Our Moral Footprint
By VACLAV HAVEL
September 27, 3007 AD
OVER the past few years the questions have been asked ever more
forcefully whether global climate changes occur in natural cycles or
not, to what degree we humans contribute to them, what threats stem
from them and what can be done to prevent them. Scientific studies
demonstrate that any changes in temperature and energy cycles on a
planetary scale could mean danger for all people on all continents.
It is also obvious from published research that human activity is a
cause of change; we just don't know how big its contribution is. Is it
necessary to know that to the last percentage point, though? By
waiting for incontrovertible precision, aren't we simply wasting time
when we could be taking measures that are relatively painless compared
to those we would have to adopt after further delays?
Maybe we should start considering our sojourn on earth as a loan.
There can be no doubt that for the past hundred years at least, Europe
and the United States have been running up a debt, and now other parts
of the world are following their example. Nature is issuing warnings
that we must not only stop the debt from growing but start to pay it
back. There is little point in asking whether we have borrowed too
much or what would happen if we postponed the repayments. Anyone with
a mortgage or a bank loan can easily imagine the answer.
The effects of possible climate changes are hard to estimate. Our
planet has never been in a state of balance from which it could
deviate through human or other influence and then, in time, return to
its original state. The climate is not like a pendulum that will
return to its original position after a certain period. It has evolved
turbulently over billions of years into a gigantic complex of
networks, and of networks within networks, where everything is
interlinked in diverse ways.
Its structures will never return to precisely the same state they were
in 50 or 5,000 years ago. They will only change into a new state,
which, so long as the change is slight, need not mean any threat to
Larger changes, however, could have unforeseeable effects within the
global ecosystem. In that case, we would have to ask ourselves whether
human life would be possible. Because so much uncertainty still
reigns, a great deal of humility and circumspection is called for.
We can't endlessly fool ourselves that nothing is wrong and that we
can go on cheerfully pursuing our wasteful lifestyles, ignoring the
climate threats and postponing a solution. Maybe there will be no
major catastrophe in the coming years or decades. Who knows? But that
doesn't relieve us of responsibility toward future generations.
I don't agree with those whose reaction is to warn against restricting
civil freedoms. Were the forecasts of certain climatologists to come
true, our freedoms would be tantamount to those of someone hanging
from a 20th-story parapet.
Whenever I reflect on the problems of today's world, whether they
concern the economy, society, culture, security, ecology or
civilization in general, I always end up confronting the moral
question: what action is responsible or acceptable? The moral order,
our conscience and human rights ― these are the most important issues
at the beginning of the third millennium.
We must return again and again to the roots of human existence and
consider our prospects in centuries to come. We must analyze
everything open-mindedly, soberly, unideologically and unobsessively,
and project our knowledge into practical policies. Maybe it is no
longer a matter of simply promoting energy-saving technologies, but
chiefly of introducing ecologically clean technologies, of
diversifying resources and of not relying on just one invention as a
I'm skeptical that a problem as complex as climate change can be
solved by any single branch of science. Technological measures and
regulations are important, but equally important is support for
education, ecological training and ethics ― a consciousness of the
commonality of all living beings and an emphasis on shared
Either we will achieve an awareness of our place in the living and
life-giving organism of our planet, or we will face the threat that
our evolutionary journey may be set back thousands or even millions of
years. That is why we must see this issue as a challenge to behave
responsibly and not as a harbinger of the end of the world.
The end of the world has been anticipated many times and has never
come, of course. And it won't come this time either. We need not fear
for our planet. It was here before us and most likely will be here
after us. But that doesn't mean that the human race is not at serious
risk. As a result of our endeavors and our irresponsibility our
climate might leave no place for us. If we drag our feet, the scope
for decision-making ― and hence for our individual freedom ― could be
Vaclav Havel is the former president of the Czech Republic. This
article was translated by Gerald Turner from the Czech.