Going deeper with philosophy

The discipline of philosophy is rich with ideas of use to sustainability, and much common ground is shared between them.

Discussions about how we should act; what is right, what is moral, and what is just – these are the philosophical domain of ethics. Ethical discussions, assumptions, and beliefs underpin much of our society; from how we structure it politically and legally, to what we consider socially acceptable.

The scientific method, a crucial tool for understanding environmental and other problems, is grounded in philosophical ideas too – a mixture of rationality, empiricism, and the logic of induction. These ideas belong to the philosophical domain known as epistemology – essentially, the study of knowledge.


Logic

Note that between the concepts of rationality and empiricism, there is a separation of mental and sensory faculties (the mind and the body, more simply). This is discussed in the next section on dualism.

Ethics and knowledge are just two examples. Big ideas too, like how we should think about death, immortality, annihilation and existential risk are all clearly relevant now too, as we face down a multitude of threats. 

Dualism

The dichotomy of “human” and “nature” mentioned earlier (metabolic rift) is echoed in philosophical ideas. Cartesian dualism, which takes its name from the ideas of French philosophe Rene Descartes, introduces the idea that the human mind is different from the human body; that they are two distinct and separable entities. It is also sometimes referred to as mind-body dualism.

The mind, in this idea, is often viewed as non-physical; something that cannot be reduced to explanations that rely on neurobiology (the science of the mind) and physics (the science of basic reality – how things work at every level from atomic to cosmological). This specific claim about the non-physicality of the human mind is referred to in philosophy as property dualism.

It can be argued that Cartesian dualism and property dualism have contributed to our separation from nature. We often view the human mind as the prime point of separation between us and “animals”. It is human ingenuity, adaptability, intelligence, willpower, and genius that we often feel makes us unique. From the perspective of property dualism, the difference is also not just one of “human versus natural”, therefore, but also “mental versus physical”. This model suggests that our anthropocentric bias is partly driven by a belief in a type of human non-physicality. This might explain, for example, our collective reluctance to come to grips with the very physical impacts and constraints of our world, and the very physical consequences of our actions.

ExistComic1
ExistComic
A comic about dualism, from Mohler, 2019[1].

Sustainability and your mental health

First published: February 25, 2018 for Woroni[2]. Reworked in 2019 for The Grass Ceiling.

I’m a student of sustainability who has come dangerously close to withdrawing from university – because, in part, what I’m studying can literally drive one crazy.

The first time I studied a tertiary course was at the University of Wollongong. As a promising student with a high ATAR, I’d just enrolled in a special “Dean’s Scholars” Arts degree complete with a hefty scholarship, where I was free to build my entire program however I wanted.

I chose philosophy, and nothing else. For two and half years, I did four philosophy courses every semester, gazing daily into an abyss of endless questions – many of which were impossible to answer. Eventually, as you might imagine, this decision of mine to dwell endlessly on serious topics messed me up badly.

The existentialists

In high school, I’d been a huge fan of the philosophy of existentialism. And as it turns out, it was studying this topic at university that led to a breakdown and my eventual withdrawal. The existentialists ask some of the biggest questions we can. Albert Camus, my favourite existentialist, dealt at length with one very big question. ‘There is only one really serious philosophical problem,’ Camus argued, ‘and that is suicide. Deciding whether life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that’. To understand why he thought this, it helps to know that Camus saw life as absurd; without meaning or hope of any deeper understanding. It sounds pessimistic, even nihilistic, but there was a life-affirming quality: if life is truly absurd, shouldn’t we simply enjoy the ride? Regardless of where one lands on these issues, there is a cost for those who dwell too long on them. It’s not healthy to go around every day questioning whether life is worth living.

