Eco-philosophy concerns itself with the intersection of ecology with philosophy—and particularly our response to industrialisation and manmade climate change. Rupert Read, the philosopher-activist and author of Parents for a Future, selects five of the best books that contemplate eco-philosophy and our place on this Earth.
Let’s start with the obvious question before we talk books. What is eco-philosophy?
I’d say eco-philosophy is philosophy that stands on the Earth, or, to put it in a way which is slightly more etymological, it’s the love of wisdom about all things earthly. So it’s thinking about how our ecology has philosophical implications, and how philosophy may have ecological implications. Eco-philosophy has to do with ethics, obviously. But it’s not just ethics. It’s also to do with what kinds of beings we are, what kinds of things we can hope for, what kind of world this is. In a way eco-philosophy embraces all philosophy in my opinion, but certainly a broad swathe of philosophical thinking that includes epistemology, metaphysics, phenomenology, and ethics insofar as they are relevant to the nature of our existence as earthlings.
It seems to me that what you’re saying is that it’s the philosophy that focuses on questions about ecology, and the environment, and our relationship to the living world. And so just about everything’s eco-philosophy in that sense. But the really important aspect of it is surely where its emphasis lies: in a kind of urgency in relation to the scientific evidence about the climate crisis and impacts of industrialisation on our climate, our ecology and on our social structures. That is what I understand by eco-philosophy anyway.
Absolutely. And industrialisation is highly relevant to most of my book choices. My final book choice, Bruno Latour’s Downto Earth is about the increasingly important question of whether we’re going to stay with this idea of ourselves as earthlings, or whether we’re going to try and escape our earthly nature, which, because of technological advances, is supposedly starting to be a live question.
And just before we get into this, for people who think that simply philosophising about these things, is probably not enough. Could you say a bit about your own active involvement in ecological concerns?
Yes. I’m a professor at the University of East Anglia, where I’ve been researching and teaching for many years, increasingly about this stuff. Obviously, when one does that one needs to be appraised of the science, but science is not everything. We’ll talk about that, how there are considerations to do with precaution that seed ethical questions that go beyond what science has to offer. And, as you imply, I strongly believe that it’s not enough just to philosophise. Philosophers interpret the world. But it also needs changing. And I’ve tried to do some of that as well. I’ve been involved in various kinds of activism for many years. Recently, I was heavily involved in Extinction Rebellion, strategising for them, meeting with the government for them, going on TV for them. That’s a very interesting way of engaging with the public and trying to bring an intellectual perspective to bear, but doing it very much out there in the real world.
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Let’s talk about these eco-philosophy books. What’s your first choice?
So the first book—perhaps a bit of an unexpected choice—is Lyrical Ballads by William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This is a fascinating book in so many ways. One thing that’s so unusual about it is that it is a book of poems by more than one author. Why did Wordsworth and Coleridge decided to produce this, together? Well, basically, it was because they regarded themselves as having something to say, something to contribute that went way beyond the sphere of pleasing or thought provoking in a purely literary sense.
The Lyrical Ballads was a kind of manifesto for a new way of doing poetry. The form of the poetry was very shocking at the time and they were also bringing a new point to poetry. And that point is what really brings this very close to eco-philosophy. What they tried to do in the Lyrical Ballads was to produce a sort of poetic manifesto for thinking about nature in a different way, in a more serious way, than was customary at the time.
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We know this as one of the great statements of the philosophy, or ideology, of Romanticism, which is a point of view, a perspective on the world that I believe needs to be taken incredibly seriously. Romanticism has been viewed over the last couple of centuries, most of the time, as a middle class indulgence or something. As something which is nice, but really can’t be the main way to live one’s life. Wordsworth and Coleridge, were among those who were really serious about it, saying, ‘Look, this should be something like the basis of life’, which obviously brings it very, very close to philosophy. They thought that what we call Romanticism should be the way that we live, the way that we orient ourselves towards the world. And, they thought, if we are missing the kinds of things that they were trying to get at, that were present in their poems, they thought, in a certain sense, we were missing everything.
You could think of the Lyrical Ballads as a confrontation with the emerging spirit of industrialism. At the very time they were writing these poems, the Industrial Revolution was really taking off in England. They were seeking to resist that, but to resist it actively, and to sketch a live alternative. I think they do it absolutely brilliantly and profoundly.
