Category Archives: Environment

Review of Aaron James’ “Surfing with Sartre”

Aaron James’ new book, Surfing with Sartre: An Aquatic Inquiry into a Life of Meaning, addresses major questions in philosophy from his unique perspective as both a philosophy professor and former surfer. James argues that the surfer mentality offers a unique perspective on philosophical issues like: knowledge, freedom, happiness, society, nature and the meaning of life. Why? In the introduction James says:

Surfers often have a certain natural lightness about being, about the meaning of their personal existence. Those more at sea existentially can certainly appreciate the surfer’s good fortune. And it is hard to dislike people so thoroughly enthralled by living … Surely most of us could learn to live lighter, by sliding over life’s problems. (4)

 One of his salient themes is that “what the surfer knows suggests that we should … get used to an even more leisurely, surfer-friendly style of capitalism, in which we all work, but a lot less …” (5) He claims that working less is an ethical imperative because work “as we now practice it emits gases … that are steadily warming the planet. So … as long as we do something less consumptive of ecological resources than working … we contribute to society by making the climate change problem a little less terrible … ” (6-7) Leisure activities are thus “a new model of civic virtue. The real troublemaker is the workaholic, whose labor-intensive striving makes the problem of global warming worse …” (8)

And these issues of profound ethical importance: “If climate science is even roughly correct … would it be morally okay for us to further enrich ourselves in work, without limitations, if many billions of living or future people are thereby put at grave risk of profound injury? Or are we obliged to adapt?” (8)Would it really be so hard to work less, and enjoy life more he wonders.

While it is true that most of us derive our sense of self from our work, it doesn’t have to be that way. The Protestant work ethic nurtured capitalism, but now we should reject it and use our time more productively than for wholesale destruction of the ecosystem. This is the main point of the book, that the surfer mentality is “on the right side of history.” (9) We should adapt our lifestyles to a changing planet.

The book devotes most of its pages to the surfer mentality’s insights regarding philosophical problems, using Sartrean philosophy as its foil. Key insights include that: 1) being in the moment provides more comfort than material possessions; 2) we should reject hard determinism and choose the surfer mentality; 3) intense pleasure and self-transcendence can be experienced by being in the flow; and 4) a hyper competitive society destroys humanity and nature. This leads James to state:

In a more leisurely capitalism, we’d have a less competitive way of life. We’d all work, but a lot less, and we’d spend more of our time getting attuned, living from love, practicing for its own sake, and transcending status preoccupation for a happier contentment. (288)

The book’s epilogue relates its insights to the question of life’s meaning. But he changes that question to: “What are the meanings, plural, of life. If that’s the question … then we just enumerate the many different ways life can have meaning … Friendship. Worthy projects. Creative activity. Music. Surfing. Nice parties. Or whatever … ” (292) James rejects the view that there must be one meaning to explains all these multiple meanings. So for James the meaning of life “can be nothing more than the various ways life is meaningful to us …” (292) The hard part is choosing from the many ways that life can be meaningful.

Of course this analysis ignores the question of the meaning of the cosmos itself. But even if we could discover such a meaning—say the super meaning was to enjoy an eternal feast in heaven—then we could just ask about the meaning of heaven. Maybe we wouldn’t like such a long party! But independent of our answer to the question of universal meaning, James points out that there is plenty of meaning in life already.

Still James admits that many people won’t be satisfied because they want to be “part of something bigger ….” (293) Here he recommends that we just add that meaning to our list, and connect our daily activity with that meaning: “being part of a collective enterprise could never be more than one source of meaning among many on a long list … So our list of meanings can grow longer … to cover big parts of history.” (295) In fact, “… many of our activities would come to seem much less important to us if we came to know that an asteroid would destroy the planet soon after our death.” (298) So being part of history is already an important part of meaning in our lives.1

Considerations about the future are connected with James’ concern about the destruction of the biosphere.

We living people are enjoying the carbon-based prosperity party. And though we’ll be dead before our emissions completely befoul the global ecology, if we don’t take rather dramatic steps to control their production, our story will be one of having indulged in the feast and skipped out on the check, without paying our bit, let alone helping with the dishes.

