Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Towards a Green Stoic philosophy

The philosopher John Gray recently wrote:
stoicism will be needed if civilised life is to survive an environmental crisis that cannot now be avoided. Walking on lava requires a cool head, not one filled with fiery dreams.[1]
As I’ve written previously, I find this view quite compelling. But what would this kind of stoicism look like? How would it work?

When someone is described as stoical the adjective is usually coupled with ‘grimly’: the caricature would be a guy in a toga who falls on his sword without complaint. But the human animal needs more than sang froid and an extremely practical cast of mind, essential as those qualities are in current circumstances. [2] We need some form of hope, albeit a toughened one that is ready to take many more punches, and we need some sort of vision. We need, I suggest, ‘green stoicism’. [3]

The ‘green’ in this coupling refers to a kind of environmentalism that is as undeceived and unsentimental as we can achieve. It recognizes (among other things) that evolutionary processes and earth systems are indifferent. [4] It sees grandeur in life as well as pain and tragedy. But it also seeks for space where intelligent decisions are sometimes possible, particularly as processes, systems and emergent properties in physics, biology, ecology, neuroscience and so on become better understood.

And the ‘stoicism’ is informed by more than grim determination to do the right thing even when defeat seems the most likely outcome (important though that is). While it is deeply concerned with understanding destructive aspects of human nature such as our susceptibility to fear and anger and to appetites that run out of control, it also celebrates a tradition of exploring and cultivating the virtues and human flourishing. [5] It holds that to some extent we can manage and channel our drives and those of others to beneficial ends. Our ability to do so may be limited and often destined for defeat but it is better than nothing.

Ancient stoicism, broadly speaking, said that we must live in accordance with nature. Four or five hundred years of modern science have given us much more sophisticated models of nature to work with: progress in science is real. [6] 'Green stoicism' would build on this real knowledge for an approach to human affairs that is neither Hobbesian nor Panglossian. [7]


[1] A review of Uncivilisation: Dark Mountain Manifesto. The metaphor doesn’t quite work: it is impossible to walk on lava. Closer, perhaps, to envisage a walk on a thin crust of cooled rock above a magma chamber. If it erupts beneath our feet then, stoic or not, we're toast. But if eruption is not imminent then we may have some room, albeit temporary and limited, to make choices. We may be able to move to another part of the landscape where we are less likely to be in the path of lava flows or noxious gasses. There may even be things we can do to reduce the likelihood of an eruption.

[2] See for example, the proceedings of the 4 Degree Conference, and much else including Michael Klare on Energy Xtremism

[3] Michael Benedikt has used the phrase 'environmental stoicism' to denote "the ability to endure or tune out places that are cheap or neglected, depressing or demeaning, banal, uncomfortable, or controlling." An interesting idea but not what I have in mind.

[4] Lao Tzu: "Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs." Charles Darwin: “Nothing is easier than to admit in words the truth of the universal struggle for life, or more difficult -- or at least I have found it so -- than constantly to bear this conclusion in mind.” James Lovelock: “Nature is not fragile; we are.”

[5] Eudaimonia does not require hedonism in the sense we use that term today. As Epicurus put it, "it is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honorably and justly."

[6] A beautiful example here. But (added 8 Oct) Gray, presumably, would not agree. "We imagine that the theories we frame about the world are not only useful, but also true." This is, he says, "a highly questionable assumption". On the other hand, he has just referred to the possibility of a multiverse, an idea that derives from the contemporary cosmology.

[7] See The human frame.

Monday, September 28, 2009


Two degrees is important politically but in terms of what is going to happen, I think a lot of people think it is a lost cause already. Four degrees is highly plausible given the evidence and it is different enough from two degrees that we can start exploring the difficulties and what the world will look like.
-- Mark New

A few details on Nature's climate blog.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Deep unease

Perhaps I'm overreacting and in reality there's little to worry about, but with the increase in the number and distribution of noctilucent clouds possibly linked to anthropogenic warming I have to wonder: beauty or sign of trouble come?


Melting Ice Caps Expose Hundreds Of Secret Arctic Lairs, reports the Onion.

Also, Nadir of Western Civilisation reached.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

'Obama's JFK moment?'

The White House is obviously beginning to have doubts about its policy, just six months after it was announced. There are good reasons for skepticism. The fraud-ridden Afghan election of August 20th made it clear that the government we’re trying to support in Kabul is even less reliable and legitimate than most people thought. That could be a deal-breaker all by itself in a counterinsurgency, which is premised on the notion that the government wants outside help in improving governance. As Major General Burt Field, Holbrooke’s military adviser, told me, “What if the premise is false?”
-- George Packer, reading the McCrystal report

Andrew Sullivan picks up on Packer's suggestion that Obama may be more like J.F.K than Johnson: "rational, coldly objective in the heat of events, unlikely to allow his advisers and his ego to destroy his Presidency by getting the country deeper into a war he never felt fully committed to."

