How shall we face the earth, under the conditions of the climate crisis?

These are the first several paragraphs of my work-in-progress book on philosophy and ecology. Some other draft selections from the book can also be found here and here and here. I invite your comments! -Bren.

How should we human beings face the earth, under the conditions of the climate crisis? And what might that question mean?

If this question has to do with finding out whether or not the present climate crisis is real, then this is a question for scientists. And the scientists of the world have already given their answer: Yes.

If this question has to do with what technological or political changes must be made to overcome the crisis, then this is a question for engineers, politicians, and citizens.

But if the question has to do with the way we frame our reality as human beings, especially in the fields of human nature, the future of civilization, and the meaning of life, then this is a question for philosophers like you and me, and a sorely neglected one; it is the question I aim to answer in this book.

King Mountain trail, Gatineau Hills Park, as I photographed it in 2018.
Facing the Earth from a lookout point on King Mountain trail, Gatineau Hills Park, as I photographed it in 2018.

It is a question of the very deepest human significance, as it touches upon nearly every field of philosophical enquiry: our sources of knowledge, our moral decisions, our conception of reality, our feelings and emotions, our sense of identity. It is also a question of great urgency, as the climate crisis has the potential to disrupt all our customary ways of acting and thinking in relation to the earth. For millennia we have taken for granted the stability of climates, the fertility and productivity of landscapes, the strength of ocean currents, even the breathability of the air. It is entirely possible that in the near future, due to the climate crisis, all of these assumptions, and many more, will no longer be reliable. And so we shall have to think of new ways to understand and to configure how we face the earth.

The evidence of that impending unreliability is readily available. To choose but one salient example: since the year 2000, the global average atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has risen by an average of twenty parts per million (ppm) every year; this is the fastest rate of increase in the last 800,000 years. In May of 2018, the NOAA’s Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory detected a concentration of 411.25 ppm, the highest ever recorded. In the 19th century, before the industrial revolution, global CO2 concentration was about 280 ppm during warm periods, and about 180 during ice ages; the current trend is 100 times faster than any trend since the end of the last ice age. The significance of these facts is not only that CO2 is has heat-retention properties which contribute to global warming and the instability of global climates. It is also that CO2 is poisonous to animal life on earth. A human being exposed to CO2 levels of 2,000 ppm or higher will experience nausea, headaches, disorientation, and insomnia: we will be no longer physically capable of sustaining any kind of society or civilization. At 5,000 ppm or higher, we will die. Thus the question, ‘How shall we face the earth, under the conditions of the climate crisis?’, is not only of philosophical curiosity; it is a question of life-or-death seriousness.

The sense of the name ‘Earth’ which I think belongs in my question is twofold. First, it is the Earth that is a planet in space. In this sense the Earth is not a singular self-contained world, but rather it is an inhabitant of a cosmic environment, and a frighteningly small such inhabitant compared to the unthinkable vastness of the universe. It is worth noting in passing that we have known about the true size of the universe for less than a century. It was only in 1925 that Edwin Hubble, drawing on Henrietta Swan Leavitt’s work on Cepheid variable stars, realised that the Andromeda spiral nebula was in fact another galaxy, 2.5 million light years beyond our own. And it was only in 2004 that the Hubble Space Telescope took the Ultra Deep Field photograph, showing that an area of space thought to be empty was in fact teeming with distant galaxies, some of them 13 billion light years away.

Second, it is the Earth of the famous ‘Circle of Life’, the food webs by which nutrients and energy pass from prey animal to predator, and from dead predator to soil. This is also the Earth whose ecosystems act as regulators of numerous life-necessary environmental conditions, such as atmospheric temperature and chemical composition, ocean salinity and acidity, the moderation of the weather, and a large host of other similar conditions. I think this second sense is the one that matters more, for my purpose, because this is also the Earth that we human beings are in a position to enrich or to disrupt, to aid or to destroy.

Now, it may seem obvious and not controversial to say that since we depend on this Earth for air to breathe, food to eat, water for drinking and cleaning, temperature and pressure that remains within our body’s range of tolerance, and so on. And that therefore we should relate to the Earth in a way that, at least, does not permanently damage the processes that provide our air, food, water, temperature range, and so on. But I think this argument, by itself, is unsatisfying. For one reason, it is, prima facie, a case of the naturalistic fallacy. But for another reason: even if there was a more sophisticated version of the argument which avoids the naturalistic fallacy, the argument seems to make the Earth itself disappear from the realm of the significant, so to speak. It is to suppose that so long as we are doing whatever is required to not damage the Earth’s capacity to provide the ecosystem services we need, then we do not otherwise need to think about the Earth at all. It is to treat the Earth the same way you might treat the plumbing and wiring in the walls of your house: You probably don’t think about the plumbing in your house at all, until there’s a leak. Is there no other significance to the Earth beyond that of the ecosystem services that it provides to us? (Ecosystem services— a cold and corporate word that has become the standard in government environmental policy, but at least has the virtue of precision.) Do we feel no need to care about it, except when its systems of life-support break down?

Human beings, in our long history, did not always think of the Earth as a bio-chemical service provider. In many of the world’s oldest mythologies, the Earth is a deity, often a mother-goddess, in Her own right. Some stories say the Earth is the direct hand-crafted work of a deity, and so the way we treat the Earth is bound together with the way we think of the creator. Stories such as these suggest that we can have a personal relationship with the Earth: for example, a relationship of reciprocity, in which the Earth offers Her ‘ecosystem services’ (again that cold word!) in exchange for our thanksgiving, expressed in songs, poems, offerings, and the designation of sacred groves and territories where human industrial-productive activity is strictly regulated if not altogether forbidden. Many writers have suggested that civilization lost an important dimension of consciousness when we (or a majority of us) lost our animist world views, and that the solution to our present environmental crisis must somehow involve the re-adoption of an animist world view. The trouble with this argument is that it seems to ignore the strong reasons why most modern societies let go of those animist views regarding the Earth. It is praiseworthy to take inspiration from the past, but foolish to want to return to the past.

In this book I hope to show what it really means to say ‘we are all connected to each other, we are one with the Earth.’ We have known about this fact, this thought, this relationship, for millennia. But we so rarely examine this relationship to any serious depth, facing with honesty the logical aporias involved like the two mentioned above, or any others that may appear. In this book I plan to do exactly that. I also hope to show how that relationship is troubled by the climate crisis, and how it might be healed.

So, thanks for reading all the way to the end. As mentioned, this is a work-in-progress and therefore it’s likely to appear very different when it’s done. I invite your comments!

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