The Point Is to Change It

Can Philosophy Address Climate?

In: Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture, and Ecology
David Rothenberg New Jersey Institute of Technology

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NN: Are you an optimist or a pessimist?
AN: Optimist!
NN: (Astonished) Really?
AN: Yes, convinced optimist—When it comes to the 22nd Century.
NN: You mean of course the 21st?
AN: 22nd! The life of the grandchildren of our grandchildren. Are you not interested in the world of your grandchildren!
NN: You mean we can relax because we have a lot of time available to overcome the ecological crisis?
AN: How terrible, shamefully bad conditions will be in the 21st Century, or how far down we have to start on the way up, DEPENDS ON WHAT YOU, YOU, and others do today and tomorrow. There is not a single day to be lost. We need activism on a high level immediately.
Arne Naess, ‘Deep Ecology for the 22nd Century,’ The Trumpeter (1992)

No matter how dark the world or the news looked, Arne Naess was always an optimist. He wanted his enemies to be his friends, by including all possible strands within the deep ecology movement. He always believed humanity could fix things: the Cold War, the ecological crisis, the irrelevance of philosophy.

Well into the second decade of this new century, we have more bad ecological news than ever. Species disappearing. Resources used up, the whole climate being transformed into a new human-defined world that hardly anyone can ignore. Though I doubt Naess would like the term ‘Anthropocene’ he would not doubt the fact that it is happening.

Bad news easily leads to despair. Changing the values at the heart of our civilization seems too glib a requirement in the wake of such environmental peril. How to remain an optimist in this new ecological reality? It is essential to retain hope, and I will figure out if it is philosophically responsible to keep it.

‘Climate Change Is Real!’ ‘Climate Change Is Real!’ The voices rise to a slight crescendo and then quickly dissipate. This was one of the quieter chants at the New York City Women’s March on the day before Donald Trump’s inauguration as president of the United States. All right, you say, this country has far more immediate problems than climate change to work up our fervor. Just read the news every day. Climate change seems calm and remote beside what we are dealing with at this insane moment.

But those of us motivated by environmental concern take the long view. We might already agree with the great musician and activist Pete Seeger who cautioned, ‘In the long run, this country doesn’t go in for this sort of thing.’ We can only hope. Yet climate change, this great and total problem, is notorious for not motivating Americans to act in our planet’s best interest, and is not so consuming as a concern anywhere else, as far ahead of us in acceptance as many European nations do seem to be.

People like me were drawn to deep ecology and the ecosophy of Arne Naess in the 1980s because we truly believed that changing the ideas at the heart of our civilization would lead to a better human way of understanding our place in the environment, and should be a necessary prerequisite to improving our world and our future as part of a total interconnected planet. It’s been thirty-five years since I first heard of Arne Naess, and I know my time spent with him and studying his ideas has changed the way I think and live and affected many of my friends and colleagues as well. Still, at this point well in the midst of this new century, I do wonder, has any of this philosophizing made a difference? Does changing the way a society thinks actually change how a society lives?

When asked to explain deep ecology to those who have never heard of it (most people) I usually try to break it down to a life story: Arne Naess was an immensely charismatic and creative philosopher, who impressed by personality and example probably more than by the precision of his ideas. When carefully broken down his ideas were often vague and unclear, and although this continues to frustrate philosophers it might have increased his influence upon the general public. Naess spoke forcefully of a need to ground your own actions and perspective upon your own personal direct relationship to nature. You might be a farmer, a hunter, a hiker, or a gardener, but with each of these activities you have a unique connection to nature, your own ecological philosophy or ecosophy. Don’t try to agree with anyone else about this, the ecosophy is yours and no one else’s, since we all have different and distinct individual perspectives on the world.

But when it’s time for action, then we can sit down and should agree. We should agree that the human relationship with nature has been fractured and should be improved. We should agree that the interests of nature and humanity should be seen as concurrent and not opposed. When Naess’s idea of agreement became a Platform of Deep Ecology with 8 specific points he lost most of the population, because this platform included fairly radical ideas like reducing the human population and opposing quality of life to standard of living. Most people didn’t go for this, but a small number did. With this Platform deep ecology became understood as a radical, fringe movement of the general environmental movement, which was growing as we learned more about the whole atmospheric processes of the Earth.

