Monday, May 04, 2015

green vs. ecological economics

So the current economic model is growth-based, hence unsustainable, and consequently in need of revision. But why push the revisions to the opposite extreme? Why not stop at a halfway point such as the green economy? Why go to all the way to an ecological economics model? Wouldn't that throw out the baby with the bathwater? Can we not compromise? R. Costanza, in the 2013 State of the World Report, p. 127, explains the different roles of government: in the current economic system,
government intervention [is] to be minimized and replaced with private and market institutions; 
in a green economy, there is
recognition of the need for government intervention to internalize natural capital; 
and in ecological economics,
government plays a central role, including new functions as referee, facilitator, and broker in a new suite of common-asset institutions.
So a green economy is still capitalism, but with less freedom and more regulation than before, whereas an ecological economy, by the Costanza et al. definition, is a post-capitalistic model. It's a type of planned economy, a centralized system with a tightly regulated market and a state whose priorities are those of sustainable democratic socialism. In Naomi Klein's words (the title of chapter 4 of her 2014 This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate): "planning and banning--slapping the invisible hand."

That sounds like old-style communism, but there's a simple difference. The planned economies of real existing socialism in the past century were growth-based economies, just like their capitalistic counterparts. In both capitalism and communism, growth was a structural feature; in capitalism, it's a byproduct of market dynamics, and in communism, it was built into the five-year plans geared towards productivity enhancements. By contrast, the ecological economics model is something new: it's a steady-state economy, geared to maintain stability without the need for growth.

By the same token, this distinguishes ecological economics from the 21st century version of communist economics, China's current economic system, which Americans call 'state capitalism,' but which is technically speaking Leninist economics. Deng Xiao-Ping, China's leader and the creator of this economic system after Mao's death, was schooled in Moscow during Lenin's New Economic Policy era. The New Economic Policy (NEP) from 1918 to 1924 was a blend of government dictates and market opportunities. This was quite unlike the later Stalinist collectivization that became the standard of a planned economy in the USSR and in the PRChina under Mao. However, the Leninist design of China's present-day state capitalism remains a growth-based economy. Ecological economics is in a different category.

Here's a visual primer on ecological economics vis-a-vis the green economy and the current capitalistic economy, from Constanza's Report to the United Nations for the 2012 Rio+20 Conference on Building a Sustainable and Desirable Economy-in-Society-in-Nature.

This is the theoretical background for Naomi Klein's work, to which I'll turn in the next post.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Jeffrey Sachs on growth

Sachs' remarks on growth are a mix of good and bad in need of differentiation, hence this postscript. Let's start with the climate quote at the end of the last post. Good is Sachs' recognition that "markets alone ... will not carry us to safety." But bad about Economics for a Crowded Planet is that there is no serious engagement with economic growth as a problem. Sachs is an old-school developmentalist--development is good, growth is better, and even a mature technology-based economy should not spell the end of growth. Indeed, long-term economic growth, nudged along by government intervention in markets, remains the ultimate invariant goal for him (cf. 211-212).

This conclusion is contradicted by research from the likes of Assadourian, Alperovitz, Costanza, Daly, and other ecological economists. According to the critics, systemic change is unavoidable, while Sachs, and the establishment that celebrates his work, contend that political and technological change alone will suffice. Both sides agree that change is needed. But the critics insist there must be a paradigm shift, while Sachs hopes we can get by with tweaking the system a bit. I fear the planetary boundaries will dash this hope. So the reason why Sachs ranks last on the list is that he fails to recognize the need to get out of the economic-growth paradigm.

At the same time--hence the need for differentiation--he does clearly recognize the need to get out of the demographic growth paradigm. "Completing the Demographic Transition," chapter 8 of Crowded Planet, makes a frank case that population growth is for losers, that zero growth is the way to go, and that the worries over the costs of an aging population, with fewer workers and more retirees, are overblown (cf. 201). The presumed costs are exaggerated:
First, with slower population growth or even outright decline, society will not ned to invest in major infrastructure (roads, power, and the like) merely to keep up with poplation growth. This marks an enormous social saving. Second, it is likely that retirement ages will rise, probably with more flexible work times. We are, mercifully, not only living longer but living better, with more healthy life years. (201-202)
His critique of demographic growth is also ballsy: the section "The Bush Administration's War on Family Planning" (197ff.) doesn't mince words, and neither does the opening of the chapter. About the cuts in direct U.S. funding of family planning services in developmental aid, Sachs writes,
It's hard to think of a single more misguided policy; it runs directly against American interests in the reduction of conflict and terror, as well as against the support of economic development and environmental sustainability more generally." (181). 
Here's why:
The evidence ... is that a youth bulge significantly raises the likelihood of civil conflict, presumably by raising the ratio of those who would engage in violence relative to those who would mediate disputes. Most directly, unemployed young men become prime fodder for militias, raiding parties, terrorist groups, and armies. ... Three kinds of demographic stressors are related tothe likelihood of civil conflict: the youth bulge, the shortage of arable land per capita, and the rapid growth of urban areas. All, of course, are lreated to the persistence of high total fertility rates. (198-199)
Here and the preceding chapter, Sachs points to a phenomenon that has become a pattern: whereas the United States "played a major role in Bucharest [the first major intergovernmental conference on population in 1974], urging the widespread adoption of bold population programs" (179), American leadership collapsed with the rise of the religious right, whose disproportionate political might stymied any further American initiatives.