Sometimes in Britain, we tend to venerate and get excited about speakers of German or French or other languages more than we do speakers of English. And that can happen with Romanticism, as well. I think these poems are astonishingly fine in the main, I think they’re really important. They were brought together by these two authors in the prime of their talent and I think they still have something to teach us now.
So, just to give a flavour of it, could you pick out an overarching message or a message from within a single poem that you tells us something about ethics?
Yes. I’d like to read out a little passage from the final poem in the book. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it is the final poem. It’s ‘Lines written above Tintern Abbey’ by Wordsworth. I could have picked many poems from the book, most of them by Wordsworth, or I could have picked something else, perhaps something from Wordsworth’s amazing narrative poem, ‘The Prelude’, which points in much the same direction. But this is a particularly powerful passage. And I think it’ll be clear, as I read it, how this is philosophically relevant. Here we go:
“…And I have felt A presence that disturbs me with the joy Of elevated thoughts; a sense, sublime Of something far more deeply interfused…”
This idea of interfusion, I think, is something which philosophers could take some notice of.
“…Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, And the round ocean, and the living air, And the blue sky, and in the mind of man: A motion and a spirit, that impels All thinking things, all objects of all thought, And rolls through all things…”
So there’s some kind of sense there, which you might connect in a way with philosophical Idealism, of a central importance to the human mentality, and the fusing of it with the world. And then the poem continues with this line,
“…Therefore am I still A lover of the meadows and the woods, And mountains; and of all that we behold From this green earth, of all the mighty world Of eye and ear,—both what they half create And what perceive;…”
I think this is very lovely, these final lines I read, “both what they half create/ And what perceive”. Somehow our minds and our senses are involved in the creation of what they perceive and don’t merely perceive it—nor do they merely create it. There’s a kind of active interfusion. And that, I think, is part of what Wordsworth was seeking to give us in this poem.
It’s striking of course that these poems are poems about the countryside, about the Lake District and, in this case of Tintern Abbey, in Wales. They’re rural scenes, places of great beauty.
But, as John Stuart Mill and various other people have pointed out, ‘nature’ applies to everything. Nature isn’t simply the beautiful landscape, it’s the whole thing. What’s natural is what we do. Isn’t there a place for an ecology of cities and ecology of factories even? Aren’t we in danger of a kind of romanticisation of the countryside, which, actually today, isn’t the greenest place to live, except visually?
Let’s start with nature. Is nature everything? I’d say yes and no. I think it’s really important that the word ‘nature’ is used in different ways in different contexts. There is a really important use of the word ‘nature’ often made by philosophers, where it’s simply everything, and it’s opposed only to the supernatural, or the non-existent.
But I think it’s important to remember that there’s another sense of the word ‘nature’, which is not that, which is nature as opposed to culture, or nature as opposed to the urban environment. There’s an important use for that concept of nature, as well. I’ve argued previously, that actually, it’s not a coincidence that we have these two senses of nature, and I think we can’t do without either of them.
Am I implying that we can’t think in the kind of way that Wordsworth does about cities and so forth? No, not at all. And in that context, of course, it’s really interesting that another of the great poems in the Lyrical Ballads is ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September, the Third 1802’. It’s a splendid poem, which begins:
“Earth has not anything to show more fair, Dull would he be of soul who could pass by A site, so touching in its majesty: This city now doth, like a garment, Wear the beauty of the morning…”
There you have Wordsworth doing that, bringing the spirit of Romanticism into the heart of the city; but does that mean in turn, that we just simply have to accept that it all comes together as a package, and we have to just roll over and accept industrialisation and accept all its consequences? I don’t think it does means that either. I think that there’s a dialectical relationship, if you will, between these two senses of nature. And what Wordsworth and Coleridge try to give us is a sense of the beauty of wild nature and rural nature, a sense of the same thing sometimes in cities, but also a sense, often by a sort of implied contrast, of where these things can go wrong. I think that they did start to go wrong in some pretty serious ways, during the Industrial Revolution.
I think it would obviously be absurd to say simply, ‘It would have been better if the Industrial Revolution hadn’t have happened.’ But I don’t think it’s totally absurd to say something like, ‘Imagine if the industrial revolution had happened a lot more slowly, or a lot more carefully, or a lot more selectively.’ Among other things, we wouldn’t be in the situation that we are in now, where we have to contemplate the possible destruction of our civilisation and even of our species, this century. That’s part of what’s motivating the choices of my books here today. What if we were able to think philosophically and in ways that inform philosophy, through literature and other sources, that might make it less likely that we head down this path to mutual self-destruction?
