The relevance of Epicurean philosophy for addressing global warming

Developing new technologies, identifying novel sources of power, and achieving increases in energy efficiency, were already aims and ambitions before global warming gave them a new sense of urgency. In fact endeavours in these areas have contributed to global warming. Can more of the same help to reverse the trend towards unsustainability?

In his recently published book Conundrum, David Owen argues that current efforts to stop global warming and climate change will often have the opposite effect. The conundrum is that we can act with the best intentions but there is a high likelihood that the results of our actions will be at cross-purposes with what we intend. Our actions will have unintended consequences which will undermine the goals we are seeking to achieve.

For example, when increases in energy efficiency make a technology cheaper and more accessible, we are inclined to use the technology more extensively (as in the case of air-conditioning). Making a more ‘environmentally friendly’ car is likely to lead to higher car usage, when the need for reductions in consumption should prompt us to use cars less. High-speed rail, as an alternative to plane and car travel, will encourage us to use that mode of transport when we should be cutting down on our travel altogether. And so on.

If the problem lies in the consumption of resources, and technological advances are likely to increase rather than decrease our consumption (even when they are meant to have the opposite effect), we are driven to consider the question of discovering non-technological solutions, solutions that help us adjust to ways of living that are consistent with respect for available natural resources.

We cannot survive without technology, but technology alone will not enable us to survive. If we need to adjust our mental outlook in order to survive, how are we going to do that? The incentive is notionally there: if we do not adjust, we sacrifice our own survival and well-being. But human nature is perverse: we are often inclined (it seems) to do things that are not in our long-term best interests. On the basis of our present behaviour, for example, an observer may reasonably conclude that on the whole we would prefer to earn money from fossil fuels than to forgo the money for the sake of a habitable biosphere.

In this situation the relevance of philosophical reflection is obvious. Philosophising enables us to review our understanding and outlook in radical and if necessary counter-cultural ways. Philosophy forces us to examine our assumptions and the behaviour based on our assumptions. Philosophy enables us to draw links between our knowledge of the universe and the day-to-day questions of ethics that bear on our survival and well-being in the universe. No other sphere of human enquiry can do this as fully and effectively. Religion will not do it adequately because religions typically shy away from examining their own assumptions. Ethical enquiry alone will not work because ethics cannot be separated from philosophy: ethics needs an overall philosophical framework in which to operate.

Which philosophy will we choose? Epicurean philosophy offers a number of important propositions, including the following: (1) we need to adjust our desires to the natural limitations of our existence; (2) we need to be constantly weighing up the extent to which our decisions will produce pleasure or pain; (3) we need to set aside beliefs and attitudes that hinder the cause of human happiness.

A philosophy of life will not be effective unless we are prepared to engage in philosophical reflection, alone and in company with others. Epicureanism encourages a small-scale approach to large-scale issues: as we meet to philosophise in innumerable small groups and reflect on problems and solutions, we will be promoting not only our own happiness but the happiness of humanity. The proliferation of small, philosophically oriented groups, always open to wider discussion, is (I would argue) essential for solving global problems.

Cf. ‘David Owen on the Environment, Unintended Consequences, and The Conundrum’, EconTalk (Library of Economics and Liberty) (audio recording and partial transcript): Russ Roberts interviews David Owen, author of The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse, New York, Riverhead, 2012. David Owen’s website.

2 Responses to The relevance of Epicurean philosophy for addressing global warming

  1. ojelabi joseph

    I believe this issue was not properly address in the above article on the current relevance of the epicurians in our mordern contemporary. There was no connection at all with epicurians thought on natural pleasure which was further sub-divided into (1)neccesary natural desire, which has to do with intellectual pleasure and (2)unneccesary desire which has to do with sex, eating and drinking.

    • The issue certainly needs to be explored in greater depth. I welcome analysis of the questions involved. As Epicurean philosophy addresses the question of natural limits, it may be expected to offer relevant guidance in environmental matters.

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