Ancient tradition says philosophy began when Thales of Miletus predicted an eclipse of the sun. Shielded by moonshade, Thales gazed upward to glimpse the truth about eternal reality. Then he fell into a well (Plato, Theaetetus, 174a).
The lightscape of civilization.
Continents ablaze at night,
human bioluminescence in space.
Our illumination proclamation.
And it blinds us to the stars.
“You didn’t build that!” President Obama once quipped about the nature of success. Many took the remark to belittle their bootstrapping. In fact, it was meant to remind us all that no one gets anywhere alone. If this dissertation is an accomplishment it is by no means mine. More than I, its authors are the wonderful human beings who have given me strength along the way. Without them I do not know where I would be today.
To my parents—Barbara Wells, Michael Kincaid, Ernest Wells, and Dean Luttrell—no words can fully capture what your unwavering faith over the years has meant. I owe you everything. Truly everything. To my brother, David Munson—it all comes back to the loop trail gallon jug. May we follow the drainage and live life underwater! To the humans of Hugh Manatee—Thomas Oder, Michael Curtis, Morgan Kusmer, Martin Fairlie, and John Ianni—our bond is indescribable and so instead we express it as music. Thank you for being the brilliant musical beings you are.
To my advisor, Benjamin Hale, and the rest of my committee—Steve Vanderheiden, Darrel Moellendorf, Dave Ciplet, and Phaedra Pezzullo—your guidance through the dissertation process has been invaluable. My sincerest gratitude to you all. My endless thanks as well to Penny Bates—the true champion of the department—for her inexhaustible patience and resourcefulness.
To the rest of my family—Baba, Lisa, Brandon, Brittany, Victoria, John and Betsy, Tim and Jim, and all the others whom are too many to name—my endless thank to you all for your constant support. You are the best tribe imaginable. Finally, to Kudonomos—my now six-year-old Husky—I promise, now that it’s done, we’ll go back to the wilderness.
From O’Brien’s Tower they seem to stretch beyond horizon. The limestone walls painted in ten thousand shades of green extend forever to meet the sky, where ocean gives way to fog. Rolling fords blanket the cliff tops, ephemeral sea-spray ponds dot the pastures—a scene where Cuchulainn and Ferdia might have fought. Be wary of spancel hoops. Down toward the edge, under the liability fence: “exercise extreme caution beyond this point.” Two hundred meters below waves crash against jagged rock. The wind blows in every direction as gulls float along its twisting currents. “No quiero morir aqui!” a woman yells into the gusts, muffled by the din. Places inherently bring to mind certain ideas. Death seems prominent among them here. Death and awe. To peer over the precipice, as one must, reveals it would indeed be a magnificent fall. Sea-foam confetti erupts from the chasm, littering the sky, dancing between the birds. And from the distance, or the world below, a mystic song spreads across the air as if an invitation from the Danann to commune with Tir na Nog. In time, history and mythology fold inseparably together: action becomes legend becomes myth. Who knows where we fall? Ancient magic lives here still.
Alex Lee recently wrote that “the term ‘climate change’ isn’t working anymore” because “most people don’t understand what the term climate means.” Generally, he argues, people confuse “climate” with “weather,” “climate” is too scientific of a term, and “climate change” doesn’t really reflect the “acute environmental crisis” people actually experience; we should stick with “global warming” because floods, hurricanes, higher temperatures, wildfires, and the like, are directly tied to heat. People will better connect with “global warming” because it’s easier to understand than the broader, more nuanced idea of “climate change.”
Lee’s is a fairly common hypothesis. Essentially, the argument is that people tend to not be science-literate enough to make the term “climate change” rhetorically effective; most people know too little about science or lack the capacity to assess scientific information necessary to get a firm grip on the real risks at hand. If we take it at face value, we essentially have two options: improve public science education, or play rhetorically to science illiteracy. It seems that Lee would have us do the latter.
In truth, however, this is a false choice based on a false hypothesis. Research from Yale’s Cultural Cognition Project, led by Dan Kahan, has empirically shown that science literacy doesn’t make people more likely to perceive the risks of climate change as serious. In fact, high levels of science literacy counter-intuitively deepen polarization. More nuanced understandings of climate science tend to make people who doubt the seriousness of its risks more likely to rationalize away perceived threats. Instead, it’s people’s pre-existing values, world views, and cultural commitments that explain how they perceive the risks of climate change, and improving science literacy usually makes those values-based positions more entrenched.