I like that poem you quoted about the sublime and the feeling of connection with something bigger. I think that’s something that almost anybody would recognise as having experienced, at least from time to time, and it reminds me very much of Schopenhauer. And I suspect German idealism, as you say, is the source of some of Wordsworth’s thinking, but it also puts me in mind of that poem by Dylan Thomas, which is almost pure Schopenhauer, ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower,’—there he writes about the life energy, or the ‘world as will’ as Schopenhauer would have expressed it.
Is there some kind of message from Wordsworth and Coleridge about what we should do. There’s that famous line from Auden, ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’, which is probably false. It’s certainly false but, on the other hand, it’s true that poetry doesn’t make a lot happen.
What Wordsworth and Coleridge offered us—and I think it did have some consequence—is a sense of, or a way of being in the world, which wouldn’t just take for granted nostrums of so-called progress, thinking that there’s nothing to do in the face of industrialisation bar roll over and accept it. This has, of course, been often a defensive or rear-guard action, but it’s a rear-guard action which has had some real effects. Here’s an interesting question: would you have had organisations like the National Trust, if you hadn’t had poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge? Now obviously, that’s an impossible counterfactual question to answer. But it seems to me that one might at least speculate that ideas and practices such as those embedded in amazing organisations like the National Trust, or later, the National Parks, don’t come from nowhere; they come from a certain kind of cultural milieu, or a certain kind of sense of what’s possible and what’s important. The lines are not going to be direct. It would be very difficult to write an impact case study for Wordsworth. But I think there are likely to be real connections there and perhaps quite deep and significant connections.
And my thought is that we need to go back to some of these writers and thinkers and see their relevance now that the consequences of rampant, reckless industrialism are much plainer to see. I see people like Wordsworth and Rabindranath Tagore, who we’ll come on to in a minute, as visionaries and people with a cultural and philosophical influence who need to be listened to now if there is going to be a future.
Let’s move on to your second book, Tagore’s Letters From a Young Poet, 1887 to 1895.
A book by another great literary figure, this time from the east: Rabindranath Tagore. It’s not one of his best-known books, but in my opinion, it is one of his very best. It’s a collection of letters to his niece. And when he wrote these, in most cases, there would have been absolutely no thought of publication, which makes their quality all the more remarkable. You might think of this book as an eastern epistolatory nature philosophy. It contains passages of astounding beauty about the natural world that Tagore was inhabiting, which was basically the river deltas around Calcutta. It also contains his reflections on how these give us a very different sense of what’s important and of how to live than one gets in the city. It’s a sort of Eastern counterpart, as I see it, of Romanticism, and again, very visionary.
I’ve been dipping into Henry Thoreau’s Walden recently, and also I’ve reviewed, Peter Godfrey-Smith’s recent book Metazoa. What struck me about both of those books—both written by philosophers—was that most of the argument is carried in a certain kind of description, a very attentive way of responding to what’s in front of them, the natural world, as we say. In the case of Thoreau, it was the changing natural world he was living in by Walden Pond, self-exiled, as it were, in a little hut there for a couple of years. For Peter Godfrey-Smith it was diving
in the sea near Sydney looking at, for the most part, things like sea anemones and shrimps, as well as octopuses, but looking really hard. And the first stage of this process is a willingness to describe with great attention, what’s in front of your nose.
Very nice. I think that’s a great connection. It also reminds me of the philosopher who has been a great influence on my work, Wittgenstein, who over and over again emphasised the importance of description. There are those key lines in Philosophical Investigations, ‘don’t think but look; I repeat, don’t think but look!’; look at how language actually works, look at real examples. And possibly it’s no coincidence that for Wittgenstein Tagore was a towering figure. When Wittgenstein encountered the Vienna Circle in the 1920s, they thought they were going to be meeting a scientifically-minded philosopher, and they were absolutely astonished when Wittgenstein chose to read out long passages from Tagore to them, instead!
I think that connection with Walden that you’ve essayed there is a very apt one, Nigel—not very distant in time, from this book of Tagore’s. I think the sensibilities of Thoreau and Tagore are quite similar. And interestingly, neither of them are really writing from or about the deep wilderness, but writing about the places where nature intersects with human life, and also very much writing about water, and places where, water and trees and human beings come together and combine.
