Tuesday, November 26, 2013

On Stoic Environmentalism

I'm doing the Stoic Week thing this week.  It's just a matter of contemplating specific quotations each day.  Even though I studied them years ago, and teach about them even, and maybe should have figured this all out long ago, I'm still stuck on the first reading.  I'm a slow thinker.

Here's the reading from yesterday - a little bit from the Encheiridion of Epictetus:
Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control. Under our control are conception [the way we define things], intention [the voluntary impulse to act], desire [to get something], aversion [the desire to avoid something], and, in a word, everything that is our own doing; not under our control are our body, our property, reputation, position [or office] in society, and, in a word, everything that is not our own doing.
First of all, how is desire under our control?  I wonder if desire is the best translation here because I can't control what I desire to have or avoid at all. I can only control whether or not I act on that desire.  And with a bit of practice, maybe I might be able to stop some of my desires, or desensitize myself from aversions.  But desire is pretty automatic; we desire or are repelled in an instant.

But more importantly, something I've always struggled with is how do we know what we can control and what we can't.  Do we have ANY control over climate change?  If I sort my garbage perfectly, is it just giving me an illusion of control over a tiny bit of the problem?  Being of virtuous character is important, so it's never a free-for-all with the stoics.  You always have to do the right thing, so I'll continue to recycle and compost and hang my laundry.  But what should my attitude on this issue be?

Lars Boelen at Stormglas made this pie chart showing how much we can burn before we hit the danger point.  Not enough for our current need and greed.  His advice:  "Stop burning fossil fuels now!"

But like Marky Mark says in I (Heart) Huckabees, "I can stop using petroleum, but there's no way I could stop its use in my lifetime, is there?"

I don't have the power to make a significant effect on my own, so is that to suggest I have no control over the situation?  I can only control my own actions, so we're pretty much screwed then.

But I can try to motivate others to change their actions, and I can try to affect industries and politicians with my relentless letters that they don't respond to any more.  If we all only act on what we can control, then nobody would do anything to try to change other people's behaviour - which is mainly out of our control.

Epictetus tell us that we need to put before our mind what happens in public and with people in general.  People are basically irritating, and we run into problems if we expect anything better.  If we expect common courtesies from everyone we meet, we'll be sorrily disappointed.  Better to expect less and be pleasantly surprised if people rise above our low expectations of them.  So part of my problem is that I keep hoping people will care more about the world than minor personal conveniences.  I think they'll stop driving to the corner store or start using a travel mug for their numerous coffee trips to Tim's.  I was taken aback recently when my neighbour, an environmental science grad, got central air in her house.  I'm repeatedly disappointed that people aren't getting on the right road to long-term survival.  Epictetus implies that I'll be significantly better off if I just expect less of people.

But that's even more depressing.  Because if I believe people won't change, and my letters are useless, then there's really no hope.  It means I really have zero control over this if I can't affect other people.

I think it might be less painful to be deluded by a bit of optimism that allows me to believe one day someone might hear me out and walk to work instead of driving, then enjoy it so much they start walking everywhere, than to be realistic (gasp) and accept that nobody will get their collective shit together soon enough to turn this mess around.

And the recent by-elections leave me worried that the NDPs peaked, and any hope there is gone too.

Oh well.  It was a nice little planet while it lasted.  I like the blue bits.    

If my goal in every task is to do the task and to "keep my moral purpose in harmony with nature," then I'm supposed to take some comfort in the fact that, even if I don't meet my task-goal, and even if I get robbed and beaten trying, then at least I was still able to do that moral purpose thing.  If part of our goal is to be virtuous, then we can always do that, and then we win!  Awesome.  We're supposed to say, "Oh, well, this was not the only thing that I wanted, but I wanted also to keep my moral purpose in harmony with nature; and I shall not so keep it if I am vexed at what is going on."

I have a really hard time caring about not being vexed at this situation in order to continue being morally in tuned with nature when so many of us are so out of tune with nature that it's collapsing.

Epictetus tells us, "It is not the things themselves that disturb men, but their judgements about these things."  So death in itself isn't a problem, but my perception that death is bad makes it a problem for me.  And here we come to the real issue.  It's easier to be undisturbed about our impending death if we know we can leave something behind - our writings or our children, maybe a plaque on a wall or park bench somewhere...  But if it all goes, then we're truly gone when we're gone.  But really, it's not a problem in itself, just that I'm not fond of the thought of it.  In fact it gives me great tumults to consider it.

Then he says we should, "wish for everything to happen as it actually does happen, and your life will be serene."  It's really easy to do this with the little things close to me:  my life is perfect as it is.  But it's impossible to do with the world.  What kind of monster can wish for child prostitution, slavery, torturous dictators, enormous typhoons, floods, starvation, and unfettered greed ever increasing these problems?

Epictetus didn't have the internet or TV keeping him abreast of world news.  He was better able to focus closer to home.  That's cheating!

He says if we lose a child, instead of saying we lost the child, we should frame it as, we're giving the child back.  So, should we say then that we're giving the planet back?  Not so fast, buddy!

So I take some solace that he also suggests we take all things in moderation including food, clothes, and slaves.  We should take pains to make sure women over 14 know they're only valued for their modesty.  And we should avoid making people laugh because it might lead to a vulgarity.   He says that like a vulgarity is a bad thing!

I'm not a very good Stoic today.  Maybe tomorrow.   


The Mound of Sound said...

What an awesome, refreshing bit of writing, Marie. All I can say is thanks. I wish I'd had teachers much like you.

Marie Snyder said...

Awww, thanks Mound.