On the other hand, a different view of deep ecology makes it seem more mainstream and potentially more important. This notion of changing the way we think about our place of nature made it into Al Gore’s book Earth in the Balance in 1986, where he wrote that we need to ‘change the values at the root of our civilization’ to solve the total ecological problems that our planet would soon face. This book helped Gore become vice president, and although he never quite made it to the presidency he became one of the most visible advocates for action on climate change, and I believe his whole life’s work is founded on the notion that our values, our philosophy, must change. This also derives from Naess’s deep ecology, even as the sentiment, at least for now, has become mainstream rather than extreme.

Arne Naess remains an inspiration to many, even though he honestly is a rather vague philosopher and a rather distant activist. He wanted to stay up in his beautiful hut in the mountains, and take exciting trips around the world to beautiful places, stopping along the way to address crowds seeking hope and ideas. I loved the guy, and his wise presence will be with me always. But I will never sit down and debate the precise points of his ideas. They are too messy.

Life of course is messy, and humans tend not to base our beliefs on precise arguments. You might think I’m dissing the whole field of philosophy here, and maybe I am, but the role of such vagueness has been troubling me for decades. With the election of Donald Trump, a man of little political sense and even less concern for the real welfare of his nation, this question has come to the center of public debate. Why did so many vote for this man? Do they really think a billionaire is the best man to help the working class? Are these the same people who deny the challenge of climate change? Don’t they care about the facts?

It turns out that people do not really care about facts when they stand up for their values. We are the most sure about things we know the least about, and we don’t want to be convinced otherwise. No way man descended from monkeys, the Earth is as old as the Bible says, GMOs will kill us all and gluten is poison—people don’t believe these things because they have reviewed the evidence, to different audiences, such assertions just ‘feel’ right.

Daniel Kahneman is the only non-economist to win the Nobel Prize in economics for pointing out that people don’t really make rational choices. In Thinking Fast and Slow he argues that most people decide things based on hunches and prejudices that they even realize are not rational, but are so hard to pull ourselves up out of. The ‘slow thinking’ that more difficult decisions require is just too painful and confusing. It is an astonishing, and experimentally-proven approach that echoes what Arne Naess meant when he said it was ‘painful to think.’ We all know it is. ‘If it’s good, it has to hurt.’ We don’t want to hurt.

Thinking too much about the insoluble and inevitable doesn’t reduce any pain. No wonder denial seems so pleasant! Just banish the thought of the end of the world from your mind. Tell yourself that only your political enemies believe such rubbish. Keep these feelings of hopeless inadequacy away. Can human beings ever be up to such a task? Remember there have always been cries that the end of the world is nigh. And someone has always been fiddling as the empire burns …

I chose philosophy as a route towards caring for the Earth. I took that path rather than the pragmatic routes of policy and propoganda. Sometimes I have retreated into the joyful practice of pointing out beauty … innocently playing music with humpback whales and superb lyrebirds instead of saving us! Some do say beauty saves us, and it probably does from day to day, keeping spirits up as the world’s limits are tested. We should do what we are best at doing, or maybe what we most love doing. My philosophical training only makes me less sure of all these things. Philosophy brings no joy. Like Wittgenstein said, ‘I don’t know why we were put on this Earth, but I’m pretty sure it was not to enjoy ourselves.’

Well, if that’s true, how come Arne Naess seemed happy all the time? Why did he seem to live his life doing exactly what he wanted when he wanted? I am not criticizing that approach, but really admiring it.

So the world’s climate challenges advance upon us, giving a kind of total number or single value to the pressures of environmental crisis. The I Ching tells us in crisis is opportunity. Should we realize no human action is ever going to keep us below 350 parts per million, the defining number of Bill McKibben’s activist organization

Numbers, policies, solutions, futures. Thirty-seven years after I first heard of deep ecology, I am wondering if its influence on me and so many others has made even a whit of difference.

So I decided to ask a few committed workers on the climate front whether they thought underlying values make any difference at all in their fight to improve the world.

‘It’s funny, the fact of climate change has never really upset me,’ said Andrew Revkin, longtime climate and environmental reporter for the New York Times, founder of one of the longest-running environmental blogs, DotEarth, for a while professor of environmental studies at Pace University and now back to full-time journalism for Propublica. After millions of words on climate change for more than twenty years, Revkin has not been beaten down by the severity of his beat. But he doesn’t feel he’s found the answers either. ‘I think my life has been like going down all of these corridors and some of them ended in an opaque wall, a wall you know you can’t get through, it is foggy or misty. But all the walls end. And there is no A ha! moment at the end of them.’

