“We have lived our lives by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption, what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and learn what is good for it.” –Wendell Berry
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 work on the ethics of climate change, the ethics and politics of sustainability, technologies of the Anthropocene, new earth politics, Canadian environmental policy and the remarkably fecund concept of planetary health. I’m trained as a philosopher, but I believe it is imperative to approach these themes in an interdisciplinary spirit. So I draw liberally on sociology, fiction, political theory, geography, economics, history and natural science. My work builds bridges across academic disciplines and between the academy and the wider world. By temperament I’m a ‘big-picture’ thinker. Because the issues I work on have to do with the whole career of our species on this planet, past and future, I present my ideas in historically sweeping ways. This is what the very concept of planetary health demands, after all: it concerns the sustainability of our whole civilization.
My latest contribution to this conversation is Philosophy and the Climate Crisis: How the Past Can Save the Present, just published by Routledge. Stylistically, it’s a departure from the highly technical stuff we academics are trained to produce. That made it fun to write, even though its topic is anything but fun to contemplate. When it comes to understanding and processing climate disruption, I’ve learned that the optimism/pessimism dichotomy is sterile. So I avoid it, asking instead how we can live with serial crises in a way that allows us to flourish materially and ethically. It turns out that the past offers us lots of examples of how to accomplish this, situations in which collective crises allowed groups to redefine themselves from the ground up. But, I argue, they needed philosophers to help them do this. From the Peloponnesian War to the French Revolution, philosophers have responded to existential crisis by reshaping the social imaginary for their contemporaries. That’s what we need now and what this book provides.
I also consider myself a specifically Canadian philosopher. I’ve written copiously on environmental issues in this country, largely because the issues we face here–from our petro-politics to the protection of our freshwater resources–are huge and there are not nearly enough philosophers talking about them. I’m currently at work on a SSHRCC-funded project aimed at defining the challenge of nation-building in Canada in light of the realities of the climate crisis. Though we Canadians like to pat ourselves smugly on the back for our generally progressive politics, our collective awareness of this phenomenon is catastrophically inadequate. We have not even come close to grasping the extent to which climate disruption is altering the whole world and the blowback effect this is going to have on our national politics. Whatever else it is, COVID-19 is thus a wakeup call. We have to start thinking hard, right now, about what matters most to us and who we most fundamentally are. These questions about collective identity go to the heart of any nation-building project. Canadians have been obsessed with them at least since 1867, but the changing climate is going to shift the terms of our self-understanding in fundamental ways. I want to help us address all of this in a way that prepares us to navigate the uncanny world we have made and are making.
Not an easy challenge, I know. But if contemplation of it overwhelms you, take Wendell Berry’s advice to heart: try thinking first about what is good for the planet, then work your way back to smaller things like the nation. That’s where I’m at…