Tolstoy in Rio: A Climate Change Analogy

06/21/2012 10:56 am ET | Updated Aug 21, 2012

When they audit the carry-ons of June's Rio+20 travelers for indirect carbon emissions attributable to pre-reading mass, among the whitepapers and data tables and reports and news cables, they are not likely to discover any worn, paperback copies of Tolstoy's little-known short novel, Master and Man. That is, unless this article convinces them that the tale holds the analogical key to resolving a critical issue of global economic justice (and not merely because it weighs about 95 percent less than War and Peace). Tolstoy was regarded as a prophet in his own time, so why not in ours, too?

The issue that could be the fulcrum of progress at this week's United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development is whether some countries should do proportionally more for climate change mitigation than others. Or, conversely, whether other countries ought to be permitted to do less. The criteria for "differentiated responsibility," as termed by the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that sanctions differentiation, are "respective capabilities and their social and economic conditions." In other words, those who can do and who can afford to do more should do more. For multinational corporations domiciled in developed markets, this means accepting new regulatory requirements at home and reputational responsibilities abroad.

Before citizens of comparatively affluent nations complain about the alleged Moral expectation that they are always the ones being asked to do more than their fair share (more taxes, more foreign aid, more this, more that), consider the Non-Moral (as differentiated from Immoral) rationale. Causal: Generally, the industrial powers of the 20th century have been disproportionately responsible for contributing to the problem of climate change). Economic: And, said industrial powers have benefitted out of economic proportion for being said cause. Consequential: The adverse effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels, are worse for comparatively less-affluent island and coastal nations (a significant share of developing countries), and while this particular point may not garner much sympathy for the land-locked Central African Republic, adaptation costs are also relatively greater.

Notwithstanding those good reasons to differentiate, in the twenty years (hence Rio+20) since the Framework was drafted, agreement on who, how much, and how have remained elusive. Negotiations get caught up on both esoteric technicalities and childish stubbornness, which is where a literary fable offers the practical service of engendering unwitting agreement-by-analogy. As I argue in the academic paper on which this article is based:

The one who thinks she is the master is analogous to the wealthier, industrialized nations, which first benefitted from industrial capability and perhaps also technological and natural resource advantages, in turn feeding more demand and consumption, driving greater and greater per capita environmental impact. Market actors from these countries have been the primary architects of an interdependent global economic system in which, today, the preponderance of manufacturing and production occurs in different parts of the world than those in which the fruits of that labor are consumed. The master has more than she needs, experiencing a standard of living that by economic measures consists arguably of the greatest privileges enjoyed in human history. That standard of living, however, is now threatened by climate change, a direct consequence of the master's profligacy. It is a concern that she is struggling to mitigate without sacrificing the standard of living and material advantages to which she has grown to feel entitled.

The human, of whom there are comparably many more than there are masters, is the rest of humanity, particularly those citizens of less developed nations who often have limited market power. What some of these countries once lacked in industrial capability and other advantages they may compensate for in large human populations willingly or necessarily working for little in return. This economy drives wages and associated costs downward, representing an attractive sourcing opportunity for multinational corporations based in developed markets. At times, these countries may have participated reluctantly in the global economy, objecting to the master's exploitation of economic conditions that has at turns led to ethical allegations about, for example, violation of the basic human right to a living wage and disregard for the natural environment and associated human impacts of environmental degradation. Despite these ethical concerns, the chance to participate in the global markets in service to wealthier countries' insatiable appetite for consumption has more often than not seemed preferable to the alternative role of bystander. The reasoning is predicated on the platitude that a metaphorical rising tide lifts all boats, although the ride may be considerably more perilous for the human, balancing on a ramshackle raft in the wake of her master's luxury cruise ship. Moreover, just as the human sees an economic opportunity to improve her quarters, the science and politics of climate change have seized her latitude to grow; the very industrial methods that were the source of her master's economic transformation are now being blamed for a global warming trend....

Before you seize upon this analogy as patronizing, you might as well know that (spoiler alert) the hero of this tale is the human (as if this were a surprise), and the master meets his Maker. Master and Man is the story of Vasíli, the master, and Nikíta, the man, who journey through a snowstorm on a holiday evening so that Vasíli can close a purchase of land the next morning. "It's business, it can't be helped," Vasíli convinces himself, over and over, to justify the peril (greenhouse gas emissions?) into which his devotion to his goal (profit? growth?) places himself and his laborer. The master begins the journey with assets (evidence of consumption?), two coats (over-consumption?), and a choice of whether or not to go, whereas Nikíta has a torn coat and no voice in his participation (globalization?). On the journey, the two travelers ignore repeated warnings of the dangers ahead, oblivious at the outset to a "lowering dark cloud" (factory smoke?), then rationalizing numerous wrong turns (coal-fired power plants? nuclear accidents?) with the trust that their horse (carbon-eating technology?) will lead them in the right direction (Rio 1992?). When the horse finally tires, Vasíli recognizes they have a reached a point of no return (today?). Desperately, he unhooks him from the sledge and attempts to escape on horseback (the United States at Kyoto?), only to traverse a circle back (Rio+20?). Resigned, Vasíli drapes his coats and body over Nikíta's in an ambiguous final act of contrition.

What is the moral of the story? Well, I'll leave that to you and the Rio+20-somethings to figure out, with this little bit of literary-critical help: A standard interpretation of the conclusion is that Vasíli has undergone some kind of spiritual conversion, sacrificing his well-being for that of the man of whom he has long taken advantage. (In climate change parlance, you might call this scenario, "full differentiation".) An alternative interpretation is that Vasíli is sharing his bodily warmth with Nikíta in order to save himself, which may perhaps also save Nikíta ("partial differentiation"). In either interpretation, Vasíli brings more capability (two coats, and, we might suppose though Tolstoy does not provide this detail, more body fat) and social and economic wherewithal to the embrace. If he dies, his wife and son (which son he ostentatiously and annoyingly refers to repeatedly as his "heir") will still have their land, which may be more than can be said for the humans in the real-life drama.

C. Michaelson, "Morally Differentiating Responsibility for Climate Change Mitigation: An Analogy with Tolstoy's 'Master and Man'", Business and Professional Ethics Journal 30, no. 1-2 (2011): 113-136).