Being and climate change

This is a weird time to be alive. To live now is to have the occasional consciousness that our planet is heading for a monumental shift in climate, which is likely to make existence much harder for billions of people in the future. Yet, despite this prospect, there is a general feeling that, firstly, there’s nothing we can do about it, and secondly, why go on about it?

So we make a collective agreement not to talk about it because, even if there is a storm on the horizon, it appears to be approaching very slowly, and as a species our minds go very fast. There is a gap between human time and planet time. We’re in a car crash in very slow motion, like the van falling off the bridge in Inception. Deep in our dreams, we are vaguely disturbed by the van’s rotations, but we’ll only really wake up once the van hits the river.

Very occasionally, my mind is aware of climate change. I turn briefly from the amusing cabaret of our culture and glimpse it, leering at me like a skull at a masked ball. Very occasionally, something catches my eye and reminds me of the storm heading this way, perhaps a story buried on page 15, between Kate in the hospital and Nadine in the jungle. Something like: ‘Polar ice-caps melting faster than ever’, or ‘2012 set to be hottest year ever for the US’ and ‘the wettest summer in the UK for 100 years’. I might happen to see a small article on rising food prices or the rapid acidification of oceans.

I read passages like the following, in today’s Economist:

People have started wondering what the world might look like if it were 4°C or 6°C hotter. A new report for the World Bank by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research paints an ugly picture. Oceans, the study says, would rise by 0.5-1 metres by 2100, devastating coastal cities and bearing especially heavily on East and South Asia. Three-quarters of tropical forests could die, including many in Indonesia, India and the Philippines, adding further to global warming. Crop yields would fall overall and droughts would become more common and severe (even if, at the moment, they may not be spreading everywhere, see article). “A 4°C world,” says the report, “can and must be avoided.” Alas, the Doha conference is unlikely to play much part in stopping it.

And I think, wow, this is happening. For real. But it’s too enormous to think about, so I find myself seeking consolation in the trivial. Thanks to the internet, there’s always something trivial with which to distract ourselves, like a cat that looks like Hitler.

Or another who looks like Batman:

Or another who looks like…wait, I’m getting distracted.

We’re not dealing with climate change. Not even close. We’re behaving like an alcoholic who’s been told he better cut down on the sauce if he wants to save his liver, and who instead embarks on one last massive binge, fracking the shale gas, drilling the Arctic. We’ll drink whatever now, lighter fluid, essence of petunia, whatever we can get, just as long as we don’t sober up and have to face the day.

The Theatre of the Absurd

As the Economist put it in the article quoted above, we have entered the Theatre of the Absurd. When you keep the prospect of climate change in mind, everything else seems a bit absurd: my own focus on career advancement, for example.  Our politics seems absurd: no political leader is talking about climate change, in fact, our chancellor just cut tax on petrol. And our culture is far too upbeat, too easily distracted by funny cats and dancing Koreans, to be able to focus seriously on something so downbeat, so intractable to short-term efforts, and so far away (like…40 years or something. Relax!)

Very occasionally, I wonder, how should I live in the face of climate change. And this question reminds me a bit of the existentialist question, how should one be in the face of death and nothingness.

Four existentialists, stuck in a lift.

I am not myself an existentialist: it seems a rather morbid and unhealthy philosophy to me. I actually gave a talk to some existentialist therapists this year, who told me the reading list to train to be an existentialist therapist was Heidegger, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard and Kafka. (Can you imagine four more unwell individuals? Imagine being stuck in a lift with them!) As you can guess, the existentialist therapists were not that impressed with my cheery Socratic optimism.

Here, very quickly, is why I grew out of the existentialism of my early 20s, and why I think it’s an unhealthy philosophy. Existentialists believe that we construct selves out of nothingness, and these selves are always rather contingent and arbitrary, and even absurd considering the indifference of the universe and the approach of mortality. And yet somehow we must commit to the selves we construct for ourselves, in constant awareness of the yawning void beneath our choices. If you’re a good Existentialist, you feel a constant nausea, angst or dread at the nothingness beneath us. To be alive is to be unwell.

To deny this dread, to try and forget the void for a second, is to live inauthentically. Somehow you have to construct a bold self from the void, which often means doing some bizarre and idiosyncratic gesture, like shooting an Arab, or becoming a Maoist, or dumping your fiancee like Soren Kierkegaard did. When I was into Kierkegaard and existentialism at 22, I also decided I needed to make some grand idiosyncratic gesture, some leap of faith across the void, so I decided to move to Denmark and become a freelance philosopher. I told everyone I knew I was moving to Denmark. I even held a leaving party. Then I decided not to move to Denmark. That’s what it’s like to be an Existentialist – fairly ridiculous, all in all.

