by Helen De Cruz
by Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos
it might seem myopic
but philosophers from Spinoza to Nęss
argue it is the only way forward...
We try to adapt to it: buying face masks to brave smoke-filled air outdoors or air purifiers to clean it indoors, turning up the air conditioning to insulate ourselves from excessive heat, preparing to evacuate our homes, if need be, when another hurricane hits the coast.
We wonder where we can
settle down that won't go to hell in a hand-basket during our
lifetime. Some of us wonder whether we should bring children into
We ask ourselves:
Such questions can lead
to despair, or lead us to look away, but, as we will see, they can
also positively challenge the way we think about ourselves.
However, the climate crisis can prompt us to rethink these suppositions.
It's not enough to preserve your narrow, personal self.
You are part of a vast,
interconnected Universe, where your wellbeing crucially depends on
maintaining relationships and connections with others, including
The main idea of deep ecology is that we should address the ecological crisis through a paradigm shift. Nęss was a wide-ranging philosopher with varied interests.
Among many other things,
he was a huge fan of the Sephardic Dutch philosopher Baruch de
Spinoza (1632-77), particularly of his Ethics (1677),
which Nęss re-read frequently, and which plays a key role in his
reading Spinoza's Ethics.
Courtesy Open Air Philosophy
He is considered a national treasure, widely admired for his social activism, mountaineering, philosophy textbooks, and even his practical jokes and spectacular feats such as climbing the walls of the tallest building at the Blindern campus of the University of Oslo while being interviewed by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation.
He was a man of polarities:
This partly explains why Nęss still remains relatively unknown in English-language academic philosophy.
Especially in later life, he approximated what his friend and fellow environmental philosopher George Sessions called a 'union of theory and practice', practicing his ecophilosophy by spending extensive time outdoors, hiking and mountaineering until well into his 80s.
Nęss had a spartan vegan diet consisting of unseasoned boiled vegetables.
After retiring early, he gave much of his pension away to various projects such as the renovation of a Nepalese school.
Nęss's notion of self-realization is inspired by many philosophical traditions, including Mahayana Buddhism and Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolent resistance.
Another important inspiration was from Spinoza.
According to his Ethics, everything in nature has a conatus, a fundamental striving to continue to exist:
We see this fundamental tendency not only in humans but also in trees, bees and geese, and even inanimate objects such as tables, mountains and rocks.
Things don't spontaneously disintegrate and they tend to keep their form over time; even something seemingly transient like a fire will try to keep itself going.
How can we understand this universal drive?
Nęss situates the conatus in a bigger picture of nature, namely, one that helps us to persevere and affirm ourselves as expressions of nature. Spinoza argued that there is only one substance, which he called 'God' or 'God or nature'.
Nature and God are coextensive, as God encompasses all of reality. So, Spinoza's God is similar to what we now call 'the universe', the totality of all that is.
This totality expresses itself in infinitely many modes, such as thought and physical bodies. We, like everything else, are expressions of this one substance.
When our surroundings are hurt,
we feel hurt too...
Unlike a traditional theistic God, Spinoza's God has no overall higher purpose, no grand design.
This God is perfectly free and acts in accordance with its own laws, but doesn't desire anything. Nature simply is, and it is perfect in itself.
As Nęss put it in 1977:
As Nęss interprets him, Spinoza's metaphysics is fundamentally egalitarian.
There is no hierarchy, no great chain of being with creatures lower or higher. We are on an ontological par with fish, oceans and beetles. A bear's interests roaming about in the Norwegian countryside matter just as much as those of the surrounding farming communities.
Nature as a whole expresses its power in each individual thing. It is within these expressions of power that we can situate the drive to preserve our own being.
To actualize ourselves, we need to understand what our 'self' is.
Nęss thinks that we underestimate ourselves, writing in 1987:
Self-knowledge is partial and incomplete, this lack of knowledge prevents us from acting well.
Here again is a clear influence of Spinoza. Spinoza thinks that knowledge and increased (self-) understanding help us to increase our ability to act, and hence our ability to persevere.
We can realize this expansive conception of self by considering our relation to place, an idea that Nęss draws from Indigenous thought.
We often feel attached to places of natural bounty and beauty, to the point that we might feel that, as Nęss said:
Loss of place has by now well-documented effects on mental health, including eco-anxiety, which arises from a sense of loss of places to which people feel a strong emotional connection.
When our surroundings are hurt, we feel hurt too. Inuit communities in northern Canada feel homesick for winter.
This spontaneous feeling of connection to place signals to us that our self does not end at our skin, but that it includes other creatures. Indigenous people, through their activism and landback movements, demonstrate that there is more to the self than these metrics.
In a letter in 1988, Nęss tells the story of an indigenous Sįmi man who was detained for protesting the installation of a dam at a river, which would produce hydroelectricity.
In court, the Sįmi man said this part of the river was 'part of himself'.
In his view, personal survival entailed the survival of the landscape.
For Nęss, there is no grand, external purpose to our lives other than the purposes we assign to them.
