The Values of the Australian Bushfires
Although it now seems like they belonged to another era, the bushfires that devastated the Australian landscape a few months ago took their toll on the country but also on everyone around the world. Before the COVID-19 tragedy, the Australian bushfires episode announced darker times to come with climate change for everyone on the planet. Unsurprisingly in Australia, the focus — before the current crisis — had shifted onto how to prepare in order to avoid such a tragedy in the future. Although the problem is mostly discussed as a technical one (how much funding, how many trucks and planes, etc.) at the moment, it is high time we realised it is also a highly philosophical one for everyone around the globe. In a country where almost 1% of the population are volunteer firefighters,1placeholder this bushfire season highlights the conflicting values we hold, both as individuals and as western societies as a whole. This may be the opportunity to reflect on what bushfires can teach us and what world we want to live in, when economic values are no longer aligned with social ones.
Social values vs. economic values
The recent debate in Australia about whether or not the Rural Fire Services (RFS) members should be paid perfectly embodied the conflict between social and economic values. Although urban firefighting services are paid, the RFS rely on volunteers who contribute their time and skills to the service for free. From all the interviews given over the past months, they proudly do so with a feeling of giving to their community. However, can they afford spending months fighting fires, day and night, without being paid? Or at least being reimbursed for the loss of income they suffer? On the well-known prime time show Q+A on Monday February the 3rd, Cheryl McCarthy, the Director of the Far South Coast Surf Life Saving Clubs (SLSC), which accommodated thousands of people fleeing the fires, expressed a very strong view on it. She said that the reason why people volunteer in the first place, whether in the RFS or in the SLSC, is ultimately to give to the people of their communities — not to earn money. Paying them for the community service they provide would undermine their moral commitment and would reduce it to the economic dimension. However, she agreed on compensating them (words matter, she insisted) for the time they spent fighting fires and not earning a living — which is what was announced, with the federal funding capped at $300 per day and $6,000 per month for firefighters working in small businesses.
This opinion exemplifies the dilemma that moral values and economic values are facing more generally in the western world. In economics, there are conflicting schools of thought about what exactly the price of a commodity represents. For some, it only indicates the scarcity of the product (supply & demand mechanism), but for others it also is an indication of the intrinsic value: the number of hours a product required to be produced according to Marx, or, in finance, the belief that there is a fundamental price for a share that reflects the financial and economic solidity of the company, to which the market price is eventually going to adjust in the long run. In classical theory, the price is supposed to cater for all information that is available: supply and demand, quality, scarcity, etc. This is why we will treat the price of something as representing, in economics, its value. And what could be more valuable than saving lives by fighting fires or rescuing people at sea? In this conception, firefighters and lifesavers should be paid a corresponding amount of money. However, just like the sociologist and philosopher Georg Simmel stated in 1900 in his book Philosophy of Money, the monetary economy, which keeps on extending onto all sectors of social life, tends to make us forget about other dimensions of values. As he says, “That the monetary value of things does not completely replace what we have in them, that they create aspects that are not expressible in money — that is what the monetary economy tends to conceal more and more from us.”2placeholder The fact that money cannot be the only appraisal of the value of something, because some values are not monetary, is at risk of disappearing if we start putting an economic value on something — namely paying people. Although money is there to enhance value creation by offering an efficient means of exchanging goods and services, therefore benefitting society as a whole, we’ve entered a time when moral and economic values are no longer aligned, and must work around one another.
Our modern responsibility
The 19th century was a defining moment in many respects. It saw the birth of modern capitalism thanks to the industrial revolution, and although it raised social issues for the working class, these were soon met by regulations and social security systems. Overall, economic growth brought some incredible social progress lifting people out of poverty, just like it still does nowadays in China and India, improving health and living conditions. We could say that in these past two centuries, economic and social values were aligned. What we are witnessing today is the divorce of the two, especially when it comes to nature. It is no secret that economic theory did not accommodate for nature at the start, as the abundance of natural resources like air, water or coal implies they are free (you simply need to extract them). Furthermore, any damage to the environment is considered an externality, precisely not accounted for by the market and therefore remains external to the economic system. The same goes with the forests that were burnt: their value, such as the pure air or the entertainment and the joy they provide, were never recognised on an economic level. However, economic theory did later think of nature as a missing market:3placeholder no one is accountable for nature since no one owns it to claim the price of the damage. We should therefore create property rights to be exchanged like carbon emission trading systems. This way, when economics do encompass the value of natural resources, it is to allocate their scarcity in the form of a market. This is what happened in Australia in the 2000’s with the 2007 Water Act setting up water markets to prevent farmers and businesses over exploiting the water supplies. However it raises one question: is the market, which attracts speculation, the best way to put a value on something? Or would an essential resource like water, without which humans, animals and plants cannot survive, be too important to belong on a market? There again, there seems to be a divorce between economic and moral values that has a real impact on the way we treat nature. The question remains of which values we, as individuals and as a society, should follow and what relationship we should consequently build with our environment.
