The Climate Reckoning Is Not Happening — Or, Has Reality Become Too Painful To Face?

Looking to the future, can we ask when The Wild Ride will end and The After will begin? I think it will end on the occasion when the climate crisis reaches a peak of destructive immensity beyond anyone’s ability to reasonably doubt it. The important words in that last sentence are ‘beyond anyone’s ability’. Let us call this event The Climate Reckoning. It will be an end to complacency, an end to willed ignorance, an end to denial. And then it will be a mobilization: we will get down to the work of surviving what remains of the climate crisis and emerging from it somehow better than before, if we can. Meanwhile, in the time between today and the Reckoning, there will be billions of preventable deaths, billions of preventable species extinctions, billions of preventable ecosystem collapses.

Some might say this reckoning has already begun. We have widespread recycling and composting programs in major cities. The fraction of the global electricity supply produced by renewables (solar, wind, and hydro) grew from ~2,500 terrawatt hours in the year 2000, to more than 6,000 TWh in 2018. There are numerous popular movements to lobby governments and influence civil society toward acknowledging and acting on the climate crisis: Extinction Rebellion, for example. Green Party candidates regularly get elected in Europe and in Canada. And in the midst of the Wild Ride there have been many international agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, notably the Paris Accord (2016), the Copenhagen Accord (2006), the Rio+20 conference (2012).

But consider the following events which also took place between the years 2000 and 2020:

• Wild fires in Brazil, sub-saharan Africa especially Angola, Cameron, and Congo, as well as California USA, Alberta Canada, and Australia.

• Hurricane Katrina.

The collapse of ice shelves in Antarctica, the melting of the Arctic ice cap, and the Greenland ice sheet.

• In mid 2010, a United Nations summit in Aichi, Japan, identified twenty global biodiversity targets. By mid 2020, none of those targets had been met.

Events like these demonstrate that the climate reckoning is not happening. Powerful voices in our society and culture, including politicians, industry leaders, religious leaders, and celebrities, continue to speak and act as if these were all random and natural events. Tragic and sorrowful events, to be sure. But unconnected to any wider pattern. Definitely unconnected to the way we produce energy and consumer goods, or the way we dispose of our waste. And therefore prompting no need to change anything about the way we live.

The managers and executives of the industries that are destroying our planet are perfectly and completely aware of what they are doing. But as long as it’s profitable for them to do it, and as long as they can insulate themselves from the consequences, they will keep doing it. For example: at a meeting of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, secretly recorded by one of the participants, oil company executives discussed the need to change, not themselves or their industry, but instead to change people’s minds and attitudes toward oil and gas. “Climate change,” said Dan Haley, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, “is the prism through which everything is being viewed… We have to be comfortable talking about it, talking about how we are part of the solution through natural gas. And again, hitting people with emotions, hitting them where they’re— where their heart is. The activists are doing this when they talk about banning fracking in Colorado. They don’t show explosions. They don’t show rigs. They show women and children. We have got to begin playing at that same emotional level or we will not win these battles.” (Source.) So long as attitudes like this remain prominent among the powerful, the climate reckoning will not occur.

Furthermore, we have seen how those well-publicised global environmental conferences produced no results. This is by design, not by accident. The text of the Paris Accord and the Copenhagen Accord commits the signatory nations to nothing, because all of its targets were non-binding and there are no prescribed sanctions for countries that miss them. In 2017, the United States withdrew from the Paris Accord anyway. Emissions of greenhouse gases continued to rise, even while the COVID-19 pandemic reduced GHG emissions from cars and aircraft. Civic recycling programs, while popular and helpful, have not stemmed the tide of waste. In some sense civic recycling programs have served as a distraction: they allow people to believe they are doing their part as individuals, while the nation as a whole does nothing.

Consider, as a specific example, the wildfires which struck the eastern coast of Australia from late 2019 to early 2020. A season of record-high daytime temperatures, regularly above 40 degrees C, and the worst drought in decades, created the perfect conditions for the largest and most destructive bushfires in all of Australia’s history, far outstripping the better-publicised wildfires which damaged the Amazon basin, California, and Cameron, earlier in the year. From October of 2019 up to January 2020, every Australian state had large uncontrolled bushfires. By the first days of 2020, more than 5.9 million hectares of bush has been destroyed, entire towns completely destroyed, tens of thousands of people displaced, nineteen people killed, and 28 people were missing. The military was called in to help with evacuations and firefighting work. On New Year’s Eve, thousands of evacuees in New South Wales, the area hardest hit, fled to the coast and huddled together overnight on beaches or in small boats, trapped between the fires and the ocean, waiting for larger ships to come and rescue them. An estimated half a billion animals and plants were killed, and over the surrounding oceans the heatwave raised water temperatures enough to kill most marine wildlife. Ash and dust from the fires fell as far away as New Zealand, more than two thousand kilometers away.

Without exaggeration, though it may seem absurd to say it: the wildfires of that season were the most destructive environmental catastrophe in the history of Australia since its colonization by Europeans. But may I draw attention to two more facts about them that are relevant to my argument. The first is that the wildfires had been predicted twelve years previously, by the authors of an environmental impact study commissioned by the Australian government. The same researchers provided an update in 2011 which warned: “Even an increase of 2°C above pre-industrial levels would have significant implications for the distribution of rainfall in Australia, the frequency and intensity of flood and drought, the intensity of cyclones and the intensity and frequency of conditions for catastrophic bushfires.” The second and more salient fact for my argument is that even while the fires were burning, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison publicly denied the severity of the fires and denied their connection to climate change. “We have faced these disasters before,” he said, waving the fires away as though they were normal and unimportant. Two days later, after receiving some angry heckling from citizens for his comments, he acknowledged the necessity to review “all contributing factors” including climate change. But in the days that followed, he continued to deny direct links between the wildfires and climate change, and repeated his government’s support for the fossil fuel industry and his opposition to any emissions-reduction plan. Twenty-four people were charged with arson in relation to the bushfire crisis. But at the same time, an online disinformation campaign exaggerated the role of arson in the crisis, in order to muddy people’s understanding of the relationship between the bushfires and the climate crisis.

The general point: even when a major climate disaster strikes an affluent, well-educated, developed and modern nation populated mostly by White people— the kind of nation one would expect to get the most media attention and to do the most amount of work to protect at least themselves if no one else— still there is no Climate Reckoning. The crisis carries on.

From March of 2020 and through to the autumn, most everyone hid in their homes, as if they no longer wanted to look at the world, as if they were tired of it, and also afraid of it. We told ourselves we are quarantining to slow the spread of a new pandemic disease called Covid-19. And, of course, we are. But are we also hiding from reality itself?