But because our wellbeing depends on factors outside of us, there still is some sense in which we can be worse off or better off, and it is rational to strive to be better off.
A tree that flourishes and does well, with leaves gleaming in the sun and birds nestling on its branches, is realizing itself although we don't know whether it is happy.
A similar concept is articulated in the work of the Black American feminist author Audre Lorde (1934-92). For her, survival does not only mean having a roof over your head and food on the table.
As Caleb Ward explains in a recent blog of the American Philosophical Association, for Lorde there is a difference between safety and survival.
Ward quotes one of Lorde's talks:
Drawing together these insights from Lorde, Nęss and Spinoza, we can say that the climate crisis seriously hampers our ability for self-expression.
Its degradation of our sense of place and belonging makes it difficult for us to realize ourselves as human beings. Increasingly, we are pushed to settle for safety from immediate threats posed by the degradation of the environment.
We cannot even begin to think about how to preserve ourselves in all the diverse aspects of our existence, and therefore cannot really survive.
This is in part why the climate crisis is so corrosive to our sense of self: it impedes our ability to know ourselves.
Self-realization implies a unity of acting and knowing:
By contrast, lack of knowledge (of ourselves, as conceived of a larger whole) immobilizes and disempowers.
Unfortunately, the climate crisis is undergirded by massive denialism.
As Bruno Latour writes in Oł atterir? (2017), or Down to Earth (2018):
The super-wealthy have tightened their grip on democracy, creating politically motivated diversion tactics, such as blaming so-called 'metropolitan elites' (educated people) for the worsening economic circumstances of working-class people, or pointing the finger at refugees arriving in precarious boats on the shores of wealthy countries.
The 'climate crisis' lies behind nostalgic nationalist throwbacks to some imagined past, such as MAGA and Brexit.
Seeking prestige, fame and wealth
seems like it will help us realize ourselves
but, actually, we are in their power..
Unlike some other recent thinkers such as Jason Stanley, Latour argues that these movements are only superficially like early 20th-century fascism.
Rather, they represent a novel political order that is based on climate-change denial, where wealthy elites aim to create gated communities and escape routes by deregulation and disenfranchisement.
All the while, they try (in vain) to realize themselves in things that seem ultimately unfulfilling and empty:
By influencing and subverting the democratic process, they try to encourage deregulation so as to pull more and more resources toward themselves.
Realizing (at some level) that this is not sustainable, they retreat into increasingly remote fantasies such as TESCREAL, an ideological bundle of -isms:
It's promoted by philosophers at the University of Oxford such as Nick Bostrom, Hilary Greaves and William MacAskill.
They envisage a future where humanity will transform itself into a posthuman state (facilitated by so-called 'liberal' eugenics and AI), colonize the accessible Universe, and plunder our 'cosmic endowment' of resources to produce astronomical amounts of 'value' (for an overview, see Émile Torres's recent essay for Salon).
The happiness of these future posthumans, most of whom would be digital, justifies neglecting current-day problems.
The TESCREAL world leaves little scope for the diversity of expression of being human:
Why do the wealthiest people seek to actively deny the climate crisis rather than address it...?
The philosopher Beth Lord, drawing on Spinoza, argues that they are in the grip of bad emotions. Normally, our emotions help us seek out what is good for us and avoid what is bad.
We have three basic affects:
Desire is an expression of the conatus:
Overall, this aids our self-preservation.
However, because of the complex ways in which our emotions intermingle, it is possible to be mistaken in them and to desire things that really do not help us to realize ourselves.
Seeking prestige, fame and wealth seems like it will help us realize ourselves but, actually, we are gripped by them and are in their power.
While these misconceptions are prominent among the wealthiest elites, we see them in everyone. The ethicist Eugene Chislenko argues that we might all be climate crisis deniers in some sense.
Not that we literally deny that there is a climate crisis or influence policy to fuel denialism, but that we look away, much like a person in grief who realizes someone is dead but has not been able to integrate the loss into her life.
As Chislenko writes:
And the reason for this is, in part, that we feel like addressing the climate crisis would demand substantial sacrifices on our part, which seem like a drop in the ocean given the scale of the problem.
As Nęss writes:
How then do we get out of this situation of collective denialism...?
We have now seen what self-realization is and how it is tied to knowledge.
By increasing our knowledge, we increase our power.
For example, knowing that pathogens cause infectious disease led to great advances in preventing or reducing transmission through vaccines...
Similarly, to be able to act in the face of the climate crisis, we need knowledge, and for that we can look directly at Spinoza's philosophy for inspiration.
Spinoza lived a very sparse, propertyless existence in rented rooms, and tried to stay away from fame and the limelight.
He declined a prestigious professorship at the University of Heidelberg, and did not wish to be named as the sole heir of a friend, even though it would have made him independently wealthy for life, choosing instead to grind lenses to sustain himself.
So he did not think that flourishing or, in his terminology, 'blessedness' (beatitudo) could be found in material wealth and fame.
Instead, his work as a lens-grinder offered more opportunities for self-realization, because it made him part of the interconnected, budding community of early scientists at the start of the scientific revolution, many of whom used lenses in their telescopes and microscopes.