So, if we take the Cultural Cognition Project’s research seriously, improving public science education might actually make things worse—at least as far as “convincing” climate deniers goes. Moreover, if science illiteracy doesn’t actually explain political disagreement about climate change, there’s little reason to play to it rhetorically and re-wed ourselves to the term “global warming” over “climate change.”
That’s not to say that the terms we use don’t matter. They most certainly do. But to suppose that calling it “climate change,” “global warming,” “global weirding,” “the climate crisis,” or “global environmental change” makes all the difference is a red herring. It doesn’t seem to matter what we call climate change. People’s perceptions of the global socioecological crisis will only change as their worldviews change, and worldviews only change with first-hand, personal experience—like Harvey’s devastation in Houston, Florida’s bout with Irma, the American West’s ongoing wildfire, and Lee’s glacial bathtub ring.
Perhaps more important than the particular term we decide to use is consistency in terminology—maintaining a unified rhetorical front. When environmentalists, political activists, and climate scientists spend their discursive capital bickering over whether to call it climate change or something else, it gives political opponents ammunition to argue that the movement for improving global environmental policy lacks solidarity, which only further precludes progress.
As Lee notes, “words matter.” But the choice between either “climate change” or “global warming” isn’t going to be what moves the needle. Words matter, but what matters more is to what end we use them, and in-fighting about terms among environmentalists is about as useful as debating facts. It’s as if we’re on a sinking ship and we’re worried about whether to call the hole in the hull a “breach” or a “gash.” At the end of the day, we’re still sinking, time is limited, and either way we have to deploy the lifeboats or we’re all getting wet.
Ultimately, the debate over climate change isn’t a problem of terms, public scientific literacy, if the facts about climate change are “settled,” or if people “believe” in climate change or not. As Jim White argues, climate change isn’t a question of belief—the physics of climate change don’t care if we believe in them or not. The real climate controversy is one characterized by fundamental differences in values—the parameters of competing world views that are often incommensurable—and it’s mediating those conflicts in value that we should be talking about.
Cross-posted with the Committee on Environmental Thought (ComET) Blog: Environmental Thoughts
On August 21st, 2017, I had the privilege of traveling with a band of cosmic pilgrims to the Path of Totality. What follows is my account of and reflections on the experience of the total solar eclipse.
As Totality neared, a pale grey-purple haze overtook the land and sky. Shadows became murky, yet emanated a deeper contrast, as if vibrating with detail. A cold wind blew, and then, in an instant, everything stopped; the air, the sounds of birds and bugs and rustling trees, the very pulse of the planet came to an eerie stillness. A dark wave crept over the ground from across the lake until it settled right above us; at the horizon it was like sunset, orange and red, with planets before unseen suddenly bright in the sky. And directly overhead a brilliant white ring with a center of the blackest black stared down at us, like a great empty eye, with its gaze reflecting both the infinite void of the endless universe and a radiant fullness of the unchangeable fact that all of existence is ultimately one inseparable being, timeless; beyond time itself. And as quickly as it came on, dawn broke for the second time in one day, as if to remind us that day and night are not truly two, but one, constantly flowing into one another; one becoming the other, over and over again, forever, in the eternal cosmic cycle of being and becoming—and that we, too, are one; that even when we are apart, we are a part of the same; that even when we are apart, we are always together.
Apollo. Ra. Amaterasu. Kinich. Utu. For millennia, human beings across civilizations have worshiped the Sun. The center of our solar system, the energetic source of life on Earth, bringer of day; every being on Earth, through all of history has had an existential relationship with the Sun. None would be if not for it. The Sun, unlike anything else, unifies the human experience; it shapes the very nature of our condition, embodies the passage of time, and moves the causality of life itself. The great cosmic dance of our planet, moon, and humble star radiates the magnificent contingency of our existence and inspires the most fundamental questions of consciousness: Why are we here? What reason explains our existence? What is our purpose?
Human beings are the only animals concerned with the notion of purpose. Its pursuit defines the nature of our consciousness. We do indeed seek explanation for our existence, on one hand, but even more so, we seek its justification. What is the point of our existence? What are we supposed to do? It is from this idea of purpose that we derive our senses of meaning in life – and perhaps, it is the most fundamental of truths that we all want to live meaningful lives.
Ultimately, however, it is unclear that any absolute answer to the question of purpose exists—that there is any certain point to being alive, or that there is any supposed to at all. Grappling with this uncertainty is the very core of ethics: Some suppose that we’re supposed to do our duty (but what is duty?); or that we’re supposed to do what’s good (but what is the good? And for who?); that we should do what’s right or just (right in what sense? And what is justice?); or what’s virtuous (but what is the nature of virtue?); or that all we’re really supposed to do is keep the promises we make to each other (But what are contracts, and what contracts us to them, really?).
Ethics and the question of purpose are a great wheel that will turn forever, as long as human being are the kinds of agential creatures that act and seek to justify our actions to ourselves and to each other – and it seems a fantasy to suppose that we will ever discover or articulate any ultimate or universal answer. Perhaps if we were perfect beings we would be capable of knowing in certainty, but we are inevitably fallible, and in that fallibility we must accept and embrace a certain agnosticism about the purpose of consciousness and the purpose of living. All we can do is suppose and engage in the process of consideration: to suppose and to consider—to think and to judge, and then to act. Indeed, it is the process that makes us ethical beings and gives our lives meaning – not necessarily the answer. The question, in a sense, is the answer:
What are we supposed to do? Never stop wrestling with that very question! The question of purpose makes us what we are. When you strip it all away, all we can say is that we are just the kinds of beings that wonder what we’re supposed to do, and maybe that’s all we’re supposed to be. Maybe that question is, at its core, what makes reflective consciousness what it is.
But while the justificatory question of purpose may be unanswerable in finality, the question of explanation is tangible. We may never know for certain the purpose for why we are here, but we can indeed know the explanation—the reason—for our existence, and as human beings have intuited for tens of thousands of years, the Sun is just such an explanation; the Sun explains why we exist. Of course, even material explanation entails is own infinite regress. If the Sun explains why we exist, then it is natural to then ask why the Sun exists – and the material chain of causality can extend as far back as we are willing to ask. We can explain the creation of the solar system, the births and deaths of stars, the origins of galaxies, and, as distant as we have been able to discern, the birth of the universe at the Big Bang. But what explains the Big Bang? What sparked the great explosion of matter and energy from which all of the known universe was born? There are suppositions, of course—an eternal cycle of Big Bangs and “Big Crunches” wherein the universe is forever expanding and contracting on itself; the multi-verse or parallel realities; some see only God as the ultimate explanation of existence—the “Prime Mover” of all that exists and the great chain of causation – the Alpha and Omega.
I have even toyed with an ontological explanation for the existence of existence (though, admittedly, not to much satisfaction); something like: “Existence, by its very nature, must always and only exist because for existence to not exist would make existence non-existence, and for existence to be non-existence would be a fundamental contradiction. Therefore, what explains the existence of existence is the nature of existence itself.”
But none of these suppositions are immune to the prospective interrogation of infinite regress. No matter the origin, we can always proctor successive questions and inquire as to the origin of the origins. And at the end of the day, we may never know. Even in terms of the material explanation, we may have no choice but to accept and embrace, in our inherent fallibility, a fundamental agnosticism about the explanation of our existence. We may never know—and indeed may never be able to know—in any ultimate sense either the explanation or the purpose underlying our existence.
Nevertheless, we need not stare into the face of infinite regress as if it entails nihilistic futility. The privilege of being distinction-making beings is that we can choose the distinctions to which we ascribe meaning. We need not see meaninglessness in infinite regress; infinite regress is just infinite regress, and for no reason should we assume that infinite regress necessarily means meaninglessness about the distinctions we unveil along the way. We need not know in absolute certainty the explanation of the entire universe to understand the relationship between the Sun and Earth that explains the existence of life.
To be sure, life would not exist were it not for the harmonious relationship between the planet from which we sprang and star that emanates our essential energy. We owe our very lives to the alignment of the Sun and Earth; and in so knowing that celestial relationship we can derive the values of gratitude, appreciation, respect, awe, and love for the contingencies that explain life’s existence and ultimately unify us all.
Solar eclipses, unlike much else, are significant because they illustrate for us so explicitly, so obviously, the cosmic alignment at the heart of our existence. In the great dance of our solar system, every so often the Moon crosses directly between the Earth and Sun, and in those few, rare moments we feel, more powerfully than is usual, our oneness with the cosmos of which we are a part. We are never not one with the universe, but in the bustle and distractions of modern life, it can be easy to forget the bigger picture of our existence. Sometimes we need reminding of our unwavering universal unity.
