THE REFLECTION POND:

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What COVID-19 Teaches about Climate Change and Ourselves

Zachary Vereb

We are re-sharing essays submitted to ‘The Reflection Pond,’ the opinion section of this past year’s ISEE newsletter. This submission was part of s series on Covid-19 and Environmental Ethics.

Half Full or Half Empty? 2020 has been quite the year, almost like a crash in slow motion. Yet much was predictable. Had we heeded warnings from the scientific community, we would, perhaps, have been more prepared. After all, we’ve been told that pandemic-like events become more likely in a warmer, globalized world. So, what’s going on? Well, take a look at the social mood. It’s a gloomy state of things. Just as a glass of water predictably heats up in the muggy Florida summer, we sweat and lose our train of thought. The connections between the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change—connections that should be readily apparent—are hardly acknowledged, at least by non-experts.

A Half Empty Glass. The COVID-19 burnout we feel in 2020 connects with a widespread climate nihilism, informing the mood of many philosophers and laypersons about the state of the world. If the previous decade, crowned with 2020, could be represented by a philosopher, we might have to choose the pessimist Schopenhauer. From this perspective, both the pandemic and the climate crisis show us that we are in no way capable of thinking collectively and for the long term; we are hopelessly selfish and shortsighted. In short, the glass appears not only half empty, but half full of undrinkable tar. Though the tar does make for good poetry, as Schopenhauer will tell you.

A Half Full Glass. Yet, at the same time, the optimist declares that the pandemic is a blessing in disguise. It is, as it were, the cunning hand of nature working through us. After all, who can deny that quarantines helped environments to recover, reduced smog, and lowered—if only temporarily—carbon footprints. From the optimistic vantage, COVID-19 reveals we can in fact come together, that some jobs can be done more efficiently, and that we are in it for the long haul. Our optimist might also turn into a misanthrope, bitter after seeing humans bungle this opportunity to learn and change. Nature will move on. Humans, perhaps not. For her, the glass is half full—not of tar, but of unpotable water. And for our optimist, it is also half full, but we hardly know for how long.

A Glass and a Boundary. Unfortunately, optimism isn’t the way either. It doesn’t fit the mood. It’s tone deaf. Is there a middle way—a way for mediating pessimism and nihilism with the optimism of some environmentalists? I present here some food for thought, food that might sit nicely next to that glass of water in the hot Florida heat: this pandemic presents an opportunity to teach us about climate change and, more importantly, ourselves.

Looking at the Glass Again. Let us, as environmental philosophers, appropriate the questions Kant returned to again and again. Yes, I mean Immanuel Kant. While Kant is sometimes seen as a bane to environmentalists and animal welfarists, hear me out. It may be fruitful for us to consider Kant’s four questions of philosophy as a heuristic for thinking about our predicament. Maybe they can help us think about viewing the glass anew:

What can we know?
What should we do?
What may we hope for?
What is a human being?

This is no time for a foray into epistemology (or epidemiology). Kant’s first question presses us to rethink how we understand ourselves as embedded in a dynamic earth-system. If this sounds wild, just recall that Kant himself wrote, in his early days, about atmospheres, climates, and earthquakes. The question becomes: what can we learn about the connections between pandemics and climate? This naturally leads us into the question of what we should do about it. Kant’s universalism and enlightenment cosmopolitanism seem relevant for mediating the two extreme sides of the glass. We are, first and foremost, citizens of the world—a universal community. Progress for that community is real, but only if we believe in it and make it a reality.

Next: what may we hope for regarding our predicament, without succumbing to defeatism or magical thinking? Our hope can only be rationally sustained if we stay grounded and receptive to new information. Lastly, we are pressed to consider who we are and who we want to become. Each question intimates the next, and this final one integrates them all. What does it mean to be human in the Anthropocene? Perhaps the way we answer this will give us a clue for how to move forward.

Philosophy and Humanity. Kant’s questions are timely. If this pandemic is, as some have said, a dress rehearsal for our climate future, then answering questions about how to understand the pandemic requires us to think deeply about human values. This is a task for which philosophy is, indeed, quite suited. Let’s start there.

Zachary Vereb is Visiting Assistant Professor of Public Policy Leadership at the University of Mississippi.

