Click below for the more-or-less self-explanatory slides for my 2019 Earth week talk at BC.
There is so little regard for well established truths in Trump’s statements on climate change that it would be painful to listen to even if the fate of human civilization didn’t hang in the balance. Trump admits that the climate is changing but denies that we know what is causing it. Leslie Stahl appeals to the authority of scientists and Trump impugns the motives of scientists, accusing them of being politically motivated. So let’s just digest this much for starters.
We know human activity is causing climate change and we’ve known this for a good while. It’s a pity the 60 minutes format doesn’t afford the few sentences it would take to explain this. We know that burning fossil fuels results in CO2 emissions. Your car emits several tons of CO2 per year. We know that CO2 traps heat energy. This is easy to demonstrate in the laboratory. And we know that the extra energy that gets trapped in the atmosphere as a result of our CO2 emissions has to go somewhere and do some work, which means changing the rhythms of nature human flourishing depends on. This is the first law of thermodynamics. From here the implications are clear. This much is basic physics and chemistry. The level of scientific literacy required for understanding how human activity is changing the climate is basic.
And yet, the standard journalistic move when confronted with climate skepticism is to appeal to the authority of scientists. This move opens the door to the ad hominem fallacy that our president perpetrated in this interview. Scientists, it is alleged, are just another special interest group lobbying for their economic interests. This canard has been around for a while, but the lie is transparent. Smart people who care more about money than truth don’t go into any branch of science. They go into IT, engineering, law, or better yet, finance. Scientific research is hard, often tedious work that usually doesn’t pay very well. You have to be interested in figuring things out to take research up as a career. It’s sometimes hard to tell what motivates people. This is not one of those times.
Finally, true to form, Trump views the politics of climate change as a zero sum game, where we are being asked to forego our best interests for the sake of others. This, however, is a case where we the others are our children. Poker is a zero sum game. Being a parent, a citizen, a part of human civilization, is not.
Andrew Light (George Mason University and World Resources Institute) will be speaking on Climate Justice here at Bellevue College on Friday, October 19th, 2018 at noon in Carlson Theatre. His talk will kick off the 70th Annual Northwest Philosophy Conference which will wrap up on Saturday the 20th with a public lecture by another noted climate ethicist, UW’s Stephen Gardiner (whose work I’ll discuss in another post)
I got to know Andrew Light early in my career at BC when he was the environmental ethicist in UW’s philosophy department. Professor Light had risen to academic prominence for his foundational work on Ecological Citizenship. In the 1990s, a debate raged in environmental ethics about whether restored land could be deemed to have the sort of value attributed to intact natural ecosystems. This was an issue with political stakes, since, if we granted the same sort of value to restored land that we do to wilderness, developers and extraction industries could cynically exploit this in arguing that they do not destroy nature and ecosystems, but only temporarily disrupt them, ultimately to bring back something as good as they dismantled through environmental restoration. On the other hand, if we don’t see value as nature in restored lands, then extraction industries could argue that they should be let off the hook for rehabilitating lands they had already plundered. Light argued that aside from the question of when land should be valued as nature, we should recognize another kind of moral value in environmental restoration. Specifically, we should see value in the community building that occurs among people and between people and their environment when environmental restoration is taken up as a community effort. Light studied, participated and wrote about a variety of community based environmental restoration efforts including community gardens in New York, Oak Savannah restoration near Chicago and storm water management in Seattle.
As the effects of climate change are becoming distressingly visible around the globe, debates about preserving the value of pristine nature have largely subsided into irrelevance. The entire world is now an artifact and no area of land or sea is spared marks of human interference. Still, the questions of what sort of world we are going to make for ourselves and what sorts of value we can find in doing so are now all the more pressing.