But Packer himself is not sure:
the alternatives [outlined by McCrystal] were already rejected by Obama’s strategy review, and since then no one has made a persuasive case why they would work any better.

Slush puppies

As it's reported that thinning glaciers are driving polar ice loss, Alex Hartley wants you to become a citizen of nowhereisland. And you won't even have to move there as he may be bringing the rocks to a town near you.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Reason and the almighty dollar

Rand's funeral was attended by some of her prominent followers, including Alan Greenspan. A six-foot floral arrangement in the shape of a dollar sign was placed near her casket
-- from the Wiki entry on Ayn Rand, which also notes that she felt she could only recommend three great philosophers in world history: Aristotle, Aquinas and herself.

Monday, September 21, 2009

We send our waste, they send their people

When the great tsunami of 2004 struck the Somali coast, it dumped and smashed open thousands of barrels on the beaches and in villages up to 10km inland. According to the United Nations, they contained clinical waste from western hospitals, heavy metals, other chemical junk and nuclear waste. People started suffering from unusual skin infections, bleeding at the mouth, acute respiratory infections and abdominal haemorrhages. The barrels had been dumped in the sea, a UN spokesman said, for one obvious reason: it cost European companies around $2.50 a tonne to dispose of the waste this way, while dealing with them properly would have cost "something like $1,000 a tonne." On the seabed off Somalia lies Europe's picture of Dorian Gray: the skeleton in the closet of the languid new world we have made.
-- George Monbiot on toxic dumping.


While unfurling the tape in front of a "too big to fail" bank, he became aware of a group of New York's finest approaching him. Moore has a long history of dealing with policemen and security guards trying to shut him down, but in this case he knew he was, however temporarily, defacing private property. And his shooting schedule didn't leave room for a detour to the local jail. So, as the lead officer came closer, Moore tried to deflect him, saying: "Just doing a little comedy here, officer. I'll be gone in a minute, and will clean up before I go."

The officer looked at him for a moment, then leaned in: "Take all the time you need." He nodded to the bank and said, "These guys wiped out a lot of our Police Pension Funds." The officer turned and slowly headed back to his squad car. Moore wanted to put the moment in his film, but realized it could cost the cop his job, and decided to leave it out. "When they've lost the police," he told me, "you know they're in trouble."
- Arianna Huffington on a scene that didn't make it into Capitalism: A Love Story.

Frank Rich notes the WSJ's report that not a single C.E.O. from a top bank attended Obama's speech on Wall St. last week. "The speech sank with scant notice because there has been so little action to back it up and because its conciliatory stance was tone-deaf to the anger beyond the financial district."

Friday, September 18, 2009

China chokes

Ian Katz has a useful overview of how thinking and action on climate change goes in China - and how, not least, the immediate effects of local air and water pollution are near the top of people's concerns.

What will make it possible for the Chinese people to achieve on localized pollution as much as Western, especially U.S. campaigners did in the 1960s and 1970s? And how can they help the world not to miss the opportunities that -- if the film Earth Days is to be believed -- Westerners missed in the 1970s and beyond?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A stoic walks on lava

Both [Conrad and Ballard] were unsparing critics of civilisation, but they never imagined there was a superior alternative.
-- from John Gray's review of the Dark Mountain manifesto.

My published comments on the manifesto are here and here. Gray is probably right in this:
[Today], the belief that a global collapse could lead to a better world is ever more far-fetched. Human numbers have multiplied, industrialisation has spread worldwide and the technologies of war are far more highly developed. In these circumstances, ecological catas­trophe will not trigger a return to a more sustainable way of life, but will intensify the existing competition among nation states for the planet's remaining reserves of oil, gas, fresh water and arable land. Waged with hi-tech weapons, the resulting war could destroy not only large numbers of human beings but also much of what is left of the biosphere.

A scenario of this kind is not remotely apocalyptic. It is no more than history as usual, together with new technologies and ongoing climate change.

...stoicism will be needed if civilised life is to survive an environmental crisis that cannot now be avoided. Walking on lava requires a cool head, not one filled with fiery dreams.
P.S. Dougald Hine replies to Gray here.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Zurich is if nothing else, one of Europe’s more purposeful cities. Its church bells clang precisely; its trains glide in and out on a flawless schedule. There are crowded fondue restaurants and chocolatiers and rosy-cheeked natives breezily pedaling their bicycles over the stone bridges that span the Limmat River. In summer, white-sailed yachts puff around Lake Zurich; in winter, the Alps glitter on the horizon. And during the lunch hour year-round, squads of young bankers stride the Banhoffstrasse in their power suits and high-end watches, appearing eternally mindful of the fact that beneath everyone’s feet lie labyrinthine vaults stuffed with a dazzling and disproportionate amount of the world’s wealth.

