Designing Your ‘Greenprint:’ Elements of a Personal Eco-Philosophy

Petra Kelly, the late great environmental activist and founder of Die Grünen, the (West) German Green Party, said that environmentalism  is “… essentially a spiritual undertaking.”[1] George Sessions, co-creator of the Deep Ecology movement, argues that “the attempt to solve these eco-philosophical problems on purely logical or conceptual grounds is to fail to realize that this approach is itself part of the old paradigm which needs to be replaced.”[2] For me, it is particularly persuasive that a biologist, Paul Ehrlich, concludes that: “…scientific analysis points toward the need for a quasi-religious transformation of contemporary cultures.”[3]

There is something essential about an eco-philosophy that evokes this inchoate spiritual/religious underpinning.[4] Perhaps it is because any environmental thought necessarily involves Nature, which pulls us up close and personal with human existence, where we then stand adjacent to the big question of a godhead. Perhaps it is something else. Irrespective, I’m convinced that the sources for good environmentalism send their roots to a deeper stratum than, say, the fibrous surface-sprawl of humankind’s tenuous claims of dominion over Nature, neo-classical economics-by-imposition, or nation-state hegemony over all life on Earth.

Personally, I cherish the times when physical scientists give due credence to the humanist categories of thought. Over the years I’ve spent no small amount of time revisiting two specific scientists’ observations. First, Stephen Hawking: “love, faith, and morality belong to a different category than physics. You cannot deduce how one should behave from the laws of physics.”[5] And, Sir Isaac Newton: “life and will are active principles by which we move our bodies and thence arise other laws of motion unknown to us.”[6]

These indications help me converge on a fulcrum of sorts. My first step is to access for myself a heightened awareness of the expanse of environmentalism’s domain. By this I do not merely mean including more issues into the environmental state-space. Nor is it just bringing more sub-disciplines under the tent. These would be closer to the “logical or conceptual grounds” of which Sessions speaks. Rather, the key for me is the scientists’ call to ‘cross the chasm’ from hard sciences to pure humanities via the Ehrlich Bridge, from quantitative inquiry to qualitative solution space.

This takes me to use the lens of perhaps the most comprehensive of the design abilities — Designing Your Design Work. All of my thinking about design requires a solid touchstone, a moral platform that can resolutely inform my functional work. For work on all things environmental, I have long since arrived at the conclusion that it is necessary to design and build an eco-philosophy for myself. This I will call a “personal greenprint.”

For me it begins with enveloping the quotidian work of policy and politics within an all-encompassing sphere of this ‘quasi-religious’ stuff. Currently there is the (mis)perception that the global climate discussion resides in the realm of traditional politics. In short, and put in the simplistic terms warranted by its adherents, this view holds that good climate policy will emerge from the political fight between the liberals’ humanist view, and conservatives’ capitalist-resource view, of Nature and her resources. But neither of these perceptions genuinely accounts for the rights of all Life, much less all future Life. So the very idea that a dialog of compromise between these camps could somehow lead us to global climate progress must necessarily be noisily rejected. These participants are trapped within a self-referential snowglobe of their own making, perhaps for the duration, and we must be wary.

Few, if any, pressing social problems are better candidates than global climate change to be seen as larger, more important and less political than any other. Klaus Schwab, former President of the World Economic Forum:

“Growing interdependence means that we must move toward accepting the reality of a truly global society ­– encompassing and drawing strength from our political differences and our cultural diversity and commanding reflection and collaboration among leaders from all sectors of global society, not just governments.”[7]

At ground, we know that neo-classical economics are the philosophical foundation of the industrialized Western world.[8] Quite naturally, then, the faint but audible hue and cry emanating from a wholly dispossessed humanism has been drowned out by uncontrolled corporate globalization, resource depletion, and damage to the commons. Schwab once more:

The global institutions that we have so painstakingly built over the past half century – the United Nations, the IMF and World Bank, the WTO – are inadequate to deal with the many problems we face. This fact of ‘systemic failure’ threatens us all.”[9]

Non-monetizable though it may be for the capitalists, one system that we can, nay, must build is an eco-philosophy of vastly expansive scope. Former UNEP Executive Director Töpfer:

“By its very nature, environmental science tends to be multidisciplinary in character. It is also a collaborative enterprise. Thus, though it is possible to investigate environmental relationships over a wide range of levels, the principal focus of this science is on relationships – relationships among human beings, other living beings, and the systems in which they exist.”[10]

So, a necessary stepping-stone on our path to global climate progress is redesigning a global eco-philosophy. And so I begin with mine.  In light of my personal commitment to a more general philosophy of pragmatism, my greenprint will look for an eco-philosophy that has utility, is capable of meaningful application by human beings toward tangible results.