This really would not be cool. It would be a gross human failure, or, if you will, a great stain, or sin. (299)

Capitalism has produced great things, yet it encourages the self-interest that contributes to the destruction of the planet. So should we continue to enjoy the party and despoil the environment, or live a more leisurely, happier lifestyle? The sun’s light and heat brought us a planet teeming with life, but we now trap its heat in our atmosphere. Will we continue to bury our heads in the sands, or will we make a heroic effort to change things and save the world for future generations? Let’s hope we do the latter.


Samuel Scheffler made a similar point about our concern for future generations.

George Will on Climate Change: What’s Wrong With Him?

George Will has written one of the worst pieces I’ve ever read: “Climate change’s instructive past.” If my introductory college students had written this essay I would have responded: “This is so poorly reasoned, please don’t expect to receive credit.” Or “I recommend an introductory logic class before you write another essay.” Or “Please don’t turn in such nonsense again.”

Will was once an intelligent man. I don’t know what happened to him. Our brains do shrink as we age, still it’s just hard to believe that he believes what he writes. I suppose a non-scientist like Will, writing about a topic on which the experts are in virtual unanimous agreement, might be correct. Perhaps he’s a genius. But not likely.

In defense of his anti-science position, Will cites two books by historians who note that past climate change wasn’t caused by human activity. From this he concludes that present climate change isn’t caused by human activity. Really? That’s like saying that in the past people died from natural causes so today no one can be murdered. The argument is ridiculous. Here it is in syllogistic form:

In the past there have been warming periods not caused by human activity.
Therefore today’s warming period is (probably) not caused by human activity.

Logic teachers shake their heads. And I can just see the climate scientists discussing the column.”Hey Joe, did you know that some climate change in the past wasn’t attributable to human activity?” “Oh my God Bob, I never thought of that! I don’t think anybody who has devoted their life to studying the climate knew this! All of our evidence and the scientific consensus go out the window! I’m so glad George Will taught us about climate history! We had forgotten to include that in our calculations!”

Of course every climatologist knows that the climate has changed in the past from natural causes.That’s one of the things they study. But that doesn’t refute the overwhelming evidence for human caused climate change.

I wish Mr. Will wouldn’t insult our intelligence; I wish he’d retire, but he won’t. Perhaps he’s just a shill for the oil companies. Perhaps he’s just an old curmudgeon. Or perhaps he’s arrogant, so in love with his own intellect that he doesn’t know there are scientists who really understand science.They go to their laboratories every day trying to tease a bit of truth out of nature.They don’t just pontificate about science from their office chairs and then write op-eds. 


Addendum – Of the nearly 14,000 peer-reviewed scientific papers published between 1991 – 2012 exactly 0.17% either reject warming or attribute it primarily to causes other than CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

Nerds, Science, Politics, and the Future

I came across a recent, disturbing National Review cover-story by Charles C.W. Cooke: “Smarter Than Thou.” It begins by attacking Neil DeGrasse Tyson as the “the fetish and totem of the extraordinarily puffed-up ‘nerd’ culture that has of late started to bloom across the United States.” Other members of the nerd menace—all of whom don’t share the politics of the National Review—include:

MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry, Rachel Maddow, Steve Kornacki, and Chris Hayes; Vox’s Ezra Klein, Dylan Matthews, and Matt Yglesias; the sabermetrician Nate Silver; the economist Paul Krugman; the atheist Richard Dawkins; former vice president Al Gore; celebrity scientist Bill Nye; and, really, anybody who conforms to the Left’s social and moral precepts while wearing glasses and babbling about statistics.

Cooke later says that “the nerds of MSNBC and beyond are not actually nerds—with scientific training and all that it entails—but the popular kids indulging in a fad.” First of all some of the people on this list do have serious scientific training. Krugman is a Nobel prize-winning economist and Dawkins is one of the most important living evolutionary biologists. (No matter what one thinks of his philosophy of religion.) But even if one isn’t a professional scientist there is nothing wrong and much right about accepting what the scientific experts say about their disciplines. We should generally defer to experts regarding scientific subjects about which we have little expertise. Why? Because they know a lot more about their subject matter than we do.