Has reality become too painful to face?

(A more fully footnoted version of this text is part of my forthcoming book, “Ecology And Reality”.)

Posted in General | Comments Off on The Climate Reckoning Is Not Happening — Or, Has Reality Become Too Painful To Face?

Bill and Ted Face the Music: a study of GenX and Millennial tension?

Have you seen the trailer for the new Bill And Ted movie coming out? It gave me an awful feeling. Not that it wouldn’t be fun– in fact I think it will be great fun, and I plan to see it soon after release.

But the trailer made me wonder if it’s a film about the fractured relation between GenXers (like myself) and millennials.


Here’s Bill and Ted, who when they were young thought they would save the world, and who find in their middle age that they’ve done basically nothing about it. They’ve been living by a perfectly wholesome and decent moral mantra: ‘be excellent to each other’ and ‘party on dudes!‘ But it isn’t working for them anymore. They’re feeling the pressure of the responsibility to save the world, and at least one of them is feeling disaffected by it.

They have two millennials for daughters, who are still energetic, ambitious, and adventurous, as their fathers were at that age. They’re old enough to be angry about things and to take responsibilities; yet perhaps not yet old enough to become jaded and cynical. And so they embark on a world-saving adventure of their own.

I have a feeling that this will be a film about how GenXers like myself fumbled the ball. There are lots of reasons for that– the small size of the cohort, the three different recessions that hit us as we entered the workforce, the boomers who screwed us just as hard as they’re now screwing the millennials, etc. Nonetheless, we fumbled it. Whatever we did to try and save the world, it wasn’t enough: we still have a climate crisis, income inequality, racism, sexism, homophobia, and the whole wild ride. And now, we have Nazis, too. Actual Nazis, marching in the streets again, armed, Roman saluting, and waving the American flag. No wonder the millennials are picking up the ball and running with it, and leaving us GenXers behind.

I gave most of my 20s and 30s to social causes and movements that accomplished very little, and now seem to want nothing to do with me anymore. My whole experience of participating in public life, in these last few years, has been coloured by this creeping feeling of being left behind.

So, Bill and Ted, like me and maybe other GenXers too, must face the music– a wonderful metaphor for facing ourselves and our ineffectiveness. I hope that while Bill and Ted’s daughters go on to save the world, Bill and Ted themselves discover they still have something they can do to help.

Something that being excellent and partying on can provide.

Posted in General | Tagged , | Comments Off on Bill and Ted Face the Music: a study of GenX and Millennial tension?

The basement is finished!

After four long, expensive years, the main renovations on my basement are now finished! I feel irrationally happy about this.

So, here are some before-and-after pictures.

First, here’s what it looked like when I moved in:

Concrete walls with no insulation, open ceiling with old insulation hanging out, wires and junction boxes hanging down, speakers in the ceiling, volume controls built into the wall. Spots on the carpet in exactly the right position for the stools that sat by the bar. Basically, a mess.

Also, there was a bar. Padded elbow rests, pot lights, mirrors, a working sink, and a beer fridge in the corner. Most of my friends who saw it immediately said: “swinger’s club”.

So, basically, the best kind of mess.

And then I got rabbits. And I cared for them and adored them and loved them, because I think rabbits are the most wonderful animals. But I could not keep them.

And then, three years after the rabbits, I decided that the beer fridge under the bar was probably going to rot if I didn’t remove it, and that the only way to remove it would be to tear down the bar. I was also worried that some of the materials down there might have had asbestos. As fun as it was to say that I had a sex club in my house, I decided that it all had to go.

So, summer of 2019, a friend of mine and I took down the ceiling, the bar, and most anything else that might have been a health hazard or an obstacle to actually using the basement for actually living in.

There was, indeed, mould in the glue that held down the carpet. But no asbestos– I got the testing done, to be sure. The mould was cleaned up safely and professionally. And so the basement remained a blackbox for a few more months, until I felt confident I had enough money (and a deep enough line of credit) to pay for the game-changing phase.

And in these early months of 2020, I found a contractor, fired him, found another contractor, fired that one too, and found a third contractor who got the job done, on time, on budget, and in quality.

So, here’s the work in progress:

The insulation that my parents and I added after my first winter was removed, new wires and frames installed, the insulation returned to place, and the wires cleaned up, and the drywall to cover it.

More evidence of the old swinger’s club emerged: behind one wall we found another wall, covered in soft-porn magazine pictures from the 60s and 70s! We tore it down, but here are some Safe For Work examples:

And now, I have a basement room that I can actually use!

The railing for the stairs, and the cabinet on the wall that you can see in the picture above, are the only visible remnants of the way the room used to be. (The breaker panel is in that cabinet, so that’s why it stayed.)

The urinal stayed, too.

And now I’m off to put down a chair, and have a beer, and baptise the room as officially habitable. Hey, I can have my coronavirus-lockdown vacations in here!

Posted in General | Comments Off on The basement is finished!

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!


Posted in General | Comments Off on How shall we face the earth, under the conditions of the climate crisis?

I am fascinated by, and frightened by, the idea of alien contact.

In the late 1980s, someone gave my dad a copy of Whitley Streiber’s Communion, a novel about an alien abduction. The front cover featured a head and shoulders portrait of a being which, today, is commonly called a ‘grey’: an alien with large and slanted almond-shaped eyes.

For no reason that I can fathom even to this day, the image utterly terrified me. I couldn’t look at it. I’d have an almost violent reaction: I had to cover my own eyes, or demand that someone take the book away. Dad kept it separate from the rest of the books in the library, and read it with the front cover folded back.

“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977). Strangely enough, these similar aliens did not frighten me, when I was a kid. In fact I wanted to meet them.

Today I have more self control: I can look at similar representations of aliens in The X Files, or Stargate SG1, without a sudden freakout. (Although it does still give me the creeps.) Nonetheless, I sometimes still wonder why I had that reaction. I am not, to my knowledge, an “abductee”. I’ve never seen a UFO for myself. I know that thousands of others say that they have seen one, including friends of mine who I regard as rational people and under situations where no alternative explanations were obvious. I would say that I would like to see one, but then I remember what it was like when a picture of a “grey” would cause me to have an irrational and physically visceral fear reaction.

Besides that: “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” If I was shown a UFO, I would demand a very high standard of proof that it wasn’t a hoax.