2021 Andrew Light Award for Public Philosophy

The International Society for Environmental Ethics (ISEE) is pleased to announce publicly the winner and finalists for the 2021 Andrew Light Award for Public Philosophy.  ISEE established the award to promote work in public philosophy and honor contributions to the field by Dr. Andrew Light, who was recognized for his distinctive work in public environmental philosophy at ISEE’s 2017 annual summer meeting. 

With this award, ISEE strives to recognize public philosophers working in environmental ethics and philosophy, broadly construed, and who bring unique insights or methods that broaden the reach, interaction, and engagement of philosophy with the wider public.  This may be exemplified in published work or engagement in environmental issues of public importance.   

This year’s honorees have made important contributions and provide distinctive examples of the work in public environmental philosophy that is happening today.  The winner and finalists will be honored at an International Society for Environmental Ethics group session at the Eastern Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association on Thursday, January 14, 2021. 

This year’s Light Award winner is Dr. Keith Hyams, Reader in Political Theory and Interdisciplinary Ethics in the Department of Politics and International Studies at University of Warwick (United Kingdom).  Dr. Hyams, who earned his DPhil at University of Oxford in 2006, has published academic research in areas that include climate ethics, climate justice, urban resilience, and the governance of global catastrophic risk.  However, what distinguishes him as a public environmental philosopher is his work across disciplines, sustained collaboration with non-governmental organizations, and public engagement on issues that include urban adaptation in low income countries, environmental and human rights for Indigenous peoples, and health and environmental injustice in informal settlements in six African cities (Johannesburg, Lusaka, Kampala, Nairobi, Lagos, and Freetown).  Dr. Hyams’s collaborators describe his approach as “always one of developing a constructive partnership,” and note that he brings to this work methodologies that help various publics and policymakers to integrate and constructively discuss ethical issues at stake in environmental decisions.  Dr. Hyams’s work on climate adaptation is especially notable.  In this area, he has served as an ethics advisor to the Indigenous Health Adaptation to Climate Change network, co-authored a report on ‘Remedying Injustice in Indigenous Climate Adaptation Planning: Climate Ethics, Inequality, and Indigenous Knowledge’ (available at: warwick.basilico-staging.it/ethics/research/), served as an advisor to the city of Cape Town climate adaptation department, and worked with international NGOs such as Oxfam and Practical Action on the ethics of climate adaptation.  Additionally, Dr. Hyams has mentored six postdoctoral researchers and multiple doctoral students, helping them to develop their own skills in publicly engaged environmental philosophy.  This year’s Andrew Light Award recognizes the collaborative, publicly engaged, and ethically grounded work of Dr. Keith Hyams as distinctive contributions to public environmental philosophy. 

This year’s finalists are Dr. Kian Mintz-Woo of University College Cork (Ireland) and Dr. Jeremy Moss of University of New South Wales (Australia). 

Dr. Kian Mintz-Woo, a lecturer at University College Cork, is an early career scholar who has already demonstrated a sustained commitment to publicly engaged philosophy.  As a graduate student at University of Graz, Kian Mintz-Woo helped to develop a public art exhibition, Exhibition CliMatters, which was shown in multiple venues in Austria and drew over 1700 visitors, and he founded, organized, and contributed to the Climate Footnotes blog (https://climatefootnotes.com/author/kianmw/).  As a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University, Dr. Mintz-Woo collaborated with Professor Peter Singer on an article, “Put a Price on Carbon Now!” published in Project Syndicate on May 7, 2020 (see: https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/low-oil-prices-ideal-time-forcarbon-tax-by-peter-singer-and-kian-mintz-woo-2020-05).  Dr. Mintz-Woo’s academic writing focuses on climate ethics, particularly carbon pricing, discounting, and the social cost of carbon. 