Light’s work on Ecological Citizenship constituted an early foray into the realm of policy and the processes involved in seeking practical solutions to environmental issues. As Light puts it in one paper, “Much of my own work in environmental ethics has been devoted to the claim that the field is failing as a discipline that has much to say about the actual resolution of environmental problems” (http://vedegylet.hu/okopolitika/Light%20-%20Ecological_Citizenship.pdf). Seeking actual productive resolution to environmental processes led Light well beyond the traditional boundaries of academia and into documenting and contributing to efforts to improve the environmental conditions of communities.
After leaving UW and moving back east, Light launched a second career in policy which ultimately led him to serve in the State Department during the Obama administration as a lead negotiator of the Paris Climate Accord. More specifically, Light served as Senior Adviser and India Counselor to the U.S. Special Envoy on Climate Change. India on its own constituted one of the 7 global negotiating blocks in the Paris process. Quoting from Lights George Mason University Bio:
In recognition of this work, Andrew was awarded the inaugural Public Philosophy Award, from the International Society for Environmental Ethics — which henceforth will be designated the “Andrew Light Award for Public Philosophy” — in June 2017, the inaugural Alain Locke Award for Public Philosophy, from the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy in March 2016, and a Superior Honor Award, from the U.S. Department of State in July 2016, for “contributions to the U.S. effort that made the 21st Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris, where the landmark Paris Agreement was concluded, a historic success.” (https://www.ippp.gmu.edu/andrew-light)
Most Americans have heard that Trump has “withdrawn” the US from the Paris Agreement. Rather few are aware that negotiated into that agreement is a four year process for withdraw. Under President George Bush, the US had already established a track record as an unreliable partner in efforts to address climate change and the Obama administration along with the global community of nations took this measure to provide some insurance against further US backsliding.
Many Americans, including many climate activists are also of the opinion that the Paris Agreement was doomed to be ineffectual since the commitments made by countries to lower CO2 emissions were voluntary and no specific penalties are imposed for failing to meet those commitments. Rather few are aware that the process leading up to the Paris Agreement included a global effort to infuse climate into all aspects of international diplomacy. Formal penalties for failing to meet emissions targets could easily be dismissed as part of the cost of doing business as usual. Such teeth would be small and dull in an international effort to address climate change. What we have instead as a result of the Paris Accord is an international diplomatic framework where a nation’s failure to live up to its commitments in addressing climate change renders it a pariah nation, not to be trusted in trade agreements, defense and security arrangements or international efforts in other areas. Of course some will worry that Trump has already done so much damage to the US on the international stage that the consequences of leaving the Paris Accord will be relatively inconsequential. We will only know as Trump’s first term draws to a close and the process of leaving the Paris Accord reaches its conclusion. In terms of our international standing, we don’t know where the bottom is. We don’t yet now how isolated the US can become.
Andrew Light is unique among contemporary philosophers for his hands on contributions to policy on the global stage we well as his notably practical contributions as an academic. It is a rare opportunity to have him here at BC addressing the intersection of our own core values of justice and sustainability.
Here is Andrew Light’s talk at Bellevue College:
I’m opening this thread for discussion of the US leaving the Paris Climate Agreement. I don’t imagine many of you appreciate the historical significance of this event yet. But you will soon enough and it would be an oversight on my part not to address it in the context of ethical inquiry. In short, what happened on the 1st of June 2017, is that the US federal government abandoned a global effort, one supported by most American citizens, to avert a global calamity that has the potential to destroy human civilization as we know it along with much of the other life on the planet. In doing so we have abdicated our position of global leadership, undermined our own power and influence as a nation, and handed the economic benefits of deploying the technology that can and hopefully will sustain humanity to other nations and people. So this move was highly self-destructive as well as destructive to life on the planet. We will all have the rest of our lives to see how this plays out in the short to medium run. But we won’t have to wait long:
Of course it isn’t that every flood is caused by climate change. But every flood from here on out happens in the context of climate change and the destructive power of floods, fires, droughts and heat waves is thereby amplified.