This is not to say Revkin doesn’t have his concerns. One thing that worries him is the thought that more information might not actually change people. ‘You know there is tons of work that shows science literacy is not related to one’s views on global warming. The most literate people on the basic science are at the far ends of the spectrum. After I have been doing science writing for twenty-odd years, you see such literature and think ‘oh shit,’ so writing a new story, framing the facts differently doesn’t necessarily, doesn’t really change people?’

Revkin wondered what all his writing was then good for. He is often compared to that other lion of American climate change reporting, Bill McKibben, and we all know that McKibben faced his own crisis as a writer, realizing he had written all these well-reviewed eloquent books on what’s wrong with the way we live with nature and how this way of living much change, from The End of Nature to Earth, and sure, people were reading these books, understanding the situation differently, but were they changing anything about their lives?

‘He became an activist and I just kept writing. Sure, he keeps writing, in his latest New Republic piece he advocates for a war metaphor on climate change, suggesting that thinking of war is what really unifies a nature behind a common goal. But I say, don’t pay attention to his rhetoric but instead look at the structure of his life. He’s incredibly disciplined you know, with this mix of urgency and patience. Read his book Long Distance, about the death of his father and his own training as an endurance athlete, it may be his least famous book but it’s one of the best in that it’s about discipline, something I have always had a problem with.’

I hear Revkin there. How to remain disciplined on one’s tasks with so much uncertainty and interruption coming in? Then when you realize that more facts might not change anyone’s mind, how are we to keep on point? I suggest to Revkin that this is how philosophy might matter; if we could just agree on these shared environmental values that we come to from our different paths, what Naess technically called ecosophies but we could easily call instead our individual life journeys, couldn’t a sense of shared worth be what’s need to help us save nature and our place within it?

‘This is not about new values,’ says Revkin. ‘Your tribe matters more than anything new you learn.’ We tend to stick with our people. And values? Philosophy? ‘This is not about new values. I don’t want to say values are implicit, but you do kind of wake up with them … you don’t have to put them on like a pair of shoes.’

McKibben’s image of everyone rallying as a tribe to fight the common enemy of global warming ‘challenges your values because it involves violence … McKibben’s vision of this war is to fight it with his weapons, meaning mass deployment of solar panels. It is war capitalism, basically it would be creating a new military industrial complex. You can’t have that war without mass this that and the other. And without trampling people’s rights. Where do those windmills and solar panels go? Suppose you like the tortoises in the Mojave Desert? Tough—it’s war! Here in New York we keep our aged Indian Point nuclear power plant running—because it’s war! You have to sacrifice for the sake of this carbon war. It is not going to happen that way.’

Okay, McKibben uses this battle metaphor. But isn’t the recent Paris Climate Treaty a success in our global acknowledgment of the severity of planetary warming? Isn’t this a triumph of collective values over tribal disputes? ‘Paris was the first time when this process was aspirational. There were requirements, the requirements were to meet periodically, share what you have done, but all voluntary. For the rich countries to be spending more help poor countries to decarbonize and be resilient. That’s the part, by the way, that I think is going to make it all fall apart within ten years … the money. Developing nations will be saying ‘show me the fucking money!’ So far, what has happened, the OECD, these big countries have rejiggered some math so that a lot of what is already foreign aid is now called climate money … but it is not new money.’

To Revkin, global warming is a lot like death. To deal with it, you detach yourself from it, you argue about it, intellectualize it. Only then does the insoluble seem possible to deal with. We can agree in Paris, so many countries with different situations seemed to agree because in these agreements they are all detached from their frightening situations, as individuals, nations, even as ecological ideas.

‘If you know something is too big to solve, what do you do? You look around society and ask, what are the traits or tools that tend to provide more of a sense of confidence you can end up with a reasonable outcome later? Empathy, communication, and the like, ideas get shared, so the idea gets to where it needs to be … Or two pieces of an idea have more likelihood of coming together, so we need communication. Having an observed planet is better than running around in the blind … so satellites and science matter. We can work on those things, maximizing those things.’ But we need values to articulate the goal we are seeking. ‘Is it an equitable world or not, that’s a value choice. Is a biodiverse world or not? That’s a choice about values.’

