Transitional ethics and the battle to go green

First published September 2008, updated February 2011

I often get email from people who are really concerned about an aspect of a product that otherwise seems very environmentally friendly. It’s great to see that sort of awareness, but the danger is that the minefields we encounter and attempt to navigate in trying to locate truly green products can be so daunting that we throw our hands up in the air and think “what’s the point”.

This is where the concept of transitional ethics can save the day.

It seems that term originated with the permaculture movement, which is all about self sufficiency and a reduction on  reliance on industrial systems of production.

However, how do you get from point A (total reliance) to point B (self sufficiency)? It’s usually not in one fell swoop; there has to be some tradeoffs along the way if only for a short time or to reach a greater environmentally-friendly goal.

It took generations for us to get to this point where so much in our lives is toxic to the planet, and there’s no on/off green switch we can flick to reverse that – unless you have a ton of cash and time of course!

As an example of transitional ethics, an old dam on my property was in bad repair. While we were in the grip of a decade-long drought, when/if it ever rained again, it was in danger of collapsing.

The state of the dam was not only a safety issue, but a collapse would have seen much of the precious water escape (this is a really dry area), caused major erosion and a ton of slow growing trees bowled over in the process.

To fix the dam, I could have spent the next year manually shoring it up in my spare time using a shovel and wheelbarrow. A manual repair may not have ever occurred in time or been good enough. I decided to arrange for a bulldozer that fixed it up in under an hour. As I sat and watched the 50 year old dozer belch smoke and rip the surrounding area up as it went about its task, I had an attack of the guilts – but as it turned out, it was the right choice.

Just recently we had one-in-100-year storms that brought flash flooding – twice in three months – the last incident being a few days ago. On both occasions the dam filled beyond capacity.

There is now 600,000 gallons of water available for the local wildlife – and the dam wall is sound. Now that the place is no longer a livestock grazing block, there are also plants growing on the repaired section that will help to stabilize it further. The bulldozer’s disturbance of the surrounding hard ground also gave way for new plant life.

The time I would have spent on a manual repair was also used towards some other aspects of my green goals for the block, such as weed control.

Here’s a few more examples of where transitional ethics come into play; more applicable to life in the city:

– driving your car to the garden supplies store to pick up heirloom vegetable seeds so you don’t have to buy so much factory farm produce from the supermarket and to reduce overall food miles.

– installing a plastic rain barrel to catch rainwater

buying solar panels to help reduce the amount of mains electricity you use

– buying a new refrigerator to replace the old one which is still in good working order, but chews juice like there’s no tomorrow.

– Using cloth diapers usually, but having a pack of disposable diapers for your baby for emergencies.

– travelling to take a course in self sufficiency!

.. all the above have environmentally “unfriendly” components, but the end goal more than offsets any damage caused.

Transitional ethics vs. rationalization

Transitional ethics shouldn’t be confused with rationalization. Rationalization is where you find justification for things you know are decidedly “ungreen”. For example, I’m a meat eater – something that’s certainly not good for the environment. A rationalization I could use is that vegetables these days are laced with pesticides and other nasties and I only eat grass fed beef anyway. That just doesn’t cut it and I need to reduce my meat consumption.

I guess the bottom line is, when you’re in a moral dilemma about a purchase or course of action and how it will affect the environment, don’t sweat the small stuff too much or bother about the “greener than thou” brigade or the eco-police. Think about the big picture, think transitional ethics; i.e. does the end justify the means? Is it something you really need? Transitional ethics does not mean selling out, it’s just being realistic.