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Reconsidering Tradeoffs – A Conversation with Radhika Khosla

Facing the Anthropocene: a webinar series hosted by the Kenan Institute for Ethics, with Professor Norman Wirzba of Duke Divinity School

Faced with climate change, species extinction, and sea level rise, we are compelled to rethink humanity’s place in the world, as many of the built environments designed for human flourishing now imperil the lives of countless fellow creatures and the places they inhabit. Join leading scholars in political economy, history, anthropology, theology, philosophy, environmental science, and law, as they address these and other questions (including those from the audience):

  • How shall we evaluate and correct the economies and institutions that undermine the bases and flows of life?

  • What can we learn from the past as we look toward the future?

  • Where is there reason for hope?


At the Kenan Institute for Ethics, we often talk about trade-offs. Ethics is not about good decisions and bad decisions, we tell students, about choosing between doing things that are definitely right and things that are definitely wrong, but about weighing trade-offs. Prioritizing some goals, groups, or issues always come with costs and consequences. Ethical deliberation is more about being clear about what those are and what kind of trade-offs are acceptable, than it is about finding an ideal, utopian solution to every problem.

But maybe we sometimes turn to talk of trade-offs too soon. Or accept trade-offs in situations in which they are not necessary. This is what Radhika Khosla suggested about the much talk-about tension between the environment and development. Do we need to pit improved quality of life for the many people who live without basic necessities against reaching the temperature goals required to stave of climate disaster?

Khosla acknowledged that it can seem as if development and protecting the environment are inevitably in conflict. For example, models predict that, globally, ten new air conditioners will be sold every second for the next 30 years. Currently, 1.1 billion people face immediate risks from lack of access to cooling. In other words, air conditioner sales are driven by real need, a need that insisting people live without AC won’t do away with. But air conditioners release climate gasses, further contributing to the heating of the planet. The increased use of air conditioners means we will need even more air conditioning in the future. And as Khosla pointed out, CO2 lives in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, which means that this increased need for cooling will be with us for a long time.

That seems like a tradeoff if ever there was one. But Khosla urged us to consider what is lost when we use the language of tradeoffs and synergies too quickly. When we think of tradeoffs and synergies we lose a moral claim – morality pushes us to do better in a way that escapes us if we minimalize everything to a cost or a tradeoff. Perhaps we can work both for development and for the climate.

Khosla suggested that we have a unique opportunity to do so at this moment. Two thirds of total CO2 emissions are connected to households, she said, to mobility, residences, and food. Each of these make up about 20% of global CO2 emissions. If we can change household energy demand, we can cut CO2 dramatically. But household energy usage is connected to infrastructure, and infrastructure creates lock-in energy consumption patterns. To make it worse, infrastructure lasts. Once it is built, it is difficult to change.

China and India are currently undergoing massive urbanization waves. In other words, many of our future cities are being built right now. Their energy consumption patterns haven’t been set yet, which means they can be influenced and changed. We can build cities that make possible lower energy demands. These cities need not be cities in which quality of living is low. Instead, such cities may make possible lives in which we use nature and the natural environment in more reciprocal and respectful ways, and that also allows for better relationships among humans.

Khosla did not argue that we need to do away with talk of trade-offs entirely, but only that the assumption that there is a necessary trade-off between development and the health of the environment. When speaking of responsibility, she pointed out that the riches 1% of the world’s population are responsible for the same level of emission as the poorest 50%. She also compared countries based on annual emissions, cumulative historical emissions, and per capita emissions, to show that responsibility for the climate crisis is not equal for all nations or individuals. This is perhaps where talk of trade-offs is necessary. Can the world sustain lives that produce the kind of CO2 emissions currently emitted by the 1%? And are there ways that we might change our lives, in order to emit less? For example, Khosla said she is encouraged by the number of students she encounters who are vegetarian for environmental reasons. Trade-offs are necessary, as are lifestyle changes. But what is not necessary, Khosla argued, is abandoning many of the world’s poor to their poverty in the name of the environment. This is a failure to take moral questions seriously, not a hard but imperative course of action. We need both drastic reduction in emission and further work to improve the quality of life of people who live without basic necessities. And we need the imagination and moral courage to see these not as trade-offs, but as twin goals.


Join us on April 8, 2021 at 12:00 PM (EST) for the next installment in the Facing the Anthropocene series. Dr. Norman Wirzba will be joined by Willis Jenkins, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. To register for this webinar and learn more about the series, click here.

Mari Jorstad

Mari Jørstad provides support for Facing the Anthropocene, a project under the Ethics and Environmental Policy program area. She is originally from Norway and spent a decade in Canada, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in art & art history and political science and an MA in religion before coming to Duke to work toward a PhD studying the Hebrew Bible.

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