It’s interesting too that nobody teaches philosophers to describe the world. They just want to argue, give reasons, and find evidence which supports their conclusion—a conclusion which they may have already reached before they’ve started the process—if that’s not too cynical. I don’t think there’s an innocent eye. But there’s a great value in an immersion in a place either socially or physically, in trying new things, and in communicating something about the complexity of what it is you’re actually thinking about, not assuming how everything is before you start.
Absolutely. And this is very much what Tagore does. He’s basically spending leisure time in the Ganges Delta, and in the nearby tributary rivers, especially the Padma, which is the one that he loves. He just writes these letters to his niece and describes what he sees. And then, sometimes, he draws morals or parallels.
So let me read you a little one here, which is quite intriguing for us. Here he’s contrasting the existence he has on the Ganges Delta and his boat with the world he lives in the majority of the time. He says this:
“The world in which I find myself is full of very strange human beings. They are all occupied night and day with rules and building walls. They carefully put up curtains just in case their eyes actually see anything. Really, the creatures of this world are very strange. It’s a wonder they don’t cover up every flowering bush, or erect canopies to keep out the moonlight.”
I think it’s a splendid remark. It intrigues me that he’s interested in something there, which I’m also interested in, which is the way in which we’re not very good—and I include philosophers in this typically—at noticing the world outside of… not necessarily our own minds, but of our own human-made environments. In other words, it’s almost as if Tagore is saying here, ‘Why are people so obsessed with staying in the cave, when there are these wonderful, natural landscapes, that you could see if you just turned your head and look outside.’
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I encountered a great example of this some years ago at the University of East Anglia. I was in a meeting with a bunch of colleagues in the Humanities faculty. We were talking about whether we were going to create a new school of the Humanities. And outside the window there developed this astounding, huge thunderstorm, one of the most ferocious thunderstorms I’ve ever seen; and no one took a blind bit of notice of it. I just couldn’t understand it, and I couldn’t relate to that non-seeing. I just thought, ‘Why aren’t we stopping and appreciating, and taking in this this astounding, perhaps once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon.’ But it seemed to me as if my colleagues literally didn’t notice or, if they did, they deliberately turned their heads back inside again. That incident has stayed with me.
I’ve got an experience that has something in common with that. I once went to a wedding with a philosopher friend, and we were being driven by a third philosopher. We were driving through part of Norfolk through open land with trees and they didn’t have low branches. One of my travelling companions noted that we could probably conclude from this, that there were deer around that had eaten them. But the irony was that there were all these antlers sticking out through the grass. You could see the deer. You didn’t have to reason to their existence indirectly.
Before we move on to your third choice, can I just ask, is the Tagore book the kind of book that you would read from cover to cover? Or is it one you might dip into and enjoy it—one letter at a time?
Well, one of the nice things about this book is that it was never the intention of Tagore himself for this to be a book. I’ve done it both ways. The first time I read it, I read it all the way through and became more and more absorbed. But it’s equally possible to just dip in.
Your third eco-philosophy book choice is The Imperative of Responsibility by Hans Jonas.
My third choice is more classically within the philosophical canon. The Imperative of Responsibility is probably Jonas’s masterpiece. He wrote this book in 1979. It’s a contemporary classic, in the sense that it’s really foundational, in my view (but not just in my view), for environmental ethics because it’s a book—and this is over 40 years ago now—that really takes seriously, as very few had before, the change that needs to come to philosophy. We need to start taking seriously the change that has come to us as a species as a result of industrialism, as a result of our growing technological power.
The argument that Jonas makes in an early part of the book is that this growing technological power forces upon us new questions and new responsibilities. He thinks that traditional ethics was not really well placed to answer or respond to the imperative of responsibility for our planetary home. I think he’s basically right. And, increasingly, that’s almost taken for granted, at least outside a few holdout departments of moral philosophy. But, at the time, it was quite a bold thing to argue. So Jonas says, for example, that nuclear war and environmental devastation are possibilities that mean that it’s not adequate anymore just to think within the confines of Kantianism, or Utilitarianism or similar perspectives.
“Nuclear war and environmental devastation are possibilities that mean that it’s not adequate anymore just to think within the confines of Kantianism, or Utilitarianism”
In particular, he emphasises the way that so much of ethics is designed to deal with person-to-person interactions, which are not cumulative; whereas the choices that have increasingly faced us over the past couple of generations, are on a vast scale, and are cumulative over time. They demand foresight. They demand—in terms which have been increasingly important to me and my work in recent years—precaution. They demand that we think ahead, and take care ahead of time; they demand, in particular, that we don’t wait until all the scientific evidence is in. If we wait until all the evidence is in with regard to these kinds of threats, we may have waited until a time when it’s no longer possible for us to head off the threat. This is especially relevant to problems like genetic modification and geo-engineering. But it’s still relevant to climate as well.