Our president didn’t mention global warming in his announcement of the US departure from Paris. But clearly his sense that this is the right thing for America to do is rooted in ignorance about the science. Lest that be a stumbling block, you might start here:
As sad as it is to see such ignorance about basic science in a world leader, the greater flaw in this administration’s thinking, the one that makes this move so self destructive as well as environmentally destructive, is ethical. In short, our leader seems to see every situation as a zero sum game, where the only choices are winning at the expense of others or losing to their benefit. Given this mindset, ethical considerations are merely obstacles to winning. Ethical considerations aside, this kind of cynicism turns a blind eye to the assorted ways in which selfishness can turn out to be irrational even in terms of self-interest. Building flourishing societies in the context of climate change is not a contest to be a winner instead of a loser. It works a little more like this:
Conservative columnist David Brooks captures the basic ethical flaw of our current leadership very eloquently in this morning’s NY Times (fake news):
Do pass on further interesting commentary as our society tries to digest this bitter pill. Including from those who think this is sweet candy. I’ll comment as I can.
Many people already recognize moral reasons for driving less, eating less meat, supporting public policies aimed at mitigating climate change and so forth. And most will see acting on those moral reasons as calling for personal sacrifices for the sake of distant and future people and life. But the degree of sacrifice called for is as much a function of our values and interests as it depends on what we are actually called on to do or not do. Little philosophical attention to climate change has critically addressed the underlying values and interests that drive climate change. Here, I will argue that these are ultimately nihilistic and that addressing climate change presents an opportunity to lead more meaningful lives. The argument will proceed by first examining some of the blind spots in thinking of climate change as a Tragedy of the Commons (TOC). We’ll then consider the variety of nihilism implicit in complacency about climate change. Finally, I’ll introduce Irving Singer’s naturalistic account of meaning in life and show how on this account, acting on climate change is a path out of nihilism and towards a more meaningful way of life.
Game Theory and its Limitations.
We may be most familiar with hearing climate change addressed as a kind of collective action problem. Indeed the moral problem of climate change does share some of the features of a classic TOC. But this theoretical model has important limitations, perhaps most notably concerning the intergenerational and geopolitical aspects of climate change. The agents who are in a position do something about avoiding the worst results are not the ones that will suffer the worst of the consequences. Stephen Gardiner has made the moral hazards of such asymmetries a central feature of his treatment of Climate Change.
Beginning with well understood models and exploring their limitations can be a reasonable strategy for inquiry. But models can obscure their limitations as well and the TOC does this in assuming a prior understanding of the interests of the parties involved. This pre-empts critical examination of the values that drive climate change and the role these play in leading, or failing to lead, meaningful lives.
Collective action problems like the prisoner’s dilemma or the tragedy of the commons reveal how choices that appear rational for individuals can lead to outcomes that are collectively disastrous. The interesting feature of collective action problems is that what seems rational relative to the interests of the individual turns out to be irrational for the collective, including that individual. In the classic case, individual farmers deem it rational to turn another sheep out on the village commons because as part owners of the commons they only bear some of the cost of feeding that additional sheep and yet they reap the full reward when it comes time to take the sheep to market. When every farmer reasons after this fashion for one additional sheep and then another, the commons gets exploited to the point where its carrying capacity is so diminished it’s of negligible value to anyone. At the end of the day, the seemingly rational choices of each farmer result in a commons that is of no value to any individual and all are worse off. The general recipe for a tragedy of the commons is just self-interested, rational individuals having free access to a limited commonly held good. As a corollary, we can note that the only way to avoid a tragedy of the commons is to eliminate one or more the ingredients in the general recipe. For practical purposes, this generally means adopting policies that regulate access to the commons.