But how much do we need to agree? This is the conundrum of deep ecology. Is it this radical, change-it-all-at-the-root approach where everyone has to sign on? Or can we come at it from different perspectives, and have different values? There need to be democrats and republicans in on this, paleocarnivores and vegans, hunters and eco-Buddhists. George Marshall says the smart thing to do right now is to look for new alliances. Of course then it starts to sound like negotiation rather than principles. Or maybe more like philosophy than religions. Deep ecology cannot be a faith, it should be a sense of questioning, reasoning, but above all based on experiencing.

‘Writing is implicitly about building a tribe. Whether it is Bill McKibben or Naomi Klein or Arne Naess or me. You are hoping that people will read what you are writing. Now there is a difference between reading and heeding, and this gets back to this idea of response diversity. Or tolerating, saying this is my message but I know it’s not yours, but I hope that by reading it you’ll have wider awareness of how your worldview fits into the bigger world and other world views, in a constructive way. That is my way to write.’ And I think it is Arne Naess’s as well, when he whipped up that famous apron diagram about how one comes together around the general principles of deep ecology, after our own unique pasts and many possible diverse futures.

Revkin’s experience of all this was radically overhauled when he suffered a minor stroke several years ago. Although fully recovered today, he was tremendously shaken at the time, hiking on a trail nearby here in the woods:

I’d had the rarer kind of stroke that hits younger people who are not typical stroke candidates. Part of my drive to write about my experience was fueled by my desire to raise awareness; one tweet from the hospital was, ‘Don’t stress your carotid arteries if you like your brain and the things it does for you.’ But my writing wasn’t all selfless. Turning to journalism allowed no emotional space for absorbing the jarring reality that the white spots in my brain scan showed I was breakable—that something as basic as dexterity, let alone a long healthy life, was no longer a given … Some challenges are so grand and momentous that anxiety seems, at best, a waste of time and energy in confronting them.

And so Andy Revkin is calm and collected as he tries to report the situation as best as he sees fit with regard to climate change, while the tough questions do remain: How do you campaign for the one element of a diverse response to climate change while acknowledging the diversity and that there is so many different kind of things that can be done? ‘Most people don’t have time to think about their values, they just live their values.’

You do not have to do philosophy to have a philosophy. ‘How much time do you devote to the global mind and not your own mind?’ The global is not necessarily the same as the local. We need some sort of immediate ground upon which to stand.

Sometimes for Revkin this is music. I share that affinity with him, and sometimes we collaborate. Once we updated the famous song about Franklin being lost in the Arctic for a series about songs on the cold for NPR, and our new words to the classic lament go like this:

Two hundred years since his ship went down
The ocean rises over Franklin’s ground.
The planet warms, ice melts away.
The Northwest Passage flows clear as day.
Ships and whales now pass by the pole.
Soon mighty trees will grow in Arctic soil.
Warming winds thaw frozen ground.
Soon polar bears may go where Franklin’s bound.

Hell, since then the remains of Franklin’s ship and crew have actually been found, now that the Arctic has warmed far enough for us to find them. ‘Climate change is real! Climate change is real!’ The weak chant may just grow a little stronger. And ideas and inspiration may still lurk deep beneath our fervent efforts to change us all.

Renee Lertzman is a specialist on the psychological approach to figuring out how individuals and organizations can deal with the melancholia that sinks in around climate change. I told her I know an important climate journalist who is not worried about this impending crisis, who doesn’t feel the pain deep inside. What did she have to say about that?

‘That’s really interesting. I would fundamentally want to understand what his experience actually is. I can’t say someone is in denial, because maybe he has more of a Buddhist orientation or some spiritual orientation that fundamentally stresses detachment. Or maybe he is just totally disconnected from his emotions, and it is a coping mechanism and if he allowed himself to feel, he may feel that he might just be totally immobilized.’

Many of us have been taught that writing is no place to let loose our emotions. We have to put forth the facts or explain the reasoning behind how we act. Arne Naess himself believed that he spent his whole life chasing rigor and logic, but in his eighties he finally decided emotion and feeling are what mattered most. Thus Livfilosofi1 was his most popular book. People act upon emotion, are guided by hunches and feelings rather than thinking the way we are supposed to think. So much for philosophy, so much for the truth. All right, feeling and sensing are truth, too. But these problems we face seem far beyond the limits of our own mind’s triumphs or failings.

