The Philosophy of Climate Change Indifference

The Philosophy of Climate Change Indifference

The climate crisis did not happen overnight.

Climate scientists and activists have been fighting for the environment for decades. — Tthe threat of global climate crisis was first brought to Congress in 1988 — warning people of the consequences of industrialization and greenhouse gas emissions.

The increasing global temperature poses a deadly threat, yet it’s something that is easily ignored or forgotten amid the routine of our everyday lives.

The way we see climate change goes beyond a conscious choice of caring or uncaring. After 120 years of industrialized mass production, mass consumption and deregulated capitalism, the way we understand the environment we live in has fundamentally changed.

Solving, or at least slowing down the climate crisis, is not an impossible task. In theory, the solution is quite simple. Industrialized communities need to dramatically cut back on production and carbon emissions. Natural resources need to be protected. We need to address the climate crisis collectively, instead of as individuals.

In theory, these are actionable steps. In practice, these tasks seem beyond our capabilities. Cutting down production, consumption and extraction would force us to restructure our entire society in a way that is beyond our imagination. We have gotten so used to our capitalistic ways of life that we cannot fathom a timeline where we would live sustainably.

There are two environmental philosophies that helped me center myself within the global issue of climate change.

Let Us Be ‘Water in Water’

In his book The Theory of Religion, French philosopher Georges Bataille examines the differences between animals and people to understand humans’ relationship to their environment. 

Bataille suggests that animals are “[…] like water in water,” meaning that they do not see themselves as any different from the world they exist in. The prey is the same as the predator, the eater is the same as the eaten. 

Their consciousness is a ripple in the stream that is all consciousness, flowing along with the rest of the world. 

Animals only exist in the present moment; they have immediacy or immanence. This means there is no forethought to what they do, no agenda of self-interest. It is this transcendence of individuality that fundamentally separates humans’ way of thinking from animals’ way of thinking.

Humans, on the other hand, consider themselves to be the subject in a world full of objects. We have desires that can only be filled by obtaining these objects and putting them to our own use through consumption.

We are the exact opposite of “water in water.” Instead, we are like water in oil. Humans’ individuality and self-centeredness forcibly separates us from the rest of the world. Collective action for a common goal like climate change is against our nature.

Bataille suggests that this individualism is just an innate feature of the human condition. Our inability to be “water in water” is what makes us unable to empathize with nature. If we are not “water in water,” then we see no value in protecting the earth. We have reduced the natural world to a resource, simply an object that we can pull from and extort for our own gain.

For example, we do not appreciate the value of a tree as a tree in its own right. We fail to see that a tree’s purpose is to grow and convert carbon dioxide into oxygen and do as trees do. Humans instead see a tree as a material resource, ready to be used to fill our desires of consumption.

Bataille calls this phenomenon “the reduction to the order of things.” The tree is not a subject in and of itself. The tree’s own purpose is not seen, because as a thing its purpose is to serve us in whatever way we need. This reduction happens not only to trees but to all beings outside of ourselves. Humans have the mindset that everything we see is an object that can be bent to our will; the earth is a bounty of tools ready for our use.

This is why we cannot bring ourselves to care about the climate and its effects on the world. We keep the practices that we have because we see it as our right to use the tools that exist for our own means. 

Nature is Not An “It”

The separation from and reduction of nature exists outside of our mindsets yet it’s also apparent  within the structuring of the English language.

Native American author and plant ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer examines the way the English language develops a culture of uncaring in her book Braiding Sweetgrass.

As an ecologist, Kimmerer was trained to categorize plants by their foreign-sounding scientific names. The names and categorization, however, did not encapsulate the feeling or the being of the lifeforms she observed. Much like Bataille’s reduction into the world of things, Kimmerer felt like she was reducing plants to objects. The essence of who the plants were disappeared through the naming process, yet another way to separate them from the world of living subjects.

Kimmerer had an epiphany while learning Potawatomi, an Anishinaabe language. She came across the word wiikwegamaa, which means “to be a bay.” To an English speaker, this phrasing may not make sense, but this word — to be a bay — holds the key to reconnecting to our environment.

“A bay is a noun only if water is dead,” Kimmerer wrote. “When bay is a noun, it is defined by humans, trapped between its shores and contained by the word. But the verb wiikwegamaa — to be a bay — releases the water from bondage and lets it live.” 

In calling a bay a being, rather than an “it,” the Anishinaabe people brought nouns to life, or, practiced animacy. They were placing what we English speakers see as objects — such as rocks, trees, animals and bays — in the realm of subjects. 

Potawatomi allows people to connect to the rest of the world by describing things with verbs. The language both acknowledges and respects that beings of nature are alive.

In using the word “it” to describe plants, animals, rocks, streams and other natural components, English makes it easy for people to see land as a “resource.” We are beings, but land is an “it.”

Because the land is a resource, we can take whatever we want in as large of quantities as we want, and we do not have to feel bad about doing so. Even though our language enforces this uncaring mindset, it is still possible to recognize the need for change and act upon it.

Nature is an inherently living thing. Animals and plants live and grow as we do. Even the technically “non-living” elements of nature are alive with purpose. The dirt serves as a foundation for plants to grow, the ocean serves as a home for aquatic life, and rocks serve as a means for shelter and shade. Every natural component has a part to play in the ecosystem. They all rely on each other not only to exist, but to thrive. Humans need to value these natural beings the same way we value human beings.

A Way to Move Forward

Whether we like it or not, we depend on nature, and nature depends on us. If one is in poor health, the other is bound to follow them on that path. Humans and nature are connected, and through the practice of animacy, we can start to recognize this fact and remember to care for the other parts of the ecosystem. We can develop the caring mindset needed to face the climate crisis with intent.

If we begin to think of nature and the natural world as something that is living, we can begin to care. We have empathy for other humans because we see them as living things with an identity. Acknowledging a tree’s identity as a tree — as a being and not an “it” — is a monumental step in reframing our mindset and focusing on the dire need to address climate change.

Climate change is not an isolated problem. It is a complex issue that involves discussions around capitalism, colonialism and manifest destiny, extractionism, social justice, materialism and greed, among other topics. The factor that unites these diverse discussions is the consensus that the climate crisis is not a problem for other people to address later. It is a problem that we need to address now.

In order to take the necessary actions in response to climate change, individuals and corporations need to reshape their worldviews. Recognizing that there is purpose and life in the non-human world is essential. Treating other beings as beings by having empathy and respect for them is essential. Connecting with and learning from nature is essential. We have to think about the ways that we talk about and interact with nature to avoid indifference towards the climate crisis.

Header image by Phoebe Nerem