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Interview With a Philosopher: Really Saving the Environment

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Today's interview is with a couple of philosophers concerned about the environmental crisis we seem to be hearing something new about almost every week: Massive oil spills, coalmine disasters, choking air. They're working on adapting human life to the needs of our global climate and surrounding natural world. Jeremy Bendik-Keymer of LeMoyne College and Allen Thompson of Clemson University are bringing together some very astute thinkers to figure out how to do this.

Tom: As Kermit the Frog once sang, "It's not easy being green." But you guys are figuring out how it's done. So, tell us what you're working on.

Allen: We've got a project on climate change that pushes past the debates at the Copenhagen meeting last December. Those were disappointing, since they didn't result in any binding emissions reductions. But even when some emissions agreement is eventually in place, our idea is that merely coping with the problem this way will not put us and our grandchildren in a good position to deal with climate change over the long haul. Without some deeper dimensions to our response, environmental change will cause economic and political turmoil in the future. Our interest is preparing humanity to live well in the new world that we're always creating with our actions.

Jeremy: The climate summits our country has been visiting are focused mostly on trying to reduce the amount of damage climate change is likely to do over the next century, mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and adapting our economies to the changes we're already committed to. They aren't talking about fundamentally adapting who we are to a new world climate. When "adaptation" came up at Copenhagen, it meant mostly "Buffer our economies and the world's vulnerable populations as much as we can from climate change - but otherwise, don't change our direction of development or our sense of who we are as people on this planet." We think that's shortsighted and ultimately impractical.

Tom: Of course, the mitigation goals of helping people avoid some suffering and minimizing economic turmoil are good things. But we do need more than minimal mitigation. What are you thinking about this?

Allen: Those are good things. We just don't believe they can be accomplished over the long haul without changing the way we think of what it takes to be a good person, and without changing significant features of some of our institutions. I'll give you an example. Global climate change has happened before; on the geologic time scale, it's a recurring phenomenon. But we also know that this time around, climate change, with all the associated crises in human and ecological systems, is almost certainly the result of us, of human ways of life. Yet, to our knowledge, we don't have a commonly understood idea of how it could be good - or a basic human virtue - for us to see ourselves as responsible, and to be responsible for the global climate. People don't typically walk around and think, "This guy's not living as if he's responsible for the climate", or "That guy has the whole atmosphere on his mind." It sounds comical. But we need to develop some sense of individual responsibility like that if we are to adapt appropriately. Part of adapting well to anthropogenic climate change will mean that we all need to live in recognition that we're responsible for the climate in our everyday actions.

Jeremy: Yet Allen and I aren't saying that climate change is best handled on an individual level. A lot of our thinking on this issue focuses on institutional reform and on an expanded conception of justice. But Allen's example shows how our conception of who we are, individually and collectively, has to change for us to really adapt over the long haul to climate change.

Imagine. If we do all we can to mitigate the impacts of climate change on our economies and on the most exposed people of the world, but don't develop a sense of responsibility for the global climate, we will be fixing aspects of a problem we continue to create. It's counter-productive. So dealing with climate change has to go deeper than simple reactive fixes; it has to involve re-educating ourselves, and re-imagining ourselves. It needs to involve a kind of re-conception of who we are, and what good human character involves, at the least.

Tom: You're talking about a new self-understanding that we need to cultivate, one that actually involves an expansion of virtue ethics, as academic philosophers call it. We need to think of a good person as one who has certain properties, or "virtues," that include not only the classic traits of honesty, courage, and the like, but now a sense of environmental responsibility.

Allen: Yes, but we should point out that we conceive of virtue ethics differently from most philosophers.

Jeremy: A lot of virtue ethics isn't organizational or political enough.

Allen: Exactly. Talk of "virtue" in the academy as well as in national political discourse is usually just about traits of an individual's character. But when Aristotle thought about virtue -which was simply another word for human excellence - he folded his discussion of personal character into a systematic examination of politics.

Jeremy: Allen and I want to be true to this insight. For example, part of climate change is that it's one of the main drivers of "the sixth mass extinction" currently underway. I don't know if most people are aware of this, but in this century about half the life forms on Earth are under the hatchet. There are many reasons for this -overpopulation, climate change, poor resource use, and so on. Now, the problem is that most people have enough respect for life to not want this to happen. Respect for life is part of every major world religion, and most nonreligious ethical people embrace it. We all want to bring our kids up in a world that is full of life. Maybe not with lots of mosquitoes, but they seem to be doing fine. Yet even with this attitude, most of us unknowingly contribute to mass extinction every single day.

Allen: What Jeremy's saying is that our individual characters are not the only problem. Even reasonably good people - people whose environmental sensibility may seem all right - are still contributing to something that they recognize, on reflection, is really bad -killing off half the species on the planet. So what's the disconnect?

One problem is that adapting individual character alone won't cut it. We need institutions that positively shape our collective effect on other forms of life. Good environmental character won't snap into place effectively until our collective presence, via political and economic approaches, does as well. In some cases, that even means key elements of our organizational systems -such as our institutional approach to the global commons or the valuation of non-human beings, must alter. Like we said, we have to change who we are - both individually and collectively - to deal with the problems of climate change.

Tom: So you see what we need now as a dynamic reform of both our conception of individual character - how we see the range of personal virtues - and institutional practice.

Allen: We have to adapt both our personal character and our public institutions. That's indeed our point.

Jeremy: Our characters - or habits of thought and action - may seem basically all right, but then we notice how they become tragically self-defeating at the collective level, once we zoom out to a view of the planetary scale. And so, adapting who we are will involve both recalibrating our sense of responsibility to that scale as well as working on the parts of our institutions that would otherwise defeat, over time and across billions of people, this reawakened sense of personal responsibility. We have to connect up a new sense of ourselves to a new way of organizing some of the key parts of human life.

Tom: What's your project on all this called?

Allen: Virtues of the Future: Climate Change, Restoration, and the Challenge of Adapting Humanity.

Jeremy: It involves some of the best contributors to environmental ethics and politics living today -Dale Jamieson of N.Y.U., Eric Higgs of University of Victoria, Andrew Light of the Center for American Progress and George Mason, Stephen Gardiner of University of Washington, Bryan Norton of Georgia Tech along with Paul Hirsch of the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, and David Schlosberg of Northern Arizona University. And many others.

Tom: It takes a village - of philosophers - to get this all thought through carefully and creatively. It may not be easy being green, but it's vital for our future. Thanks for the work you're both doing to help.