Ideas

The Unborn Future: How Western philosophy helped propel us toward a climate catastrophe

Philosopher Todd Dufresne has written a three-part lecture series for IDEAS, entitled: Climate Change and the Unborn Future: Capitalism, Philosophy, and Pandemic Politics. He argues that the way we live needs a stem-to-stern overhaul — and a new philosophy of the Anthropocene to see the world with new eyes. This is his second lecture called Lessons Learned.

Todd Dufresne's second lecture explores how Western thought feeds an ideology of infinite economic growth

A boy sits on an abandoned boat on what is left of Lake Atescatempa, near Guatemala City, May 2017. Drought and high temperatures dried up the lake. Philosopher Todd Dufresne argues that Western values established and then accelerated all the conditions associated with catastrophic climate change. (Marvin Recinos/AFP via Getty Images)

The role that the economic system plays in causing climate change may have begun with industrial capitalism, as philosopher Todd Dufresne pointed out in his lecture, Utopic Realism, but it was our Western philosophic system that laid the groundwork for  the ideology of infinite growth whose impact we're now threatened by.

Dufresne says in order to save ourselves, not only does capitalism need to be revolutionized, the assumptions behind Western values do, as well.

According to the philosophy professor at Lakehead University, while capitalism gives us the means to harm the planet, it's the values baked into Western thinking that gives us permission.

"The project of Western philosophy helped determine not just the weather, but the geologic shift called the Anthropocene," said Dufresne.

His contention is that the Enlightenment and all its values of freedom and individuality have turned us all into slaves of free market ideology. In the modern world, those values have become inseparable from consumerism — we define our individualism through the things we buy, competitiveness drives consumption, waste, overwork.

 And liberty becomes the freedom to harm the planet and others without accountability.

In 2020 Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos made more than $13 million per hour, Todd Dufresne says in his lecture. 'We’re all branded products now, cogs in an unending parade of phony mass individualism and pseudo-radicalism. Such is the freedom to consume.' (David Ryder/Getty Images)

"Western philosophy, most especially its marriage of reason and humanism, has a lot to apologize for. While it enabled and rationalized the expansion of human ambitions, creating incredible monuments to civilization, ego, and white male pride; and while it generated unimaginable wealth for those lucky enough to be born into the right demographic, in the right country, in the right epoch, it also established and then accelerated all the conditions associated with catastrophic climate change," said Dufrense, in his second of a three-part lecture series written for IDEAS called Climate Change and the Unborn Future: Capitalism, Philosophy, and Pandemic Politics.  

He describes these changes as mass suffering and death in the form of droughts, wars, dislocations and extreme weather events."

As our existing philosophical and economic systems are built on myths that naturalize and even deify human reason, egoism, violence, and competition, Dufresne proposes a globalization of empathy, a collectivism and an aspirational philosophy to help us survive in conditions that no longer favour life on earth. 

How we think and feel about the world creates and recreates the world.- Todd Dufresne

He wants to see a world where we are no longer "hapless curators of the human and natural world," where happiness and meaning still exist.

"If so, then maybe the biggest lesson of the Anthropocene condition is just this: how we think and feel about the world and its inhabitants matters. For how we think and feel about the world creates and recreates the world."

Designers of the Earth

But not everyone sees the Anthropocene in such stark terms. Science writer and journalist Leigh Phillips says now may be the most exciting time to be alive. 

"This is the moment where we're emerging from being a subject of the Earth systems to potentially being the designer of the Earth systems to further improve our quality of life, our standard of living," he told IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed.

Phillips is the author of Austerity Ecology and co-author of the book The People's Republic of Walmart with economist Michael Rozwadowski. He doesn't agree on the theory that economic growth is the driver of climate change, or biodiversity loss or other environmental challenges we face. 

What we need is technology, switching through regulation, industrial policy built out of clean infrastructure, these sorts of things that will solve the problem of climate change.- Leigh Phillips

He points to the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer in the 1980s as an example where the market was the problem, due to the use of chlorofluorocarbons or CFC's in a range of different industrial processes and commodities. Thanks to regulation, corporations that were producing and using CFC were forced to switch to chemicals that didn't damage the ozone layer.

"We're now on track to almost complete healing of the ozone layer by about mid century," said Phillips.

Leigh Philips is a science writer and a political journalist. His areas of specialization include climate change, energy systems, the earth system, and microbiology. (Submitted by Leigh Phillips)

"What we need is technology, switching through regulation, industrial policy built out of clean infrastructure, these sorts of things that will solve the problem of climate change — not telling working people in the West that they have to eke out a very minimal living."

While it's clear that there is a significant climate crisis the world is in right now, the differing opinions and muddled messages can prevent a way forward. Philips says he'd want to convince the 'Green Left' with "evidence based positions that actually benefit working people, instead of sneering and  wagging their finger at the fact that they bought a Barbie doll at Walmart."

"Fundamentally, it's a matter of working people standing up for themselves and disciplining the Left that is supposed to represent them and that has sort of run away from them," he told Ayed.

Phillips sees what he calls "a dark thread of counter-Enlightenment thinking, of anti-humanism" when it comes to how the political Left view a way out of this climate crisis. He sees the fight against climate change as inherently, a humanist struggle.

"So [the Left] get it completely wrong, both on a scientific basis and on a philosophical basis," said Phillips.

"The reason that we want to be preventing climate change and biodiversity loss is not because we want to save the planet. The planet will be perfectly fine. It's because we want to save humans. We're endangering ourselves on the planet."

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