This much will seem quite familiar to most of you. Here I want to raise concerns about the broadly consequentialist framework presumed by models like the TOC. Game theoretic models like the TOC do not assume anything as specific as classic hedonic utilitarianism. But they do treat our values and rational interests as a given. The conflicts between what is individually and collectively rational in such models are a function of those presupposed rational interests. In the prisoner’s dilemma, for instance, the collectively disadvantageous outcome of more jail time arises only on the assumption that each suspect is concerned only with minimizing jail time. But suppose instead that the suspects are in love and care only about maximizing their time outside prison together. In this case, cooperation is rational for each both individually and collectively. No dilemma is generated. Because the interests of individuals are assumed in game theoretic models like the prisoner’s dilemma and the TOC, the focus on these models will tend to pre-empt critical evaluation of interests and values. But, the ethical problems we face in adressing climate change concern not just matters of finding rational means to given ends. They are also, perhaps centrally, concerned with the worthiness of the ends we pursue as we dig up and emit carbon. Considering nihilism and meaning in life affords a useful framework for evaluating the worthiness of our ends.
Nihilism is popularly understood as the view that nothing matters at all. All values are valueless and human life is absurd according to this sort of Nihilism. Paul Katsafanas finds a very different view of nihilism in the thought of Nietzsche. Katsafanas argues that nihilism in Nietzsche should be understood not as the devaluation of values generally, but as the devaluation of “higher values.” Zarathustra’s encounter with the last man is offered as the dramatic portrayal of Nietzsche’s conception of nihilism:
The earth has become small, and on it hops the last man, who makes everything small. His race is as ineradicable as the flea-beetle; the last man lives longest. ‘We have invented happiness,’ say the last men, and they blink. . . . . Who still wants to rule? Who obey? Both require too much exertion. No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels differently goes into the madhouse ‘Formerly all the world was mad’, say the most refined, and they blink. . . . ‘We have invented happiness,’ say the last men, and they blink.
Nietzsche’s last man has not rejected value all together. He still values his happiness, his comfort, complacency and convenience. What the last man lacks are higher values. These are values that place demands on us, give us purpose, inspire our passions and orient our communities. It is tempting to think that such higher values must be transcendent in some sense. If not set by Divine decree, higher values must, it seems, be found beyond us. How else could they make demands on us. Skepticism about the external reality of higher values could then lead us into the nihilism of the last man. Nietzsche’s last man does provide a prescient vision of our own cultural moment, when students come to philosophy classes assuming as a matter of common sense that all values are subjective. Subjective values place no demands on us and inspire passion or form the basis of community only until our concern shifts to new and different subjective values. A consumerist conception of the good life as the life of getting whatever you happen to want is ideally suited to this sort of nihilist. Nietzsche provides a clear diagnosis of consumerism as a variety of nihilism, and one we might easily ignore precisely because it is so pervasive.
Nietzsche was anxious about the pending loss of higher values and held out little hope for resurrecting the higher values that had previously animated civilization. I don’t plan to venture where Nietzsche despaired. Instead, I’ll appeal to a more contemporary naturalistic account of meaning in life with the ultimate goal of arguing that the crisis of climate change presents an opportunity to escape from the nihilism of consumerism and Nietzsche’s last man and to lead more meaningful lives.
Nihilism doesn’t imply caring about nothing, it just involves failing to care about things in the right way. This much in Neitzsche let’s keep, but we needn’t also follow Nietzsche in thinking that transcendent higher values are essential to leading a meaningful life. In a shift roughly analogous to the move from foundationalism to holism in epistemology, we might instead take caring about things in the right way to involve internal coherence rather than transcendent or fundamental values.
Meaning in Life: Singer’s Naturalistic Approach
As a form of life I can identify in specific ways with all other forms of life. Like me, all life forms seek a good of their own. Even when I pluck a fish from a river and obliterate its vital force to feed my own, I can’t help but regard that vitality as a good thing. Irving Singer likens this vital force, this seeking a good of one’s own, to Spinoza’s conatus and Nietzsche’s will to power and deems it a source of meaning in life. Vitality is not the only or even the most fundamental source of meaning in life on Singer’s view. But it is a source of meaning that inexorably binds us to the rest of life on this planet. Pursuing interests that undermine vitality on the planet puts us at odds with ourselves. And this, being at odds with ourselves, I’ll suggest, is the essence of nihilism. Leading a meaningful life requires a degree of coherence among our values.
