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.