We have vast evidence now on dangerous man-made climate change, but there are still issues that we don’t fully understand. And there always will be. That’s in the nature of any question being a scientific question. The question is not entirely settled yet, which sometimes makes it difficult for scientists to communicate well in the public domain. So, even with regard to climate, there are questions about climate sensitivity, for example, which mean that, beyond the evidence, we need to bring in a precautionary perspective. And it was on that notion that Jonas really did the spade work in this wonderfully written book.
For people my age—I’m nearly 60—these are questions about responsibilities we have to people who will outlive us. That’s when the worst is likely to hit. Lots of people seem merely motivated by things that happen or are likely to happen within their own lifetimes. So it doesn’t seem irrational to think only about yourself—my conscious lifetime, my experiences, what happens to those I care about. The further away you get from now, the harder it is accurately to predict what life will be like. Who could have predicted the internet’s impact social life 30 years ago? Who would have known about citizen science? Those sorts of things didn’t exist.
So, I can’t project with much certainty into the future but, in any case, isn’t it quite rational to think about my life and my short-term cost/benefit analysis when thinking about how I should live? Added to that, if you think the human species is going to continue, and other animals which you have duties to, or responsibilities for are doing to keep going on into the future, aren’t you going to be overwhelmed by what you have to do in the present for the future? How can you start to think about those things without being swamped? If you’re a consequentialist you’re going to end up living on nothing and sacrificing everything about this life for a possible future one that someone else may or may not get to live.
Those are great questions. I think they’re really important. I think that the thing about those two questions you ended up there with, is that there’s a real danger that, because we don’t really want to hear the answer to the questions, we try not to ask them very deeply.
In other words, I don’t think we should be living on virtually nothing now. And I think that extreme consequentialist visions of what we should be doing don’t cut the mustard. But what I certainly think, is that we should be thinking far more carefully, and seriously, about what we owe to future people, what we owe to our descendants. If we allowed ourselves to really do that thinking, everything would change about the way that we live.
Now, how do we motivate that? Well, this is the topic of my new book, Parents for a Future, and the argument that I make at the core of this book, which has been much influenced by Jonas in the background, is that, if you simply accept that we are in a period of potential environmental catastrophe—and I think everyone has to accept that now, that at the very least we are facing a potential true environmental catastrophe—and if you are serious about loving your own children, that itself is enough to impel a long-term care for the entire Earth, and to draw the consequences now for how we need to change living our lives now, including politically.
“We should be thinking far more carefully, and seriously, about what we owe to future people, what we owe to our descendants”
How so? Because my argument is that if you love your children, you have to make it possible for them to extend the same love to their children, and this swiftly iterates into the future. And then, in order to ensure that we are placing them in the best possible position to have a future, we have to provide them with the basic conditions for that, which is not so much a question of us denying ourselves everything, but rather a question of us ensuring that they’re not denied the right to have everything, or even anything—crucially, functional ecosystems, the capacity to live, breathe, eat, drink, and so on. We should assume that human beings are going to need that for a very, very long time to come.
So the argument I would make on a broadly Jonasian basis, and the argument I do make in this book, is that we do, indeed, have deep responsibilities to the future. This means that we have to change the way that we live now. Anything less is reckless, and unethical, and means that we won’t be able to look our children in the eye in the future. If we don’t change everything and change it fast, there is highly likely to be a massive deterioration, an historic deterioration, or potential collapse in the quality of life in our children’s generation. If that happens, then every child, sooner or later, every descendant, sooner or later, is going to turn around and ask the one question they will be interested in knowing the answer to: What did you do while there was still time? So that’s another motivation that I’m trying to bring to bear in this book—regret-avoidance: avoiding being in the position of not being able to say, ‘I did everything that I could.’ Hopefully doing everything that we can will be enough. But if it isn’t, you still want to know that you at least did everything that you could.
Is Jonas’ book a dense philosophical tome, or is it something that is written for a wider audience?
Well, it’s a bit of both. But it’s certainly not a light read. And I think you can’t get the full impact of it unless you’re willing to give it some serious attention, and probably to read most of it or all of it. Before we leave it, let me just give you one little example of the philosophical power and broader relevance of the book. One of the things that Jonas does in the book is offer a kind of refutation of the famous philosophical is/ought distinction or fact/value distinction.