The Greeks, by contrast, were much wiser and healthier than the Existentialists. They agreed that we construct our selves, and that we are often imprisoned by artificial constructions we fashioned and then believe are real. The Greeks agreed that we have a radical freedom to leave these prisons, to choose who we want to be. But they understood that this radical freedom is constrained by nature. They were much better biologists and psychologists than the existentialists, more scientific, more interested in studying human nature and the nature of the cosmos. And they thought we don’t have a nausea-inducing array of choices about how to live. The good life is the life that fits with human nature and the nature of the cosmos.

The Greeks are far more optimistic than the Existentialists, because they think (on the whole) that there is a fit between human nature and the nature of the cosmos, and that even if there isn’t a God we can still achieve fulfillment. We are rational, social, political and spiritual creatures. We can fulfill our natures through the practice of philosophy. We don’t have to decide, every time we get out of bed, what self we want to construct out of the void, in some Lady Gaga fashion. Rather, we try to continue the lifelong project of knowing and fulfilling our nature as humans, which means strengthening the habits we want to strengthen, weakening the habits we want to weaken, engaging with our society, and expanding our consciousness of selves and reality.

Emmy van Deuzen, the leading existential therapist in the UK

Any talk of character and habits seems like bad faith to the Existentialists. When I spoke of the practice of repeating ideas until they became habits, Emmy van Deuzen, the head of the school of existential therapy in London, said all this emphasis on conditioning and habit-reinforcing sounded like cultic brain-washing. But the Existentialists’ lack of understanding of ethical habits is the weak-spot of their psychology. They focus too much on radical free will and not enough on habits. They also have a flawed understanding of what it means to flourish, because they take as their ideals people like Soren Kierkegaard, who was a thinker of rare insight and genius but also, really, an extremely self-conscious, socially incompetent and unwell individual, living inside his own head, divorced from relations with other people or society. We don’t need to make some radical ‘leap of faith’ as Kierkegaard suggested. We need to know our nature, and how to fulfill it. For the Greeks, essence precedes existence.

So, anyway, when Existentialists say ‘how can we live authentically in the face of death and nothingness’, I think ‘what’s the problem?’ I may die but the project of humanity will go on. I can live a happy life despite knowing I’ll die – I’ll write some books, hopefully marry a nice girl and raise a family, and try to leave the world slightly better for my existence. No big deal.

Climate angst
But the prospect of climate change does fill me with angst, dread, nausea or what-have-you. Because existence may become a lot worse for the people who come after us, for children born today. So I feel like it’s difficult simply to live my life and follow my particular projects, knowing that how we’re living now will make things a lot worse for the people who come after us. If mitigating climate change is the major challenge of our generation, then should we all be focusing our attention and energy on that? How should we live, in the face of climate change?

Sarah Connor, eco-mummy

Even if we do take the threat seriously, it’s not entirely clear what we can do. We could express our concerns at the ballot box, try and lift climate change up the political agenda. We could campaign for the Green Party, although it’s against nuclear power. We could focus our attention on communication, try to make books or films that spread the message and help us change our behaviour (but we can’t all do that, can we?) We could try and create a grassroots conversation about the coming storm, like Transition Towns, or the ‘eco-therapy space‘ which Rosemary Randall wrote about this week in Aeon. But that’s not going to stop the storm or help our children. Perhaps we need to train our children for the apocalypse, like Sarah Connor in Terminator II.

I know one person who had a sort of Jerry Macguire moment and decided he had to live more authentically in the face of climate change: Will Goodlad, who was a rising star of British publishing. He’s my age (35 or so), was a director at Penguin, and published non-fiction bestsellers by writers including Malcolm Gladwell and Daniel Kahneman. Then one day Will decided that he had to spend the rest of his life doing what he could to avert the worst-case-scenario for climate change. This was after buying, publishing and presumably being utterly terrified by a book called The Ocean of Life, by the oceanic campaigner Callum Jones. Now, I see, Will’s working at a social enterprise called Digital Explorer, making films about the oceans. Even if he’s not stopping climate change, he’s found a way to live authentically in the face of it, I guess.

