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Mar 28, 2024

The Climate Emergency

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Rosabel Ansari

Georgetown University

Rosabel Ansari researches Ancient and Islamic philosophy, with a specialization in metaphysics, Graeco-Arabic studies, and philosophical Sufism.

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The Climate Emergency

In Philosophical Terms It’s a Failure of Our Rational Soul

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Sustainable climate action must be the result of the rational soul governing the lower powers, or else we fail humanity.

Over the last five years we have increasingly heard about the existential threat of climate change. We have read headlines describing the climate emergency, the collective suicide, the beginning of mass extinction, and the death warrant we are signing through continued carbon emissions. We now understand that burning fossil fuels is rapidly warming the climate, threatening habitability and human life. This framing of the existential threat really took off in 2018 after the UN issued its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. That report uses striking new data and modeling to argue that global warming must be kept to 1.5°C, if only to reduce the odds of its worst consequences. Cutting global carbon emissions in half by 2030 (compared to 2010) would give us only a 67 percent chance of staying within 1.5°C warming, the report warns. On the other hand, if we continue with business as usual, global temperatures could rise by 4°C, making our planet potentially incompatible with human life. This report has given rise to widespread countdowns of how many years we have left to act to avert catastrophe.

What many people find most desperate about the climate emergency is that it is anthropogenic. It is, in other words, caused by human activity, and our burning of fossil fuels is a major factor. Framed as such, we are sowing the seeds of our own suffering in the impending climate emergency. Or even more starkly, we are jeopardizing our own habitat and thus our capacity to live in it. The lack of clear leadership to resolve or change our course of action (e.g., global carbon emissions continue to increase, but government pledges to reduce emissions are unconvincing at best) exposes many of us to feelings of eco-doom, or climate anxiety. Climate anxiety, now a condition well-documented and discussed by mental health professionals, creates feelings of despair, guilt, and even panic among individuals who suffer from it, especially young people. The continuous stream of climate disasters and broken temperature records in the news contributes to a growing sense of hopelessness.

The climate emergency, the lack of resolute action, and growing feelings of turmoil leads us to ask many moral and ethical questions concerning our behavior, our associations, and our entrenchment in political and economic systems: What actions should we be taking? How should we be living our lives? Equally important to offering prescriptive actions is to make sense of the climate emergency and the existential threat it poses in philosophical terms, which may give us tools to think more wisely about the crisis and how we ought to respond.

Because it’s an anthropogenic crisis, the stakes of the current climate emergency lie in a philosophical conception of evil acts. What makes an act evil? Can we inflict evil acts on ourselves? In ancient and Islamic philosophical traditions, evil is considered the privation of something good. Evil, therefore, is not itself a thing; rather, it is the lack of something. According to this thinking, climate change is not in itself evil. It is evil insofar as it signifies the removal of things that are good, such as habitat, health, and life. If climate change, unlike a natural disaster, is the result of human action, then our conception of evil must also account for evil we impose on ourselves by acts that we voluntarily commit. Here I will flesh out the theory of evil acts by turning to the renowned classical Islamic philosopher Avicenna (d. 1037), known in Arabic as Ibn Sīnā.

In the section “Metaphysics” (9.6) in his major work, The Book of Healing, Avicenna reminds us that all evil remains a “perfection” relative to the cause enacting it. This means that when an evil occurs, that occurrence is still the fulfillment of a cause. He gives the example of burning. While burning is an evil for the loss it causes (e.g., loss of health, life, property), the burning remains a “perfection” relative to the fire that causes it, insofar as burning is the purpose and fulfillment of fire. The same can be said of any evil in the world. The effect of privation is evil, but that effect is a perfection for its cause. Evil acts performed by people require an extra layer of analysis. An evil act is evil in terms of its effect, but it is a perfection relative to its motivation in the human soul that caused it. Yet it is also an evil with respect to the person’s rational soul. The example Avicenna gives is an act of injustice. It is a perfection for the soul’s irascible power but an evil for the rational power. As the irascible power in each human soul is the part of us that seeks to subjugate, an act of injustice would be its fulfillment and perfection. Yet it is an evil to the soul’s rational power, which seeks wisdom and justice. Acts of subjugation, therefore, can only be perfections for the rational soul when they are for the purposes of wisdom and justice. Given that the purpose of human life is for the rational soul to govern the soul’s lower powers in wisdom and justice, an evil act (or, one devoid of wisdom and justice) can never be a perfection of the human soul. While such an act may emerge as a “perfection” of one of the soul’s lower powers, it would constitute a failure to fulfill our humanity. Perfections of our lower powers, such as the irascible or the appetitive, must be subordinated to the rational power.