The famous scientist Stephen Hawking once wrote that if humanity encountered an alien civilization, it would likely go very badly for us. (Read about it here.) A simple version of his argument goes like this: first contact between high-tech and low-tech societies tends to go very badly for the low-tech society. As the contact between Europeans and Indigenous nations in Africa, Australia, the Americas, etc., went very badly for the Indigenous nations, so would the contact with (presumably very technologically advanced) aliens likely go very badly for us. “Because: empire, and colonialism”. I probably need not say much more about it than that.

There are also arguments for why alien civilizations might be benevolent. A simple version of this argument goes like this. As a society develops its technology over time, it encounters “barriers” or “great filters” which might prevent them from progressing further, if not destroy them entirely. Runaway climate change, pandemic disease, weaponized AI, nuclear war— take your pick. Presumably, a civilization which has developed warp drive and contacted us will have overcome those obstacles. They might have learned how to run their economics, politics, ecology, science and technology, etc., non-hazardously and sustainably. And if they let us learn from them, it might be a net benefit to us to meet them.

Let’s see if it’s possible to split the difference. We could say, more simply, that a civilization-to-civilization encounter with extraterrestrial intelligent life would change basically everything. It would be comparable to the way human life on earth changed, and continues to change, because of the invention of the gasoline engine, or the spread of the internet, or the rise of our global climate instability crisis, as examples.

Okay, splitting the difference like that makes the proposition vague and evasive. So, here are some examples, that we can explore in a utilitarian way. Alien contact: how would it change how we think, and how we live?

In religion: what if we were given unambiguous evidence that the Von Daniken Hypothesis is true? (In case you don’t know, that’s the theory, proposed by Eric Von Daniken in his book “Chariots of the Gods” (1968), that most of the world’s important global religions were founded by aliens who visited us in the distant past.) That would overturn thousands of years of human thought, feeling, art, music, architecture, social and cultural experience. There might be a massive shift toward atheism and secular humanism. At the same time, alien cargo cults might arise, in which people pray to the aliens for a solution to our global climate crisis, or to end all human wars, cure all diseases, or to bring some kind of personal salvation. Imagine what the world’s great religious monuments would look like— the Hagia Sophia, St. Peter’s in Rome, Kajuraho Temple, the Masjid al-Haram, and so on— if it were proven beyond reasonable doubt that the people who built them were wrong about their religious beliefs. Imagine what would happen to Christianity, the world’s largest religion by number of adherents, if Jesus came back to us and he had brownish skin, a wedge-shaped head, an extendable neck, no hair, and he waddled a bit like a duck when he walked?

Space Jesus. Heals your “ouch”, teaches you to “be good”.

In politics: As most everyone probably knows, political identity and unity often forms in a kind of dialectic relation between a constructed ‘us’ and a constructed ‘them’. Even the writers of Star Trek, a pop culture franchise which wears its humanism on its sleeve, proposed that the Federation was born out of a need for several different communities to unite and defeat a common enemy, the Zindi. Now, imagine the ultimate ‘us’, all human beings on Earth, configuring themselves in relation to an ultimate ‘them’— an intelligence so different from ours that it is literally otherworldly, literally not human. One could imagine the appearance of the political will to unite the 200 sovereign nations of Earth into a single body politic, so as to create interstellar economic and diplomatic ties. One could also imagine new strains of xenophobia and exceptionalism, and new strains of that pernicious political style which emerges from xenophobia and exceptionalism: fascism.

Starship Troopers. Space fascists.

In art and culture: After ‘contact’, all stories will be science fiction stories. We would all be living in a bigger world, and no artist, writer, musician, filmmaker, game designer, or any other kind of creative person, could ignore that. Literary fiction, contemporary dramas, romantic comedies, and all kinds of other genres which normally have nothing to do with science fiction, would almost require some kind of alien contact point in order to keep up with the times. As a literary device, an alien is always a statement about ourselves: what we wish for, what we fear, how we approach differences among ourselves, what we imagine we could become, a warning about what we must never become, and so on. After contact, an alien could be just another character among many. Imagine a future version of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express”, in which the train is a spaceship, and a given character’s membership in an alien species is absolutely irrelevant to whether that character is one of the suspects. Or, the detective.

Doctor Who, “Mummy on the Orient Express”. Five hundred years from now this will not be science fiction. It will be ordinary literary detective fiction.

in philosophy (especially existentialism): after ‘contact’, it will be absolutely undeniable that there is nothing special about humanity. We will know ourselves as one species of sentient life among many, with no greater claim to significance than any other. Centuries ago, people believed that the Earth was the centre of the universe. Later we learned that the sun was the centre of our solar system. But we still thought ourselves special, ‘made in the image of God’, or otherwise possessors of a divinely-bestowed importance. After that, we learned that the universe is enormously bigger than our own solar system, and that it has no centre. But we still thought ourselves special: because of our ability to reason, for example. Or our uniqueness in an empty universe. After contact, the universe will not be as empty. And our rationality will be one kind among many. Our interests, our affairs, our lives, will feel smaller. It will be harder to ignore that we occupy only a tiny pale blue dot in an unimaginably vast cosmos, that is mostly as indifferent to us as we might be to a single spider on another continent. Thus the prospect that aliens exist can be equally as terrifying as the prospect that we are alone.

Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” photo. Yeah, I went there.

In some of those examples, it’s easier to imagine that alien contact would be bad for humanity, more than that it would be beneficial. And besides that, I have my own aforementioned personal reason to dread the prospect of meeting E.T.

Score for Hawking, perhaps.

But the damn thing of it is, I really do want to know if there are other intelligences out there. I think the core problem of the Fermi Paradox, the question “Where is everybody?”, is among the top-ten most important scientific and philosophical questions of all time. I am heartened by the fact that in the years since Frank Drake formed his famous equation, we have more information about some of its variables, so we have a better idea where to look for organized signals. I am deeply unhappy that I will very likely not live long enough to see the creation of a working Alcubierre Warp Drive— if such a thing can be built at all. Because I think that of all the things we could pursue and possess, the most important and intimate of them is knowledge. I want to see the rings of Saturn for myself: not only through a telescope— I’ve seen them that way already— but standing on the surface of Enceladus. I want to see the Great Spot of Jupiter, rising over the crest of a hill on Ganymede. I want to see a new star born in the heart of a stellar nebula. I want to see what our galaxy looks like from outside. I want to see an alien city, read their history books, visit their museums, explore their forests and tallgrass meadows. I want to know how they survived their wars and other great barriers, to the point where we could learn from them how to survive ours. I want to know what’s really going on in the universe. I want to invite the gods to my home for afternoon tea, to ask them Socratic questions, and find out what more and what else the meaning of life might be.