And this is how he does it.
“When asked for a single instance, and one is enough, where the coincidence of the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’ occurs, we can point at the most familiar sight, the new-born, whose mere breathing uncontradictably addresses an ‘ought’ to the world around, namely, to take care of him.”
So the suggestion that Jonas makes there is: simply looking at a new-born baby is enough to unleash the imperative of responsibility. I’m not certain that I agree with him. I’ve argued in print in the past that, actually, we need to have a sort of virtue of love or care that intervenes there to help us. But it’s a very, very powerful idea, a powerful attempt at disagreeing with one of the main dogmas of philosophy.
Your next eco-philosophy book is Entropia, a novel.
My next book is by far the least well known of my authors, and it’s by far the least well known book. It’s by my friend and colleague, Samuel Alexander, with whom I’ve co-written a couple of books now, including my little book, This Civilisation is Finished.
This is a book that deserves to be much better known than it is. And, of the things that Samuel has written, I think it’s the most important. It’s a philosophical novel. What Sam wants to do, is to depict a future in which industrial growth and society have collapsed, and people are trying to live on the wreckage in a way that is sustainable. And they’re trying to live in that sense within entropic limits, trying to be scavengers of the old civilisation and to remake a new viable, essentially agrarian civilisation, with small scale workshops, doing stuff by hand. There’s lots of poetry, with people doing spontaneous performances for each other in their leisure time. But struggling to get by some of the time. The book contains an account of what happens after the Great Disruption, when most societies of the world collapsed, which is conceived as having been within the lifetimes of many of these people in the book.
It’s a splendid read. For philosophers, it’s charming, because Sam is continually bringing in implicitly, and mostly explicitly, the great philosophers. He’s quoting or talking about Hobbes, Rousseau, Marx, and the rest. His characters sometimes offer lines of one of them to each other. And, in that sense, it’s very much a novel of ideas in the tradition of utopias and dystopias.
“They wanted to see whether people could potentially live off the wreckage of industrial civilisation, whether people could live much more lightly on the earth”
Now, for the first two thirds one could think it’s fun and interesting, but a little bit plodding. Quite a lot of it is expository, and it’s not exactly driven by a brilliant narrative or by literary flair. I don’t think Sam would mind me saying that. But then, two thirds of the way through, there’s this enormous twist. And what I’m afraid I have to do in order to give you a sense of why the book is really, really worth reading, is to tell you what the twist is. So, this is going to be a horrible spoiler for you. But it’s for the greater good.
The novel is set on an island where they’re building this community of Entropia on the wreckage of industrial civilisation. What happens two thirds of the way through the novel is that, for the first time in a very long time, they get a visitor to the island who rows in a boat to them and tells them an astonishing fact. Here is where Plato comes in… This visitor says that the history of their community is based on a noble lie. And the lie is this: no collapse of civilisation has taken place. And in fact, the time isn’t the late 21st century, the time is the present day. And, actually, the experiment of Entropia started in the 1930s and 1940s, when some far-sighted people started to see that we were on the path to potential societal collapse. What they wanted to see was whether people could potentially live off the wreckage of industrial civilisation and whether people could live much more lightly on the earth.
What this visitor then says to the inhabitants of Entropia is, ‘Look what we want you to do now in the early 21st century, is to come back to the world and teach people about how you’ve been managing to live, and explain to them that it’s not going to be as terrible as they all think, and also to explain to them what it was like living in what they thought was the aftermath of the crash of industrial civilisation.’
It’s an absolutely magnificent twist. It really took my breath away; and also, of course, it raises intriguing ethical issues in terms of whether a noble lie like that can ever really be noble, whether it can be justified.
That’s Entropia in a nutshell. I hope you’ll still think it worth reading—or studying you’re your students, maybe, if you’re a teacher—even after hearing that. I hope I’ve at least explained how it came to have a powerful effect on me. It is a novel of ideas supremely relevant to the situation in which we now find ourselves.
Let’s move on to the last of your eco-philosophy books: Latour’s Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime.
This book’s hard to classify. It’s by the philosopher-sociologist-theorist, Bruno Latour.
Latour was not one of my favourite thinkers before I read this book. I‘ve found him an interesting person to engage with, in person, and to read in the past, but I rarely found myself really agreeing with him very much. But this book has changed all of that. The title is translated from the French—a better translation would be A Place to Land.
What’s the French title?