Lertzman is an ecopsychologist. She doesn’t see patients but wants to cure us by improving the way we turn our inner feelings into outward methods of communication. She is teaching and consulting, and she wants us to realize these inner feelings certainly do matter. ‘Today people are more open than ever before. And at the same time, people are really scared of loss and what it means to lose what we feel defines who we are. Unless we find creative ways of compassionately acknowledging what happens with change, we are going to see resistance. We are going to see undermining efforts, and we are going to see people lashing out and behaving in a very regressive fear-based way. That is why we can learn from a good psychologist who understands the basics of how humans can and do change to see if we can translate that to our political strategies.’

I asked her if the fear that both motivates and paralyzes environmentalists is any different from the parallel fear of immigrants, refugees, and liberals. ‘Oh it’s very different. It’s a fear of losing what matters.’ She did acknowledge that all who are afraid of an ‘other’ can feel the same way. But this fear is rarely accepted as a valid part of environmental thought and action: ‘I have never heard any environmental campaign actually come out and just say really openly, ‘this is might feel scary and overwhelming … You might feel really powerless.’ And then quickly move on to say, ‘if you are feeling that way, it makes total sense, but that is exactly why we are doing what we are doing.’ You have to connect and empathize, if you want to really bring people along with you.’

How do we work on such terrifying futures if we are consumed with despair and sadness? No wonder many of us prefer a kind of emotional distance from the work, similar to what anyone who has been in the midst of war will tell you. One’s tribe does matter now more than ever, so how to make the tribe big enough to include all who will be affected by the calamities to come? Lertzman says it is all right to cry in the middle of a speech or an action; showing emotion means you are not afraid to appear there fully in the moment, with the whole of your being, fear, sadness, triumph, tears and all.

And philosophy in its treatment of values is famous for pointing out problems, imperfections, irregularities in the way we think but it is not known for efficacious solutions. All of us in the field know how often the discipline leaves us in the lurch. This is why Arne Naess spent most of his time alone in his beloved mountains, and came to the university about one afternoon a week! The psychologist, on the other hand, is trained to directly help people deal with their inner demons, those bugbears that keep us stuck on the precipice, unsure whether to climb on to the left, or to the right, paralyzed with indecision. The inner resolve is needed to make us confident enough to go on:

‘I come at this from a place of acknowledging the attachment to the things that might be unsustainable and might be very damaging, saying ‘look you know, I like those things too, I love to do x, y and z. But here is the deal, this is what we now know about the impact. So we now have a choice. We have an opportunity to really rethink this.’ By doing so, you are not simply traumatizing someone with this ‘you and me are all basically a scourge, devastating the planet …’ though there may be some element of truth in that. The problem is that humans do not respond very well to that kind of messaging. We need to say things that neutralize and disarm our defense mechanisms, reassure people with,

‘I get it. No one wants to be in this situation, it would be better if we didn’t have to deal with this, but guess what—we actually do.’ And now we have this opportunity, we can actually choose to reveal what it looks like to be a creative human.’

The only solutions that stick will be based on some reassurance of the pain and the worry. Don’t deny the reality of climate change, but don’t deny the reality of empathy either. So who has done this? Renee suggests Van Jones, who was the founder of Dream Corps and one of America’s most prominent African-American environmentalists. He traveled around America to bring Trump and Clinton supporters together to talk in his web series The Messy Truth. ‘He was really struck by the contrast of whatever assumptions he had, about people and what they are thinking, with the realities that they experienced … these people were just feeling so pissed off and beaten down, and in pain. Pain. I think that was very powerful and transformative for him, and his own understanding of what is actually has just taken place.’

After years of investigating personal and psychological despair Lertzman is actually an optimist, mostly because an ecological way of thinking does seem to have seeped into society. ‘There has been a tremendous shift toward a systems kind of consciousness, in part due to an internet kind of reality … that more and more people are waking up to the fact that we are all connected.’ From the 1960s onward this was one of the basic hopeful principles of ecology, that the relationships between all and everything would start to convince us that what happens to the Earth befalls the children of the Earth, as Chief Seattle used to say. Once we feel ourselves caught in the web of life, as Naess and so many other ecological thinkers used to say, we would not be able to so easily harm any one part of it. Yet at the same time fear has led us to an every man for himself kind of isolationism.

