, 2012).

Technology is clearly part of the solution, but it must be more carefully managed going forward. There needs to be a clearer mandate for environmental protection, which can no longer be traded off for the efficiencies of one generation.

Whilst the current actions of the ‘Extinction Rebellion’ activists may not appeal or rest easy with one’s politics or position, it is hard to dispute what they have done for the cause, catapulting climate change into the mainstream, attracting support from all echelons of society.

“There always comes a time when one must choose between contemplation and action. This is called becoming a man” – Albert Camus

Activists Wanted!

In my mind, the themes of technology, sustainability and ethics must now be bound together more tightly: be that in the contexts of education, research, industry, government or media. Technology without sustainability and ethics is more likely to turn a solution into a new problem.

We should now, in our schools, businesses, communities, be questioning what we can do both individually and collectively to support a reduction rather than growth of GHGs, energy and e-waste, though our personal and commercial use of technology. At the same time invest in enabling our human capacity and our ecology to thrive.

Possibly it is time to accept the need for rebellion and disruption in times of crisis.

In the words of Phillips (2018) ‘activists involved with social movements challenging the juggernaut of concentrated actions are vital to the survival of humankind’.

What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction of humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature (Klein, 2014 p. 21)


References

Armand, J.L. (2012) ‘The bringing together of technology, sustainability and ethics’, Sustainable Science, 7 (2), p 113-116.

Cohen, S. (2001) ‘States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering, Polity Press: USA.

Coman, A., Johnson, B., Briggs, G. & Aha, D.W. (2017) ‘Social Attitudes of AI Rebellion: A Framework’, The AAAI-17 Workshop on AI, Ethics, and Society WS-17-02

Cotton, B. (2018) ‘H&M and Zara, the ‘sustainable’ fashion brands killing the environment’, Business Leader, 28th November 2018 [online]. Available: https://www.businessleader.co.uk/hm-and-zara-the-sustainable-fashion-brands-killing-the-environment/56166/ [Accessed 14th October 2019].

Deloitte (2018) ‘Ethics in the age of technological disruption A discussion paper for the 2018 True North Conference’ [online]. Available: https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/ca/Documents/deloitte-analytics/ca-en-analytics-FCC-true-north-aoda.PDF [Accessed 13th October 2019].

Ellis, C. (2019) ‘The iPhone 11 looks pretty green, but it’s not the best choice for the environment’ Tech Radar, 15th September 2019 [online]. Available: https://www.techradar.com/uk/news/the-iphone-11-looks-pretty-green-but-its-not-the-best-choice-for-the-environment [Accessed 14th October 2019].

Gurr, T.R. (2016) ‘Why men rebel’, Fortieth anniversary edition, Routledge: Oxon.

Hazas, M. & Nathan, L. (2017) ‘Digital Technology and Sustainability’, Routledge Studies in Sustainability: Oxon.

Issa, R. (2019) ‘For doctors like me, joining Extinction Rebellion is a moral duty’, The Independent, 8th October 2019 [online]. Available: https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/extinction-rebellion-protests-london-doctors-climate-crisis-environment-a9147656.html [Accessed 15th October 2019].

Klein, N. (2014) ‘This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. the Climate’, Simon and Schuster.

Kibert, C., Monroe, M., Peterson, A., Plate, R. & Thiele, L. (2011) ‘Working Toward Sustainability: Ethical Decision Making in a Technological World’, John Wiley & Sons: NY.

Naujok,N.,  Le Fleming, H. & Srivatsav, N. (2018) ‘Digital technology and sustainability: Positive mutual reinforcement’  strategy+business, 1st August 2018 [online]. Available: https://www.strategy-business.com/article/Digital-Technology-and-Sustainability-Positive-Mutual-Reinforcement?gko=7ce3e [Accessed 14th October 2019].

Phillips, P. (2018) ‘Giants: The Global Power Elite’,  Seven Stories Press: NY.

Snaith, E. (2019) ‘Extinction Rebellion: Who are the climate activist group bringing cities to a standstill and what are their aims?’, Independent, 7th October 2019 [online]. Available: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/extinction-rebellion-who-why-protests-climate-change-london-arrests-xr-a9143746.html [Accessed 15th October 2019].

UN (2019)’Time to seize opportunity, tackle the challenge of e-waste’, UN Environment, 24th January 2019 [online]. Availble: https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/press-release/un-report-time-seize-opportunity-tackle-challenge-e-waste [Accessed 14th October 2019].

Walker, I. & Levison, Z. (2019) ‘There are three types of climate change denier—and most of us are at least one’, Quartz, 15th October 2019. Available: https://qz.com/1726232/the-three-types-of-climate-change-denial/ [Accessed 16th October 2019].


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