On May 26, the Smithsonian Institution convened a group of thought leaders to address the most pressing challenges facing the planet. A common theme was the importance of keeping morality, ethics and social justice at the forefront of the discussion. Highlights from that conversation are below. 

Steve Monfort

“Money alone is only one measure, I suppose, of justice, and well-being, for sure. In my view, that's pretty dangerous, I think. It's sort of a dangerous thought. I can't imagine that just making more money will get us to where we need to be in terms of a sustainable planet.”

Denise Fairchild

“I believe that it is an ethical challenge that we're facing. I do believe we're two and a half times past carrying capacity in the earth. That we cannot continue to produce and consume at the level that we are now. ... We're finding some tools to help solve, to mediate, to mitigate some of the problems, but I don't think it's going to solve the climate change, unless we change our economy and change the ethics behind it.”

“Poor communities are very vulnerable to climate change. And I was just talking to Tuck earlier that if you're wealthy in America, you can move to higher ground when there's sea level rise. Not a problem. I can buy another house. I can get in my car. I can drive away. Katrina can hit. No problem. But if you're poor and you're vulnerable ... I think the economically developed world are causing the pollution and the inability to subsist in other parts of the global South, in particular.

"Now, often the environmental movement is seen as a middle class, white movement. But to this day, all the research points to the fact that low-income communities of color care about—and want to do something about climate change—even greater than middle class, white communities ... These are very fundamental issues that people care about."

Mary Tucker

“There's this tremendous sense that our moral vision needs to rise to the occasion. That if E.O. Wilson says we're going through an hourglass, especially due to the sixth extinction. We are going through some historical moment that is unique, let's just say, and very pressing, and very confusing. And I think we need, probably, plural moral visions to come through this, for sure. We need that from scientists. We need it from entrepreneurs. We need it from people in urban communities.”

"Individualism and innovation is terrific ... But I think we're also at a point of hyper-individualism, where we haven't really acknowledged: What is a community-building way of being in the world? This is one of the great characteristics of humans: We can build communities. So I think we need (to go) from individualism to interdependence, independence to interdependence, from equality to equity." 

"The religions have often been concerned about justice for humans, but not seeing it related to the environment. So, the huge movement of "Laudato si’," care for our common home, is to say, people and planets are integrated and that clearly we have to have environmental justice at the core of this. Those who are suffering from climate change in coastal communities and elsewhere are the most vulnerable: people who haven't created the problem but are suffering from it."

"There is a complex multi-faceted moral call at this moment in human history that needs to draw on other cultures, other religions, other peoples and races and so on, to build what I would call a multicultural, but planetary civilization, for the future. I think we can do that."

Catrina Rorke

"Right now we're giving people access to reliable forms of energy by sending out technologies that are getting cheaper every day. Wind power, solar power, small hydroelectric power, even, in a lot of parts of the developing world, and batteries that are getting astoundingly cheaper, largely because we want them for our cell phones. ... You can see this footprint of innovation allowing us to leapfrog a lot of the obstacles that we faced in the developed world to just skip over a lot of the problems we've generated for ourselves."

"We know that in the developed world we face fewer obstacles in treating communicable and noncommunicable diseases. We know that a rich country that exists largely below sea level can thrive, while a poor country that exists largely below sea level cannot. And economic development is a terrific indicator, not just for mortality and morbidity, but a terrific indicator for our ability to weather what the environment can throw at us. And so when we think about what these new models and paradigms are for considering global equity, is that part of it? Is a solution to just not deal with this and allow the globe to become richer?"

Jedidah Purdy

“Climate change, along with other contemporary crises, reinforces and expresses human inequality, both in the global distribution of who contributes to it and in the global distribution of who is vulnerable to it. So, it is itself a question of environmental justice all the way down, and one that's not separable from other forms of global justice.”

“There's this arresting passage late in Otto Leopold's classic work Sand County Almanac where he says: "The purpose of conservation policy is to breed a consciousness and a way of seeing that can appreciate the world in a new fashion." That is to say, our land use policy, our agriculture policy, our energy policy, they all have aesthetic and even moral dimensions. They shape the landscape and they shape the terms of experience where people will learn to relate to and value the landscape.”


Jedediah Purdy image
Jedediah Purdy

professor of law Duke University and the author of After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene

Catrina Rorke image
Catrina Rorke

senior fellow for energy policy, R Street Institute

Mary Evelyn Tucker image
Mary Evelyn Tucker

co-founder and co-director of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University