Learning to think like a planet

“In the face of what we have unintentionally done to Earth’s ecology, who shall we become?”
– Allen Thompson, OSU philosopher

llustration by Teresa Hall

Illustration by Teresa Hall

Like a bunch of teens left unsupervised, humans have been running amuck ever since crude oil first gushed forth on a Pennsylvania farm in the 1800s. Our 200-year-long “fossil-fuel party” has made modern life possible but has fouled the environment and ignited catastrophic changes in Earth’s climate.

“We’re like juveniles throwing a big party,” says OSU’s Allen Thompson, an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy. “The house is a mess, the goldfish are dying, the plants haven’t been watered. We’ve screwed up everything.”
As we awaken to the sobering consequences of unfettered consumption, we can take several tacks, Thompson argues. We can give in to despair or denial. We can continue trying to mitigate damage by cutting carbon emissions. Or we can begin adapting to our radically altered world.

Thompson doesn’t suggest for a minute that we shouldn’t do everything in our power, personally and politically, to curb greenhouse gas emissions. But, as he notes in a rueful tone, international mitigation efforts have so far failed to slow the trajectory of worldwide warming. Even if nations suddenly clamp down, there’s enough carbon dioxide already wrapping the planet to alter conditions for thousands of years.

Choosing Optimism

Thompson admits to bouts of anxiety about where we’re headed. As an undergrad at The Evergreen State College, where he was part of a “very liberal, environmentally minded, progressive set of young nouveau-hippies,” he first read The End of Nature, Bill McKibben’s now-classic book on global warming. It has haunted him ever since. But rather than succumb to hopelessness, he set about constructing a philosophical framework for at least a limited form of optimism.

Our best chance for bequeathing to our children an intact planet and an ethical society — a “life worthy of human dignity” — is adaptation, Thompson has concluded. When he talks about adaptation, however, he’s not talking about girding seaside towns against storm surges or planting drought-resistant crops (although those kinds of measures certainly are needed). Rather, he’s talking about nothing less than a radical transformation of our humanity. Our current idea of adapting to climate change is too limited for a ravaged world; it’s more akin to “coping” or only reducing vulnerability, he says. Besides, the strategies we typically put forward — exporting new energy technologies, for example, or sending money to poor nations for desalination plants — while helpful, too often are also effective at preserving or extending the very economic framework and consumer culture that created the climate crisis in the first place.

So if we hope to flourish in this human-dominated geologic era (which scientists like Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen are calling the “Anthropocene”), we must reinvent ourselves, Thompson argues in Ethical Adaptation to Climate Change: Human Virtues of the Future, a new book of essays from The MIT Press that he co-edited with Jeremy Bendik-Keymer of Case Western Reserve University. We must redefine what it means to be a good human, both individually and collectively.

Ecological Identity

“Adapting to new conditions really means changing yourself,” Thompson says. “The scale of change we’re facing with global warming is unprecedented in human history. It will put a tremendous strain on our social orders and our governmental patterns. It will threaten our very mode of civilization. We have to start rethinking not only our individual character traits but also our institutions so we can move toward a new global ecology. It is crucial that we think of human excellence ecologically.”

In a few short millennia, the human species has altered its mother planet irrevocably. Just as we are the only animals capable of such profound impact, so we are the only ones capable of reparation and restoration. In this fact lies our greatest duty, says Thompson.

“Humanity now has the role of managing the global biosphere,” he writes. “We were neither designed nor destined for this; only the contingent course of history has made it so. … Human beings are now managers of the planet in the sense that collectively our actions determine the basic conditions for the existence of all life on Earth.”

One Response to “Learning to think like a planet”

  1. kirk nevin says:

    Dr. Thompson: You get your paycheck from OSU. Dr. Ray has committed (via the College and University President’s Climate Commitment) to an effort to quickly render OSU carbon-neutral. Despite this commitment, the recently approved Corvallis Loop, a high-pressure natural gas pipeline connecting the OSU energy center to a supply line in Albany, will enable OSU to greatly increase its consumption of gas, and therefore greatly increase its carbon footprint. Care to comment on the ethics of this situation? (Two GT articles describe the before-and-after negotiations with NW Natural: “Corvallis Mulls Natural Gas Line Under City Parks (and rivers)”, July 20, 2011; “New Gas Line is Coming To Town”, March 28, 2012). Also see many references to the San Bruno catastrophe of September, 2010 for a description of the potential for disaster with the Loop.

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