On Stoicism and Sustainability

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CC BY 2.0. Marcus Aurelius/ Photo Bradley Weber in the Louvre, via Flickr

How can stoicism be used to solve tackle the problems of climate change?

In a post last year, It is time to get serious about the hidden carbon cost in everyday products, I quoted Kai Whiting, who I described as having the wonderful description as "Sustainability and Stoicism Researcher, Universidade de Lisboa." I was intrigued by his discussion of Stoicism and sustainability, and instead of me trying to interpret it, here's Kai Whiting in his own words.

Stoic Philosophy: Has it Got Anything to Say About ‘Going Green’?

Stoicism is a Greco-Roman philosophy focused on the “good life” or the “life worth living”. Most moderns use Stoic ideas to help them in personal endeavours such as dealing with their anger or the loss of a loved one. However, given that the ancient Stoics directly connected the good life with living in accordance with the four virtues of courage, justice, self-control and wisdom, Stoicism can certainly do more than support a quest for self-development. In my opinion, it can guide us into a green transition.

At the annual public Stoicism conference, I suggested that the good life in the 21st century necessarily entails sustainable development. After all, how easy is it to enjoy a life worth living if our water is contaminated, our air is polluted and our last remaining green spaces lie over landfill? I also showed that an unsustainable world is one in which humans do not live according to the four Stoic virtues, but instead allow the proliferation of their polar opposites: cowardice, injustice, greed and ignorance. This unsustainable existence is miserable for everyone, even those convinced that it is shareholder value and not human happiness and planetary abundance that matters.

Of course, understanding that our wellbeing is more dependent on the Earth’s natural processes than our bank balance or financial assets is nothing more than common sense. However, I believe that Stoicism offers a practical framework that helps you make decisions which bring you closer to the good (and greener) life instead of moving you further from it:

Firstly, you must think for yourself in the same way that you eat and drink for yourself. You must go beyond inspirational quotes on your fridge or mindless scribble in your diary as it is only in critical thinking that you will move your day-to-day life into a more sustainable direction.

Secondly, your commitment to the four Stoic virtues must be present in your interactions with other people and the environment. You cannot just think about being courageous, just, self-controlled and wise. You must actively demonstrate it. In order to do this you must seek to understand yourself—your strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies—and the specific roles you play at home, at work and in the wider world.

Thirdly, you must clearly distinguish between what lies in your control and what doesn’t and then you must act accordingly. This is what Stoic philosophy Epictetus refers to as the “dichotomy of control”:

Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing. – Epictetus, Enchiridion 1.1

This Stoic concept is simultaneously the most intuitively simple aspect of Stoic philosophy to envision and yet the most profoundly difficult to put into practice. For example, since the number of the zeros assigned to your bank account is largely dependent on the lucky accident of birth, it follows that both your initial wealth, and your ability to accumulate it, is not something that particularly falls under your control. However, what is in your control is how you use money to bring about socioenvironmental justice or contribute to wisdom rather than consumerism.

When you decide to progress towards the Stoic virtue of justice, you begin to acknowledge your moral obligation to question the marketer’s sales pitch. You start to read up on the supply chain because at best you are just trying to keep up with the Joneses but at worse, you are actively undermining your path towards virtue because in purchasing items you automatically buy into the processes that created them: questionable labour practices in Asian sweatshops and electronics factories, South American rainforest destruction or shady banking deals in New York and Zurich. This does not mean that Stoic philosophy calls for an abandonment of capitalism. However, it should cause you to re-evaluate your priorities, your attitude and your actions.

A journey marked by the four Stoic virtues is a tough one and progress towards the good life requires lifelong effort. It is as much about persistence and grit, as it is about having enough vision and desire to acknowledge the value in (sometimes) forsaking momentary pleasure for something really worth having. That said, and given how hard it is for one person to make progress, I am under no illusion as to the near impossibility it is for enough people to coincide in ideas and values to transition into a greener society. So what can you do to contribute? How can Stoicism help you with that?

I have already made a Stoic case for substantially reducing our consumption of animal products. This is just one easy way to live more sustainably, but it is certainly not the only way. You could also look to reduce your consumption of material goods generally by thinking about the services they provide to society and not just the personal “happiness” they might bring. You might also re-consider how you educate your family on the value you assign to Nature. Equally, you could invest your time and money in grassroots initiatives by purchasing vegetables from a small start-up that sets out to swap out food miles in favour of local flavours.

In short, Stoicism offers us many ways in which we can act more virtuously, which is why it is a philosophical framework and not a rule book. However, once we recognise that a commitment to courage, justice, self-control and wisdom is the only guarantee to our personal happiness and sustainable development the only guarantee for humanity’s wellbeing we are moved to change. We are moved to become more like the Stoics.

Kai Whiting is a Stoicism and sustainability lecturer and researcher based at the University of Lisbon, Portugal. He blogs over at StoicKai.com and Tweets @kaiwhiting.