And I want to know if anyone else wants those things, too.

Posted in General | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on I am fascinated by, and frightened by, the idea of alien contact.

A philosopher plays Assassin’s Creed Odyssey

As a philosophy prof, of a generation that got a lot of Greek and Roman voices in my education, I was very excited to play AC Odyssey. The game takes place during one of the historical periods that I have been studying as a philosopher for most of my adult life. Throw in a few recommendations from my students, and the fact that one of the game’s writers is a friend of mine (hi, Susan!), I decided to sit down and play.

Me, contemplating the sacred domain of Eleusis. (Well, my screenshot, anyway.)

(Well, I played one of the Ezio Trilogy games first, because it takes place in Renaissance Italy — another historical period that philosophers traditionally give a lot of attention to. And it was wonderful. But leave that aside for now.)

So, here’s a running impression, since I’m writing this blog post a few entries at a time, over the space of several weeks as I snatch an hour or two of time to play.

Spoilers, obviously.

1.

My first impression, like most people’s first impression, is that it’s stunningly beautiful to look at. I graduated from the Xbox 360 to the Xbox One only three weeks ago, and the gear-up in graphic detail astonished me. Photo realistic landscapes, volumetric light rays for the sun and moon, a very long draw-distance, the rustling of tallgrass and tree leaves—it was a wonderful experience just to walk around the island of Kefalonia, the place where the story begins. Having lived some of my life in Europe, this was familiar ground for me – and so I am predisposed to love this game from the beginning.

My experience with console RPGs is relatively limited; prior to playing AC, I played Mass Effect, Elder Scrolls, Dragon Age, Fable, the whole series for each of these, and almost nothing else. Those are games with excellent worldbuilding and in which it’s possible to simply explore. What’s the view like from the top of that mountain? What characters or creatures might be hidden in that town, that forest grove, that sheltered bay? And the first few hours of the game, which limit you to the one island (like a starter-dungeon, I suppose), still delivered lots to explore. I’m running errands and odd jobs for someone named Marko, who seems to be in debt to everyone and who more or less expects me to fix his life for him. All his quests felt like side quests. They made me wonder, does the game have a main quest at all? Not that I would mind a game that didn’t. In fact I wonder what that might be like.

I absolutely adored what Kassandra did with that guy’s obsidian eye. And the look on his face when she did it! Whichever member of Ubisoft’s writing team thought of that, she deserves a raise.

2.
I respected that the Florence of AC II could not have the street layout of the real Florence, because it would take up too much computing time and memory, and because the map is supposed to be an obstacle course more than a real city. But I felt more comfortable in ACO’s Kefalonia, whose towns looked and sounded like real towns, having a more naturalistic layout. And as the story took me to other areas of Greece, the cities remained consistently life-like. Assuming (trusting, hoping) that Ubisoft consulted with historians and archaeologists to design the world, I feel like I am now better able to explain to my students what life in classical Greece was like. It’s crowded and messy. Even the rich parts of town are crowded. The disparity between rich and poor is very stark. Everything is hand made. In fact I now finally understand why the Greeks built those stoa in their agoras. Everybody does everything outdoors, so if you want some shade from the sun or shelter from the rain, you go to the nearest stoa.

Incidently, when I arrived at Athens’ famous Agora, I didn’t realise it at first. Trained for decades to expect an open square with clean granite paving stones and serene white marble columns, I instead found a crowded and disorganized market with a dirt ground, and merchant stalls covered in awning. Aristotle wrote that the agora of an ideal city should be reserved for politics and philosophy, so there should be no commercial activity there; in fact he says that people whose livelihoods are too involved in practical matters (farmers, for instance) shouldn’t enter unless summoned. (That area to the side of the Temple of Hephaestos, with the olive tree that Athena planted, might be that Aristotelian philosophical space.) But the agora of ACO is obviously exactly what the real Agora of Athens would have been like. A public place where all kinds of public activities: commerce, politics, art and music and culture, and the like, come together. In the colonies of Magna Graecia, they built their agora before building temples and private houses. They did everything outdoors and in public.

Well, they had that lovely Mediterranean climate for it.

But I realized I was in the Agora, not just when a headline came up on the screen to say so, nor even when I saw (and was warned away from) the temple of Hephaestos. The magic moment for me was when I passed by some women singing the Seikilos Epitaph. I knew the tune from its appearance in Civilization VI, and I also already knew it was very old. But I didn’t know there were lyrics. So I looked it up, and found that it is the oldest recorded music in the world. It’s a song of love, but also of mourning: perhaps something that the author composed for the grave of his wife. And its text is a set of propositions about how life is both brief and tragic, and yet it should be good:

While you live, shine.
Have no grief at all.
Life exists only for a short while
And Time demands his due.

How wonderful, how absolutely uplifting, to know that this musical thought survived history, not only in point of fact that the words survived, but also in point of principle that the human experience it expresses is so universal: that we are mortal, and that we struggle with the immensities, and yet, sub specie aeternitatis, life is good.

The next day at work, I sang it for my students. They were a little astonished to hear their philosophy prof singing in class.

The inclusion of that song is another thing in this game, for which Ubisoft should give a raise to whoever decided to include it. Such a beautiful moment.

It’s just kind of too bad that the only merchant in the Agora that you can talk to is the blacksmith. It might have been nice to be able to buy and sell goods whose utility in the story is about something other than combat. There are trade goods you can find in the field and sell in the market, but otherwise they’re not used for anything. What if you could buy clothing: something to wear in town, or when doing social quests. Or, it might be nice to go to workshops and make things out of all iron metal and olive wood. To buy a house, and outfit it with your own furniture and art, for instance.

But if I couldn’t have that, I could have something else that felt just as good: a ship’s crew who sing old Greek poems. Now I’m looking up the lyrics, so I can learn to sing with them.

3.
I met Herodotus!
I also made a superficial comparison of the map of Greece in the game, to the map of Greece in the real world. Not only in terms of scale — for obviously the Greece of the game could not be 1:1 to the real Greece. But the relative position of islands, lakes, and such. There’s a lake in Boeotia which doesn’t exist in modern day Greece. Also, Euboia isn’t an island. But I wondered if there was a lake there in ancient times? A quick look through my Britannica (I still have a complete 1984 edition) and I find that there was. Lake Kopais. Respect for the game designers is increasing.

In the midst of the same research, it occurs to me that the total playable area of ACO is probably 250 square kilometers. Or, more than six times larger than Skyrim! Granted that a lot of ACO’s playable area is water for sailing, nonetheless that’s huge. And although the landscape tends to be relatively homogeneous, the towns are distinctive and memorable. This is my new favourite exploration world.