In the writings of Albert Camus, such as The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), the world is inherently absurd but it is our duty to find meaning and values to hold onto as human beings. Later, in The Rebel (1951), Camus explains that values used to be imposed from the top: religion, tradition and history, but that this is no longer true in our modern age. On the contrary, as the autonomous and capable individuals that we have been since the 18th century’s Enlightenment (and, as such, perfectly aligned with economic theory as we are independent and rational), we now get to choose and design our own values. This historical trend brought us the rights of peoples after WW1, as well as Human Rights after WW2. We can no longer claim that we are not choosing the values we want to live in, and this comes with a responsibility that is even more acute today, as scientific data shows us that this extended bushfire season was partly due to climate change, which is itself caused by human activity. We cannot pretend these fires came from nowhere: the pursuit of economic growth, provided by natural resources like coal and oil, has hurt the very environment upon which we rely. We all take part in this system when we turn the lights on, use cars or watch videos on the internet. And this means we all are accountable in the face of the tragedy that occurred: we cannot escape that we have the power to change this, just as we were powerful enough to trigger it. The freedom of modern age comes with an important responsibility: we know through science our impact on the world, and we cannot hide from it. Camus encourages us to seize the opportunity to completely own our actions and find new solutions to the problems they might cause.
Developing new ethics
In the communities affected by the bushfires, people have come together to face the terrible events. Going through something this tragic puts things in perspective, allowing individuals to have an acute sense of what is important and what is not. Now that we know it is our duty to solve the dilemma between economic and social values, there are two ways we can do it: either by acknowledging they should be completely separated, or by trying to realign them — inventing new economic systems so that they match with our morals again. The question is: are our social values really worth reconstructing better economic values for? Can we change our way of living to make sure others will be able to live after us? These bushfires, along with the growing natural disasters over the past few years and especially the current COVID-19 health crisis, have raised these questions in the most desperate way. It is now time to think, both individually and collectively, about the values we want to uphold and live by for the sake of future generations. This necessity to think of our time on earth as bearing the responsibility for its future inhabitants is Hans Jonas’ groundbreaking idea developed in The Responsibility Principle (1979). Future generations ought to have a say in what we are doing because they will bear the consequences, and they should be included in our contemporary thinking as essential members of the system. This philosophical line of thought is at odds with economic theory, in which the future, because it is uncertain, is worth less than the present. This is why we now need to start rethinking our economic values in light of what the bushfires taught us. Time should from now on be extendable: it is no longer only the present, but also the future consequences of our decisions that should be part of our thinking process. Extending our concept of the present is crucial, and the recent political events show this too: after the Brexit vote in 2016, numerous articles underlined how the older people voting for Brexit would be the ones who would suffer the consequences the least amount of time, whereas the young people, who voted in majority in favour to remain in the EU, would have to deal with the consequences much longer. The exact same thing is happening with climate change.
Allowing for future generations to be included in our ethical decisions is therefore crucial to ground new economic and moral values, but we need to go even further and think outside of the human race. Traditional ethics have been constructed on the basis of human relations; we must now develop new relationships notably with the natural world. This is what French philosopher Bruno Latour does when he writes about “Gaïa” (inspired from the works of the sci-fi author Lovelock), which is to consider the earth globally as an ecosystem of its own. This is also what Peter Singer proposes with the concept of antispeciesism, a line of thought that extends the moral consideration we show towards other human beings to all species of animals, as belonging to another species should not be a reason for discrimination. It is worth noting that these theories are not new but date back to the 70s; however the wake up call to actually consider them in our daily actions might have just come. Our moral sphere needs to be extended in the 21st century to ecosystems, plants, animals, natural resources as well as future generations. It is an ethical revolution that both mankind and the planet need. The recent Australian bushfires remind us of the acuteness of this concrete philosophical challenge, which is easier stated than met: grounding new values in nature and humans that are not yet born in order to reconcile economics and morality. However, stating the problem is the first step towards solving it. As Camus wrote, “To name things wrongly is to add to the misfortune of the world.”
French edition, p. 512. Translation from the author.
See Garrett Hardin’s 1968 article, “The tragedy of the commons”.