Obviously, the religious right would take offense at the peer-reviewed evidence Sachs presents and the logical conclusion he draws. Therein lies the problem: the shift to the right after 1980 yielded in the American Disenlightenment. Enlightenment, in its modern, western sense, refers to the respect for facts, the authority of the sciences, and the value of universal human rights. Disenlightenment, in the wake of the Reagan Revolution, meant a turn away from fact-based policies, contempt for scientific counsel, and embrace of values of the religious right.

On such values, in the context of female empowerment and the education of girls, Sachs makes a remark so terse it would make Nietzsche proud:
The cultural assumptions ... have developed under a set of demographic conditions ... that are no longer applicable. (187)
Ouch. That's the other reason, next to his gifted information-compression, why such an otherwise conventional thinker like Sachs still makes the list. A transformation of values is in the making because the material conditions that shaped the conservative value-set don't apply anymore. Rightwing values, from the political ('the manifest destiny-doctrine') to the social (the 'virtue of selfishness'-doctrine) to the religious (the monotheistic doctrines), all arose in a cultural context of a lack of material boundaries. But today, we're at the limit, and the challenge is to turn this into an opportunity for cultural evolution.

Monday, April 20, 2015

rank 5: Jeffrey Sachs

The top five intepreters with authoritative command or Deutungshoheit are all prolific authors, with many, many publications under their belts. For the sake of brevity I'll limit myself to one book per author. The environmental economist Jeffrey Sachs, number five, is the most conventional of the interpreters on the list. He has an Ivy League pedigree. He has been extraordinarily successful in the academic establishment. He is held in high esteem not only by progressives and environmentalists, but also among the middle-of-the-road folks. Sachs teaches at Columbia, where he holds the chair for Sustainable Development and serves as the director of the Earth Institute.

One reason he makes the list is because of his exemplary 'compression' of  information. If one had time to read only one of his books, then Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet (London: Penguin 2009) should be it, in my opinion. Its fourteen chapters are 'Common challenges, common wealth,' 'Our crowded planet,' 'The anthropocene,' 'Global solutions to climate change,' 'Securing our water needs,' 'A home for all species,' 'Global population dynamics,' 'Completing the demographic transition,' 'The strategy of economic development,' 'Ending poverty traps,' 'Economic security in a changing world,' 'Rethinking foreign policy,' 'Achieving global goals,' and 'The power of one'. The goals Sachs refers to are the Millennium Goals of the United Nations.

Already the first chapter (p. 3-15) is a brilliant exercise in a total-field image. It powerfully compresses information. Normally, squeezing the facts down to their quintessential meaning risks resulting in trivialities and commonplaces, but the times we're living in are so interesting that Sachs can pull it all together and remain compellingly eloquent. For example, the opening sentence reads:
  • The twenty-first century will overturn many of our basic assumptions about economic life. (p.3)
In the remainder, the following 'fact-squeezes' elaborate the opening statement:
  • The defining challenge of the twenty-first century will be to face the reality that humanity shares a common fate on a crowded planet. (p.3)
  • Our global society will flourish or perish according to our ability to find common ground across the world on a set of shared objectives and on the practical means to achieve them. (4)
  • The forging of nationwide commitments was [by 2015, this should probably be replaced by 'is'] hardest in societies like the United States, which are divided by race, religion, ethnicity, class, and the native born versus the immigrants. (5)
  • The world can certainly save itself, but only if we recognize accurately the dangers that humanity confronts together. (5)
  • Human pressures on the Earth's ecosystems and climate, unless mitigated substantially, will cause dangerous climate change, massive species extinctions, and the destruction of vital life-support functions. (6)
Later in the chapter, he pits the historic Peace Address (June 1963) by President Kennedy against "the Bush administration's unilateralism" (p. 11). In the middle of his speech, JFK remarks:
So, let us not be blind to our differences--but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal.
Contrast this with Sachs' characterization of the Bush administration (loc. cit.):
The Bush's administration's unilateralism ... has deep roots in one facet of American foreign policy [i.e., "the reckless unilateralism of the CIA-sponsored invasion of Cuba," p. 10], but its crudeness and violence are unprecedented. Like the earlier excesses during the Cold War, the Bush administration's excesses are rooted in a perverse belief system in which American goodness can and must be defended against foreign evil by violent, covert, and dishonest means. Both the Cold War' and today's war against Islamic fundamentalism are born of a messianism that sees the world in black and white, and lacks the basic insight that all parts of the world, including the Islamic world, inhabit the same planet and breathe the same air. Indeed, as deeply ecologically stressed parts of the world, the Islamic drylands of the Sahel of Africa (just south of the Sahara), the Middle East, and Central Asia have a greater stake in international cooperation on the environmental challenges and extreme poverty than just about any other part of the world. Yet the United States has completely failed to recognize our common links with these regions, and instead has carried on an utterly destructive war on peoples and societies that we barely understand.
This is spot on. In 2006, my university dismantled the environmental studies department for ideological reasons and encouraged the green junior faculty to find employment elsewhere. As an academic, I went through this period and remember how close to fascism it veered. Most of my colleagues were not gutsy. Although the Bush-Cheney nightmare has passed, and although Obama ended the two wars the Republicans wilfully started, the failure of recognition of common links with the Islamic region--Sachs claim--still rings true. America remained too divided to conduct a war crimes trial and bring the warmongers and torturers to justice. The creation of the Africa command under Obama's watch, the drone war, and the expansion of semi-covert US military activities in the Sahel and environs have only intensified the fundamentalism there. In the chapter on foreign policy, Sachs writes (p. 271):
The United States is on the wrong track in foreign policy and is thereby endangering itself and the world. ... Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has failed to play a leadership role in global poverty, environmental and climate policy, energy policy, and global population change.
Regulatory capture by oil corporations prevents US leadership in climate and energy policy. Market dogmatism breeds social stratification and prevents leadership in global poverty eradication. Evangelical Christianity, with its doctrine of sexuality serving procreation in the sacrament of a heterosexual two-people marriage, prevents leadership in global population change.