New York after Hurricane Sandy

I don’t think what I’m doing is completely absurd in the face of climate change. The politics of happiness could appear quite absurd against the backdrop of a world six degrees warmer (‘think positive, think positive, think….). On the other hand, perhaps we will need Stoic philosophy more and more in the future, to understand how to stay resilient in chaotic conditions, and how to live in harmony with nature. I don’t know. I’m still not sure how to live authentically in the face of climate change. In the meantime, here is a surprised red panda.


In other news…

There is an interesting piece in The Economist this week about a new study from happiness scientists Barbara Frederickson and Bethany Kok, looking at the connection between positive emotions and the vagus nerve, which connects breathing and heart rate. Their research suggests people with higher vagal tone index (ie a stronger connection between their breath and heart rate) are better at modulating negative thoughts and emotions, and promoting positive emotions. It’s not yet clear to what extent we can change the vagal tone we’re born with – hopefully we can, of course.

Here’s two interesting philosophers whose work I’d like to read. Firstly, a New York Times article about Yale political scientist James C. Scott, a farmer, scholar of anarchism, and founder of ‘resistance studies’. I hope to read his book ‘Two Cheers for Anarchism’, over Christmas.

And another new book, by the British philosopher Philip Kitcher, called The Ethical Project, reviewed in the Notre Dame Philosophical Review. Kitcher, who is the John Dewey professor of philosophy at Columbia  attempts to construct a sort of fusion between Aristotle’s naturalism and John Dewey’s pragmatism, which he calls ‘pragmatic naturalism’, in which the natural history of humanity is the history of a millennia-long ethical project to respond constructively to failures of altruism. Kitcher writes:

Ethics is something human beings have been working out together for most of our history as a species. The needs that prompt the cooperative activity of the ethical project lie deep in our human characteristics, and were focused sharply in our human past. Over tens of thousands of years, different human societies have conducted “experiments of living”, in Mill’s apt phrase, trying to find ways of attending to the difficulties inherent in a form of social life to which evolution inclined our pre-human ancestors. As Dewey says, ‘Moral conceptions and processes grow naturally out of the very conditions of human life’.

Joep Dohmen

Here’s a piece in the LA Review of Books, about how there has been a ‘quiet revolution’ in philosophy back towards the idea of the subject as the art of living, particularly through the work of Pierre Hadot. One important figure in that revival is German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, whose latest book, The Art of Philosophy: Wisdom as Practice, has just been translated into English. Another figure in the revival is Joep Dohmen, a Dutch philosopher who I met in Amsterdam last weekend, whose books alas have so far not been translated into English (although he’s written an article on the revival of philosophy as the art of living for the Journal of Happiness Studies – behind a pay-wall alas). So too is Alain de Botton. And so, preeminently, is Albert Ellis, who to my mind did more to revive the ancients’ idea of philosophy as a way of life than any of the philosophers mentioned above.

Why the art of living shouldn’t be too introspective: a new video by RSA Animate featuring the words of Roman Krznaric, on the need for outrospection and an empathy revolution. I love the Mr Benn sequence.

Talking of RSA Animate, Richard Wiseman teamed up with the RSA to test if animating ideas made them easier to remember and absorb. He randomly ascribed participants to two videos – one in which he talks about some ideas, and one in which his talk is animated by Cognitive Media (the company who makes the RSA Animate videos), and then tested to see which one participants absorbed and remembered better. He found that about 70% of viewers remembered a key statistic when he was giving a talk to camera, compared to 92% of those who watched the same talk as an animation. So images seem to be really useful in our remembering and retaining info. Universities: you need a new faculty of animation!

My friend Ed Pinkney of Mental Wealth UK discovered that undergraduate suicides have doubled in the last five years. Here’s an article in the Times Higher Education supplement on his discovery.

The Young Foundation has a new report out on community resilience, called Rowing Against the Tide.

London Philosophy Club membership has passed the 2500 mark!

Sixty years ago this week, London was covered by the Great Smog or Big Smoke, caused by a combination of weather conditions and coal pollution. It is estimated to have caused the premature death of between 4,000 and 12,000 people. But it helped instigate political action, leading to the Clean Air Act of 1956. Humans are very good at adapting, when they absolutely have to.

See you next week,



  • Jules, a good, thought-provoking post, but I have to disagree with aspects of your assessment of existential therapy – here are some musing thoughts in response….