My problem with sustainability

Upon returning to university to study sustainability, I’ve exposed myself to the same dreadful abyss of ideas that broke me all those years ago. Studying sustainability can be a relentlessly and brutally depressing undertaking. Whereas other subjects might stress their students out with too much work, sustainability can sap its students of a will to survive; because we continue to fight in a battle that we are taught may be futile. The enormity of our challenge is daunting. We are constantly subjected to seemingly impossible problems where our existence as a species is at stake. And outside of classes, we are met with a disheartening wall of indifference and apathy when we try to speak of the horrors we’ve witnessed and the need for unprecedented change. At best, we are met with tokenism and the smallest shreds of progress.

How wouldn’t this affect our mental health?!

What I’ve discovered is that sustainability asks the same question suicide does, but on a species level. Sustainability, however, is not of the same philosophical nature that Camus was. In all my studies, I haven’t once seen a scholar question sustainability’s fundamental premise: that humanity is worth saving. It is a given, in every case, that it is worth saving. The profound realisation for me has been in understanding that we are all, to one extent or another, engaged in the conflict Camus described: between a futile endeavour (achieving sustainability) and simply enjoying the ride. Perhaps more subtly, we are engaged in a conflict between where our focus should lie.

As sustainability students, we are taught to fight against our seemingly inevitable demise. We are also taught to consider “business as usual” – enjoying the ride without a care for its inevitably gloomy and fatal end – as the enemy. To evoke Camus’ allegory of Sisyphus, we are taught to push that rock up the hill, and never question whether this is where our energy should be focused.

For me, engaging in that battle sometimes makes me deeply unhappy, because it all feels so futile at times. It’s like I’m wasting my time on a futile task when I could be appreciating other things more. But these binaries are just borne of frustration – there is a middle ground between the two that I’m learning to discover with the support and love of friends. For me, the middle ground is a space where we fight for the greater cause while appreciating that other things in life may matter just as much in the end.

Unlike in philosophy, sustainability has never broached the fundamental conversation about what we’re doing, and why. Sustainability has no Camus. In a very real and problematic sense, we’re not equipped to deal with the feelings we’re inevitably going to encounter because our courses never address them, or the things that cause them.

The Fall

There is a moment in the show The West Wing when a character recounts a memorable scene from his favourite movie, The Lion in Winter. Three men are locked in a dungeon, about to be executed. One of the men, Richard, tells his brothers not to cower – but to take it like men. One of the other men cannot fathom this. ‘You fool!’ he says, ‘As if it matters how a man falls down?!’.

Richard’s reply is something worth remembering in dark times: ’When the fall is all that’s left, it matters a great deal’.

We are potentially in our own species-level fall right now. And yet, even if all hope for survival is lost, I’d argue that things still matter. How we go out – that matters. It’s okay to go out fighting, despite the odds of success, like our sustainability lecturers beg us to do. It’s okay for us to resist what might be inevitable. There’s profound courage and nobility in that.

But we need to have that conversation. We need to ask what sustainability is: an exercise in ensuring our survival? Or an exercise in dying well? In this time of uncertainty, is it not potentially both? Reflect on that. On how, considering both possibilities, you might want to best use your time.

Finding a way forward

When it comes to sustainability, I would advise you all to be careful how long your own stare lingers. Don’t delve too deeply into serious topics, such as those explored in this column, without making sure you have other avenues open. There is a kind of madness that will find you if you narrow in on existential questions too much. Study other things. I recommend studying the arts, in particular –  as it can heal your soul, and give you ways to express feelings that otherwise might remain invisible.

Study poetry, or French, or basket-weaving, or cake decorating memes – whatever makes you happy. Not only can the arts play an important role in communicating sustainability, but it can help you find new paths to happiness you may not have otherwise.  It may just be the case that this is all that matters in the end; finding your own happiness on the way down.


Footnotes

[1] Mohler, C. (2019). Captain Metaphysics and the Ghost in the Machine. Retrieved from Existential Comics: http://existentialcomics.com/comic/47

[2] Blood, N. (2018, February 25). Sustainability and Your Mental Health. Woroni.