I generally defer like this. I have no formal scientific training but I am scientifically literate enough to know that gravitational, evolutionary, relativity, quantum, and atomic theories are true beyond a reasonable doubt. (Still, even the best scientific ideas are not dogmas but provisionally accepted; they will change if enough contrary evidence appears.) When I go to medical doctors I generally trust their advice because they know more about medicine than I do. It is possible that they are deceiving me, and if the Mayo Clinic website says something vastly different from what my physician tells me, then I have reason to be skeptical. In that case more research might be needed. But I won’t trust some internet thread about medical advice from non-experts. In science we do much better if we trust the experts.

Surprisingly, as Andrew Leonard noted in his Salon article, “National Review declares war against the nerds,” Cooke never mentions Silicon Valley, a bastion of left-wing progressive politics, and the quintessential nerd neighborhood. (Yes there are libertarian nerds, but they generally believe in science, even if they are politically misguided.) Leonard theorizes that Cooke omits this group for a reason.

Acknowledging that nerds—you know, the guys and gals who invented the microchip and the PC and the smartphone—actually do have a grasp of scientific fact, which leads them to take seriously the problem of historically unprecedented carbon dioxide emissions and the idiocy of rewriting school science textbooks to include dogma about creationism and intelligent design, is a disastrous dead end for conservatives.

If Cooke honestly wanted to grapple with the cultural cachet of nerd-dom, he’d have to answer questions such as why a poll by the Pew Research Service found that in 2009 that only six percent of scientists identify as Republican … He’d have to face up to the sobering reality that the majority of people who understand how the world works in terms of biology and physics and mathematics also think that our overheating globe is a serious problem.

I think Leonard is right on the mark. Rather than answer these tough questions, Cooke argues that progressives embrace the nerd worldview in order to tell the world not who they are, but who they are not: “… which is southern, politically conservative, culturally traditional, religious in some sense, patriotic, driven by principle rather than the pivot tables of Microsoft Excel, and in any way attached to the past.”

I guess this is true for some progressives. Group identity is in large part what we are. But it is hardly the fault of progressives that the Republican party has become largely a southern party in the US, or that Ken Hamm’s Creation Museum  is in the American south, or that many Republican politicians in the US have rejected the scientific consensus about evolution and climate change to court their disproportionately conservative, anti-science, racist, religious constituencies.

Interestingly though, neither of the two intellectual opponents to the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change that Cooke offers are scientists. Both Bjorn Lomborg and Roger Pielke Jr are political scientists. But Lomborg accepts man-made climate change. He recently summarized his position thus: “Global warming is real—it is man-made and it is an important problem. But it is not the end of the world.” And Pielke has stated“The IPCC has concluded that greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activity are an important driver of changes in climate. And on this basis alone I am personally convinced that it makes sense to take action to limit greenhouse gas emissions.”

It is telling that Cooke uses these two political scientists as his best examples of real nerds that oppose climate change. And that’s because there aren’t many informed climate change deniers. One may dislike Al Gore for whatever reason, and those reasons might be justified, but the evidence for anthropogenic climate change is still overwhelming. In the end the science works, and it has changed human existence in its brief four century existence. Most importantly, as a good friend says, “science is validated by reality, not echo chambers.”

But I will accept one thing Cooke says about progressives—we are not generally “attached to the past.” When I look at the past I see the torture, war, genocide, disease, superstition, barbarism, child labor, infant mortality, and the lack of dental or medical care. I see the Dark Ages, the Plague and the Inquisition. I don’t want to go back. I want to go forward. I want to progress.

For if the future isn’t going to better than the past, then there isn’t much point in living.

GMOs: Are They the Liberal Equivalent of Climate Change Denial?

(For the record, I eat organic fruits and vegetables when available and I am practically a vegetarian—although I occasionally eat fish. I also accept the argument that Monsanto and similar companies are interested in profit alone. However this doesn’t mean that everything they produce is bad for you.)