The world often seems so estranged from itself and we from each other, so carved up by nations, interests, or politics, so wrapped in discord—and we, in turn, can lose ourselves to a sense of division and alienation. But the unchangeable truth is that, for all our dissensions, we are all here, together, and indivisible in the fact of our existence. And solar eclipses, in all their majesty, evoke in all who experience the Path of Totality a blissful comfort about our fundamental oneness and shared place in the universe.
Nothing can ultimately separate us, for even when we are apart, we are a part of the same, and thus, we are always together. And where we are together forever, we can be together, in love, for all eternity.
So honors the Sun Sage: To the Sun god, the Earth, and Moon—and the cosmic ecology to which we owe our existence.
Every year I make a point to roam the planet and get back down to earth; to strip away the ornamentation of modern life, if only for a moment, and reflect on what it means to be human. Last year, I ventured through northern Europe for eight weeks, and then upon my return to the United States, backpacked for two weeks through Nevada’s Ruby Mountain Wilderness with my best friend, David Munson. This year, David and I spent two weeks mid-June living on a small island in the Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve, several miles off the coast of Belize. It was, to say the least, a transformative experience.
On the island I read a book called Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, which features a dialogue between a man and his teacher, Ishmael, a telepathic gorilla. Ishmael walks the unnamed narrator Socratically through two different stories being enacted by humankind: one – the “Taker” worldview wherein humanity understands itself to own the world and takes it to be our self-evident destiny to absolutely control the human condition and ultimately transcend our animality to be more the gods of old than part of creation – a mythology of progress, as John Gray, puts it. Ishmael leads our narrator to an understanding of Taker mythology that shows it to be invariably destructive of the planet, essentially set in motion over the last 10,000 years of the agricultural revolution beginning with the conflicts between the Semitic and Caucasian peoples in Mesopotamia – the former, pastoralists in lifestyle; the latter, agricultural revolutionaries – in which the Taker Caucasians cannot stand to settle into a modus vivendi with the pastoralist Semites and, rather than peacefully coexist, expand “Taker Culture” by sword and fire, utterly intolerant of any way of life other than their own, and ultimately seeking to remove human beings from the laws of ecology by which nature (the gods) govern “who lives and who dies” on our humble planet.
The pastoralist Semites represent, not the first, but continuances of the way humankind lived for three million years prior to the agricultural revolution – herders and hunter-gathers – who still survive today in the ever-waning number of indigenous tribes that still exist despite the march of “progress” that has been underway for the past 10,000 years. Rather than believing the Earth to belong to human beings, these “Leavers” understand humanity to be one animal among many, not destined to rule the Earth, but to coexist as part of its great ecology and to carry forward the emergence of sentience with grace and respect for the immutable laws that govern the existence and balance of life. Where Takers, according to Ishmael, lead destructive, discontent, criminal lives, the Leavers knew harmony with the Earth (even despite the harshness of nature, which Takers aim to escape altogether), a deep-rooted sense of purpose and contentment, and lived within the laws of nature – law-abiding Terran citizens.
Ultimately, it seems to me, the turn-point on which the Taker-Leaver dualism hinges is the idea of purpose. For the Takers, humankind’s purpose is to progress; but “progress is [just] movement for movement’s sake” according to Hayek’s nihilistic dictum, and leaves us restless, insatiable, and discontent in our existence. Only in Taker Society do depression, obesity, addiction, bipolar, ADD, ADHD, mania, insomnia, and suicide really exist – and they are a reflection of the pointlessness of our eternal pursuit of “progress” as we envision it; never content, never sleeping, always seeking to transcend, yet nevertheless unable to ever be more than human – for in plucking ourselves from the forces of natural selection, we will never be able to evolve.
The Leavers, on the other hand, Ishmael says, understand humanity’s original place within nature, as stewards of a Franciscan bent, and do not struggle with nihilism, or the psychological ailments of modernity. They are “down to earth” and so they are happy, locked in step with the rhythms and melodies of the planet; a synchronicity long since forgotten by the Takers. To be part of something greater than ourselves; to have an unambiguous place on Earth; a true sense of home and authentic living in the ancient wisdom of “what works for people” passed down over millions of years.