Où Atterrir? (Where to come down to earth? or: Where to land?) It’s that idea of where to come down, of finding a place to land, that’s missing from the English version.
Here’s a quotation from the book that I actually use as an epigraph in my book, Parents For a Future where Latour is explaining the sense in which he means the title—especially the French title:
“Do we continue to nourish dreams of escaping, or do we start seeking a territory that we and our children can inhabit? Either we deny the existence of the problem, or else we look for a place to land. From now on, this is what divides us all, much more than our position on the right or the left side of the political spectrum.”
That’s one of the things that really interests me in the book. Latour argues—and this is very interesting coming from a French person again—that it is widely but unwisely taken for granted in political philosophy and in actual politics that the division between left and right is the meaningful and central divide. Like Latour, I don’t deny that it still has some relevance. But what I’d argue, and what I find very convincing in Latour’s book, is that a more important divide now is the divide between those who essentially put their faith in technology and who think we can we can build a more anthropocentric Earth, or indeed escape from Earth altogether, or escape from our bodies—essentially it’s the same idea, transhumanism—and those who don’t think that, and who instead think that in some fundamental sense we need to go back to our nature as Earthlings, who think we need, in some sense, to go back to the land. We need to find a place to land, we need to re-associate ourselves with places, and we need to re-integrate ourselves with the land-base. You might see a kind of connection here, going back to the books we talked about at the start of this discussion.
And I think that’s right. On the left, you have people like the advocates of so-called fully-automated-luxury-communism, and on the right you have those peculiar characters in California who hope to have their minds uploaded to computers to achieve immortality. But what they have in common is that they’re not interested in finding a place to land, they’re interested rather in escaping from our earthly nature, or escaping from the earth altogether. And I think Latour is proposing here a really helpful way of re-conceiving our politics and ourselves, a way that exposes the dangerous parallel between the right- and left- reality-deniers.
As a starting point, the way you’ve expressed it, it seems quite extreme. Maybe it’s just the kind of people I mix with, but I’ve never met anybody who sincerely thinks that within the next few generations, the majority of the population will be out-housed on a different planet. And it’s looking increasingly implausible that we’ll be able to upload people to computers, apart from in sci-fi movies.
It’s a nice little philosophical puzzle, whether you could do that or not, and remain the same person. But realistically, it seems to be so far-fetched that it’s the wildest of Californian dreams. Like cryogenics, this is all a fantasy of achieving immortality, albeit with a tech twist.
But there is also a scientific optimism around that I find surprising. For instance, Steven Pinker, in The Better Angels of Our Nature, tells the story of how over the last 500 years, or whatever, things have got better for human beings, radically better. We mustn’t lose sight of that—in terms of poverty, in terms of ageing, in terms of the illnesses and suffering that we endure while we’re alive.
There is obviously the fear of massive nuclear war, massive climate change disaster. But he puts his faith in science to find solutions, rather than seeing a catastrophic decline and a change in the graph going upwards to a sudden, downwards turn. That kind of optimism, scientific optimism—the idea that we’ve dealt with crises in the past, therefore we’ll be able to deal with them in the future is something that is disconcerting sometimes, because it can invite a kind of sit-back-and-let-the-scientists-get-on-with-it approach.
Given that, how is Latour telling us to redirect our energies?
Latour thinks that the very widespread idea of some kind of cosmopolitanism, which I find almost ubiquitous in academia, the very widespread and supposedly obviously good idea that we’re fundamentally ‘citizens of the world’, that that actually can only at the very most tell half the story. “We also need to attach ourselves,” as he puts it, “to a particular patch of soil.” We have to re-root ourselves, as Simone Weil might have put it. We have to get serious about place about place mattering and not just space or the entire globe.
And I think this is this is right, and a helpful move. I find the Pinkerian alternative deeply unconvincing. Let me briefly sketch why. Pinker has had very strong, devastating arguments made against him by people such as Ed Herman from the left, and by Nassim Taleb. It’s really important to take into account that it’s arguably quite lucky that we are even where we are. By which I mean, for example, there’s quite good reason to believe that we’re lucky not to have sunk our civilisation already. Plain lucky in particular not to have had nuclear war, massive nuclear war, over the last 70 years. Now, if you’re in the good position that you’re in simply as a matter of luck, then that really isn’t a very good basis for any kind of faith in ongoing progress. And if you do have that… faith, then, surprisingly, the word ‘faith’ really is relevant here. I think that this is a kind of faith-based approach. It’s not based on rationality, it’s not based on reliable evidence.