Dr. Jeremy Moss is a Professor of Political Philosophy at University of New South Wales (Australia) whose work focuses on climate justice, the ethics of renewable energy, and ethical issues associated with climate transitions. He is Director of the Practical Justice Initiative and leads the Climate Justice Research program at UNSW as part of this initiative.  Professor Moss’s work has been featured in The Guardian, and Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), National Aboriginal Radio, Al Jezeera, and LeMonde, and he has developed a Climate Justice website (climatejustice.co) “to provide accessible discussions of the justice-related issues that underpin an effective response to climate change.”  In addition, he has published op-eds on climate ethics in The Conversation, including “When It Comes to Climate Change, Australia’s Mining Giants are an Accessory to the Crime” (https://theconversation.com/when-it-comes-to-climate-change-australias-mining-giants-arean-accessory-to-the-crime-124077). 

THE REFLECTION POND – COVID-19, Climate Crisis and the Shape of History

We are re-sharing essays submitted to ‘The Reflection Pond,’ the opinion section of this past year’s ISEE newsletter. This submission was part of s series on Covid-19 and Environmental Ethics.

COVID-19, Climate Crisis and the Shape of History

by Byron Williston

What does the novel coronavirus teach us about the climate crisis? Superficially, both involve our messing recklessly with nature, whereupon the latter (surprise!) visits us with some nasty blowback. But there’s a deeper connection. In my view, the COVID-19 pandemic pushes us to the same metaphysical reflection on the shape of history that the climate crisis does. Philosophy of history is a little out of fashion these days, but I think the times are crying out for its revival. Its basic distinction is between linear and circular conceptions of historical development; think European Enlightenment versus Malthus. Is the future getting brighter and brighter, or is it bound to turn back on itself, eating its own tail as humans respond to system-level crises?

Here’s a really simple metaphor to help push our thinking in the direction I think it needs to go. All civilizations exhibit some degree of fit between the built environment—everything from immigration laws to vaccines and sea walls—and the natural one, much like a peg in an appropriately sized and shaped hole. In our case the fit is not perfect, but we would not have survived this long, in such numbers, if the fit were not at least roughly correct. But, given our industrial civilization’s headlong economic development and expansion, especially post-WWII, the fit has become very awkward indeed. This is why some ecologists and systems thinkers talk in terms of our reaching or breaching planetary boundaries. Even though it is simple, the peg-in-a-hole metaphor helps guard against two errors that can result from one-sided ways of thinking about our historical situation.

The first is to assume that the hole is exactly the right shape for the peg, but the hole will always be larger, so that we can safely expand the peg—industrial civilization—outwards without limit. That’s the approach sometimes described as “business as usual.” It’s also embedded in the naïve Enlightenment notion that history moves in a straight, and unbroken, line of expansion and progress. No time for pesky historical circles here. But all the evidence compiled over the past 40 or 50 years, from the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth Report (1972) to the U.N.’s Global Warming of 1.5° Celsius (2018), militates against this view. This lesson is also suggested by the effects COVID-19 has had on our lives over a very short time period. This is exactly the sort of break in linear time represented by all significant civilizational crises. COVID-19 is a relatively small-scale revenge of the historical circle: it has stopped the line of progress in its tracks, for how long we don’t yet know.

The other error is to think that history is all circle and no line. It is the belief that the civilizational peg has outgrown the environmental hole many times in the past, or that no peg has ever been the right shape in the first place. Because of this basic mismatch, as it has over and over again, the hole is primed once again to spit out the peg, casting our vaunted civilizational achievements to the four winds in the process. This view is not without ethical merit. The ancient Greek historian Polybius thought its main counsel to us is that we should not “boast unduly of our achievements.” We could certainly use a little of that humility. Nowadays, The Dark Mountain Project seems to think in a similar way, but the problem with it is that it is really difficult to let go entirely of the idea—or the hope—that we can make things better than they are right now. Embracing the circular view of history can induce a kind of Weltschmerz that is very difficult to sustain and is also politically impotent.

The view I advocate gets between these two options. It is that because we have now entered a brand-new epoch—the Anthropocene—whose signature is the effective erasure between nature and culture the peg and the hole are now fused. They are no longer two things, and I mean this quite literally. Still, the fused thing can, and must, evolve, meaning that we cannot altogether abandon the linear conception of history. Progress now is thus largely about improving the design of the nature-culture complex. However, the event of fusion has had negative knock-on effects in the whole structure, the most salient of which is profound climate disruption. Because we have done nothing to avoid or even lessen the impacts of climate change, adaptation to ongoing crisis is now an ineliminable aspect of our collective lives, part of the human condition. Progress-pausing circles are here to stay.