‘It’s like we are on this knife edge, we don’t know what is going to happen. Thinking realistically, it will probably be a lot of different things. It will the technological, maybe geo-engineering. Who knows? Hydroponics, and so much else … but at the same time, there will be many more people who are open to rethinking what it means to be a human being. What’s valuable, what’s meaningful … Even in business, where the mantra right now is purpose. It’s all about purpose and meaning and it’s all about love and compassion and empathy … all of these words that are commonly thrown around. Even Google has got these corporate culture where they are trying in their weird way to embrace these things as they call such challenges hurdles.’

So she retains her faith, or at least a kind of conviction. ‘We as humans have the ability to choose what we want to promote and foster as values in society and in the culture. We might end up seeing a bit of the pendulum swing towards virtues of thoughtfulness and reflection. That probably sounds completely idealistic and out of touch with reality. But I just can’t help but feel that way.’

Bravo Renee, we all ought to feel that way. Inner despair can be dampened by a grand and hopeful vision. That is the most positive side of deep ecology, rather than the scolding and admonishment and the vitriol against the mainstream consumers who don’t seem to agree with the visionaries. But anger directed against regular people is wrong. ‘We need to cultivate resilience, and that includes emotional resilience.’ Stand tough and warm and be ready to impress those who disagree, maybe not with facts, but with real and open concern along with an ability to listen. It is talking to people gently and honestly that may in the end be one thing that can change them.

Me, I’ve always been a bit suspicious of psychology. I don’t want it to be all about my problems. Sure I’ve got my problems, but when I think about the world’s problems I get away from my problems and engage with something far greater than any changes in my own behavior could affect. Still, one wants to be sane and grounded. I trust Renee when she says these things. She could change my mind.

Philosophers endlessly talk about the world but can they also be good at changing it? There have to be some of us who have gone in this direction.

Immediately I thought of my friend Andrew Light, with whom I took many a fine journey around the philosophical circuit. Once we were on a long drive from one conference to another, zooming around the tree-lined curves in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, and a cop pulled Andrew over announcing that he had been driving seventy-five miles per hour in a fifty mile per hour zone. Andrew just looked up at the man and said, ‘Officer, that can’t be true. I simply don’t speed. There must be something wrong with your equipment,’ and the Law amazingly backed down. Light had used Kant’s categorical imperative to fight the empiricism of our modern technological world. The radar gun must have been faulty, because Light lived upon a principle of not-speeding and the policeman said ‘have a nice drive boys’ and didn’t give him a ticket.

Even back then, twenty-five years ago, I thought that a mind this convincing should not be wasted on mere theory. So I was heartened to learn, after the secrecy could be lifted, that Professor Andrew Light had taken a few years off from teaching to become one of the chief negotiators for United States climate policy in a bilateral agreement with China in 2015, and the global Paris Climate Agreement in 2016. Here is an environmental philosopher who has really gone to work on practical policy. I wondered how much his training in the halls of argument and theory played own in the trenches of international cooperative diplomacy?

‘I remember Naess always used to say ‘the frontier is long,’ when it comes to deep ecology,’ says Light. Arne loved his apron diagram where one comes to deep ecology from different personal ecosophies and a variety of grounding values, you reach this platform of agreement, then you head on to do different kind of work in the environmentalist struggle. Only at this one level do we agree enough to be unified, where we come from and where we go can be many distinct and diverse places. It turns out then when a philosopher heads to the negotiating table, such pluralism is essential to succeed. It doesn’t really matter whether one is an anthropocentrist or a nonanthropocentrist, those with different philosophies must figure out how to get along if any global agreement is to happen.

It turns out that Light’s understanding of pluralism as a part of a pragmatism that looks for the approach that is most going to work was essential for his success as part of the climate treaty negotiating team of the United States. 196 countries sitting down at the table in Paris to try to create one text that would satisfy all. One of the biggest challenges to a unified view on emissions reduction targets was a challenge from India, soon to be the country with the largest population in the world. ‘they have an extremely strong case to be made that they should be given a free pass to go ahead and pollute as much as they want for the time being. The difference between India and China is that India has 300 million people who still do not have access to electricity still, development there has been slower and uneven. When the president Narendra Modi speaks to the world he proffers a strong ‘Polluter Pays’ thing: ‘You guys caused the problem so you have to solve it.’ On the other hand they are so damn big, that if those 300 million people get out of energy poverty on a high carbon diet, then we are all sunk.’