The wish is also increasing in me, to have enough time / money / resources some day to create a game like it.

Selfie, while contemplating the Greek islands and the sun, as the real Socrates used to do. It’s really no wonder that western philosophy was born here.

4.
The game took me back to the future briefly. I’m reading Layla’s emails and documents. Philosophers Martin Heidegger and Nick Bostrom are mentioned by name. Heideggarian concepts like Dasein and Alethia, used correctly. I’m impressed.

5.
At the bidding of Pericles, I just rigged a vote to have the philosopher Anaximander ostracized from the city. I have to say, I feel rather unhappy about it, being a philosopher myself. There’s a hint that the ostracism might have saved his life from something else. But I’m beginning to wonder if I’m supporting the wrong side of the Peloponesean war. Wrong, not in the sense of who will win (I know my history, I already know it’s Sparta) but rather, wrong in the sense of: I should be supporting the democratic, artistically vibrant, and intellectually flourishing Athens, instead of totalitarian, war-obsessed, and bullish Sparta.

Also, I met Socrates! It was fun to see what the designers thought he should look like — and it was true to my impression of him too. Various textual sources say that he was a big, ungainly, and uncomely fellow, who galumphed when he walked. He engaged me in some light philosophical banter about knowledge. I would like to have had more dialogue options, but I suppose it makes sense that Kassandra is a mercenary and her relationship with knowledge would be practical and technical (and violent) rather than knowledge-for-knowledge’s sake.

Also, there’s one major feature of Socrates’ character that seems missing: his sly sense of humour. The Apology (the speech he made at his trial for corrupting the young) is riddled with it. My excitement on meeting him wore off a bit too soon.

But all that was forgiven when I met him again at Pericles’ symposium, where he and Thrasymachus hashed out some of the arguments in Book 1 of The Republic. I liked the touch about how he decided to wear shoes to the event — famously, Socrates went barefoot everywhere. (Imagine what his feet must have looked like.) Also, I loved his big happy smile when Aspasia entered the room. It was first smile I saw in this game which was bright enough to show teeth. Xenophon said that Socrates and Aspasia were having an affair. Maybe the game designers knew!

6.
You know, when the game offers me a moral choice, I usually pick the one that involves talking to people instead of killing them. For instance, when the lions were terrorizing a village, I found the guy who was trying to live like one of them, and got his medicine for him, instead of killing him and his lions. But as for that pirate who makes you swim through shark infested water to get her a treasure, and who then doesn’t pay you — I made sure that she died. Painfully. And then I destroyed her ship, too.

The moral choice regarding the man and his lions, is like a moral choice between killing someone to save others, or not killing them with the knowledge that others will therefore die. It’s very stark, and not very philosophically interesting. In effect it’s only a trolley problem. So it’s nice that ACO gave me more options.

(As an aside: Fallout III has a worse version of this problem. In the settlement of Megaton, you meet someone who will pay you a lot of money to help him detonate a nuclear device, or you can kill him and so save the people who would have died in the nuclear blast he plans to ignite. It’s such a stupid choice. Game writers can, and I think must, do better.)

In the games I design as teaching tools for my students, I try to lean away from choices between good and bad, and away from choices between bad and worse. I definitely lean away from the kind of problems in which someone dies, or is killed, no matter what you do. Instead I want to lean towards choices between different (competing) concepts of goodness. Red or green or blue or yellow, so to speak, instead of black or grey.

I’m soon to publish a tabletop game of my own which attempts to do exactly that. And, sorry about the plug there.

7.
At this point, by the way, I’ve been playing long enough to feel some of the same problems noted by critics. Chief among them: the grind. Events in the main quest line require some levelling up, which I suppose in principle is fine, but those events do not, by themselves, give enough experience points to allow me to level-up fast enough to continue the quest line. I suppose the idea was to force players to take on side quests. Still, it feels jarring to have a good story interrupted this way, for reasons related to the game mechanics and unrelated to the story itself. Levelling up, by the way, also feels like a bit of an illusion, for the reason that all the game’s antagonists level up with you, and so in effect nothing changes. I understand that the game must continue to be challenging. But it seems somewhat absurd that a run-of-the-mill guardsman, who was a tough nut to crack when I was 3rd level, should not be dispatched with relative ease when I’m 10th level. As it is, I’m 23rd level and I just had my ass handed to me by the exact same kind of bandit who has been handing me my ass for hours. I’m turning the combat volume down to ‘easy’ and I’m not ashamed of it.

Ah. Less grinding. More story. Much better.

I’m beginning to wonder if it is possible at all to create a large open-world RPG that does not feature combat so prominently. What would a game like that be like? Would it feature logic puzzles? Moral dilemmas? Racing and chasing? Detective deduction? Social manipulations? The other thing I’m doing with my (increasingly small amount of) free time is edit and lay out my tabletop RPG. I’m placing the rules for social actions ahead of the rules for combat action, as a subtle signal to players that there’s more to life than hacking and slashing.

For instance: the sight of that valley in Arcadia, with the colourful farms, was a wonderful reward in itself. Long after I forget what ability perks I chose when I levelled up, I’ll remember what it felt like to quit all the quests and go exploring at my own initiative, looking for the city of Sparta, and to unexpectedly come across that valley on the way.

8.
That scene where my Kassandra met her mother. So lovely. So human. Great work.

Also: I’m beginning to think Aspasia knows things she’s not telling me.

9.
I’ve now had a few more dialogues with Socrates in which we discuss whether someone can change their character over time, and whether some kinds of crimes (like horse thievery) could be morally justifiable under some situations, such as when you need the money (from selling a stolen horse) to feed your family. They’re the kind of Jean Valjean questions we debate in first year philosophy classes, and it’s nice to see them here. I chose dialogue options that I thought were at least consistent with each other, if not exactly reflecting my own views. For instance, my Kassandra said that it could be justifiable to kill someone if doing so would save the lives of some number of others. That’s a sort of trolley-problem question, to which the correct answer (as I see it) is “There’s something wrong with utilitarianism”. But it is also a question at the heart of the Assassin’s Creed world. The assassins do, after all, believe they can improve the world by killing people. It’s the very reason they exist as a secret organization. In other AC titles, this is referred to as one of the Three Ironies, part of the ‘creed’ of Assassin’s Creed. If Kassandra were to doubt that, she would doubt her entire purpose in life.