GM Crops 

I was introduced to the issue of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) while teaching a few years ago. Looking dispassionately at the pros and cons it became apparent that there was a broad scientific consensus that GM crops pose no greater risk than conventional ones. 1,2,3 It was also obvious that the opponents of GM crops were generally modern day Luddites who opposed technology. The pro side of the argument won handily as best as I could ascertain. (I’ll leave aside the issue of GM animals, and the issue of the means by which companies like Monsanto get (force) farmers to use their products.)

Some students were surprised that I advocated strongly for vegetarianism—for environmental, moral, and health reasons—and for organic food—for health reasons—but that I didn’t mind my food “engineered genetically.” I responded that I would ingest whatever was healthier, whether that was organic plants or a magic nutritional pill. (Ideally this pill would also prevent death and disease too! Yes I’m serious.)

GMOs, Climate Denial, and Politics

There is a perception among some that opposition to GMOs among so-called liberals is higher than it is among so-called conservatives. There is also the perception that such opposition from liberals is ideologically driven, similar to how climate change denial is among conservatives. I argue that both claims are mistaken.

The perception that opposition to GMOs is higher among self-described liberals rather than self-described conservatives one can be refuted by the data.4 The perception probably exists because of the publicity given to certain events. For instance, efforts to ban GM crops in Hawaii were led by so-called liberals who disregard the scientific evidence for GMO’s safety.

But even if so-called liberals did oppose GM crops more than so-called conservatives, the latter are generally more anti-science, as has been carefully documented in numerous well-researched books.

Opposition to the scientific consensus on climate change and reverence for the Bible are virtual litmus tests to be a Republican in America today. Or to take another example, only 32% of Republicans believe in evolution, while 66% of liberals do. (Although to be fair, there is scientific illiteracy among all Americans as even this latter percentage reveals. In fact only about 1/2 of all Americans know that the earth revolves around the sun and that it takes a year to do so!)

There is also another difference regarding the extent to which ideology drives the debate. So-called conservatives seem to wear climate change or evolution denial as a badge of honor. Even Republicans who know the truth of climate change–like Mitt Romney or John McCain have to fall in line. No doubt ideology drives so-called liberals too, but hardly to the same extent. Liberals may be mistaken about the harmfulness of GMOs, but they don’t generally wear this as a badge of honor. The astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, something of a liberal icon, has recently stated that GMOs are not harmful.9 And in the hearings over banning GM foods in Hawaii were heard this: “These are my people, they’re lefties, I’m with them on almost everything,” said Michael Shintaku, a plant pathologist at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, who testified several times against the bill banning GM foods.

Hopefully some educated conservatives will speak this way about climate change, evolution, opposition to vaccines, and similar scientific illiteracy.

The Most Important Issue

The most important issue in all this, as I have stated many times in this blog and in my writing and teaching for almost thirty years, is that truth matters. We should all have a truth fetish. We should follow reason and science wherever it leads. For we ignore scientific truth at our peril. For in the end scientific truth does not depend on us, it depends on what is most likely to be true.

    1.  American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Board of Directors (2012). “Legally Mandating GM Food Labels Could Mislead and Falsely Alarm Consumers
    2.  A decade of EU-funded GMO research (2001–2010)(PDF). Directorate-General for Research and Innovation. Biotechnologies, Agriculture, Food. European Union. 2010.doi:10.2777/97784ISBN 978-92-79-16344-9. “”The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.” (p. 16)”
    3.  Ronald, Pamela (2011). “Plant Genetics, Sustainable Agriculture and Global Food Security”Genetics 188 (1): 11-20. doi:10.1534/genetics.111.128553.PMC 3120150.  PMID 21546547.

Climate Change and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

The Science

To understand climate change you just need basic physics and mathematics. This physics works like this. The earth’s surface temperature is governed by the absorption and emission of thermal radiation, and greenhouse gases (GHG) like CO2 and CH4 (methane) trap thermal radiation making the earth’s surface warmer. The mathematics is even simpler. GHG + GHG = more GHG = more warming. It’s that simple.

The connection between the concentration of GHG and warmer temperatures is well-established, with the analysis reaching back at least 400,000 years. If we look at the last few hundred years we find that CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere were 280 parts per million (ppm) in 1750 and have reached almost 400 ppm today. Models project that, unless forceful steps are taken to reduce fossil fuel use, they will reach 700–900 ppm by 2100. According to climate models, this will lead to a warming averaged over the globe in the range 2 to 11.5 degrees F.