Ironically, Modi’s position was bolstered by the support of many philosophers and economists representing the environmental justice movement. ‘They convinced the Indians of these abstract concepts like carbon space and greenhouse development rights, and all of these kinds of different ways of articulating this idea that they have a right to pollute.’ India believed that the Paris Agreement as a whole should be organized about the catch-up rights of developing nations, rather than a unified scope on reduction and new energy attitudes and technologies. But that would never fly with the views of developed countries. Too many philosophers stood in the way of any possible agreement: ‘they thought their contribution to this should be making sure that the global outcome conforms to some ideal notion of the principles of justice. At the end of the day, they were not willing to accept that this is fundamentally a bargaining problem.’

Light has edited a book called Ecopragmatism and it is clear he still believes you need to choose the path that works rather than holding to the firmest principles if you want to get anything done in the real world. Most philosophers remain afraid of engaging the real world—we sit alone in our rooms or our mountain huts telling the world what to think about the grandest problems of our day. But when it comes time to engage, and engage we must in such serious times, you need to use your skills in articulation and argument to solve them, not to just tell everyone else they are using words in an improper way. In the end policy is based on real agreements, not ideal ones.

This fact alone encourages philosophers to keep to the free play of ideas—look how fun it can be!—but applied philosophy means going right into the thick of policy and politics. Fight for nature, fight for humanity, that difference no longer really matters. Climate change is the great equalizer, the deepest ecology of them all. ‘All the things that people were fighting to achieve in wilderness, restoration ecology, urban sustainability, animal welfare … climate change just obliterates our success rate on all of it.’

Climate change should have been taken up by philosophers as a total challenge that could rally everyone around our greatest technological and political challenge, a cause to demonstrate that a world of possible values can cooperate to solve something truly immense, a real have been taken up by philosophers as a total challenge that could rally everyone around our greatest technological and political challenge, a cause to demonstrate that a world of possible values can cooperate to solve something truly immense, a real hyperobject in Timothy Morton’s sense, something too big for any single perspective to get a grasp on but still an entity that must be dealt with by everyone. The politicians in Paris realized this while the philosophers were still fighting over their own ideal territories. ‘Some of the most powerful people in the world began to realize, ‘wow, climate change is not this weird little isolated issue over here, it really is the greatest challenge that humanity has yet faced.’ It could potentially mean the difference between a future in which humanity and the rest of the planet flourishes and one where we don’t. And that was the great change in the way people were thinking about stuff since Copenhagen to get them to commit as much as they did in terms of an effort to get the Paris Agreement and everything that followed from it, … at least until November’s American elections.’ We don’t yet know how much damage to the spirit will now unfold.

It’s almost as if Light thinks he had to take a break from philosophy’s attitudes to really make some difference in the world on this total issue. Where is the philosopher who has made a strong theoretical case for taking climate change as seriously as the world’s politicans have taken it? Too often the field wallows in despair, lamenting the world where nothing seems possible. It’s almost a form of climate denial itself if it paints a world that ideas can no longer change. This tendency bothers Andrew more and more. ‘Look, if I really am a pluralist, then I have to respect the values of people who want to live off the grid and close to nature. But there is one part of it that I find intolerable, and that has been overtaken by events. Years ago, maybe in 1997, David Abram gave a talk at the University of Montana at one of the Association for Society of Literature in the Environment meetings, and he basically said ‘what I really want is to be able to do is wake up, and leave my house, and not care about what’s going on in the rest of the world. I don’t want to feel the need to know what is going on in the human world. I want to disconnect myself from the trivialities that humans are pursuing, like hamsters on a wheel.’ ’

It still makes Andrew angry, because as a philosophically-trained policymaker he deplores this a kind of abdicacy: ‘You shouldn’t imagine that a choice to live deliberately close to nature can be abstracted away from the world of trying to implement the decisions that could change the situation.’ No matter how much you reduce your carbon footprint, there is no way that that is sufficient in terms of your obligations to do something about this problem, if you are truly serious about these supposed new values that will change the place of human beings on this planet in the real spirit of deep ecology.

So what does he really think the perplexed rest of us should do? I know how nice it feels to wake up where the air is clean, breath the scent of a nature still strong and vibrant, and just stay there. Why leave the beautiful place to face the upturned world? Because we have to. Our values demand it. ‘You need to live in a place and pay taxes in a place and vote in a place that has already created an infrastructure of solutions rather than an infrastructure of problems. Move to California or New York State or some other place that has priced carbon, that has actually put a price tag on their pollution. Then everything you do as an individual is kind of gravy on top of that.’