Socrates asks Kassandra whether a bad man could over time become a good man. And, in very Socratic fashion, he observes that if it’s true, then the converse must also be true, that a good man could become a bad one. That, right there, could affect how the Assassins see their mission. If a bad person could become a good one, then there are other things the assassins can do about bad people besides kill them. I wonder what an AC game might look like if it explores that possibility.

I enjoyed the scenes which take place in Athens during the disease outbreak. Historically, it was Pericles’ greatest military blunder; it cost him his own life, too. I say I enjoyed those scenes, but they were, after all tragic scenes. Here’s a city I had grown comfortable in. It is the setting where I met Socrates, and a dozen others whom I have been studying my whole life. It’s where I heard someone singing the Seikilos Epitaph, as mentioned. So to see it gloomy and grey, populated by suffering people, was emotionally rough. Phoebe’s death was so awful, that I sat for a while, just looking at her, before continuing with the story. But it ended on a harmonious and satisfying note: Socrates, at the dockyard in the Piraeus, choosing to remain in Athens, saying that there has to be someone willing to challenge people’s ideas and to speak out against injustice even when everyone calls it justice.
“I have lived as an Athenian, I will die as an Athenian”, he said.

Yes, he will. And I am sure he knew what was likely ahead of him.

Now that, my friends, is what moral courage looks like. That’s what made Socrates a hero.

I wonder if the story will take me to his trial.

10.
The other reason the Assasins organization exists is to search for Precusor artifacts. And in my last session, I found a big one: the entrance to the lost city of Atlantis. (And by the way, the game offered what has become my new favourite theory of where the ‘real’ Atlantis, if there ever was one, might have been.) I thought the shape of the endgame would be the killing of whoever is at the centre of the Cult of Kosmos. It may still be that, but it now seems it will also be the closing of that gate to Atlantis. And I see by Ubisoft’s DLC offerings, that Atlantis is an explorable area too.

This seems like a good place to end this blog post. I’ll leave you with these summary thoughts:

  • I have a new favourite video game series. My previous favourite, the Elder Scrolls series, now feels pretentious and small by comparison.
  • But having said that, I think I like designing and worldbuilding my own games (and novels, etc) better than I like playing other people’s games. Anyone got ten million dollars to spare, that I can spend on creating my own big RPG?
  • I likely wouldn’t use AC Odyssey to teach Greek history or to teach intro philosophy. But I certainly would invite students of mine to make references to the game in their essays and projects if it helps them understand the classical Greek world better.
  • It is my wish that everyone should study philosophy, so that they can dive into our world in the spirit of the Seikolos Epitaph, and in the spirit of Socrates: questioning everything, searching for what is true and beautiful and good, seeing the world’s tragedies and injustice and darkness, and yet finding that the world still deserves our activism and our love.
Yes, I know that Kassandra is Greek, female, and a fictitious character, whereas I am male, Irish-Canadian, and probably not a simulation. Nonetheless, I still feel like this is a selfie.
Posted in General | Comments Off on A philosopher plays Assassin’s Creed Odyssey

The Little Prince, and Outer Space

I do hope you have heard of, if not read, The Little Prince, a delightful children’s novel by French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. It begins with a story of a pilot who has to land his plane in the desert to make repairs (Saint-Exupéry was himself a pilot). There he meets a child who claims to live on an asteroid called B-612, and who came to earth by hitching a ride with a flock of birds and a comet. I adored this novel, as well as the animated television series which ran when I was myself a child.

So, with great excitement, a few weeks ago my partner and I watched the 2015 film based on the novel. Where we discovered, as did pretty much everybody who saw the film, that it had almost nothing to do with the novels.

I suppose the film producers thought to themselves, “We can’t just make The Little Prince. We have to make a 21st century version of him. So, what if we made a film about The Little Prince all grown up? Hey, it worked for Peter Pan in Hook (1991). And we can make the pilot who found him as en elderly man: eccentric, funny, loveable, shunned by his community because he preserves his child-like heart, and a mentor figure to another young child and that child’s parent, who must learn some Important Life Lessons about retaining child-like imagination. Throw in a message about the soullessness of consumer capitalism, for the GenXers in the audience who remember the 80s, and for the millennials who are woke to socialism. Yeah, let’s do that. And if we make the New Child and Parent into a girl and a woman, then we can tick off our diversity checkboxes at the same time, too.”

Yeah, and we can also tick off the audience. Because the film became, well, not a film about The Little Prince. It was a film about why everything childhood is good and everything adult is bad. And that’s a proposition we have to examine, and I think reject.

Frankly, there’s a lot of things I like about being a grown-up. For one thing, my own childhood from about the age of 8 onward can be mostly described a psychological endurance run, because of the bullying, the verbal abuse, the cold-shouldering, the neglect, the discrediting of my interests, the disvaluing of my accomplishments, from my peers as well as some of the adults around them. And the physical beatings from bullies that were authorised by adult authorities (ie. the same bullies who verbally taunted me by day could physically beat me up during karate class twice a week at night). No wonder, then, that I escaped to the forest of the Elora Gorge as often as possible, to enjoy some independence in solitude. By contrast: now that I’m an adult, if someone wants to bully me, I can sue them. Or call the police on them. Not only that: I can also read the great books of civilization and understand them. I get my own money, and I decide how to spend it. I get to have sex with any consenting adult partner I want. I get to travel the world – I’ve been to fifteen countries so far. (I’m especially fond of central Europe.) I get to write books and share them with people who will make an honest attempt to understand them. My life as an adult has been an order of magnitude better than my life as a child. (Though I still protect my solitude, and in the Gatineau Hills park I have a new forest.) So, stories that privilege childhood innocence and childhood wonder always strike me as patronizing and wrong.

But that reduces to psychology an argument that deserves treatment on its own merits. So here’s another way in, by way of a counter-argument and some questions.

Someone might say: “sure, childhood often sucks, but adult life sucks even more. The world of adults in 2019 is a soul-crushing circus of commercialism, global warming, poverty, and resurgent fascism. If you insist upon letting go of childhood things, might there be no space left for wonder? Might there be no space left for child-like (not child-ish) innocence and magic in our lives and in our stories? No space left for us for escape (I don’t say escap-ism) from the nightmare of our time?”

A reply: That space is still all around you. It is, to my thinking, impossible to eradicate. Though it can be temporarily suppressed, it can always break through and demand attention. However much of the world we enclose within the frame of the human, there will always, always, be realms beyond the frame which summon us to amazement and beauty. And to terror. And in either case, to the sublime. Such is the nature of the Immensity. (A word with deep philosophical significance to me, and which features often in my books.) Let me introduce you to an example of it: the Hubble Deep-Field photograph.

My god, it’s full of stars!