And then there's climate change. Here's the opening passage of chapter 4 "Global Solutions to Climate Change," p. 83, written in 2008. Consider how much truth-value it has gained since then:
In recent years the Earth's climate has been buffeted by extremes. ... A consensu exist among scientists that these changes are human-induced, or anthropogenic. Anthropogenic climate change is the greatest of all environmental risks, since large-scale cliamte change would disrupt every ecosystem and impose catastrophic hardships on many parts of the world. The risks are growing markedly as we delay launching strong measures in response. The reason for hope is that powerful technologies will likely be available to enable us to mitigate the climate shocks at a very modest cost, much lower than the costs of inaction. But these technological opportunities will be small consolation if we keep closing our eyes to the dangers. Markets alone, on a business-as-usual path, will not carry us to safety.
The 'powerful technologies' are now implemented in the German Energiewende, so the future's here. In chapter 2, there's another perfect one-sentence 'compression' of the climate challenge:
Climate change will render large parts of the world unfit for agriculture unless we are able to mitigate the man-made climate trends as well as adapt successfully to them. (p. 29)
(Contined in next post)

Monday, April 13, 2015


What do you do in a postmodern age when a zillion opinions weaves a tapestry of voices threatening to drown out what's important? Well, you reassert the truth! Truth is the voice with the strongest evidence, the plainest facts, and the clearest logic. It is this perspective that rules over the others.

A German neologism comes to mind: it's Deutungshoheit; that's 'interpretation' (Deutung) plus 'highness' (Hoheit), as in 'your royal highness,' 'majesty,' or, figuratively speaking 'authority'. Deutungshoheit is the one perspective that rises above the tapestry, like the one ring to bind them all. It may not necessarily settle all the issues but essentially frames the debate.

The survey of big-picture perspectives that started with a systems-approach to sustainability and continued with the State of the World reports should be completed with the most authoritative readers of the crisis, with those interpreters who have Deutungshoheit. They're not necessarily climatologists, since holistic interpretation of information in the data fog depends on the art of synthesis more than on the rigors of analysis, and synthesis is an expertise all of its own. In the English-speaking world, Lester R. Brown would probably make the top of almost any such lists, or range very high on them, and he certainly tops mine. He's called an 'environmental analyst,' but this reflects a shortcoming of the English language--everybody understands what an analyst is, but the more appropriate word 'synthesist' remains obscure in this culture of cognition. Blame the Scottish Enlightenment. Anyway, Lester Brown is number one.

Next up are the eminent biologist and myrmecologist (ant-specialist) Edward O. Wilson. Places three and four of the Deutungshoheit list go to two social critics: Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein. On place five is the superb environmental economist Jeffrey B. Sachs. There's no place six, but honorable mention goes to the critic of surburbia, Jim Kunstler.

Each of the top five, from Brown to Sachs, consistently articulates commanding and well-informed viewpoints of the crisis. Also, each of them represents a primarily empirical viewpoint that's accordingly outside philosophy. But I think that the empirical cannot be marginal to the project of climate philosophy. Climate philosophy aspires to wisdom grounded in biospherical reality, which requires a de facto reliance on substantive interpretations of empirical information. So these viewpoints, albeit empirical, belong to the climate-philosophical groundwork. Each of them is laced with a good does of criticism. The critiques are quite different in each approach, but they're all driven by the same moral commitment, which is also part of the foundation of climate philosophy: the value of life; that is, the value of collective existential flourishing. Confronted with the way things are, it is other things that trump flourishing, and these other things boil down to capitalistic profiteering, market forces unleashed, and the drive for ever more expansion, development, and growth--all in the name of 'economic rationality'.

It doesn't take a philosopher to adopt an ethos of humanism and biophilia, to apply its values to the socio-economic matrix, and to articulate its biospherical implications. This ethos is the point of contact of interpreters with Deutungshoheit and climate philosophy. The synthesizers and climate philosophy accordingly relate in two ways, by a shared set of values, and by the former grounding the latter. A philosophical orientation in the crisis must proceed from the wisdom of the classics as much as from a grounding in facts. This empirical groundwork finds completion with synthesizers of information and critics of the status quo. In the next post I'll say more about my top five list of Deutungshoheit-interpretations. For now I close with the honorable mention: James H. Kunstler.