    I have moved in the opposite direction: in my earlier years I was always more interested in the Stoics, Plato, Aristotle and the like as my guides to living (and Socrates especially, but he is as present in existential philosophy as in other philosophies); the young existentialists I met turned me right off that philosophy. And yet I kept discovering ‘existentialists’ – I remember a bout of Gabriel Marcel – who really spoke to me. I thereby learnt to make a distinction between existential and existential-ist, which I now see is a vital distinction among existential therapists: the point is the ‘grounded thinking’ (contrary to the dominating scientific and theoretical forms of thinking) regarding individual experience and those troubling universal conditions of living, rather than subscribing to a set of particular doctrines (which is what you appear to reduce this philosophy and therapy too) which is the domain of an -ism.

    Now, as a therapist and in my 30s, I am rediscovering existential thinking as something that is especially vital to the way I work, something that speaks to a more mature sense of life. It looks very different to the silly, juvenile stuff that I saw among those 20-something angry young people with their nihilistic bravado, dressing in black and performing gestures. People generally come to therapy because they are troubled, and either way the biggest challenges in life are those troubling features that we so love to ignore; so yes, we existential therapists are prepared to sit with darkness. Many of the profoundly despairing, ‘chronically suicidal’ clients I work with get that nowhere else, and certainly not with the CBT therapists of which they have often seen many. I know because of the feedback from clients, the expressions of praise from some very experienced supervisors, and from what I see in talking with therapists and in noticing the limitations in the thinking of many CBT-ers. ‘He who has a why can find a how’ – many clients I see have practiced a thousand ‘hows’ and they need something deeper that they often only get from an existentially-minded therapist; and that something more as a matter of a fact requires that, to get out of their valley of death, they need somebody who can walk with then through that place, as that place. Trust me, from repeated experience as a therapist I say that for many people (not all – nobody can universalise their own experience) they just don’t get better until they’ve faced some profound darkness within.

    Existential therapy is also very capable of attending to goodness, hope, love and joy in life. Think of hope in Marcel; the radical shift in Heidegger away from solipsistic Cartesianism to comprehending ourselves as fundamentally ‘being-with’ (which is contrary to the massively rife individualism of much therapy and philosophy and contrary to Sartre); and lesser known but very much existential thinkers such a Simone Weil and ‘attention’, and Iris Murdoch and ‘the good’, think of Viktor Frankl emerging from the death camps as one of the greatest existential therapists of the last century. Look to the writings of a contemporary existential philosopher such as Robert Solomon. Existential therapy (and here the similarities with the Aristotelianism you mention (character, nature) are more striking, on closer inspection, than the superficial differences) is often very focused on the person as able to draw from within, from the idiosyncratic resources of their being, in order to get back on their feet and find meaning in great suffering. While focusing on the self as both self-constructed and mysterious (a different emphasis to Aristotle, but we don’t have to go for an either/or do we?) existential therapy invites a person to recognise the distinctive flow of their being, their way of being in the world – being strong, talented, present, a gift, in unique ways – which generally becomes the answer for how they shift things. It is also an emphasis on their freedom to find meaning and a celebration of their unique value in the world. It’s a joyful philosophy, thereby.

  • Jules says:

    Nicely put Matthew, and a useful corrective to the over-statement of my critique. Thanks for it,


  • Nathan Galvin says:

    I am in agreement with Matthew to some extent. I must admit that I am biased towards the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, and thought you may have gotten him all wrong. One, like you, he was very fond of the Greeks. His lecture course, “Basic Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy,” was quite eye-opening to me, and was a decidedly new way for me to view much of Aristotle’s, “Rhetoric,” and “Nicomachean Ethics,” but I’m digressing. I suggest you read Chapter 2, Section 2 of “Being and Time,” by Heidegger. He talks about the thrown-ness (into the world) we are all guilty of (as opposed to building ourselves out of nothing), but again, digressing.

    Angst in the face of climate change is very real, but ultimately it’s an unavoidable consequence of being on a rock rotating about a star. While I agree we are probably hastening our own demise, would not a barely measurable change in the size of the sun (I feel like this could be phrased better, but, meh.) also be a cause for the increased temperatures our species perceives? And, is such unavoidable?

    In the end I think living as green as you can, and promoting a lifestyle through your actions and outlets, is the best you can manage in the face of this angst. I don’t know, but it’s the best I can think of. Thanks for your thoughts and words, a much welcomed distraction.

  • [...] – Here’s kindred spirit who blogged on the same topic about three months ago: I think he actually does a much better job of discussing it than I have. How depressing.  ;o) [...]

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