Everyone claims to have grown up in God’s country, but my home province, British Columbia, genuinely warrants the description. My childhood was split about equally between Whistler (whose once fabulous ski resort was bought, then promptly ruined, by Vail Resorts in 2016) and Coquitlam (a very sleepy suburb back then, now swallowed whole by Vancouver). When not in school, I could likely have been found either carving turns in Harmony Bowl or wandering with friends through the trails of Burnaby Mountain (also in the process of being ruined, in this case by the Trans Mountain tar sands pipeline expansion). I left B.C. in my twenties to go to university in Ontario, eventually receiving a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Toronto. I have been in exile from God’s country ever since.
Since becoming a professional philosopher I’ve written on a wide variety of philosophical figures and topics –Descartes, Locke, Nietzsche, Heidegger, weakness of will and self-deception, forgiveness, love, moral reasons, nihilism, the uncanny, and more. But almost all of my work in the past 15 years focuses on the grave threat anthropogenic climate change poses to nature, the global poor and people of the future. We may as well call this an existential crisis, so long as we avoid the implication that we are in the process of extinguishing ourselves altogether. We are on the path of barbarism rather than extinction, though I’m honestly not sure which destination is worse. In any case, it’s just a path. We can exit it by learning how to live better together and with nature, an irreducibly political task.
I am now developing two new perspectives on all of this. The first situates the climate crisis in a larger philosophical story connecting real-world collective trauma and the philosophical enterprise. I show how a few canonical philosophers–Plato, Augustine, Descartes, Spinoza and Hegel–constructed a metaphysics to help their contemporaries adjust to a crisis-ridden world. Although our age, the Anthropocene, is unique in many ways–not least in the penetration of technology into literally every facet of the social imaginary–the insights of these philosophers can aid us in the same way. This sort of existential-metaphysical reorientation will, I hope, allow us to get our bearings in a world being turned rapidly upside-down by climate change. Philosophy and the Climate Crisis: How the Past Can Save the Present will be published in October, 2020 by Routledge. Here are a few early reviews:
“Fearing the state of being ‘lost in the world we have made,’ Williston roams far and wide for reference points in a time of bewildering climatic upheaval. With grand, Harari-like sweeps, this insightful romp through philosophy, literature, ecology, and technology displays the creative boldness the times demand.” –-Christopher J. Preston, University of Montana, Missoula. Author of The Synthetic Age: Outdesigning Evolution, Resurrecting Species and Reengineering our World.
“An accessible and engaging analysis of the ways in which the climate crisis is analogous to other, historically significant ‘traumas.’ This is a vitally important topic, and I applaud Williston for his creative approach to bringing its philosophical aspects to a broad readership.” –Steven Nadler, William H. Hay II Professor of Philosophy, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Author of Think Least of Death: Spinoza on How to Live and How to Die.
“This lucid analysis of the crisis in Western thinking generated by climate change shows how previous historical disruptions have led to the kind of innovations in thought that we now urgently need. It should be read carefully by anyone wondering how to think and act in our new Anthropocene circumstances.” –Simon Dalby, Balsillie School of International Affairs. Author of Anthropocene Geopolitics: Globalization, Security, Sustainability.
“A timely, accessible, smart, and informed discussion of the climate crisis, and our disorienting exit from the Holocene. Williston shows why philosophy matters in these times, how it can be done with passion and rigour, and what wisdom looks like for all of us worried about the future of life.”–Todd Dufresne, Lakehead University. Author of The Democracy of Suffering: Life on the Edge of Catastrophe, Philosophy in the Anthropocene.
My second project concerns the connection between the climate crisis and the future of nationalism and the nation-state. If we are to be realists about our collective career in the midst of inevitable and significant climate disruption, we need to work through some of the political structures that define our world, not wish them away. The nation-state is one such structure. I’m developing an ethically responsible notion of nationalism and ‘nation-building’–one that is both civic-minded and ecologically attuned–to capture this reality. If all goes well, expect a new book about this sometime in 2022.