Don’t think Light is saying to everyone ‘stop whining, get with the program, finally get realistic.’ There were truly some things about the Paris Climate Process that surprised him, where the little guy really got a surprising voice. No one knew how important the small Pacific island nations would be in this process. ‘They are the first ones who will lose sovereign territory without any chance of recovery because of sea-level rise and increased intensity of storms. They demanded a response purely with respect to moral terms to get them onboard with respect to the final terms of the agreement. And they did it through creating almost the new category of the negotiations which they called Loss and Damage, the kind of climate impacts that in principle one cannot adapt to. We created vast variety of programs to respond to them and to insure against their losses and reset what we think of as the acceptable target for climate destabilization.’

Secretary of State John Kerry heads off to a 3am meeting with Enele Sosene Sopoaga, Prime Minister of Tuvalu, a nation of twelve thousand inhabitants! Who could believe it! The Small Island States, the EU, and the USA formed what was called the ‘High Ambition Coalition. They became a kind of spearhead in the meeting, directly challenging everyone who was trying to water the agreement down, you know, sink it to its least common denominator on a couple of very critical measures. They made sure the Agreement that did cross the finish line was much more ambitious than what we would have expected it to be.’

I told Renee Lertzman I had met a philosopher who became a negotiator who said philosophy is never enough, that we have an obligation to turn our inner resolve into outer action. And she agreed completely. But Light is no stone hard, rational negotiator. It is also emotion that impresses him the most, as it may do for any human. There was a moment in the confirmation hearings for the new Republican head of the EPA, Scott Pruitt that truly touched him: Senator Kirsten Gillebrand was ‘talking about the number of people in New York who are still displaced by Superstorm Sandy, and how that caused her to really feel the importance of sea-level rise and why that was such a threat to all the things that she held dear, and she just started haranguing Pruitt, saying: I hear you say certain words, but I need you to feel it, I need you to really feel it. It seemed sort of silly the way she put it, but at the end of the day I realized she is totally right. It can’t simply be that you internalize some lesson to change your lightbulbs, it’s got to be that you fundamentally think that this particular problem is connected to everything you hold dear.’ We must remain vigilant in the face of so total a challenge. If we argue it had better be about the big things not the woolly nuances, what John Davis of the Wildlands Network used to call ‘academic jousting.’

The journalist, the psychologist, the policy negotiator—all three of these hard workers on the long frontier of environmental action acknowledge that Arne Naess’s deep ecology has been one of their greatest inspirations. Yet each individual has a different way of internalizing the ecosophical approach. Andrew Revkin says he must maintain a distance from emotional attachment to his beat to be able to honestly cover it with factual impartiality. Renee Lertzman says we must acknowledge human personal attachment to all this bad news before preparing to act. Andrew Light believes there is no place for personal exclusionism and retreat to a private world with no other people to get us as close to nature as possible.

What, no more places like Tvergastein? Sure you can have your Tvergastein, as long as you invite people who disagree with you to visit there and all of you return to civilization with new plans for actions that will unite the diverse strands of environmental concern to make practical differences in the world. Philosophers, come down from your mountain huts and dare to sit down for those boring meetings! Earth first or people first, we don’t give a damn. The problems we must now solve are too big and too immediate. Get ready for the real adventure. Stop it, Arne Naesses of today, stop trying to climb down the building out from the window. Politics needs you. Policy needs you and you cannot escape to the tundra to breathe in the fresh air. There is just too much work to be done and it has got to be done fast. Your training in logic and the fact you are not afraid of feelings are your strengths that the world needs now. Don’t be afraid of emotions, don’t be afraid of actions, don’t be afraid of doing more than just what you want to do all the time. There is enough time for wilderness, time enough for the city, time enough for suburbia, for getting close to the land and celebrating this closeness even when you’re far from the land. It takes all kinds to save the world.


Arne Naess and Per Ingvar Haugkeland (1999), Livsfilosofi: et personlig bidrag om følelser og fornuft. (Life Philosophy: Personal Contribution on the Topic of Feelings and Reason) Oslo: Universitetsforlaget. Published in English as Life’s Philosophy, University of Georgia Press, 2008.

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