For this reason, both as philosophers and ordinary folks we can any longer indulge utopian speculation about a world beyond crisis. Naomi Klein did not know how right she was when she declared that climate disruption “changes everything,” because it alters our basic understanding of the meta-narrative of humanity. I hope we come out of the COVID-19 experience with an improved perspective on this question because we are going to need it long after this virus is defeated.

In other words, the fused peg-and-hole represents of a view of history as both linear and circular. It’s the idea that although we need to believe we’re making progress, we must also recognize that it won’t always feel that way. In fact, it will feel like a slog much of the time. That’s our lot: half Condorcet and half Sisyphus. If we can come to terms with this paradox, we will have a fighting chance of making a better future. Whatever else it is, COVID-19 is an early test of our ability to internalize this new species-level self-conception.

Byron Williston is Professor of Philosophy at Wilfrid Laurier University and a member of the Interdisciplinary Centre on Climate Change at the University of Waterloo. His latest book is Philosophy and the Climate Crisis: How the Past Can Save the Future.

CFP: 2022 ISEE Group Sessions, APA Eastern

Call for Papers
International Society for Environmental Ethics
2022 Eastern Division Meeting of the
American Philosophical Association


Deadline: Monday, June 28, 2021


Submissions are invited for the International Society for Environmental Ethics (ISEE) group sessions at the Eastern Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association (APA) which will be held in early January, 2022.

ISEE invites submissions of individual papers (approximately 20 minutes presentation) or proposals for themed sessions (particular topics, author-meets-critics, etc.). People working in any area of ethics related to the environment or environmental issues are encouraged to submit proposals. We are particularly interested in work that extends the scope of environmental ethics to incorporate perspectives and methods that have been historically marginalized or excluded from environmental philosophy as a discipline, or that engages issues of contemporary relevance. ISEE aims to build
inclusive and welcoming spaces in our conferences, programs, and communications by supporting people of diverse backgrounds and identities, as well as by actively working against discrimination, bias, exclusion.

You do not need to be a member of ISEE in order to submit a proposal; however, if your proposal is accepted, you will need to join ISEE in order to be added to the meeting program.1 Please note, also, that all presenters at these ISEE group sessions must also register for the Eastern APA.2 Lastly, because of complications resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, the APA does not yet have a confirmed location or dates for the 2022 Eastern meeting.

Submission Procedure:
For individual paper submissions, please submit either: (1) a 500-word abstract, or (2) a full paper
(approx. 3000 words). For themed sessions, please submit the proposed session title, a brief description of the session, names of all those participating, and titles and 500-word abstracts for each paper/presentation. Themed session participants should be confirmed as willing to attend if the session goes forward. Papers presented previously or already accepted for presentation at an ISEE APA group session or ISEE annual meeting will not be considered, and all else equal, priority will be given to those who have not presented at an ISEE meeting or session within the past year.

Materials should be submitted in Microsoft Word or PDF format to: Marion Hourdequin (ISEE Vice-
President) at mhourdequin@coloradocollege.edu. Please include “ISEE/2022 Eastern APA” in the
subject line. The deadline for submitting proposals is Monday, June 28, 2021. Any questions about the sessions or ISEE can be directed to Marion Hourdequin at the above email address, and additional information about ISEE can be found on our website: https://enviroethics.org/.


1 ISEE membership is $50, or $35 for students.

2 For the 2021 meeting, registration for the Eastern APA was $100 for APA members and $190 for non-APA members.

Research Fellow, Synthetic Biology, Western Sydney University

Ref 1427/21 Research Fellow, ARC Centre of Excellence in Synthetic Biology, Institute for Culture and Society

Western Sydney University is a modern, forward-thinking, research-led university, located at the heart of Australia’s fastest-growing and economically significant region, Western Sydney. Boasting 11 campuses – many in Western Sydney CBD locations – and more than 200,000 alumni, 49,500 students and 3,500 staff, the University has 14 Schools with an array of well-designed programs and degrees carefully structured to meet the demands of future industry. 

The University is ranked in the top two per cent of universities worldwide, and as a research leader, over 85 per cent of the University’s assessed research is rated at ‘World Standard’ or above.  

About Us 

The Institute for Culture and Society carries out research on the transformations in culture and society in the context of contemporary global change. It operates as a leading international centre for interdisciplinary, engaged and collaborative scholarship in the humanities and social sciences for a digital age. Research at the Institute for Culture and Society is organised around an integrated program of research focusing on a number of broad themes including Automated Worlds; Borders & Diversity; Cultural Infrastructures; Environment and Technology; and Urban Futures. 

The Institute is one of four Research Institutes at the University, and the only one predominantly focused on the discipline area of the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (HASS). 

An important role of the Institute is to help develop the University’s overall research performance through external income generation and high-quality publications. It also conducts profile-raising activities through organising major conferences, developing a network of similar research entities nationally and internationally, hosting visiting scholars, and forging strategic partnerships with external organisations and communities. Public and community engagement is an integral aspect of the Institute’s work. 

The Institute for Culture & Society hosts the Western Sydney University node of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Synthetic Biology (CoESB) (http://www.coesb.com.au). The CoESB is a new, cross-disciplinary, and national research centre, which aims to create the knowledge and strategies necessary for Australia to develop a vibrant bioeconomy building on the nation’s strengths in agriculture. 

The Centre will combine engineering with molecular biology to design and construct novel biological systems that can convert biomass from agriculture or waste streams to biofuel, bioplastics and other high-value chemicals. The Centre brings together leading researchers in the humanities, social and technological sciences in an international industry, research and civil society network. 

Funded by the Australian Research Council for seven years from 2020 to 2026, CoESB is hosted at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, with nodes in seven other Australian universities (University of Western Australia, Queensland University of Technology, University of Queensland, University of Newcastle, Australian National University, University of NSW, and Western Sydney University). Research in the CoESB is focused upon Centre’s three capabilities: Systems Bioengineering, Industrial Translation, and Social Dimensions. 

The Role – Research Fellow in CoESB 

The Research Fellow will be actively engaged with research associated with the Social Dimensions capability, which embeds expertise and analysis from law, ethics, philosophy, the arts, political science, and the social and behavioural sciences within the science and engineering of synthetic biology. With a focus on ethical issues and values, legal frameworks and cultural shifts, this team of scholars explores some of the central questions arising from the CoE, such as what problem are we trying to solve and is synthetic biology even the right solution? And how does the promise translate into practice, policy and benefits for society? The Research Fellow will work with Dr Josh Wodak, the CoESB node leader at Western Sydney University. 

The position will conduct and manage primary research on ethical issues and values, and cultural shifts with respect to synthetic biology, with a particular focus on biodiversity conservation and/or climate change mitigation; publish research in high-quality outlets; engage and translate research with collaborators, international colleagues and industry partners; assist with project management and administration of project research; supervise research assistants and, where appropriate, co-supervise PhD students. This research-focused role does not include a teaching load, but opportunities for developing and maintaining a teaching profile may be available during the course of the Research Fellowship. 

This is a Full-Time, Fixed-Term position for 3 years based at the Parramatta Campus.

Remuneration Package: Academic Level B $125,306 to $147,860 p.a., (comprising Salary of $105,885 to $125,030 p.a., plus Superannuation and Leave Loading) 

Position enquiries: Dr Josh Wodak via email J.Wodak@westernsydney.edu.au 

To Apply 

To be considered for this position, please submit: 

1. Your CV 
2. A 2-page cover letter outlining your experience and how you will contribute to research within the Social Dimensions capability, about ethical issues and values, and cultural shifts with respect to synthetic biology, with a particular focus on biodiversity conservation and/or climate change mitigation. 
3. Response to the selection criteria 

Closing Date: 8:30pm, Monday 31 May 2021.

Please click here to view Position Description 

How to Apply:

Western Sydney University is committed to diversity and social inclusion. Applications from people of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds; equity target groups including women, people with disabilities, people who identify as LGBTIQ; and people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent, are encouraged. 

If you require assistance in using the System, please email recruitmentpartnerships@westernsydney.edu.au or phone the Recruitment Helpline on (02) 9852 5422. Please note, we do not accept applications for roles to the recruitmentpartnerships@westernsydney.edu.au email.  This site is optimised for all the latest browsers including Internet Explorer 11.0, Edge, Safari, Firefox and Chrome. Note that earlier versions of any of the browsers mentioned are supported, but likely to demonstrate slower response times.

THE REFLECTION POND – The Perils of Destiny: an Important Lesson of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Featured

We are re-sharing essays submitted to ‘The Reflection Pond,’ the opinion section of this past year’s ISEE newsletter. This submission was part of s series on Covid-19 and Environmental Ethics.

THE PERILS OF DESTINY: AN IMPORTANT LESSON OF THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC

by Phil Cafaro

The current global pandemic, devastating as it is, has the potential to teach people some useful environmental lessons, if we’re willing to pay attention. One is that commercializing wild animals and selling them in unhygienic “wet markets” is an invitation to epidemiological disaster. Another is that the current global economy is toxic: when this novel coronavirus drastically ratcheted back economic activity, fish returned to Venice’s canals and New Delhi residents breathed easier and could once again see the Himalayas.

Perhaps the most important environmental lesson COVID-19 can teach environmentalists is that increasing the density of human populations is not the answer to our environmental problems. Even in normal times, excessive density harms people’s physical and mental health. During a pandemic, density can quickly turn deadly. Stories from France to India to Brazil have detailed how difficult it is for people in crowded cities to practice safe social distancing. For poor slum dwellers, living packed in one or two rooms and sharing communal water sources and toilets, it is literally impossible.

In recent years, “smart growth” advocates in the U.S. and Europe have been saying that increased density is the key to creating more ecologically sustainable societies. Fill in those unused city lots with more houses and office buildings. Re-zone detached, single-family housing areas to allow apartments. Re-zone areas designated for three or four-story apartments to allow six or eight-story ones. Build in! Build up! Yes, in my backyard! Smart growth will supposedly allow us to continue to grow, creating environmental efficiencies, while leaving land outside designated growth areas to remain for wild nature.

Such an approach is bound to fail. All those people crammed into cities still need resources from the countryside. So, in fact, more city-dwellers do not translate into more land left to nature, but instead to more land developed to grow food and host energy infrastructure, more wetlands filled in and more forests managed intensively—and more second homes built out in the country for those rich enough to afford them. As our cities, towns and populations grow, we inevitably take more resources from other species and gobble up habitat they need to survive.

Similarly, density’s touted environmental “efficiencies” turn out to be less than valuable than advertised. It’s true that New Yorkers have some of the lowest per capita greenhouse gas emissions in the country, due to more mass transit use and apartment living—a function of high density. But the metro area generates the highest total greenhouse gas emissions of any similar area in the country—a function of its excessive population. When YIMBYs urge Americans to get with the program, like NYC and San Francisco, and embrace denser development, they really are urging us to increase our overall greenhouse gas emissions. As a consolation prize, we will get to virtue signal that our per capita emissions have gone down. But it is total emissions that ultimately count when it comes to climate disruption.

In the same way, from an environmental perspective, what matters is overall water consumption, overall demand for food, overall land paved over in concrete, overall air miles flown. More people mean more of all these environmental stressors. Children in New York have higher asthma rates than children in less populous parts of the country, since higher population densities lead to worse air pollution. Year in and year out, that takes a toll on many kids’ ability to live a normal, healthy life. It doesn’t matter if per capita particulate emissions are lower in NYC than in smaller cities and towns—NYC children’s lungs are still worse off because of the crowding, with emissions from many persons per unit area.

None of this means that sensible zoning, alternating denser with less dense areas and undeveloped areas, is not necessary for effective environmentalism. But increased density should not become an end in itself, or a substitute for setting limits to human demands on nature. It should not become an excuse for more population growth in places like California that are already groaning under excessive human numbers. Then “smart growth” becomes a way for clever people to continue to do dumb things: a bait and switch tactic to hide the fact that we continue to damage the environment. That’s the path humanity treads today, as climate disruption, ocean acidification, mass species extinction, and other ecological stressors driven by excessive human numbers threaten the entire planet. The evidence is clear that this path is not sustainable.

Phil Cafaro is Professor of Philosophy at Colorado State University and former ISEE President.