Basically, every dot in that photograph is an entire galaxy. Scientists pointed the Hubble Space Telescope at an area of space where they thought there was nothing, and they opened the aperture at that space for about ten days. They had no idea what they would see. It was possible they wouldn’t see anything. But they gave ten days to looking at nothing just to see whether or not it might turn out to be something. And it did. It turned out that the universe has galaxies everywhere. That we are dwelling within a universe that is probably infinite, and in which there’s something to discover in every direction. That’s every direction, in three physical dimensions out to billions of light years, and in two temporal directions, past and future, out to billions of millennia. We live in a world that’s astonishingly, overwhelmingly, unthinkably beautiful. And facing that immensity is not a childhood thing. It is a grown-up thing.

If I was driving to any kind of point in this not-well-crafted argument, it’s that we should reject the proposition that all things childhood are good and all things adult are bad, because some sources of magic and wonder available only to adults are better than those available to children. Or, better than those which we as adults think are available to children who live in perfect worlds, like the world that the characters in the 2015 Little Prince film lost.

Let me explain why that world is not lost. Or, more to the point, why the world we actually have is better. In fact: here’s composer Eric Whitacre, who wrote an orchestral piece inspired by that photograph; let him explain it.

Anyway, photographs like the Hubble Deep Field, and artistic creations inspired by it, are places where I can feel my sense of wonder and magic inspired and preserved in me, whilst at the same time remaining an adult. I shall always love Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince; but I prefer to imagine that the boy grew up to become a man, and that his rose grew up to be a woman, and they’re both still out there, exploring the galaxy, but maybe with a telescope now. Or an Alcubierre drive.

Posted in General | Comments Off on The Little Prince, and Outer Space

What do you regret?

“No regrets!” A motto of sorts that I remember from my teens and 20s. In one sense it was the YOLO of its time; an invitation to live a life of wildness and hedonism. In another sense it might have been a call to avoid doing things that you would regret later. In a third sense, it suggests one should have a future-looking view of life, a decoupling of one’s present from unhappy influences of past events: nostalgia, or guilt, or sorrow.

Lately I have wondered if all of those senses of the phrase are wrong. and that it may be good to have a few regrets. I don’t mean the decisions one makes in the absence of information which, had one known, one might have chosen differently. I mean, instead, the things one does which, intended or not, caused some pain to others, and the knowledge of being responsible for that pain.

A personal confession, before I explain an argument for the above proposition. My spiritual life involves posing to myself various Socratic questions designed to induce better self-awareness. Questions like the one in the title of this blog; questions to which “Nothing” is not an acceptable answer. I have discovered about myself in the last month or so, that I live with rather a lot of regret. For roads not taken, for changes turned down. For people and communities who were once kind and loving to me, and who I also loved, but nonetheless from whom I took more than I gave, or who I pushed away, or who I harmed. Some have been friends. Some have been former girlfriends and lovers. Some have been colleagues and neighbours. Some of these regrets go all the way back to my high school days. They are among the reasons I have lived most of my adult life as a bachelor — if I am alone, I do not harm anyone, and no one accuses me of doing anything wrong.

I think it may sometimes be good to have regrets. It can be a sign of having lived a complete life – complete, in the sense of including the lows that come with the highs, including the pain, including the scars, including the euphemistic ‘lessons learned’ — which really means knowledge of the consequences of bad choices, and, one would hope, the wisdom to make no such similar mistake again.

In reply, you might say, ‘Well, nobody’s perfect’. And on face value, that’s obviously true. But what is the perfection to which we are comparing ourselves? What teacher, what prophet, has preached it? What holy book describes it? And whatever it might be, does the motto itself tacitly suppose that it does not exist? What, then, is the point of comparing ourselves to perfections that do not exist? Is it only to further punish ourselves? Is it to accept ourselves as flawed and sinful? Or do we need an entirely new language by which to talk about human nature and the human condition? One in which the spectre of ‘perfection’ does not arise?

I think I can answer the latter question with Yes. A well lived life, a life of full human eudaemonia, cannot be a life of lotus-eating ignorance. It has to include some real engagement in the world, including the kind that can result in people being hurt. Because in the course of living that life, people can, and do, make bad choices. But the word for a person who causes deliberate and avoidable harm to others and who thinks it fully justified, is evil. I wonder if regret is the psychological tether-line which, while forcing us to acknowledge the things we’ve done that were wrong, also holds us back from doing worse – or becoming worse.

The next time you meet someone new and you want to get to know them, here’s a probing question to ask: “What do you regret?”

It’s like a way of asking, “In what way are you a better person now, because of what you regret?”

Posted in General | Comments Off on What do you regret?

Some propositions on ecology and philosophy

For the past several years I have (very slowly) worked on a manuscript on ecology, its major scientific principles and discoveries, and their implications for philosophy, politics, economics, religion, and culture. It’s been such slow going that I wrote, and completed two entire novels at the same time. Part of the reason it’s been slow going is because: every time I come up with what I think is a really good idea, I do me due diligence research and discover someone else thought it up already. (Which, sub specie aeternitatis, is a good thing: it means the idea is already out there, inspiring people hopefully for the better.) Also, the state of the science is moving very quickly: I started the work before the discovery of mother trees and mycorrizal networks in forests, and before the discovery of a giant and ancient ecosystem dwelling five kilometers below the surface of the earth and as large as the oceans. So I end up starting all over again.

Panorama from a lookout on King Mountain trail, Gatineau Park, August 2018.

Here are a few of the notes I’ve made in the last few weeks. I post them here in the hope that some of you might see something in them that I haven’t seen, and that you might point me in new directions.

Ecology against fascism.

  1. Ecology is the science of living relationships.
  2. As a science of living relationships, its principles and aims are fundamentally contrary to the principles and aims of fascism — as fascism is the assertion, in the political arena, of fictitious essences (ie. of human nature, of human races, of genders, of cultural purity, of national destiny, etc), and the assertion of the necessity of separation, subordination, and conquest of the bearers of one essence by the bearers of another.

Ecology and the Design Argument.

  1. A conclusive finding made by the science of ecology: there is no such thing as (long term consistent) stability, balance, or harmony in the world of nature. Everything in nature is in transition.
  2. Given the truth of (1), it follows that the Design argument for the existence of God, insofar as it depends on the findings of the science of ecology, is unsound.
  3. From (2) it could follow that there is no God.
  4. Or, it could follow that most of us have profoundly wrong ideas about the divine. For example, God might not be the omniscient, omnipotent, monotheistic God presupposed (sought? affirmed?) in the Design argument. God might be many (polytheism), or immanent (panentheism), or a changing thing (process theology), or something else. What, if anything, does ecology teach about the divine?

