A Review of Earthling: A New Ethics for the Anthropocene by Dean Wallraff
I’ve written a handful of reviews for authors I’ve known, but none whose narrative includes the author’s remarkable — and relevant — life story. Privy as I am to some of this author’s personal history, some of which is readily shared in his book, I can’t help read the two parallel stories being told in Dean Wallraff’s Earthling: A New Ethics for the Anthropocene (Ethics Press, 2023).
One story can be glimpsed here and there in the telling of the larger — a “new ethics” for the climate emergency. The lesser story, little more than a biographical sketch, gathers a few crumbs from the paths taken by what most would call a polymath. Wallraff could have settled for a musician’s life, played professional trumpet in a medium sized city orchestra, keyboards and bass in a minor rock band, scored musical accompaniment for his equally accomplished choreographer life-partner (we encounter Benita briefly in a Southern California traffic signal anecdote), penned a few scores as he imagined himself a film composer for B movies. In pursuit of these early goals, he invented the DMX-1000, one of the earliest digital synthesizers, which was purchased by experimental music institutions like the University of Milan.
Instead of that artist’s oeuvre, he (and I, as it turned out) was tempted into the then-emerging computer revolution (1969 ff.). He taught himself SNOBOL and LISP. Competence with LISP, the first programming language well suited to AI’s symbolic reasoning goals, gave way to an interest in Classics, which was his undergraduate major. He developed a profitable career architecting payments software for major banks, which supported his many other interests. Later launched a couple startups of his own.
This history matters. It proves foundational in Earthling, as Wallraff himself notes, in his ability to earn a respectable living, and “the freedom to choose the work I do” (p. 39). It also lends a certain credibility to his assessment about country, government and enterprises as he offers actions we might take to support a common good.
It was also his love of hiking and volunteer work with the Sierra Club that motivated Wallraff to become an environmental lawyer and to found Advocates for the Environment. Those chapters comprise the second story, mustered by force of personality in Earthling. Doubtless his experiences in the pragmatics of scale at both large and small enterprises led him to believe a law degree would be a force multiplier as a climate activist.
Real Results, Real Frustrations
The stories told in Earthling demonstrate that it was a sound calculus. Since receiving his law degree and founding Advocates, Wallraff’s litigation skills have made a difference.
In a [California] lawsuit against Centennial, another huge project (19,333 housing units, 57,150 residents, 8.4 million square feet of commercial and industrial development on 20 square miles of open-space land), we challenged the Environmental Impact Report’s analysis of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) and fire impacts and won in court. That win gave us enough leverage in settlement that the project became net zero for GHG emissions (p. 149).
But these wins are not only inadequate considering the scale of the planetary disaster, but they are may be won only on the basis of particular state laws, or with micro-remedies that fail to address underlying causes, or have limited enforceability.
I, like many other lawyers, have been wracking my brain . . . to design lawsuits to fight climate change. It’s frustrating, because climate change is causing massive harm right now. There’s a famous saying in law: “ubi jus ibi remedium.” . . . It means “for every wrong there is a remedy.” This may be close to true for claims between individuals relating to ordinary life. But it is completely untrue for environmental law” (p. 160).
Wallraff cites Juliana v. United States as still more “deeply frustrating.” That cases to compel the US government to reduce GHG emissions, meet international goals such as the Paris Agreement, and levy fines against large emitters to account for “the social cost of carbon” are so hard to win. Even seemingly straightforward approaches to assert a right to have a clean and healthy environment are inevitably fraught with necessary tradeoffs: realistic solutions must still to allow for economic activities, regional cultural and geographical (e.g., global north / south) differences, even individual rights that are not “justiciable.”
Attending to Theories of Attention
Picture a batter trying to guess whether a pitcher is throwing a curve or a fast ball. A guitarist in the middle of a difficult passage. A patient receiving the diagnosis for a serious illness.
These are scenarios which highlight the importance of attention and motivation. As climate activists select from a limited set of tactics to effect change, they would do well to maintain a laser focus. This is a recurring theme in Earthing. A thorough study of attention, considering the uneven progress made so far in putting the planet on a war footing against climate change, may be required. That is beyond the scope of Wallraff’s text.
Axiomatic to Automatic
Earthling proposes three “axioms” for urgent consideration:
- We will take whatever action is required to keep global average temperatures rises below 2 degrees C.
- We will not try to solve other world problems on the back of fixing climate change. That means environmental injustice, hunger, poverty, racism will have to power their own movements. This must follow principles of human attention and focus.
- We won’t make any of the potentially related problems cited in Axiom 2, such as environmental injustice, worse.
Exactly what must be sacrificed — to fate, to greater or lesser colleagues — shall remain unknown. Shall we too, turn just as Wallraff turned his attention to this greater, more desperate need? Earthling is not the ranting of an anti-industrialist. Rather it is a cry, a sacrifice made by an artist-industrialist. We know this from what is left on the Wallraff workbench: a science fiction novel, beginnings of a graphic novel, audio files. His internationalist’s array of dismay.
As if the thorough and well-considered actions proposed here were not enough, additional passages might have touched on psychological and sociological factors. Saving for retirement, preventive health measures, even vegetarianism. But would any of it helped to discover what he calls our inner “secular zoist?”
As I pondered this question, I pictured myself in our classmate Mark Bahti’s Tucson shop. Mark would perhaps have pointed me to Hopivotskwani, a set of principles that guided the Hopis.
A basic tenet of Hopi philosophy is that humans live in harmony with nature. In this view, religion permeates all aspects of an inextricably interwoven life. Nature, gods, spirits, animals, plants, the land, and people are one in an unchangeable relationship. This philosophy and relationship is community based. Each Hopi village is ritually considered to be the center of the world, and each respects the others’ independence. Bounded on four quarters by holy mountains, this world contains within it places where contact may be made with spirits through sacred rites performed to ensure prosperity and the proper functioning of Hopivotskwani (Parezo & Sheridan, 1996).
Reaching back for teachings by our Arizona native predecessors has a certain artistic flair. It’s a reach in keeping with Wallraff’s own musical and literary instincts. But the AI-wielding corporate citizen-litigators we have become won’t stand for it.
The new ethics of the Anthropocene call for new armaments for a new militia. Focused, and, in its own way, lethal.