In considering what it takes to lead a meaningful life we needn’t assume that our purposes, lives or the fate of humanity matter in any transcendent sense, to the universe at large, for example, or to any supernatural deity. We also needn’t assume that there is some correct answer to questions about the meaning of life. Our central concern is just with meaning in life. We must ultimately contend with arguments for the absurdity of human purposefulness based on the idea that the fate of humanity is of no significance to the universe at large. But we shouldn’t assume up front that arguments to this effect are cogent.
Singer argues that absurdist views like those advanced by Sartre, Camus and Nagel overlook the possibility that meaning is something we bring to life through our own purposefulness. On Singer’s naturalistic approach, meaning in life doesn’t depend on any external grand design. He contends that we bestow value on things through caring about them. For Singer, if something matters to us, it matters, and this is sufficient for meaning. He’s prepared to grant that a person who devotes his life to collecting bottle caps still leads a meaningful life. Regarding love as a source of meaning in life, Singer contends that,
Love is not merely a contributor – one among others- to a meaningful life. In its own way it may underlie all other forms of meaning. . . Seen from this perspective, meaning in life is the pursuit of love, circuitous and even thwarted as that can often be.
Love, for Singer, has both an appreciative aspect where we find value in the beloved, and an aspect of caring where value is bestowed on the beloved. The beloved is made important through our caring. The value we bestow on things through caring about them is a source of meaning in life. Singer proposes that our regard for vitality understood as a generalized “love for life” in all of its forms can be seen as a kind of bedrock source of meaning in life. But we love many and assorted things beyond this.
Meaning grounded in love appears to be morally neutral since one can love bad things. Nazi’s committed atrocities on the basis of their love for an ideology of racial supremacy. Singer must grant that there is meaning in this devotion. However, a point from Harry Frankfurt on the closely related matter of self-love is pertinent.  When some of our loves stand in conflict with others, the value we thereby bestow is compromised. The love for an ideology of racial supremacy distorts, obscures or obliterates the love for people generally, grounded in the degree to which we can identify with fellow human beings. Resolving the internal conflict the ideology of racial supremacy demands somehow turning a blind eye to humanity of others. This failure of love represents unrealized, indeed spurned, meaning in life. Meaning in life is compromised by loving incoherently.
In the case of climate change, many of us similarly find ourselves internally conflicted. We do value the convenience and comforts of high consumption lifestyles and yet we value the continued flourishing of humanity and the planet. We now have a view on which it is clear how this internal conflict undermines meaning in our lives. The mere presence of this conflict is not enough to indicate nihilism. When we find a moral crisis in this conflict and strive to resolve it, we seek a more meaningful life. But to acquiesce in this conflict is to give in to nihilism understood as valuing incoherently.
That self love and meaning in life demand internal coherence among the things we care about sheds helpful light on the vigor with which climate change is denied by some in spite of the clear scientific evidence. What is at stake isn’t just the pleasure of a high consumption lifestyle, but an ill informed and misguided sense of meaning and purpose built around that lifestyle. The coherence required for a sense of meaning can be sustained only by denying the science. Climate deniers can sustain the illusion of leading meaningful lives only at the price of obliviousness. Yet, in spite of their willful ignorance, their loves remain in conflict.
Many more of us are stuck in the middle, grasping the science at some level and yet loving lifestyles that are ultimately at odds with our love for life in general. And so we are at odds with ourselves. Nihilism threatens. The cure is to face our own crisis of values more deliberately, examine our values and re-align our interests with the life-loving values we must ultimately recognize as indispensable.
