03 October 2021

What will it take for the world to ameliorate climate change?

Philipp Blom is not particularly optimistic. “The rich Western societies of today are no more effective in combating climate change than those that existed around the year 1600,” he writes. “The occurrence of some kind of dramatic collapse seems to be only a question of time.” We are rapidly approaching the inevitable end point of an economic system that relies upon exploitation of resources, workers, the poor, he argues. We are too stubborn, too enraptured with the free market, to save ourselves in time.

Yet Blom’s own history suggests another possibility. If changes in climate spur profound changes in economic thought, philosophy, and the political and social order, might not such a profound shift occur again? It will have to. Blom thinks such a transformation can only occur if we abandon our faith in the invisible hand of the market—a faith “theological in nature”—and understand the degree to which our fate is tied to the protection of our physical environment.

An analogous intellectual transformation occurred in the 1670s in the Dutch provinces, where the Jewish lens grinder Baruch Spinoza overcame the ideological divide that had stymied Western thought for centuries. (Heinrich Heine: “All our modern philosophers . . . see through the glasses which Baruch Spinoza ground.”) Before Spinoza, intellectual thought had to square with the letter of the Bible, under the penalty of death; Blom recounts the cautionary tales of Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake for speaking of parallel worlds and an infinite universe, and Lucilio Vanini, the author of wily essays about the incompatibilities between Christian doctrine and rational thought, who was also burned, but only after having his tongue ripped out and being strangled.

In Blom’s telling, Spinoza’s Ethics marked the break between the medieval and modern worldviews. Spinoza’s method is to turn theological doctrine inside out, until it devours itself. Taking literally the notion that God is perfect and omnipresent, he deduces that God and nature are synonymous. (This is a convenient solution to the theology trap, for if God is everything we see, think, and feel, then He is also nothing.) It follows that an ethical life is one lived in accordance with nature. This requires liberating ourselves from ungoverned passions, which only cause suffering and confusion, and appealing instead to reason and the pursuit of knowledge. Spinoza does not call for the abandonment of self-interest but calls instead for an enlightened self-interest, which recognizes that we are most free when we act with shared purpose: “although men are generally governed in everything by their own lusts, yet their association in common brings many more advantages than drawbacks.” Blom, overlooking certain passages of the Ethics (such as those calling for human beings to exploit nature when it suits us), summarizes Spinoza’s conclusion this way:
"if we analyze our situation, it becomes clear that our best chance to survive well, and with the least degree of restraint, lies in acting in solidarity with others in order to create a world in which people can live with dignity.'
Activists, philosophers, and politicians are increasingly beginning to make this very claim about climate change: that inaction is not only irrational, a profound threat to our own sense of self-preservation, but immoral. It is immoral exactly because it threatens our self-interest. You hear a version of this argument in Bruno Latour’s insistence that favoring short-term interests over long-term human survival is not an instinctual behavior but one conditioned by economic and political factors. You hear the same argument when South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, likely the only millennial who will run for president in 2020, speaks of “intergenerational justice,” when the pope calls for solutions to climate change “not only in technology but in a change of humanity,” and when the sixteen-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg tells world leaders that they are stealing their children’s future right in front of their very eyes. You will hear this argument grow louder and louder until, before very long, you won’t be able to hear anything else.
The source article is a review of Nature’s Mutiny: How the Little Ice Age of the Long Seventeenth Century Transformed the West and Shaped the Present, by Philipp Blom.  Liveright. 352 pages. $27.95.  I have requested the book from our library and am #2 on the "hold" list for 8 copies.  Hope to review it later this fall or winter.


  1. Thomas Jefferson Quote: “Material abundance without character is the surest way to destruction.”

  2. My children are three and six, and I sometimes can't sleep at night thinking of the world they will inherit.


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