Let us apply this thinking to the current climate emergency, given our understanding that climate change is the result of human action. In what way are the actions resulting in climate change a perfection and an evil for the agents enacting them? Consider the possibility that the burning of fossil fuels is a perfection of the appetitive power in the human soul and an evil for the rational power. The soul’s appetitive power is what seeks to perpetuate life through consumption and reproduction. As the burning of fossil fuels serves the purpose of consumption, we might think of it as resulting from the appetitive power in the soul. Ultimately, all productivity served by burning fossil fuels is meant to generate and consume surplus wealth, and as such it might also be categorized as an act of greed. Greed, too, can be considered here to be the manifestation of an overactive appetite. 

Yet even if the generation and consumption of surplus wealth might be a perfection of the appetitive soul, and thus serve some “good,” we also know that the burning of fossil fuels results in great harm insofar as it threatens habitat, health, and life. Not only does this great harm outweigh the benefits of surplus wealth, but it also undermines the very purpose the appetitive power is supposed to fulfill: the perpetuation of life. As a result, the burning of fossil fuels can only be an injustice and evil to the rational soul, whose purpose is to subdue and moderate the lower powers and to direct us to wisdom and justice. Thus, in order to fulfill our human function, telos, and perfection, we must use the rational power within us to rule our actions with justice and wisdom. Any action that destroys our habitat and threatens our existence cannot be just or wise, and is thus a failure of the rational soul.

As mentioned, the appetitive power and desire for consumption are not inherently evil. In fact, they have a life-sustaining function by driving us toward nutrition and reproduction. But when left unchecked and unregulated by the rational power, they have led certain segments of the human population to overconsume the earth’s resources in a way that threatens human habitat, health, and life. In Avicennan terms, such a situation would be the privation of human life by the very power in the soul that ought to produce and sustain it.

At the same time, it is also clear that the privation of habitat is due to the actions of only certain segments of the human species. We are not all equally to blame for the situation. As such, in the climate emergency we see that the perfection of the appetitive power in certain individuals cumulatively leads to evil in the privation of habitat for the species. Although the appetitive power, with its overwhelming consumption, is left unchecked in only a segment of humankind, it leads to the destruction suffered by all. This fact is perhaps the greatest sadness in the climate emergency: those who consume the least suffer the most. In today’s world of rampant consumption of resources, the rational soul must emerge on the collective level, and particularly in the ranks of the powerful and wealthy. The collective rational soul must fulfill its own perfection by subduing the appetitive power in individual humans, either through education or regulation, in order to ward off the evil created by the unchecked appetitive power.

If consumption is not subdued, in an Avicennan framework, not only will the life-sustaining appetitive power within us lead to the destruction of our own habitat, but the telos of the human being will be left unfulfilled. Consequently, if we cannot reform ourselves through actualizing the rational soul on a collective level, the threat to human existence may become inevitable. Given the current climate emergency, it is hard to see any alternative to subduing the appetitive powers of individuals before overconsumption destroys human habitat.

One way of looking at the climate emergency is to consider it the triumph of the appetitive power and the failure of the rational soul. If the rational soul is what defines humankind and distinguishes us from other species, the failure to regulate our appetitive power represents the obstruction of our capacity to fulfill our own telos. Moreover, if no sustainable climate action is taken, and the existential threat to humanity is actualized, perhaps the end of human life would be the necessary, and good, result. Perhaps it would not be an evil if it results from the collective human incapacity to fulfill our own purpose. This is not to say that this is where we will or should end up, but rather it is to illuminate the stakes. Sustainable climate action must be the result of the rational soul governing the lower powers, or else we fail humanity.

Avicenna discusses the possibility of extinction as the result of a natural disaster in the section “Meteorology” (2.6) in The Book of Healing. This did not mean, he argues, that life would end forever. Rather, he allows for the possibility of the generation of life (tawallud) without reproduction (tawālud). In other words, life could be generated anew without biological reproduction or descent. Separated by almost a millennium, Avicenna’s scientific knowledge differs from our own. Yet the more subtle point is that extinction of human life on earth need not signal the end of all life or the end of divine providence. Rather, the unfolding of possibility remains.

The existential threat of climate change will undoubtedly cause climate anxiety for as long as the emergency remains. Nevertheless, one hopes that by reflecting on its philosophical stakes and causes in the realm of the human soul, we might become better equipped to respond.


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