Jim Kunstler is, in many ways, an artist. He majored in theatre before turning to architecture and design and eventually becoming a writer. His 1994 The Geography of Nowhere is a superb indictment of American suburbia. Suburbia represents a flawed design, and the flaws are infrastructural inefficiency and anthropological soullessness. The former matters to the energy wastefulness of the suburban lifestyle, which, as Kunstler rightly recognizes, constitutes a structural vulnerability in the coming austerity. The latter is the result of the solipsism, autism, lonelines, and narcissism that define the radically individualistic and paradoxically uniform lifestyle of American suburbia. Kunstler pits suburban soullessness against what the Wikipedia entry on him calls his "small town ethos". Both flaws matter as indications of a vastly larger maladaptation whose biospherical symptom is the climate crisis. Unsettling about this maladaptation is that it is worst in the very society that stood for progress in the past century. What does this imply for a transformation to a sustainable future? And where will this leave the United States?

This cultural maladaptation moves front and center in Kunstler's fabulous 2005 The Long Emergency. Its subtitle nearly says it all: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Convergent Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century (New York: Grove, 2006). Here's a quote (p. 187):
Under the banner of free-market globalism, the chief side effect of oligarchical corporatism making its money piles bigger was the systematic destruction of local economies and therefore local communities. Thus, the richest nation in the world in the early twenty-first century had becoming an amazing panorama of ruined towns and cities with broken institutions and demoralized populations--surrounded by Wal-Marts and Target stores.
Kunstler's perspective meshes with the 2014 State of the World theme of failing governance due to regulatory capture by corporate interests. Kristin Shrader-Frechette, in What Will Work: Fighting Climate Change with Renewable Energy, Not Nuclear Power (2011), raises an important question about the context of energy (and manages to use the word 'leadership' three times in the same breath, p. 246):
Why has the US allowed other nations--such as China, Denmark, and Germany--to make massive profits from their global leadership in renewable energy, while the US continues to lose this leadership by subsidizing outmoded technologies, like fission and petroleum, that provide no future economic leadership and no sustainable power?
Kunstler considers such questions rhetorical and doesn't mince any words in his conclusions. Here's a sample:
America's moment of being kicked to the curb by other nations is at hand.
This is fun but may be too rash an inference. The problem with Kunstler's intellectual angle can be summed up in one word: pessimism. Calling this a problem, on a blog called 'blistered orb,' whose former subtitle was 'notes on the coming Darwin award," may sound ludicrous, but let me explain. Of course there's ample reason to feel gloomy about the climate crisis. That's why it's called a crisis! But emphasizing the gravity of the situation we're in is not quite the same as being a pessimist. In Kunstler's case, this pessimism is of a political, cultural, and ethnic sort. It is of the sort that defines a conservative. Although he's far from being a Republican, Kunstler is like a Republican in his nostalgia for the 'good old times' of mostly white rural America. Against this I wish to pit a progressive attitude. Progressives, in the ideological, leftwing sense, are optimists by default. One doesn't have to go into the details of historical materialism, but the basic idea, in Marx, Engels, and elsewhere, is that it's no great loss that the past has passed, that the present is better anytime, and that the future holds the promise for even further improvements. Hence 'progress'. Kunstler is what they call a doomster instead.

Conservative pessimism doesn't fit into a progressive outlook--the only outlook compatible with environmentalism. There's also a racial and generational pessimism in his perspective. Kunstler shows little understanding of the sensibilities, energies, and creativity in non-white America. He doesn't get Afroamericans, Latinos, Asian-Americans and other minorities. He echoes rightwing sentiments in his repeated complaints about the lack of culture in Afroamericans, without giving any thought about the legal, material, and economic factors for the blight of Afroamerican communities. In this he sounds like a typical American rightwinger: the lack of the 'proper' values is to blame, but the lack of social security and the lack of equality before the law never catch his attention.

He doesn't get young people either (he only complains about their fashion and tattoos, which is simply beside the point). Befitting a cultural conservative, he doesn't get LGBTQ either. These are three limitations in his interpretive synthesis, and they're significant, for they show Kunstler still thinking inside the box. He's a great wordsmith, and The Long Emergency is a visionary piece of work, but in some sense he's the intellectual version of a cranky old white man. Too much pessimism, too little hope. Contra Kunstler, I say there's hope, and it lies with alternatives, the very ones he dismisses--the young, the non-WASP, and the non-breeders. This is why Kunstler fails to make the list. Yet his earlier critique of suburbia, his indictment of the automobile- and carbon-based infrastructure, and his lucid exposition of the links of American oil to misguided policies deserve an honorable mention.

Monday, April 06, 2015

state of the world II

Among the studies that evoke 'total-field' images in the State of the World-collection, two essays stand out in the 2014 volume: (1) the "Foreword" by David Orr and (2) "Failing Governance, Unsustainable Planet" by Michael Renner and Tom Prugh. Both max out at ten on the awesome-meter. Timely is their contention that resolving the eco-crisis requires a critique of the political economy. Naomi Klein points her finger at the free market ideology as the root of unsustainability, and she's right; it really is "Capitalism vs. the Climate," as the subtitle of her 2014 book has it, and indeed, This Changes Everything, as the  title goes. The two 2014 SotW studies supply data in support of this claim. For philosophy, this changes everything too, since the upshot of these data is that climate change is not just a moral problem, and that a climate ethics, while valuable in its own right, inevitably falls short. An appropriate philosophical response must be more comprehensive: it must transcend ethics and engage with epistemology, phenomenology, and progressive and comparative approaches. The crisis is a a structural problem of the economic foundation of global culture, demanding a structural solution. Cognitively, such a solution will only come into view when we look at the events more holistically and synthetically. In philosophy, the crisis changes everything in that wisdom transforms from an ancient aspiration and lofty ideal into mundane survival gear. And the free market ideology is just not wise.

