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Philosophy

Published on September 18th, 2014 | by Ross Arthur Griffith
Image © "GreenMountainWindFarm Fluvanna 2004" by Leaflet - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:GreenMountainWindFarm_Fluvanna_2004.jpg#mediaviewer/File:GreenMountainWindFarm_Fluvanna_2004.jpg

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Brazos Wind Farm, Fluvanna, Texas, USA

Another Perspective on Climate Change

Mt. Rainier, a stratovolcano in Washington State, has some of the largest glaciers left in the US, excluding Alaska (of course). As a part of the Ring of Fire that reaches around the entire Pacific Ocean, Mt. Rainier is quite active and one of the most dangerous volcanos in the entire world. It is known as a “Decade Volcano” a United Nations term used for volcanos that are active and in close proximity to large population centers.

Mt. Rainier symbolises both the fragility of our global ecosystem with its rapidly diminishing glaciers, and also the tremendous – and perhaps ultimately untameable – destructive possibilities of nature. Sounding a note from Moby Dick, nature remains largely beyond our control in the largest sense. We neither fully understand the full complexity of our global system, nor our own society. Despite our amazing technology, we lack the ability to control natural phenomenon. In a phrase, we are still very much “along for the ride” on Earth.

I wish to discuss both the philosophical implications of global warming and the way we, as a society, understand and discuss climate change. How we understand climate change reflects long held cultural norms and ideas. But more importantly, global warming has implications that are a bit ominous.

A recent article in The International New York Times entitled “Sun and Wind Alter Global Landscape, Leaving Utilities Behind”, discusses recent advancements in solar and wind technology, especially its growth in Germany. This is good news in that the cost of installing solar and wind green technology is falling, and the amount of energy generated in Germany by solar and wind sources are approaching 20% to total energy use. So far so good.

But as wind farms and solar panels are “intermittent” meaning that they (somewhat obviously) need clear skies or wind to generate power, there is still an important “standby” need for coal and oil plants. These plants are becoming less profitable and will probably need either government funding to stay open, or some other arraignment. Thus the impact of green technology, its implementation and its expansion is also a study in business models and investment strategy.

Consider that a key part of the economic debate over Scottish devolution is the amount of oil reserves in Scottish territory. This implies a long term economic boon to the possibly newly emerging nation. Or is it? Oil is big business – quite possibly the biggest there is, and it still seems true to say that governments, people and companies continue to invest in it. But science tells as that ultimately, fossil fuels are a terrible investment. The entire point of green energy is to do away with fossil fuels; hence my discomfort with the notion that Scotland can thrive economically off its North Sea oil. To put it simply, its a resource we should not want to exploit.

The key thing to notice about the article and this discussion is that it centres on two aspects. Global warming as a technical problem and as a business venture (investment gambles on either one source or the other). I do not deny the importance of these perspectives, and I find the business and politics of climate change and what to do about it important and fascinating. Obviously if renewable energy is to fully take over from fossil fuels and our current technological civilisation is to be maintained, this represents a massive and ongoing technical and logistical challenge.

Yet it obscures the totality of implications of man-made global warming. It is much more then a tricky technical problem, along the lines of how do get batteries in electric cars to last longer, for example. It represents a challenge to the basis of our entire society in a full blown philosophic sense. Global warming directly indicates that our entire “way of doing things” is and has been terribly wrong.

Let me characterise this for you. There is the stereotype of the “tree-hugging hippy” (complete with body oder, etc) and also that of “the hard-nosed businessman,” who goes around with his sleeves rolled up and close-cropped hair. Continuing in the cliche, we would see the businessman as more realistic, more down to earth. We would tell the hippy to “cut his hair” and then to “get a job”. I do not think it is a big claim to say that this is a common trope or allegory that is often told in our society today.

But here is what the fact of man-made global warming does to change the picture: science has proven the “tree-hugger” right all along. It is the businessman who was living in a fantasy world; his lifestyle is unsustainable, a fantasy of greed fused with technology. The result is ongoing ecological disasters inevitably leading to social and economic collapse. The hippies were the ones who were ultimately being realistic and far-sighted (though perhaps not being terribly helpful).

Our economies are based on the idea of infinite economic growth; the stated policies of government is the annual increase of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Yet we live in a delicate, finite world, and the warning signs are impossible to ignore. Global warming posits this challenge: can humanity, in all its complexity, successfully and fully adapt to our own planetary ecosystem, given its full complexity?  Our entire civilisation is based on growth in a fundamental sense; the urgent problem right now is greenhouses gasses, yet even if we successfully transition to green energy in the fullest sense, other problems loom, such as simple ecosystem destruction through expanding human activity, if nothing else.

The Enlightenment – that broad front of philosophical, social and political trends that favoured rationalism in Europe – implicitly was about humanity taking full control over its future and organisation. It is that promise that global warming will force us to fulfil or face eventual catastrophe. Eliminating the use of fossil fuels is of course, the necessary first step, but rapid social and political change is necessary. I believe this is possible, but not really probable. Really political shifts will not be realistic until the generation that was born in the decades after WWII “the Baby-Boomers” are displaced as the leading economic and political generation.

That might be too late. Even though many countries are making rapid advancements towards green energy, the world’s two biggest economies – the US and China – have made little real headway. Its a global problem, yet there is no real global solution. It is also a personal psychological problem that requires a monk-like assumption of personal responsibility. Consumerism, commercialism capitalism is killing our society and our planet.

Most news stories about global warming are technical, which reflects how Western society tends to approach problems. The tendency is to ignore the larger issue and “bridge” of “fix” the immediate problem, then carry on as before. For example, southern California is running out of water. Instead of changing lifestyles (like doing away with backyard pools), more sources of water are sought. Thus the problem is treated as a sort of supply and demand problem, instead of a social problem that transcends simple economic ideas.

My point is that a technical treatment is bound to fail ultimately. And the first step towards changing our persecutive on the problem is to change the way we talk about it. This environmental problem has created an opportunity to change our selves as human beings for the better. More responsible, more social, and dedicated not towards buying stuff we don’t need for happiness, but towards things in life that actually matter. I recommend reading Jared Diamond’s Collapse for further food for thought.

Please note that all blog posts do not represent the views of Catch21 but only of the individual writers. We also aim to be factually accurate and balanced across all content taken as a whole.

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About the Author

Originally from Olympia, Washington State, I am currently an intellectual history MA student at the University of Sussex. What interests me is 'big picture' questions: the area where psychology, economics, history, and politics deeply interact.



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