But there, too, ventilating the city’s material splendor with their devotion to dreams, are the Jungians..
-- Sara Corbett explores the Red Book

10:10 in Tibet

Andrew Dobson criticizes 10:10 for lacking political focus. I was more dyspeptic.

Dobson's suggestions for a real politics of climate change include:
join and campaign for the party with the most progressive and coherent socio-environmental policies in the next general election (even if it's a small party).
P.S. 17 Sep: Susan Kramer, reviewing Zac Goldsmith's book, makes the case that her party is at least making a serious attempt in the U.K.

P.P.S. Anthony Barnett has a good piece on what's wrong with the LibDems

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The rage of stupid

A couple of examples yesterday, as if more were needed, of how anger, lack of education and plain stupidity make a strange brew.

A BBC reporter interviewed some BNP activists in Liverpool not far from where the British Trades Unions were holding their annual national conference. He asked them what they thought of the unions. One of the activists replied that the unions were communist internationalists, and wanted to keep them poor.

In London far right supporters of the English Defence League confronted pro-Palestinian protestors holding up banners saying "Justice for the murdered children of Gaza."

Monday, September 14, 2009

A light in winter

Only months after that March day in the hospital, I sat in my study preparing for a class on Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” and heard Una in another room gurgle and coo and then cry. I thought about how she would soon grow too old to play with me and then become too jaded to care about me and then leave home for somewhere else and only very seldom come back. I suddenly felt sadder than I ever had before. I felt the pain of losing her and the wonder of loving her. I adored her more for her imminent going. This wasn’t happiness, and it wasn’t pleasure. It was a more profound and durable experience, a moment encompassing both tragedy and euphoria, a child lost and a child found.
-- Eric G. Wilson

Interesting Canadian initiative

Without the tar sands, Canada's economy is toast. With them, Canada's per capita contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions, will be so big that it could draw serious international sanctions, assuming that the rest of world agrees to start bringing emissions down soon. Barack Obama doesn't appear interested in enforcing U.S. law that would bar imports of dirty sources of energy, but sooner or later, that kind of pressure is likely to be expressed.
-- James Hrynyshyn

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Heart of oak

Three days ago I read how rising sea levels are likely to affect at least twenty million people in Bangladesh. The challenge will be enormous, and perhaps there is much more to come.

I am concerned, but it doesn't hit me on an emotional level in the same way as the relatively minor possibility (here via here) that oak trees in Britain are likely to be severely affected by mid century.

My reaction may be morally indefensible: shouldn't I care about people more, however remote from own temporarily privileged position?

If there is a rationale, then perhaps it has something to do with the fact that we may lose trees that have thrived on these islands since the last Ice Age, whereas the vast numbers of people now living in the lowest lying parts of Bangladesh have only come there in the last few decades as a result of a population explosion and land shortage elsewhere. The oak trees have resonance in the mind of those who know and love these lands in part because as living forms they express slow change over long periods of time.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Dark times

There is some scepticism about the chances of a deal being reached at the NPT review conference in May, says Ms Tomero. Suspicion that the US and other nuclear powers are setting the rules to suit their own ends remains high. The last NPT review attempt in 2005 ended in a flop. Four years on, the stakes have been raised. If the 2010 conference goes the same way, the consequences will be grim – for the world’s security, prosperity and climate.
-- from Ed Crook and James Blitz in the FT on new nuclear

Monday, September 07, 2009

New models (2)

If science can take on God, it should not fear the market. Both are, after all, creations of man.

We must stop perpetuating the fiction that existence itself is dictated by the immutable laws of economics. These so-called laws are, in actuality, the economic mechanisms of 13th Century monarchs. Some of us analyzing digital culture and its impact on business must reveal economics as the artificial construction it really is. Although it may be subjected to the scientific method and mathematical scrutiny, it is not a natural science; it is game theory, with a set of underlying assumptions that have little to do with anything resembling genetics, neurology, evolution, or natural systems.

The scientific tradition exposed the unpopular astronomical fact that the earth was not at the center of the universe. This stance challenged the social order, and its proponents were met with less than a welcoming reception. Today, science has a similar opportunity: to expose the fallacies underlying our economic model instead of producing short-term strategies for mitigating the effects of inventions and discoveries that threaten this inherited market hallucination.