The 2013 volume contains two texts that are equally exemplary in their synthesis of information. The one is a theoretical argument for ecological economics and a disavowal of both the current economic model and the shallow, too-timid 'green economy: (3) "Building a Sustainable and Desirable Economy-in-Society-in-Nature" by Robert Costanza, Gar Aplerovitz, Herman Daly, Juliet Schor and many other leading environmental economists. The other is a bold and lucid essay that concludes the volume, entitled with a deliberately misleading question: (4) "Is It Too Late?" by the fabulous Sci-Fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson. Just consider this quote (print edition p. 377):
We never hear the current global system described as scientific capitalism. Maybe this is because the phrase sounds a bit oxymoronic, these two power centers being vaguely understood to be at cross-purposes. In fact, modern history could be understood as a struggle betweeen these conjoined twins for primary control of humanity's affairs. One view of their fight could portray capitalism as attempting to buy science's efforts and direct them to reinforce capitalist ownership, while science could be seen as attempting to reduce human suffering, repair damage, and dismantle injustice, all by its particular method of discovering and manipulating the world. ... We could say that capitalism is the residual of the feudal system while science is what we named the emergent next system long before we recognized it as the post-capitalism it has been from its very beginning.
In the 2012 volume, (5) "The Path to Degrowth in Overdeveloped Countries," by Eric Assadourian, is another total-field study. It ends with the following outlook (print ed. p. 37):
In the end, whether societal leaders accept it or not, the natural limits of Earth--brought into view by increasing numbers of a population of 7 billion striving to live as consumers--will shatter the myth of continued growth, most likely due to dramatic changes to the planet's systems. Thus degrowth is part of humanity's future. Will people pursue this agenda proactively? Or will Earth and its limits drive the contraction of the global economy?
In the 2011 volume, (6) "The Climate Crisis on our Plates," by Anna Lappe, is a succinct summary of the looming geopolitics of food insecurity. One terse conclusion (print ed. 95) is this:
If we are to continue to feed the planet--and feed it well--in the face of global climate chaos, we should be radically rethinking the industrial food system. We can start with what is on our plates.
Dealing with "the connection between productivity, hours, and ecological footprint," as a section title runs, the study (7) "Sustainable Work Schedules for All," by Juliet Schor, in the 2010 volume, is another heuristic step towards a comprehensive outlook. Challenging the high-gear pursuit of material affluence, the alternative suggested here is downshifting, and a word to remember, in this context, is time affluence. How this matters comes out in the 2009 volume aptly titled "Into a Warming World". For the purposes of a seminar in climate philosophy, the whole volume is useful, not only in terms of its individual studies, but also in terms of the terminology compiled and defined--an indispensable lexical tool for philosophers wishing to work and research in an interdisciplinary context. This tool is "Climate Change Reference Guide and Glossary" by Alice McKeown and Gary Gardner. The study, though, that connects the 2010 and 2009 volumes, is (8) "Shifting Values in Response to Climate Change," by Tim Kasser. A take-home quote (p. 124) from Kasser's essay is itself a quotation, from D. Rosnick's and M. Weisbrot's Are Shorter Work Hours Good for the Environment? A Comparison of U.S. and European Energy Consumption (Washington, DC: Center for Economic Policy and Research, 2006), p. 1:
If, by 2050, the world works as many hours as do Americans it could consume 15-30 percent more energy than it would following Europe. The additional carbon emissions could result in 1 to 2 degrees Celsius in extra global warming.
In this sense, climate change is ultimately a structural-cultural problem in need of a structural-cultural solution. Unless it will be forthcoming, we'd be dealing with what Christopher Flavin and Robert Engelman call, in their keynote essay of the 2009 volume, (9) "The Perfect Storm".

If I could add one more essay, to make it an even ten, from all the SotW volumes to date (excepting the just published 2015 volume), then I'd select (10) "The Acceleration of History," by Lester R. Brown, from the 1996 volume. The title is meant in reply to Francis Fukuyama's misguided Hegelian hope, so fashionable with the neocons at the turn of the millennium, that the so-called "free world" of free markets constitutes "The End of History". Oops, dude didn't factor in market failure of climate change! Brown's essay, by contrast, opens with a remark that, 20 years later, is truer then ever (p. 3):
The pace of change in our world is speeding up, accelerating to the point where it threatens to overwhelm the management capacity of political leaders. 

Monday, March 30, 2015

state of the world I

The State of the World reports are the flagship publications of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C. Founded by Lester R. Brown, and continued by Linda Starke, Eric Assadourian, Tom Prugh, Michael Renner and others, the SotW reports are in my view the best annual overviews of, well, the state of the world. Exemplary about these overviews is their consistent aspiration to synthesis and thus to the  methodological ideal that philosophical reflection on climate change needs to emulate. The SotW summaries proceed on a synthesis of empirical data guided by common sense. Philosophy of climate arises from the synthesis of empirical data, common sense, and the wisdom of the classics. Considering this, the continuously updated empirical summaries of the environmental studies are just as important as the systems approach in sustainability science in providing philosophy of climate a material platform. In the background of the philosophical articulation of this synthesis is Arne Naess's deep-ecological total-field image--the attempt to see the big picture of the energy flows among human beings, living beings, and the commons.