Six propositions from a purely utilitarian and anthropocentric view.

The field of environmental philosophy provides some obvious answers to one of the root questions of philosophy: ‘what is good?’. To make things simple, let’s set aside, for the moment, any discussion about how landscapes may have intrinsic value, or how animals and plants might have rights, or how an expanded concept of the self could include our surrounding landscapes and ecologies. Let’s look at only the answers that come from a purely utilitarian, purely anthropocentric view, of environmental ethics.

With that in mind, it should be clear that things like:

1. clean air to breathe,

and

2. clean water for drinking, cleaning, and cooking,

are objectively good. I’m following philosopher John McMurtry’s conception of ‘objective good’ here, in which something is good insofar as deprivation of that thing leads to loss of life-capacities for thinking, feeling, and acting, up to and including loss of life itself. There might be more things to go on that list, but I’m keeping it simple for now.

Given the objective goodness of air and water, we can draw the conclusion that:

3. An ecology and biome surrounding one’s community, of sufficient stability and biodiversity to provide a reliable supply of clean air and water,

and

4. A system of economics and politics which regulates the community’s extractions from and impacts upon those ecologies and biomes, to keep them within local and global carrying capacities,

are, at the very least, instrumentally good. They are necessary for our continued possession of the objective goods of air and water, without which we are all dead.

But most people don’t draw that conclusion. Or, it might be more accurate to say that our politics and economics, and indeed our culture, on the whole, behaves as if:

5. Those goods described in 3 and 4 are merely nice things to have, and that no serious consequences follow from harming them.

The evidence for 5 can be seen in, for example, the way that international climate protection agreements, such as the Paris Agreement (2016), are unenforceable: there are no legally prescribed penalties for parties who violate its aims. And in the time since international agreements like it have been drafted and signed to much media fanfare, the global climate instability-disaster has continued, leading to the destabilization and destruction of human-life-supporting ecosystems and landscapes all over the earth.

Now, as far as I’m concerned, the logic in all that discussion is impeccable. There could be more to say to strengthen it, but I think the point is clear enough. It leads me to the following questions: Why does that happen? Why does culture, economics, and politics, on the whole, behave as if 5 is a truth so obvious it does not require serious examination?

It might be that people believe:

6. There will always be enough air and water. Ecologies and biomes are always robust and complex enough to survive whatever extractions and impacts we impose on them.

And that therefore, principle 4 is not necessary.

But as anyone who has studied ecology will know, principle 6 is false. We can run out of clean air and clean water. And we can, in fact, die, if we do not acknowledge that fact.

But what should we do about the widespread non-acknowledgement of that fact? That’s the question that has been nagging me for pretty much all my adult life.

Green Selves, Green Social Contracts

As a matter of practical and observable reality: the ‘greening of the self’, promoted and promised by the environmentalist movement, has not in fact occurred. For the reason that: despite widespread and popular environmental initiatives such as civic recycling programs, renewable energy developments, environmental education in schools, etc., the climate of the earth is more unstable now than it was 30 years ago, and the climate is shifting toward instability with increasing momentum, to the point that large regions of Earth will very likely be uninhabitable for human and animal life by the year 2100.

That proposition gives me no pleasure. I can clearly see how the idea of the green self inspires artistic creativity, ethical changes in economic and interpersonal behavior, ethical virtues like cooperation, compassion, empathy, frugality, temperance (sophrosyne), global vision, and political action, in those who have accepted it. It is a beautiful idea. Were I to reject this idea, I might hamper the environmental movement, and I might unnecessarily distress people who are committed to it. A revision or replacement of the green self has to be just as beautiful.

Instead of a green self: a green social contract? Along the lines proposed by Naomi Klein’s Leap Manifesto, or by Polly Higgins’ Mission Life Force, or Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal. I wish I had thought of ideas like these. Sometimes I feel like I’m being left behind.

And another thing!

What does ‘stability’ mean? In the second argument above, I said it doesn’t exist in nature, yet in the fourth argument I framed it as an instrumental good, and in the fifth argument I implied that its opposite, instability, is bad. This might be inconsistent. Lots to think about here.


Posted in General | Comments Off on Some propositions on ecology and philosophy

Last call at the bar

I have made an unhappy but necessary decision. The bar in my basement has to go.

Having it there has been fun. It gives the house a sense of history and character. Other features of the basement contribute to that character: for instance, you can see in the photo here the built-in blender station on the surface of the bar, and the two knobs on the wall (left side of picture) that control volume for a stereo system build into the ceiling. There’s also two rows of coat racks down the hall to the right of the photo. Then there’s the strategic position of ceiling lights, the TV cables in every room of the upper floor, the separate doorbell on the back door which rings in the basement, the urinal in the bathroom (I had never seen a urinal in a private home before), the box of sex toys that I found in a cubbyhole. That’s it there in the photo: the hand made wooden box on the bar. Several of my friends, on seeing these things, instantly believed that the house must have been a speakeasy or an illegal bar, possibly a swinger’s club, possibly a studio for producing pornographic films. I have no interest in reviving any of those uses for the space, but it has amused me to know that I am the owner of a space that might once have had such a use. And I really like that it looks a bit like the bar at the Prancing Pony, in Bree.

But I have to pull it all out. For one thing, there’s a beer fridge built into the bar which is now sixty years old, and the bar was built around it such that I cannot remove it without also removing the bar. That fridge is going to rot if I don’t get rid of it. And there’s all kinds of garbage behind it that I can’t reach to clean.

In fact the whole of my basement needs renovation work. Walls need to be insulated, plumbing moved, lighting installed, and so on. The fact is, I have a bar in my basement that I’ve never used for drinking. The other half of the basement, behind the point of view of these photos, there’s no drywall covering the insulation, the ceiling is exposed, the windows are stuffed with insulation to keep drafts down, there’s baking powder stains on the floor in the corner where my rabbits used to poop. So it’s not really very welcoming. I’ve been putting off the renovation works for three years, spending my extra money on trips to central Europe instead. This summer, it’s time to fix the house.

Okay, I know this isn’t all that interesting to most people. Still, I thought you might enjoy seeing the bar before it’s gone. I once had this idea that my house could be a centre of sorts, where my friends to attend philosophical discussion nights, big dinner parties, and so on. For lots of complicated reasons, not the least of which being that I don’t have many local friends, that didn’t happen. But maybe it could happen, when the renovations work is done.

Posted in General | Comments Off on Last call at the bar