Environmental sociology

The way we speak and think about sustainability can be further informed by the discipline of environmental sociology, which focuses on the ‘reciprocal relationship between the environment and larger society’. This field offers a history of thought on many core ideas of relevance to sustainability and provides well-developed terms and definitions. Given this, it’s worth including summaries of some important ideas that illustrate the relevance of environmental sociology to sustainability.

The powerful lens provided by environmental sociology is important not only to understand the current environmental problems and challenges, but also to devise solutions for a sustainable earth’.[1]

Metabolic rift

The narrative of ‘man versus nature’ is a good example of an idea that environmental sociology has explored at length. This separation of ‘human’ and ‘nature’ is still today embedded in much of our thought and actions, even when it comes to sustainability, and therefore is an assumption that is worth questioning. The idea that we are separate from nature is contentious to some environmental sociologists, who argue that it has helped humans rationalize the destruction of nature, by considering themselves as its master – a belief that necessitates “othering”; separating ourselves from the object of our subjugation. This idea is referred to as metabolic rift.

‘Metabolic rift is an important neo-Marxist theory as explained by John B. Foster and Karl Marx. It describes how society and ecology should not be classified as two different entities. Instead, they should be seen as one metabolism as one cannot function without the other. The theory explains that man started to view society and ecology as two separate entities with the rise of the capitalist system, creating a “rift” between humans and earth[2].’

The Treadmill of Production

One important relationship between society and the environment relates to resource extraction and production. The growth-focused model of capitalism often implies infinite growth, creating ever-greater resource extraction which obviously unsustainable on a long enough timescale. This idea of endless growth is known as the treadmill production theory.

In his book The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity[3], Allan Schnaiberg, who coined the term, described what he saw as a never-ending cycle of production, arguing that it was the central characteristic of capitalism.

This idea is built upon by Alier[4] who argues that endless economic growth is not compatible with sustainability. Looking at recent history, he notes that the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 is the only time in which global emissions reductions were sustainable. This suggests, according to Alier, that alternative economic models which do not rely on growth are more sustainable. This the idea of degrowth economics.

Economic growth is not compatible with environmental sustainability. The effort to push up the rate of growth by increasing obligations to repay financial debts is in direct conflict with the availability of exhaustible resources and with the capacity of waste sinks. The economic crisis of 2008–09 has resulted in a welcome change to the totally unsustainable trend of increasing carbon dioxide emissions.[5]

These ideas will be explored in future episodes, when we look more closely at economic theory, and alternative, non-mainstream economic models like Alier’s ‘degrowth’.

Modernization and Risk Society

We often talk about how we live now in the Anthropocene. The idea behind this word is that the -cene suffix represents a geological era, and the anthro- prefix denotes us – humans. In other words, the era of humans. This idea can be viewed in terms of the humanity’s geological and ecological impacts. In many areas, human impacts now exceed the natural cycles of the planet. The rising global temperature, most famously, is now a cycle driven more by human impacts than it is by natural processes.

One obvious cause of this development is modernization. This study of modernity in sociology examines a range of historical developments including The Enlightenment, where the importance of science and rationality became embedded in Western society, through to the Industrial Revolution, when machinery allowed for vast increases in production, through to the current Information Age, an era of computerization and global interconnectivity. Modernization represents a broad sweep of time, with some considering even earlier events, such as humanity’s first attempts at agriculture, as the beginning of our technological progress.

The scientific method, the discovery of oil and fossil fuels, the invention of automobiles and the atomic bomb, the rise of international trade, globalization, capitalism, factories, pollution, and climate change – these are all ideas related to our increasing trend globally towards modernization. Industrialization, computerization, globalization, militarization, democratization, and many other -zations suffixes can be said to also fall under this area!

And, as some examples like climate change and the atomic bomb represent – modernization comes with risk. How society manages risk is an area of interest to sociologists in particular, who described the modernizing world as a “risk society“.