The economic model has broken, for good. It's time to stop pretending it describes our world.
-- Douglas Rushkoff

New models (1)

Sadly, the game-theory cynics may get the last laugh: we may be stuck in a suboptimal equilibrium—stuck because we are incapable of rising above our immediate, narrowly defined self-interest. But there is a wild-card escape possibility. It requires leadership. Players high up in the political system—who really do want the best-possible forecasts—could decide that it is worth investing a nontrivial share of their intelligence agencies’ budgets into a series of long-term forecasting tournaments designed to distinguish the more from the less promising forecasting approaches across policy problems. Strictly speaking, this would not be a rational choice for these leaders to make—because the budgetary reallocations will evoke howls of protest, and those responsible will be out of office long before the forecasting tournaments start yielding practically useful results. But building a robust capacity for learning—and learning how to learn—is not a bad legacy.
-- Philip Tetlock

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Looking up

As an antidote to a previous gloomy post, here is Lewis Thomas:
I believe fervently in our species and have no patience with the current fashion for running down the human being as a useful part of nature. On the contrary, we are a spectacular, splendid manifestation of life. We have language and can build metaphors as skillfully and precisely as ribosomes make proteins. We have genes for usefulness, and usefulness is about as close to a "common goal" for all of nature as I can guess at. And finally, and perhaps best of all, we have music. Any species capable of producing, at this early, juvenile stage of its development -- almost instantly after emerging on earth by any evolutionary standard -- the music of Johann Sebasian Bach, cannot be all bad. We would to be able to feel more secure for our future, with Julian of Norwich at our elbow: "But all shall be well and shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well." For our times have guilt we have Montaigne to turn to: "If it did not seem crazy to talk to oneself, there is not a day when I would not be heard growling at myself, 'Confounded fool. ' "
-- from The Youngest and Brightest Thing Around, republished in The Medusa and the Snail (1979)

Acts of astonishing generosity

He’s jostled awake, a day later, by a Hutu woman about his mother’s age. She pulls Deo from the brush, discovers he’s a Tutsi and then, at extraordinary risk, saves him from beheading by telling Hutu guards that he’s her son. The scene suggests how, in the face of nightmares born of surface distinctions — of power exercising all of its destructive prerogatives — the seeds of mankind’s survival lie in the unexpected acts of kinship and kindness.
-- from Ron Suskind's review of Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder

Global weirding and the English summer

The dog days of August have slipped their leash and scarpered. The light, the weather and the feel of the landscape belong to early autumn now. Just as the huge combine harvesters roared across fields to suck up all the grain before rain flattened the crop, so we seem to have crashed into autumn without pausing to celebrate what little summer we've had. Like the apple windfalls being pecked smaller and smaller by blackbirds, summer memories are fading in the grass. Many trees are showing signs of colour change or, as in the case of horse chestnuts and poplars, a browning and shrivelling of leaves. The weather blows hot and cold, humid and breezy, bright and dull. A shower seems imminent but the sun comes out and it's really hot, then a lid of cloud gets screwed back on and it's dull and sticky again.
-- Paul Evans

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Why we are fxxxed

George Monbiot does a good job in explaining the implications of work by Susan Solomon et al, Myles Allen et al, and Malte Meinhausen, although his 'rough sum' showing that we cannot afford to burn already known reserves was, I think, already old news when the Stern report articulated it some years ago, and the optimism at the end of his piece seems a bit strained.

As he rightly says, the 10:10 campaign will be on the wrong track if it allows business the get-out clause of reduced emissions intensity.

In the event that Britain does achieve an absolute reduction of 10% in its emissions within a year the impact on the global emissions trajectory will be very modest, and in any case few rapidly growing, up-and-coming countries will see Britain as a model.

Within Britain, if one were being hugely optimistic, he might imagine 20% of households and major players in the economy 'taking a [temperance] pledge' to reduce their carbon footprint by 10%: a 2% reduction in UK emissions that has no guarantee of being sustainable. Only a massive investment programme, most probably led by government, would do the job...or an economic meltdown on the scale of the old German Democratic Republic.

In 2007 I spent some time helping to convince the editor of the UN Human Development Report (for which I was contributing a background paper and some advice) that the 2007 report should endorse a 450ppm ceiling. At the time such the number was considered to be the very edge of what the mainstream would accept as rhetoric. My own view was that the sensible -- although obviously unachievable -- target should be way below 350 (something that Pachauri recently endorsed, but only as a human being).

I'm finding it increasingly hard to be optimistic these days. Over a game of chess I recently told Paul Kingsnorth that I was more sympathetic to the position outlined by George Monbiot in their recent exchange than I was to his: the consequences of giving up on 'civilisation' just seem too horrible to contemplate.

But whatever one's rhetoric of choice, the actual behaviour of industrial civilisation is more like the character Harry Angel played by Mickey Rourke in the movie Angel Heart. Or as it goes elsewhere, "I weep for you", the Walrus said, "I deeply sympathise."

Of course, it would be nice if, as is the case in so many predictions about the future, I were plain wrong. Perhaps the future isn't as bad as it used to be!