A seminar in climate philosophy would accordingly benefit from the State of the World summaries, and here I would like to suggest a selection. The SotW reports appear once every year, and each contains maybe 20 individual studies (21 in 2014, 34 in 2013, 17 in 2012, 15 in 2011, 26 in 2010, etc.). From the 1990s to the present--the 2015 volume has just come out (April)--there is quite a number of papers that suggest themselves. Making a narrow selection is not easy, especially since the articles are consistently of a high research quality. The criterion I use is, once again, synthesis. What follows in part II of this post is a list of the 'total-field image' articles, the 'big-picture'-studies that rigorously reflect the series title: the successive states of the world through the years.

Beginning with 2004, the SotW reports were topically arranged with a special focus each year. The focus for 2004 was the consumer society. For 2005, it was 'redefining global security'. In 2006, the focus was China & India. This was followed by 'our urban future' in 2007, 'innovations for a sustainable economy' in 2008, 'into a warming world' in 2009, 'transforming cultures from consumerism to sustainability' in 2010, 'innovations that nourish the planet' in 2011, and 'moving toward sustainable prosperity' in 2012. In 2013, the focus was a question: 'is sustainability still possible?' In 2014, the background for this question became evident; the volume's title is the neutral 'governing for sustainability,' but as soon as one opens the book, the tone darkens. The dedication to Lester Brown begins with a quote from his 2008 Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to save civilization:
We are in a race between tipping points in nature and our political systems.
The introduction, by project directors Michael Renner and Tom Prugh, is titled "failing governance, unsustainable planet," which kind of sums it up. Governance is failing through the regulatory capture by corporate interests, which has made the consistent implementation of sustainable policies to date largely impossible, especially in Anglophone countries such as the United States. The 2014 volume introduction, by David W. Orr, begins with the apt reminder that climate change is indeed the greatest market failure the world has ever seen--a market failure that persists by regulatory capture deepening into failing governance in liberal democracies enthralled by the dogma of market worship. To Brown's simile of a race, Orr adds that of a ship in a storm:
We are like a ship sailing into a storm and needing to trim sails, batten hatches, and jettison excess cargo. But how will we decide to do comparable things in the conduct of public business? (p. xxii) ... the twenty-first century and beyond is all-hands-on-deck time for humankind (p. xxiv). 
The solution to failing governance is not so much new agencies, but the cleansing of existing agencies from the corruption and ignorance that are particularly visible on the political right:
And this will require a rigorously enforced separation between money and the conduct of the public business. The struggle to separate money from policy making and law will, in time, come to be seen rather like historic battles against feudalism, monarchy, and slavery. (p. xxiii) 
All the evidence points to Orr being right. This will be the new liberation movement. But while past liberation movements largely served the goal of justice, this one will serve the goal of existence.

(to be continued in part II)

Monday, March 23, 2015

sustainability science

Delimiting limits, in the literal sense of locating them and respecting their locations, makes sense only in a systems approach. An example is the assimilative capacity of environmental services such as the carbon cycle. For a philosophical orientation in the historic boundary violation of the Earth System that is climate change, a survey of sustainability science is indispensable. Doing such a survey is also awesome, for it discloses a new dimension of how nature works. Unfortunately for civilization, comprehending this dimensional disclosure is going to be the IQ test of this century. While systems-information at present may still sound technical and abstract, it really needs to be processed to the point that it eventually becomes intuitive, otherwise civilization will not make it.

An excellent overview is the eponymous book Sustainability Science authored by Bert de Vries, who taught as Professor of Geosciences and Chair of Global Change and Energy at the University of Utrecht until 2013 (now emeritus).  Before joining Utrecht, he worked as a senior scientist at the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL). This agency is a superb outfit; it provides data sets for determining the comparative carbon footprints of sovereign nations (in annual, per capita, and cumulative terms). For my studies of the American Disenlightenment and Climate Change made in USA, the Netherlands government data have been really helpful.

Sustainability Science was published by Cambridge in 2013. For teaching a seminar in climate philosophy, this hefty tome of more than half a thousand pages would be overkill. But a selection of a few sections to get a class up to speed would be quite useful. The book strikes an exemplary transdisciplinary balance. Its bulk consists of straightforward descriptions and summaries of known information. Not everything is qualitative; there is the occasional integral-differential description of the changes sustainabilty science is concerned with, but the calculus is basic and mentioned in passing. The empirical information is often put in a philosophical context, and chapters tend to end on a poetic note, as with remarks or verses by Laozi 老子, Hölderlin, or Brecht. The whole thing is cutting edge. In the present situation, such rigorous and yet holistic, empirical and yet free-spirited work on sustainability can probably only be produced by European scientists.

For a climate philosophy seminar, I'd use material from seven chapters (out of fourteen):

Chapter 2 The System Dynamics Perspective explains stocks and flows, feedback loops, and the rules of systems dynamics modeling.

Chapter 4 The Great Acceleration is about the changes in the past three centuries, with regard to population, economic activity, and social culture. It's also about the source- and sink-sides of the accelerating impacts on the natural environment. Phenomenologically intriguing is the earth systems analysis classification into regimes, syndroms, and archetypes.