While Spinoza did not see blessedness in this-worldly wealth, he didn't think it could be found in an afterlife, either.
In the 17th century, people commonly believed that you could achieve blessedness after you died if you followed the moral norms and willingly abstained from certain pleasures during your lifetime.
However, Spinoza's radical insight is that you can achieve blessedness in this life.
As he writes:
The notion of blessedness is closely linked to Spinoza's view of self-realization.
But what does such an accurate understanding entail...?
One recent interpretation is offered by Alex X Douglas in his book on the topic, The Philosophy of Hope (2023).
For Spinoza, blessedness is a kind of repose of the soul or mental acquiescence. It arises from the intellectual love of God or nature.
For Spinoza, knowledge increases our power, and hence our self-preservation, by knowledge. If our emotions mislead us (as when we seek prestige or fame), we actually decrease our self-preservation because we are pushed to serve external goods.
The highest knowledge we can hope to achieve is knowledge of the Universe as a whole...
This knowledge is also knowledge of the self, because each of us is an expression (mode) of God. Douglas clarifies that this does not mean that we are parts of God, like jigsaw puzzle pieces.
Rather, each of us - an individual damsel fly, a rose, a mountain or a cloud - 'expresses the whole, in its own particular way'.
Once we understand ourselves
as ecological selves,
this will feel like
preserving our expanded self...
Once you realize that you are an expression of the whole of nature, you come to realize that, although you will die, you are also eternal in a non-trivial sense, since the one substance of which you are an expression will endure.
Spinoza also makes the strong claim that, if we are rational, we cannot but love God. It is the rational thing to do, because the love of God spontaneously and naturally arises out of an accurate understanding of ourselves and the world.
Once you realize this, you achieve blessedness.
As we've seen, Spinoza says that flourishing or blessedness is not the reward of virtue, but virtue itself. Once we achieve this, we no longer have to constrain our lusts, because they will dissipate when we achieve this cognitive unity with the rest of nature.
All this talk about tempering one's lusts may feel moralistic and old-fashioned, but Spinoza brings up an important point, namely that engaging in pursuits such as Last Chance Tourism - visiting places on Earth soon to disappear due to the climate crisis - or deep-sea exploration for fun is ultimately self-destructive.
Similarly, we might feel that renouncing steak, or giving up flying for frequent conference travel or for pleasure, might be restraining ourselves.
But once we understand ourselves as ecological selves, and understand how we are part of fragile, large ecosystems and the planet, this will feel like preserving our expanded self, rather than cutting ourselves short.
As Spinoza explains in his Short Treatise on God, Man and his Well-being (c1660),
Paradoxically, we underestimate how rich our ecological selves really are.
We don't give ourselves enough credit, on how we are able to derive genuine contentment and wellbeing from simple pleasures that do not involve destroying the planet.
Rather, we think that we need infrastructure-heavy, expensive things to make us happy, where happiness always lies just around the corner.
Self-realization increases our power.
As we saw, we chase things we imagine will bring us joy, such as wealth and prestige, but which decrease our power, because they have us in their thrall. Active joy in a Spinozist sense is an intellectual understanding of yourself and your relationship to the world.
An example of this is the work of Shamayim Harris.
When her two-year-old son, Jakobi Ra, was killed in a hit and run, she resolved to transform her dilapidated, postindustrial Detroit neighborhood into a vibrant village:
Buying up houses for a few thousand dollars, she transformed the area into the eco-friendly Avalon Village with a library, solar energy, STEM labs, a music studio, farm-to-table greenhouses, and more.
Such resilient, walkable and child-friendly communities provide a great scope for self-realization.
In an important Nęssian sense, Harris created a home for herself and others. Nęss's ecosophy is all about home, but in a broader environmental and ecological sense, where self-realization is the ultimate norm.
There is a beauty about self-realization. Through wise and rational conduct, we would be able to find new citizenship, a way of being in nature, a polis that also includes nonhuman animals and plants.
This way of being would increase our power of acting, and respond to our drive for self-realization.
There is not one set way for us to be. There is not even an ideal that humans must evolve toward, as in the TESCREAL universe. Nature has no ultimate teleology.
We matter as we are right now, not (only or mainly) as future hypotheticals, and we can envisage a world where humans, animals, plants, but also mountains and rivers, have their own multifaceted identities and where they exist in community with each other.
Our way out of the climate crisis must therefore begin by a re-conceptualization of ourselves as ecological and interconnected selves.
Self-realization as conceived by Nęss, Spinoza and Lorde is at heart a joyful, affirmative vision. It does not start from the premise that life is inherently filled with suffering.
Once we achieve self-realization, living well becomes easy due to the unity of blessedness and virtue. However, it is difficult to attain because of our collective climate denialism...
It's not that one day we will wake up and be self-realized. We need to achieve that perspective change and realize we are interconnected selves that can flourish only with the rest of nature.
It is perhaps fitting to end with the final lines of Spinoza's Ethics: