Zal Batmanglij’s The East (2013), and Ethical Philosophy.

(Hint: you might need to watch the trailer (or even the film itself) first! (Rated PG-13), but if you’ve done Year 10 PRS, you should understand the post below)

Ever heard of “freeganism”? It’s something like being a vegan, but with an additional requirement –

Freegans maintain (quite correctly!) that people in urban centers throw out as much good food as they consume: fruit and vegetables that look a little old, perfectly good bread products and pastries that won’t “keep” until the next day, and food approaching its use-by date, but perfectly edible, etc. So what do they do? Source it for free (hence “freegan”) and eat it. (I’ll leave it up do you to look up what “dumpster diving” is!). What do you think? A good way to combat unsustainable living? Let’s see …

A quick synopsis of Batmanglij’s film: an operative for an elite private intelligence firm (Sarah) finds herself involved in a significant moral complication. After infiltrating an anarchist eco-activist group (“The East”), who intend to stage a series of violent, secret operations against big corporations, she finds herself sympathizing with the characters she meets, and adopting (in part) their philosophy: a classic storyline if ever I’ve seen one (ever seen Donnie Brasco, or Out of Sight?). All this falling in love with freegans, of course, runs against her purpose, which is to protect the big corporations against such attacks. It really is a good watch!

As the movie progresses, it turns out the The East are willing to endanger human life in order to achieve their aim in showing the world what damage some corporations can do to the environment, and this is where Sarah starts to experience some major complications in her thinking. Does she support the consequentialist perspective that the environment is just there to be used and abused, so long as it makes people happy? Or does she have sympathy for purposes of The East, who want to see leaders of corporations shamed and punished for their intent to destroy natural resources and the lives of some people (deontology)? This is a pretty realistic vision of what’s actually happening in the world today (did you see the story of the Greenpeace activists recently imprisoned in Russia for trying to stop oil drilling in the arctic?)

As further action ensues it becomes rather apparent that both ethical perspectives are fundamentally flawed (and this leaves Sarah in quite a pickle!): consequentialism cannot determine real justice in a situation where the natural world has been harmed by the interests of a larger group, while the deontological ethics of The East cause harm to individuals, and do little to help the interests of sustainable living prosper in the community.

It’s interesting to note here that the producers of the film actually became “freegans” for two months before writing the film. In a dramatic confrontation towards the end, it becomes quite clear that this provides something of a moral center for the narrative, and it’s admirable that they should give us something of a realistic window into this lifestyle (The East actually really do live by some good, if “shaggy” principles).

And here we might find some sort of answer to Sarah’s dilemma: perhaps you might think that if the eco-activist outfit had considered the philosophy behind their own practice, they might have thought of a third way. If we only put all food into two categories –“presentable” and wastage – then we’re going to waste a lot of it. It we take each individual apple, croissant, or sandwich, on the other hand, and consider it’s edibility in the moment, then we’ll waste much less. This might make you think of another ethical position we look at in PRS: Situational (or Virtue) Ethics. If we stop trying to apply oppositional sets of rules to our world, then we might find that individual practice (interacting with people “in the moment”) is more important than all encompassing theoretical perspectives (making rules which don’t work in all situations).

Try looking at it another way: it’s true that we’re going to have to use the environment in some ways, to sustain our needs: provide shelter, food, and generate warmth, etc. – just as even freegans still need to eat. The heart of sustainability is not punishing individuals for their crimes against nature, nor making rules about what we can and can’t do based on the consequences. Instead, we need to try and change people, to have a personal sense of the problem of unsustainable living for themselves: like Ms Randell has maintained in her previous post, we need to help each other care about the world we live in, and then we might act accordingly. Can this be done through large scale symbolic actions (like the ones attempted by The East), or should it be better achieved through education, personal interaction, and living by example? Some tough questions!

I’ll save you from a major spoiler (how does the film really resolve these difficulties at the end?), and leave it to you to watch yourself. Consider the implications of Sarah’s final and dramatic decision … what would you do?