Chapter 5 Sustainability contains the definitions, concerns, and indicators of sustainability. It ends with a draft of a sustainable development indicator system that is quality-of-life oriented.

Chapter 9 Land and Nature has material on ecosystems dynamics, population ecology, stability and resilience of food webs, and catastrophic ecological change.

Chapter 10 Human Population and Behavior presents details on the driving forces of population dynamics and presents a critique of the homo economicus.

Chapter 13, Non-Renewable Resources: the Industrial Economy covers availability, exploration, and extraction; eleentary resource econoimcs,and the sink side of resource chains.

Finally, chapter 14 Towards a Sustainable Economy, while not the final chapter of the book (which is about future outlooks), comes down to the structural brass-tacks of the crisis: the causes and factors of economic growth, the source and sink constraints on the economy, and the conflict between economic growth and sustainable development.

If philosophers wish to contribute to the resolution of the crisis in ways that go beyond the moral exhortations and legal advice of climate ethicists, and also beyond the methodological reviews of philosophers of science interested in climatology, then engaging with this material collected in Sustainability Science is a must. All in all, this is a wonderfully informative and clearly written text, whose chapters give the reader a great way to get started in the systems approach to the natural environment and its limits.

Together with selections from annual State of the World collections compiled by the Washington, DC, World Watch Institute, I'd use pages from this book by Bert de Vries, as the empirical platform for teaching climate philosophy.

Monday, March 16, 2015

limits and systems theory

Recently the graduate students in the Philosophy Department organized a conference on the topic "delimiting limits".

The papers of this two day event were on gender, identity, and mind, and on topics in the history of philosophy, primarily Greek, French, and German. Materially, such topics concern culture, and formally, they are inward-oriented or centered on the self. They are either centered on philosophy itself, as philosophical reflections on past philosophers; or on the self itself and epistemic derivatives, such as truth; or on self-centered topics of culture, such as on violence and identity. The papers and discussions I attended were interesting and worthwile.

While the stated topic on limits was their delimitation; that is, how to demarcate or define limits, the conference was, in effect, less on demarcation and more about deconstruction. It makes sense to challenge limits in matters of culture or in the formal relation to the self. But the same cannot be said about limits when they are not inward-directed, but outward-directed instead; when the topics are are not centered on one's self, but rather oriented on what surrounds all human selves.

The Chinese word for 'environment,' huanjing 環境, is a composite of 'loop' or 'ring' 環 and 'border' or 'boundary' . The first loop constituting a boundary to the self is the body, of course. The second loop, which bounds all human selves (civilization or world culture), is material nature. The boundaries between the loops are permeable. Mental and physical conditions affect one another. Likewise, civilization and nature are linked by matter- and energy-flows. Inputs from nature to civilization are resources; outputs are artifacts, waste, and emissions.

Interesting about these outward-oriented or non-self-centered topics is that their kinds of limits are in an altogether different category. They are limits with a capital "L". The limits are of a material type; they are biological, chemical, or physical. They are not as flexible. They can be pushed a little bit, but not as far as culture-related limits, and in contrast to boundaries of personal, gender, and cultural identity, their structural lawfulness is not negotiable.

Right and wrong are turned upside down, too. Nietzsche rightly argues that it is an excellent idea to push cultural limits, as those of morality, identification,and convention. Naess is also right to make a similar point with the deep-ecological aspiration towards a Greater Self, quite literally an expansion of identification-limits. But as climatologists and environmental economists have been telling us, it is not an excellent idea to transgress material limits; in fact, doing just that is what has made civilization unsustainable. So the normative relation is the opposite: environmental limits deserve respect, and violate them is evil.

However, all of this makes sense only if the backdrop is a systems approach to the loops and limits of the environment. A good way to start is again with the civilization-nature boundaries. Think of them in structural and dynamic terms. Start with inputs, such as resource consumption. Instead of looking at resource consumption in terms of bulk, consider it as a material flow, specifically as the rate of flow. This works best with biotic resources. Ask yourself: what is the rate of the resource's renewal? What is the rate of the resource's recovery or exploitation? Does the exploitation rate exceed the renewal rate? If so, then the exploitation is unsustainable.

Even more compelling are environmental services. Here relate input and output. Take the carbon cycle and consider its assimilative rate, which is partly determined by carbon sinks such as oceans and forests. Compare this to the global carbon emissions rate per year. The following are rhetorical questions, of course, since we know the answers: does the assimilative capacity keep pace with emissions? Or is it being outpaced by the rate of emissions? If the latter, then with regard to this specific service, civilization is in overshoot.

The wonderfully profound aspect of these structures is that they are fixed. There is very little that's fluid here. For the most part such limits are physically absolute and geographically universal. The biophysical planetary environment houses global civilization just like the body envelops the spirit. And there is very little one can do about pushing the boundaries of the body. Yes, one can make an effort to stay healthy, of course, and take good care of oneself and one another but all such effort are again defined by physical constraints. Bodies are finite, and their biological parameters are fixed.

Delimiting these parameters, in the deconstructive-transgressive sense the word was used in the conference, is usually not a good idea. For the safe of collective flourishing, it's better (and safer) to stick to the original sense of delimitation: locate the limits and give their found location respect.