‘According to Beck, as cited in Adam, Beck and Van Loon[6] (p. 5), a risk society can be understood as “a particular mode of organization as a response to new challenges enforced upon the world by technologies and practices”. Present society is said to be fraught with risks as a result of modernization where there has been a rapid increase in the advancement and employment of new technologies. While such technologies have brought about increased convenience, productivity and benefits, they are not without risks.’[7]

This idea paints human society against the backdrop of increasing risks, many manufactured from our own increasing production and consumption.

‘The danger here is that as Beck has claimed, there is no form of insurance against the kind of risks that emerge out of risk societies, yet societies continue to take deliberate risks in the name of modernization.’[8]

How a society is structured affects these dangers, according to some analyses. In the capitalist model, according to the treadmill method of production an unsustainable hunger for growth (and through that, modernization) will create increasing amounts of risk. This idea is supported by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, who differentiates natural from anthropogenic risks, arguing that we now face an era dominated by the latter:

Humanity has survived what we might call natural existential risks for hundreds of thousands of years; thus, it is prima facie unlikely that any of them will do us in within the next hundred … Empirical impact distributions and scientific models suggest that the likelihood of extinction because of these kinds of risk is extremely small on a time scale of a century or so[9].  In contrast, our species is introducing entirely new kinds of existential risk —threats we have no track record of surviving. Our longevity as a species therefore offers no strong prior grounds for confident optimism. Consideration of specific existential-risk scenarios bears out the suspicion that the great bulk of existential risk in the foreseeable future consists of anthropogenic existential risks —that is, those arising from human activity.[10]

THE RISE OF THE APEILICENE?

Evident in these perspectives is the idea of the Anthropocene and human-created risk. Perhaps more accurately, we are in the Anthro (human), apeili (threat), cene (era). Anthroapelicene may not have the same ring it, granted, but it arguably captures this era of modernization and its consequences better than the often ecologically-focused concept of the Anthropocene.

The Grass Ceiling seeks to push beyond definitions of sustainability that are purely ecologically-focused, and this reconceptualization of our geological era is an example of under-explored idea want to shed further light on.

Ecological modernization

Some elements of sociology and other disciplines have a more optimistic view of human progress, and of capitalism specifically. The idea that we can reconfigure capitalism to be compatible with sustainability is known as ecological modernization and is another concept worthy of further exploration. For now, it’s important to note the existence of a seemingly contradictory idea, captured bluntly by Alier who proposes an alternative economic model known as degrowth:

Economic growth is not compatible with environmental sustainability.

Joan Martinez Alier, Socially Sustainable Economic De‐growth

Footnotes

[1] Islam, M. S. (2017). Sustainability through the Lens of Environmental Sociology. Sustainability, 1-11.

[2] Foster, J.B. Marx’s Theory of Metabolic Rift: Classical Foundations for Environmental Sociology. Am. J. Sociol. 1999, 105, 366–405.

[3] Allan, S. The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity; Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK, 1980.

[4] Alier, J. M. (2009). Socially Sustainable Economic De-growth. Development and Change, 40(6), 1099-1119. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7660.2009.01618.x

[5] Alier, J. M. (2009). Socially Sustainable Economic De-growth. Development and Change, 40(6), 1099-1119. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7660.2009.01618.x

[6] Adam, B.; Ulrich, B.; Van Loon, J. (Eds.) The Risk Society and Beyond: Critical Issues for Social Theory; Sage Publications: London, UK, 2000.

[7] Islam, M. S. (2017). Sustainability through the Lens of Environmental Sociology. Sustainability, 1-11.

[8] Islam, M. S. (2017). Sustainability through the Lens of Environmental Sociology. Sustainability, 1-11.

[9] Smil, V. (2008) Global catastrophes and trends: the next fifty years. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, Cambridge.

[10] Bostrom, N. (2013, February). Existential Risk Prevention as Global Priority. Global Policy, 4(1), pp. 15-31. doi:10.1111/1758-5899.12002