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.

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.

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.

CALL FOR NOMINATIONS: 2021 Victoria Davion Award for Intersectionality in Environmental Ethics

International Society for Environmental Ethics

2021 Victoria Davion Award for Intersectionality in Environmental Ethics

CALL FOR NOMINATIONS

To help build a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive field of environmental ethics, the

International Society for Environmental Ethics seeks to highlight intersectional scholarship in

environmental philosophy. To this end, we established an award in recognition Dr. Victoria Davion, who made cutting-edge contributions to interdisciplinary work in feminist and environmental ethics and was the founding editor of the journal, Ethics & the Environment. At the 2020 Annual Meeting of the Society, Dr. Chris Cuomo delivered a keynote address and was the inaugural recipient of the award.

With this call, the Society seeks nominations for the 2021 Victorian Davion Award for Intersectionality in Environmental Ethics. The award honors scholars engaged in intersectional work that describes, considers, or responds to overlapping forms of exclusion, discrimination, or injustice – such as the interplay of race, class, and gender in environmental injustice, or the relationship between colonialism and climate inequities.  Eligible candidates will be those whose work may be characterized, for example, as examining relations between environmental philosophy and feminist or gender studies, critical race theory, Indigenous studies, or disability studies. We aim to recognize work in research, teaching, and service 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, and that address questions of epistemic justice, such as the devaluation of certain forms of knowledge within academic environmental philosophy, barriers to and opportunities for developing more inclusive perspectives, and approaches to respectfully collaborating across perspectives and traditions. In general, we seek to honor and advance work that brings different threads of philosophy and environmental thought—within and beyond formal academic discourse—together.

The award is open to individuals at all to stages of their career; however, candidates should demonstrate a sustained commitment to intersectional scholarship, or more broadly, to diversity, equity, and inclusion in the field of environmental ethics and beyond. Self-nominations are welcome.

Nominations should include:

  1. A letter of nomination, listing the name, affiliation (if any), and contact information of both the nominee and nominator. The letter should explain how and why the nominee qualifies for the award.
  2. The nominee’s curriculum vitae or professional resume.

Nominations may also include:

  • Descriptions, representative samples, or links to relevant work.
  • Additional letters of endorsement for the nomination, no more than two.

Please assemble the nominating materials into one PDF file. Nominations are due by April 15, 2021. They will be evaluated by ISEE Officers and members of the ISEE Nominating Committee.

Send nominations to ISEE President Allen Thompson: allen.thompson@oregonstate.edu

Announcement of the winner and finalists will be made at the 2021 Annual ISEE Meeting in June 2021.


ISEE Sessions at APA Eastern

For those attending the Eastern Division virtual meeting of the APA, ISEE Group Sessions will be as follows:

Thursday, Jan. 14, 11 am-12:50 pm (U.S. Eastern Time)

12L. International Society for Environmental Ethics

Topic: Animals and the Environment: Rights, Responsibilities, and Reverence

Chair: Marion Hourdequin (Colorado College)

Speakers:

  • Keith Hyams (Warwick University) Winner, Andrew Light Award for Public Philosophy
  • Kimberly Dill (Santa Clara University) “A Call to Environmental Reverence”
  • Corey Katz (Georgian Court University) “Scanlon’s Contractualism and Animal Ethics”
  • Connor Kianpour (Georgia State University) “Protections without Rights”

Friday, Jan. 15, 11 am-12:50 pm (U.S. Eastern Time)

16K. International Society for Environmental Ethics

Topic: Perspectives on Anthropocentrism, Non-Anthropocentrism, Agency, and Value

Chair: Marion Hourdequin (Colorado College)

Speakers:

  • Suvielise Nurmi (University of Helsinki) “Environmental Responsibilities as Responsibilities for Relational Moral Agency”
  • Espen Dyrnes Stabell (Norwegian University of Science and Technology) “Why Environmental Philosophers Should Be Buck-Passers about Value”
  • Akinpelu Oyekunle (Adekunle Ajasin University) “On the Idea of an African Environmental Philosophy: Arguments for Complementary Environmental Ethics”

In addition, after the Thursday session, ISEE will hold an informal social gathering on Spatial Chat from 1-2 pm Eastern time (over the meeting’s “lunch break” for those who happen to be on Eastern time!), to enable opportunities for further conversation.  More information will be sent out next week.