Monday, March 09, 2015

teaching climate philosophy

Teaching climate philosophy is a bit different from teaching climate- or environmental ethics. One could teach the latter two straight from a textbook with a set of readings. In environmental ethics, one could describe a sequence of positions and theories in animal ethics, biocentric ethics, the land ethic, deep ecology, ecofeminism, and first nations perspectives. With some variations, this seems to be one standard template for course packages in environmental ethics.

In climate ethics, one could use some of the newer anthologies such as Climate Ethics, ed. by Gardiner, Caney, Jamieson, and Shue (Oxford 2010) or The Ethics of Global Climate Change edited by Arnold (Cambridge 2011). This could be supplemented with introductions such as Northcott's A Moral Climate: the Ethics of Global Warming (Orbis 2009) or Garvey's pioneering The Ethics of Climate Change: Right and Wrong in a Warming World (Continuum 2008).

On a more advanced level, say for a graduate seminar, one could use Gardiner's monograph A Perfect Moral Storm: the Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change (2011). On a more basic level, his edited Climate Ethics (2010) works nicely because of its clear topical structure. An overview (a reprint of the excellent 2004 Ethics paper) is followed by several texts laying out "the nature of the problem," (with an excerpt from the Stern Report, among others), a set of papers on "global justice and future generations" (with classics by Parfit et al.), a set of papers on "policy responses to climate change" (with essays by Singer et al.), and a concluding pair of essays on "individual responsibility". This last part, which is a bit thin, could be paired the superb chapter on "responsibility" in Garvey (2008), and voilà, there's your course on climate ethics.

But climate philosophy is more complex. Its inquiry is not primarily ethical; instead it has a collective-existential orientation, comparing different cultural responses to the ecocrisis.  Instead of the straightforward legalistic-analytic approach in climate ethics, its methodology is critical, by engaging with the structural economic drivers of the overshoot (which are never questioned in analytic climate ethics). Its methodology is also synthetic (instead of merely analytic), by engaging with the systems-dimension of sustainability, which, to my mind, is an environmental game changer.

So I'd suggest the following sequence of topics for a seminar on climate philosophy: (1) introductory overview of sustainability science & climatology; (2) milestones in environmental ethics: the land ethic, ecofeminism, and deep ecology; (3) the new normativity of climate ethics; (4) questioning the capitalistic foundation: the four spikes, economic growth, and market failures; and (5) deconstructing normalcy: American disenlightenment vs. global alternatives, and (6) reconceptualizing progress: the fork in the road of the SRES scenarios, and civil evolution. To avoid that the discussion goes all over the place, the six topics are centered around a shared conceptual gravity well. This is the premise of climate philosophy that civilization's clash with planetary boundaries changes everything. The central topic is how to deal with limits that are absolute. And the central demand is to think outside the box.

Monday, March 02, 2015

climate philosophy platform

(Redrafted from 2014)

Philosophical reflection on climate change and the ecocrisis assumes three guises.  The oldest and broadest is environmental ethics.  Environmental ethics concerns questions of right and wrong about the human relationship to the natural environment. Climate change matters to environmental ethics as part of a larger whole, as expression and symptom of the ecocrisis.  Environmental ethics deals with its topic by applying mainstream ethical theory.  Yet it resists reduction to a normative application.  It is also a foundational extension of traditional, continental, and comparative approaches, namely those that concern the meaning of life, the interplay of humans and world, and the problem of culture.  Analytic and continental philosophers work in environmental ethics side by side; continental approaches seem to dominate.

The second type of philosophical reflection is climate ethics.  Its first publications are about twenty-five years old and hit its stride less than ten years ago.  Its roots go back to philosophy of law rather than to environmental ethics, and generally to analytic philosophy rather than continetal philosophy. The theoretical apparatus of the mainstream of this research program, or its analytic majority, has strong connections to British moral philosophy.  With regard to its subject, climate ethics is the opposite of environmental ethics.  Climate change matters as the context of the ecocrisis for environmental ethics, but the ecocrisis matters as the context of climate change for climate ethics.  If environmental ethicists are philosophers who reason like naturalists, then climate ethicists will be philosophers who think like lawyers and arbiters.

The third and newest type is climate philosophy. That's my stick, and I've published on this for the past five, six years. It's close to environmental ethics and climate ethics but also different from either. In one sense it is broader than either of them, because in climate philosophy questions of ethics take a backseat to questions of existence. Questions of existence are the four classic questions formulated by Kant (in Critique of Pure Reason and in Logic): What do or can we know? What should we do? What may we hope? And what does or shall it mean to be human? They shift the focus of climate-arelated inquiry to culture, its social structures, its ideological outlook, and its economic design. The focus is trained towards the future, in particular with regard to the socioeconomic shift (which I call civil evolution) implied by a successful re-adaptation to planetary boundaries and environmental services, such as the carbon cycle.

In another sense climate philosophy is more specific than either environmental ethics or climate ethics, but this may have to do with the fact that climate philosophy is a niche pursuit. (Things have a way of broadening out when research programs expand.) The specific feature is that it proceeds from the premise that conventional ways of reasoning are historically implicated in having brough the crisis about; that they are part of the problem, and unlikely to be part of the solution. In other words, the premise is that climate change signals an environmental threshold crossing that will usher in a paradigm shift. The normal ways aren't working anymore, and there's a reason why this is so. To philosophers, this constitutes an opportunity--and imposes a responsibility--to think outside the box.