And what is the cause of the increase in the concentration of GHG in the atmosphere? According to the IPCC, the leading international for the assessment of climate change; the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, the leading scientific organization in the United States; and nearly two hundred scientific organizations, it is now beyond any reasonable doubt that humans are the main cause of global climate change.2 3 4

The Problem

Climate change is already beginning to alter the land, air, and water upon which life depends. Higher temperatures, rising sea levels, droughts, floods, fires, changing landscapes, risks to wildlife, economic losses, and heat-related disease are just some of the consequences of changing the planet’s climate. In addition, there are consequences we can’t predict.

The Solutions

One of the first to understand the problem and propose an economic solution was the Yale economist William Nordhaus. Putting GHG into the atmosphere is free, it is an economic externality leading to a “tragedy of the commons.” The solution forces persons, countries, and corporations to pay for the GHG they pump into the atmosphere, thereby reducing the incentive to do it. He has detailed how to do this in his book Climate Casino.6 But how do we get multiple countries to cooperate in this endeavor?

The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty, and Economics for a Warming World

Others, like the Australian public policy professor Clive Hamilton, are even more pessimistic. He worries that as we enter the “climate casino,” humans won’t do anything until the situation is critical. His book, Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering, argues that humans aren’t rational actors and this prevents them from doing what’s necessary to avoid catastrophe.7 This will lead to risky technological fixes–to reckless gambling–like spraying sulfur particles into the stratosphere. Such radical solutions will be more attractive to some capitalist than taxing GHG, but there are catastrophic risks associated with high-tech fixes. Still Hamilton thinks this is what will happen.

Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering

 Why the Problem?

But why is the situation so intransigent? The reason is that humans find themselves in this situation because it has the structure of a Prisoner’s Dilemma (PD). The PD is a non-zero sum game with roughly the following structure: it is one in which we all do better if we all cooperate, yet individually each has a strong incentive not to cooperate regardless of what others do. In the climate change debate the situation is simple. Consider two countries A and B (for the moment we’ll assume there are only two countries in the world) who have to decide to dump or not dump their carbon.

Country                                                         B
Don’t Dump Carbon Dump Carbon
A  (S, S)    (W, B)
(B, W)      (T, T)

The best outcome for a country is one where the other country doesn’t dump carbon and your country does, since they pay to develop, say, greener technologies or pay carbon taxes while you do not. The second best outcome is where we all share the cost by using alternative energy sources and not dumping carbon. The third outcome is where everyone is dumping carbon and the earth’s atmosphere and environment are being destroyed. (This is the situation we are in.) The worst outcome for a country is if they pay the cost of developing and using new technologies but other countries don’t, and the climate changes for the worse anyway.

Of course everyone would do better and no one would do worse if we reached the second best outcome–the environment would be cleaner and catastrophic climate change might be avoided. So how do we get everyone to cooperate?

What are the Ultimate Solutions?

There are only a few realistic solutions to the PD. First we need people to agree to cooperate on the matter by signing a global warming treatise. Of course even if you could get agreement that still would not solve the problem because you have to guarantee that others comply. One way to do this is by negative reinforcement. We would need someone (a world government or the UN) to have the power to punish violators with fines or carbon taxes. Alternatively we could use positive reinforcement, by offering huge incentives for developing climate-friendly technologies. More radically we could use disablement strategies. We could outlaw oil companies and methane producing factory farms, but this too would demand an international coercive power, hardly realistic at this point. Perhaps most radically of all we could use technology to change human nature itself, say by using genetic engineering to make us more cooperative. Needless to say this is probably as risky as anything Hamilton has in mind.

I think we’ll probably reach a point at which we will be forced to try some risky high-tech solution to survive, hoping that our science and technology save us.


1. CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere were 280 parts per million (ppm) in 1750 and have reached 390 ppm today. Models project that, unless forceful steps are taken to reduce fossil fuel use, they will reach 700–900 ppm by 2100. According to climate models, this will lead to a warming averaged over the globe in the range.