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Is It Time to Be Philosophical About Climate Change?

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With apologies to another ancient Mediterranean civilization, when in Greece, is it useful to do as the Greeks might have when it comes to addressing climate change? In other words, with a crisis that demands such urgent and widespread human action, do we have time to be philosophical?

Dr. Ole Faergeman, a renowned Danish cardiologist and co-chair of a groundbreaking international conference on the intersection between sustainable agriculture and land use, human nutrition, and climate protection opening this week in Olympia, Greece, has invoked Aristotle when trying to make sense of ongoing challenges to mobilize people globally on climate change. Certainly, Aristotle had no concept of global warming, but some of his ideas may help us with our own.

In addition to the political, journalistic, and economic challenges that have shaped our unwillingness to acknowledge the current and future impacts of climate change on our lives, persuades Faergeman, we may also be confounded by a certain "giddiness" as we stare into the abyss of time, both past and future. Climate scientists have shown again and again the alarming rates of atmospheric greenhouse gases today versus not only other times in human history but also prehistoric time. But does science's ability to help us see eons into the past and to project decades, even centuries into the future hurt us more than it helps us?

Does climate modeling make us dizzy with our insignificance in the grand scheme of things? Does it render us powerless? It must be the only reasonable explanation for why we seem incapable of doing things like reach a meaningful international target for emissions reductions (a la the frustrations of COP15 in Copenhagen) or pass comprehensive climate and energy legislation in the US. One can almost imagine aging members of the Senate attributing "no" committee votes on cap-and-trade (or any other bill attempting to reduce climate impacts) to the clear futility of human existence.

In addition to being mercifully oblivious to the impacts of the future industrial age on the environment, ancient Greeks also had no concept of "deep time," no sense of where time was going or where it had been. The result was a fixation on the personal, rather than the global, not only in terms of the quest to find meaning but also of the role and ability of human beings to affect events. As a result, they seem to have lacked the paralysis that too many of us bring to enormous global challenges like climate change. For Aristotle and other thinkers of his time, the choice of pathways was simple: logos or tragedy? The implications of a tragic trajectory - like our current one - are clear.

But logos implies a rational, even optimistic approach to dealing with catastrophe. Aristotle and his fellow Athenians might have first acknowledged the obvious effects that fossil-fuel burning humans have on the atmosphere, if for no other reason than for the way those effects would affect human quality of life - even the pursuit of happiness that so motivated founding Americans. They might have then said, "Conditions are changing that are affecting the safety and health of human communities, as well as our ability to produce and source food, so we must simply use common sense to fix the problem, whether through behavior change or technology." Interestingly, the ancient idea of logos is not terribly different from a rational human view in aspects of our modern world, for example, a market economy, but it is largely missing from our collective response to climate change.

Some will inevitably argue that being philosophical about something like global climate change is the definition of absurd. But perhaps existential philosophy is precisely what has been missing from our response to climate change so far. As Faergeman urges, it's time to be like the Greeks and think big thoughts about what we are going to do - for our own satisfaction and sense of accomplishment - without worrying too much what the universe ultimately has in store for us.

Wood Turner is the executive director of Climate Counts and is currently posting from Greece from the Stonyfield Farm-sponsored Inaugural Conference of the World Council on Genetics, Nutrition, and Fitness for Health. He and others are tweeting from the conference at @climatecounts using #greekhealth, and also on Facebook.

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