I would argue that the only sane thing to do now—and this, I think is the key message of eco-philosophy as I’ve been trying to understand it or expound it—is to start to roll back somewhat in the kind of direction that Latour is pointing to. But remember, the interesting thing about Latour is that he’s not simply saying something like, ‘Let’s go back to the local, let’s go back to the past.’ He wants to maintain an idea of having access to the global world. I think this is very attractive, too.
Let me give an example. You mentioned the internet earlier. It seems to me that a very attractive possible scenario for the future of humankind, if we’re going to survive, is we try to re-root ourselves: we get serious about place, we get serious about the land again, with many more of us working on the land a lot more, starting with those who already want to but in various ways are prevented from doing so by poor institutional arrangements. But, on the scenario I hope for, we don’t simply dispense with our global communications. On the contrary, we actually deliberately keep global communications open, so that we can continue to communicate with each other, so that we can continue to learn from each other, so that we can avoid atavism; and so that we can deal with coordination on worldwide problems such as pandemics or, or the climate itself. And I think that that shows, there’s no inherent contradiction between these two.
We can have a future which is both global and much more seriously, local. Our world can be the best of both these worlds. That I think is a genuinely attractive vision for the future because, of course, there are many people who are not attracted by pure globalism or cosmopolitanism, but who want nevertheless to maintain the best of what we have, while actually having a way of life which is far more rooted, knowing their neighbours, having more security. I think it’s still not too late to combine these; but it will be too late soon.
We’ll probably soon be committed to some kind of collapse scenario, in my opinion, tragically, unless we aim seriously for the kind of alternative that is sketched in the most intriguing way in Latour’s book.
I’m intrigued by that. It’s quite comfortable for me, I’m quite happy being located in this place in East Oxford, a quarter of a mile from the River Thames, with nice walks, reasonably good air quality, not too noisy. But for plenty of people, the place they find themselves in is the place that they want to have the chance to get away from. It’s not given that because you’re in a place, you want to be rooted there, fundamentally, because some people are really unfortunate in the places they live. Not every place is equally attractive.
Why is that, though? I would argue that one of the key reasons is that many of these places have been destroyed by forces that were not from that place. And this is one of the key reasons why we need to do a lot of re-localisation. Because, when you’re dependent upon long supply lines, when you’re dependent on decisions made by CEOs, or investors, or prime ministers, who live 1,000s of miles away, then it’s hard for you to maintain and be fully ‘invested’ in where you live. What’s the best way typically to have people living in places that are not polluted and destroyed? It’s to let them have power over those places, and for them not to be dependent upon the whims of human beings who don’t have their interests at heart, and who can’t necessarily see the damage that they’re doing. When we buy products from China, we can’t easily see the damage that we’re doing. If our supply lines were far more local and much shorter, if we were much more rooted, then it would be far more difficult to avoid facing the consequences of what we do and how we live.
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It is complicated, though, because in my experience, when you have small communities, you get the Nimby effect (‘not in my back yard’)—do it next door, not here. But also, trade is what has allowed for political progress historically. Trade is what’s opened up channels of communication with people who would otherwise be fighting. And with trade with countries whose regimes operate in different ways, gradual change becomes possible, because of the necessity on both parts to continue to trade.
But that’s what I think is hopeful again, about Latour’s vision. He’s saying, ‘Let’s not go back to some kind of pure nativism/atavism/nationalism. But let’s get serious about re-localisation. Let’s get serious about roots, let’s get serious about place. And let’s find a way in which we can combine that with retaining the best of the global’, which, in my opinion, clearly includes trade where it’s necessary. Bananas would be a stereotypical example. I don’t want to give up bananas. They should come on a boat, for a long time to come. But I don’t think it’s a good idea that that all of my computers are made in China. And I want to be able to carry on communicating with people around the world. But I also want communities to be more genuine for people—for people to know their neighbours, for people not to rush around commuting so much and holidaying endlessly in distant locations.
Of course, the pandemic is interesting here. Covid-19 may be the turning point. It may be the point at which globalisation and cosmopolitanism start to go into reverse. And what I’m saying is that, if we make that change in the right manner, that could be a good thing. If we don’t do it in a sort of simplistic globalisation-was-all-terrible kind of way. What if we thought carefully about what the good bits of industrialisation are, and the bad bits? What if we did the same with globalisation? It seems to me that making possible that kind of thinking is precisely the kind of thing that philosophers nowadays ought to be doing.
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