Garrett Hardin argues that appeals to conscience will be self-defeating in the face of a tragedy of the commons. Those who are responsive to appeals to their better nature merely afford greater opportunities for exploitation of the commons by those who lack scruples as the conscientious forego their own interests. Worse yet, appeals to conscience are pathological in that they undermine psychological integrity by placing people in a double bind. We all recognize that we are imposing burdens on future humans and other living things when we burn fossil fuels. Now suppose we make a moral argument for reducing our individual carbon footprints. According to Hardin, the message of this argument will be twofold. We condemn those who don’t make sacrifices to reduce their carbon footprints as moral reprobates. At the same time “we secretly condemn [the person who is responsive to the appeal to conscience] for a simpleton who can be shamed into standing aside while the rest of us exploit the commons.” The conclusion Hardin drives at is that only mutual coercion mutually agreed upon can save us from a tragedy of the commons.
I fear that Hardin’s argument places us further double bind. For how are we to get to mutually agreed upon mutual coercion without appeals to conscience in cases like climate change where the inter-generational and geopolitical aspects give the privileged the option of “buck-passing”, as Gardiner puts it, distancing ourselves personally from the worst of the tragic consequences and accountability for those consequences. Ultimately, mutually agreed upon mutual coercion is necessary, but the dynamics of climate change require that this be the product of conscience, not an alternative to it.
There remains an open question concerning whether an individual is morally absolved for exploiting the commons in the absence of mutually agreed on mutual coercion. From a consequentialist perspective it might appear so since futile efforts yield no good consequences. My personal efforts to reduce emissions might be so insignificant as to be deemed futile. But this is shallow even as a consequentialist analysis since it neglects the value I find in leading a more meaningful life. Efforts I make to fight climate change, whether these involve activism or shrinking my personal carbon foot print afford an opportunity for me to build greater meaning in my life by reconciling internal conflicts among my loves. I can’t reconcile my love for driving with my general love for life in all its forms. I do, however, have an opportunity to lead a more meaningful life through cultivating a love for cycling. I might even aspire one day to walk. Such shifts in my interests, the things I care about, bring greater unity to my loves and the result is a more meaningful, more coherently purposeful life.
As a callow graduate student I inadvertently started a family. After sharing the news that I was soon to be a parent, one of my professors told me that having a child is something that’s rational to do, but only after the fact. The advent of this loving relationship so completely changes one’s interests that the resulting value structure will lead us to find many things rational that weren’t before. The moral crisis of climate change impresses upon us our kinship with future lives, human and otherwise. As soon as we take up the burden of love for future and distant life, our lives are enriched with meaning and the game theoretic equilibria are upended. As we seek coherence between our present interests and our concern for life like us that is more distant, the interests and values that generate tragedy are displaced by interests and values that heal.
 Stephen Gardiner, The Perfect Moral Storm (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011)
 Paul Katsafanas, “Fugitive Pleasure and the Mingingful Life: Nietzsche on Nihilim and Higher Values”, Journal of the American Philosophical Association (2015) 395-416.
 Katsafanas, 406.
 Katsafanas would resist understanding Nietzche’s higher values simply as foundational values. His developed view of Nietzsche’s conception of higher values includes a role as final ends that can justify others, but more than this. Foundational values are not necessarily higher values.
 Irving Singer, The Creation of Value (Baltimore, Maryland: John Hopkins University Press, 1992), 88.
 Irving Singer, The Creation of Value, 33-40.
 Irving Singer, The Pursuit of Love (Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press, 1994), 2.
 On the more specific but highly relevant issue of self-love, Frankfurt argues that conflicted love undermines self-love. Self love demands whole heartedness which in turn requires coherence. This view complements Singer nicely and helps to explain the failure of love that undermines meaning in life when our loves are in conflict. Finding meaning in life demands a kind of internal coherence in the structure of our values, a coherence that can result in harmony in our purposes. Harry Frankfurt, The Reasons of Love (Princeton, New Jersey: The Princeton University Press, 2004), 91-99.
 Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162 (1968): 1246-1247.
 Stephen Gardiner, The Perfect Moral Storm, 148-59.