The frustrating and confounding #DesignChallengeOfNow is that humanity has just recently arrived in a reality that graces us with the tools to design a future that works, sustainably.  The first step, designing our design, means a comprehensive redesign of our operating philosophy for humankind’s role in the future of all Life. The gating item on our path to solving carbon pollution is whether we accept this grace, and locate the will to confront and convert the merely local and individually self-interested politics of the current milieu. Nobel climatologist Stephen Schneider was always a bit pessimistic:

“I often wonder…whether it will be possible to solve long-term, global problems…until we can overcome collective denial, which in turn may not become conscious until we grapple with personal myths.  I question whether the eventual loss of half the other species on earth will even be enough to overcome personal escapism that has gone collective.”[11]

Three hundred years ago, the young philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft spoke to just some of these personal myths Schneider inveighs against:

“From the respect paid to property flow, as from a poisoned fountain, most of the evils and vices which render this world such a dreary scene to the contemplative mind. …One class presses on another; for all are aiming to procure respect on account of their property: and property, once gained, will procure the respect due only to talents and virtue. And they neglect the duties incumbent on man, yet are treated like demi-gods; religion is also separated from morality by a ceremonial veil, yet then wonder that the world is almost, literally speaking, a den of sharpers or oppressors.”[12]

For my personal greenprint, then, I must first immerse myself in this reality: that we live today in a world that has been suffocating, for centuries on end, under a deeply flawed philosophy of human dominion over all life on Earth (including, sadly, one another); a world so deeply attached to the flawed rule of  ‘that which came before’; a world perpetually reiterated unto each generation by the adults who preceded us, people who have long since lost the plot, people who utterly lost the perception of the Reality into which we are born. Physicist Roger Penrose:

“Children sometimes see things clearly that are indeed obscured in later life.  We often forget the wonder that we felt as children when the cares of the activities of the ‘real world’ have begun to settle upon our shoulders. Children are not afraid to pose basic questions that may embarrass us, as adults, to ask.”[13]

Theologian Mircea Eliade:

“The one who has never loved flowers must learn to love them.  Only thus will he understand the secret that children know, but which they soon forget.”[14]

We, a collection of supra-national adults perforce responsible for passing forward the ever-unfolding blossom of humankind on a sustainable Earth, have unwisely taught ourselves to forget. The grace is that we can also teach ourselves to remember. The question is, will we?

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[1] Petra Kelly, in a lecture at Stanford Law School, November 1991, months before her tragic and tragically premature passing.
[2] George Sessions, Ecophilosophy V (1983), at p. 4.
[3] Paul Ehrlich, “The Loss of Diversity” in Biodiversity, E. O. Wilson, ed. (1988), at p. 26 (emphasis added).
[4] Jurgen Moltmann sees environmentalism as fundamentally theological, and far removed from a Biblically based theory of man’s dominion over Nature. God and Creation (1985).
[5] Steven Hawking, Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays, (Bantam, 1993) p. 173. “But one could hope that the logical thought that physics and mathematics involves would guide one also in one’s moral behavior.” id.
[6] Sir Isaac Newton, quoted by, Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature (1980), p. 286 (emphasis added).
[7] Klaus Schwab, as President, World Economic Forum Newsweek International (2001)(emphasis added).
[8] See, Thomas McCarthy, Mari Matsuda, Ehrlich, Jacob Bronowski and others.
[9] Schwab, ibid. (emphasis added).
[10] Klaus Töpfer, Exec. Dir. United Nations Environmental Programme (1998-2006), in For Our Children’s Children, August 10, 2001 (Amer. Ass’n for the Adv. of Science, 2001)(emphasis added).
[11] Steven Schneider, Stanford. “In an On-Line Salon, Scientists Sit Back and Ponder ‘What is the Question You Are Asking Yourself.” The New York Times, December 30, 1997, p. B16.
[12] Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, (1792), p. 212 (emphasis added).
[13] Roger Penrose, The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds and the Laws of Physics, (Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 448.
[14] Mircea Eliade, In the Shadow of a Lily, Waiting For the Dawn, Mircea Eliade in Perspective (University Press of Colorado, 1991).

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