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.

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.

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.

Teaching Webinar

Featured

The International Society for Environmental Ethics (ISEE) Mentoring Initiative is pleased to

 announce that our first webinar, Teaching Environmental Philosophy: Engaged

 and Inclusive Pedagogies, will be held on

Friday, November 6 from 4-5 pm PT/7-8 pm ET

The webinar, which features Chris Cuomo (University of Georgia), Rebeka Ferreira (Green River College), Ben Hole (Pacific University), and Clair Morrissey (Occidental College), will offer both new and experienced faculty the opportunity to explore engaged and inclusive teaching approaches in environmental philosophy.  The discussion will address stand-alone courses in environmental ethics and environmental philosophy, as well as ideas for integrating environmental dimensions into other courses, such as political philosophy, philosophy of science, aesthetics, and epistemology. The event will include a short presentation by each panelist, followed by Q&A and general discussion.  After the webinar, participants are invited to an informal social gathering in Spatial Chat. 

Both the webinar and gathering are free and open to all, but participants are asked to register in advance, here:  

https://coloradocollege.zoom.us/meeting/register/tJMscuqhrzIrG9UzK9OLTPQewjmDatG4txaw

Meeting connection information will be provided by email upon registration. Any questions about the webinar can be directed to ISEE Mentoring Director Simona Capisani (scapisani@fas.harvard.edu) or ISEE Vice President Marion Hourdequin (mhourdequin@coloradocollege.edu).

CFP: International Society for Environmental Ethics

CALL FOR PAPERS

for the

International Society for Environmental Ethics

18th Annual Summer Meeting

Wednesday, 30th June

to Saturday 3rd July, 2021

at the

Archipelago Research Institute,

Centre for Environmental Research,

University of Turku,

Seili Island, Finland

on questions of

Space, Relations, and Populations

The 18th annual summer meeting of the International Society for Environmental Ethics will convene from Wednesday 30th June to Saturday 3rd July 2021, at Seili island, Finland, situated in Finnish Archipelago, in a historical 17th century leper-colony-turned-mental-asylum-turned-research-station.

This call for papers solicits 500-word proposals for presentations in any topic in environmental philosophy. However, special attention will be given to proposals for talks concerning issues related to the philosophical investigation of the intersection of environmental conditions of space, relations, and populations.

The planet is becoming more and more populated with human beings, which reduces the space available to other species and displaces them from their traditional habitats. At the same time, the Covid-19 pandemic seems to intersect with the way we occupy the space available – the expansion of human populations into previously wild places promises to only increase the threat of new pandemics. The corona virus is transmitted via shared social spaces, so we combat transmission by isolation and physical distancing. Are emergent and contested norms about “social distancing,” then, a new framework for coordinating collective action? Would some kind of “ecological distancing” be a logical next step? Questions about how we occupy space and our spatial relations to other beings, on an increasingly crowded planet, call for articulation and philosophical analysis.

We are exceeding the carrying capacity and limits of this planet in multiple and very tangible ways. There seems to be a need, then, for more space. How should we think about occupying the space available? Should we prioritize protection and restoration of habitats for the conservation of endangered species? Should the abundant human population be squeezed more tightly into urban spaces? Or should we learn to share the landscape with wild animals, domestic animals, ecosystems, and other humans? Won’t this call for control of human population growth? Is space exploration and colonization ultimately the key to solving our environmental problems on this planet, or is it just a technological fantasy?

Possible topics include questions relating to biodiversity loss, environmental protection and conservation, population ethics, anthropocentric land use, space exploration and colonization, and pandemics. We encourage imaginative thinking about how questions about spatial relations could shed new light upon questions in environmental ethics and philosophy.

To accommodate discussion on population and space, the meeting is hosted in a place which itself is an intriguing combination of secluded, restricted human population and abundant, verdant nature. The nature of Turku Archipelago offers exotic experiences of achingly lush yet ascetic Finnish summer, while the nearby city of Turku offers cultural experiences all the way from 13th century to this day. In addition to the beautiful natural environment, Seili island has a dark yet interesting history of isolation as a former leper colony. The venue itself, located in the island, is an old 17th century hospital building and its utility buildings, now used by the researchers of University of Turku. These historical buildings will accommodate us for the meeting. Off-session, we can enjoy the Nordic and Finnish nature, culture and history of the area. To reach the island and back to mainland, we will share a two-hour ferry through the picturesque archipelago, departing from Turku city center.

For more information about the venue, see https://www.visitseili.fi/en/accommodation/

Proposals prepared for blind review should be submitted via email to Mikko M. Puumala,

<mimapuu@utu.fi> no later than December 15th, 2020. Decisions will be announced by February 30th, 2021. Draft papers for pre-read by conference participants will be due May 31st, 2021.

Please note that while the meeting is planned to take place live, we are closely following the COVID-19 situation in Finland and other countries. We will put updates to ISEE website: https://enviroethics.org/

CFP: 2021 ISEE group sessions at APA Central

Call for Papers

THE INTERNATIONAL SOCIETY FOR ENVIRONMENTAL

ETHICS

2021 Central Meeting of the American Philosophical Association

 

Submissions are invited for the International Society for Environmental Ethics Group Sessions at the 2020 Central Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association at the   Astor Crowne Plaza, in New Orleans, LA Wednesday, February 24 – Saturday, 27, 2021.  

 

 

Research in any area of philosophy related to or concerning environmental issues is welcomed.

 

ISEE is committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and we welcome submissions from all, including scholars of color, LGTBQ scholars, indigenous scholars, and other scholars from communities underrepresented in the profession.

 

We invite submissions for individual papers (presentations of approximately 20 minutes) as well as themed sessions (topical discussions, panels, author-meets-critics, etc…)

 

Submission Procedure:

       Please submit materials by the end of the day on September 10th, 2020.

      For individual papers: please provide a 300-word abstract.

      For themed sessions: please submit 1) the proposed session title, 2) a brief description (approximately 500 words) of the session including the names of all participants, and 3) titles for all papers. Individual paper abstracts are strongly encouraged, and all participants should be confirmed as willing to attend if the session goes forward.

      Materials should be submitted in Microsoft Word or PDF format to: Megs Gendreau (ISEE Treasurer) at megs.gendreau@centre.edu

      Please include “ISEE/APA” in the subject line of your email and feel free to contact Megs if you have further questions or concerns.