It is easy to lament the rapacious destruction of the Leavers that do today remain, to call for our peaceful co-existence, to live and let live, so that their ancient knowledge and ways of living will not be snuffed out for good, and to resent Taker Society for being what it is, accustomed to its ways over ten millennia; to be saddened by the trajectory of the human-nature relationship that dominates the planet; to wish to leave all the taking behind and return to simpler living; to re-immerse ourselves in the laws of ecology (for we cannot fall forever!) sooner than later, and avert our crashing down into the canyon below toward which our flightless jet has been plummeting since its inception (forgotten that we are falling, for falling gives a sensation of flight until one hits ground); to pity the Takers; to judge and to hate them; to blame them and to obsess over the fantasy of abandoning Taker mythology for a return to hunting and gathering and herding. How naïve! How childish! One does not judge, or blame, or pity, or hate a sheep for being a sheep, for they are but sheep, born into being sheep, living and dying as sheep and knowing no other way, convinced they are happy and righteous in their wool; unawares that they are fleecing themselves, even still.
The sheep will never abandon the herd, for the herd is all they’ve ever known, and the herd is an echo-chamber beating the drum of progress, sure to the deepest level that any other way of life would be nasty, poor, brutish, and short – and so the fruitless dream of convincing the Takers to again become Leavers is, to be sure, a bucket that will not labor to hold water – there is no hope there; only frustration.
And so, if we labor for hope that we can stem the socioecological crisis of the Anthropocene, we must embrace a new story that inspires a new sense of purpose in the nihilism of Taker Society and reinvigorates living rather than simply being alive; a sense of home and place and meaning in human life as it exists today, for we cannot turn back the clock, forget what we have been up to for 10,000 years and return to the Leaver way of life. Indeed, we are far too many for that to be at all feasible in the first place, and no one would buy it.
Even life on the island was hardly removed from the luxuries of modernity. Indeed, we would forage and fish, but we were never far from agricultural produce brought by gas powered boat, a diesel generator that electrified the open-air kitchen in the “main building,” our Scuba gear, the Internet modem (even if spotty, unreliable, and generally inaccessible), our cell phones, cooking and harvesting tools, the litter washed up and strewn about the island, our mattresses, and solar powered lamps, toothbrushes, sunscreen, bug spray, and head torches were constant reminders that we were never far, never even close to truly removed, from Taker Culture and the luxuries of modernity. Nor, do I think, would we really have wanted to be. We merely sought to go out on a limb, not leap from the tree entirely; for at the end of our stay we hopped on airplanes and whooshed ourselves back to “civilization.”
But the lessons of the island – of our little limb – we will retain, for its flavor was sweet and its memory powerful – wood labor that one cannot and would not forget; a resonant verse in the new song I will now forever sing; the poetry to onward recite to our Taker kin:
Back down to earth, to embrace the great clod,
To remember and love,
to lay in the grass, and tend to the sod.
For removed we may be, but never too far,
from the ground and the soil that reminds who we are.
Of Takers and Leavers, we humans of terra,
All are of one, as we forge our new era.
For as numbers grow and the planet may groan,
Our task is to labor and spread love for our home.
Our ways and our whims are all subject to change,
And our labor of love is to retake the reigns.
Together as people, all one in the same,
Our fate is in common in living’s great game.
in heart or in whole,
In being together we relight our souls;
By ushering in the sentience of beings,
To be first of the teachers is the song we must sing.
As time marches on and our place remembered,
Our purpose in life is the being of members
in the tribe of the planet and contentment of living,
As stewards and poets and artisans tending
To the movement of souls through the cosmic abyss,
The meaning we seek is in love and in bliss.
In oneness and many, the plural abounds,
For what works for people is diverse in its sounds,
And melodies change in verse and in rhythm,
We are never too far to bring together the schism.
Between humans and cultures and planet and creatures,
All people are set to be leaders and teachers,
But not by our rule, by fire and fist,
For if hubris proceeds we’ll be lost in the mist,
Groping and grabbing at whatever is solid,
But never content,
sordid and squalid.
From gorilla to human, to palm leaf and crab,
We can all reinvent the habits we have,
For the better of all and for all in the light,
It is merely the dawn of what life has in sight.
For the cosmos and Earth expresses through us
the sentience, galactic, of which we entrust
the powers of reason, foresight, and love,
the oceans below us and the stars up above.
Our task is each other,
To teach, serve, and write,
Takers and leavers and creatures, alike.
– J. M. Kincaid, 2017