When thinking about the environment I am struck by one obvious gap in the dialogue – the enlightenment. What, I hear you say, can an elite philosophical movement that ended over 200 years ago possibly have to do with global warming, that most 21st century of problems? Well let me explain.

By the enlightenment I am referring to the philosophical movement that began some time in the 17th century and ended (and this is disputed) roughly around the time of the French Revolution in 1789. The seminal enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant once defined the guiding ethos of the period as “Dare to know”; it was about challenging all accepted truths, freeing the mind and the emergence of rationality and science as guiding principles by which people could live. The ideas of both the scientific and philosophical enlightenment are partly responsible for much of the fantastic progress of humanity in the past three centuries but the enlightenment has, I believe, had a negative affect on the environment and I wish to highlight two key ways in which it did this.

Firstly the scientific enlightenment led directly to the rise in population that has led to the world being overpopulated. From the middle ages until around 1700 population levels in the West grew only very slowly. As society was based upon subsistence farming population was controlled by Matthusian laws of supply and demand. Put crudely, if people had more children then there would be less food and subsequently less people. Similarly natural disasters would wipe out whole communities and diseases would kill high percentages of the population.

But the vast scientific discoveries of the enlightenment began to change all that. Changes in agriculture meant that for the first time food could be mass produced and stored, and scientific discoveries improved healthcare and began to reduce infant mortality. The affects of this are obvious – from being relatively static for 600 years population has grown 6 fold in the last 200 years. This is not necessarily a bad thing but overpopulation is at least partially responsible for the problem of climate change.

The second, and in my view more important, reason why the enlightenment can be held directly accountable for today’s environmental problems is more philosophical. The enlightenment began the process by which man’s attitude to nature fundamentally changed from being something to live in accordance with to being something to be conquered by man.

In the pre-enlightenment period nature was predominantly conceptualised as all powerful, a force to which man was merely a servant. In the enlightenment era the ideas that came to the fore began the process of changing that master-servant relationship. For the first time in Western history property of land began to be viewed as a fundamental right of man. Take, for example, John Locke’s assertion that nature without man is wasted and therefore if any man were to use his labour to harvest land then it should belong to him.

Here we have the beginnings of the idea of nature as something which belongs to man, something which can be owned and traded by all, something to be conquered. It must, however, be recognised that Locke asserted a caveat, property could only be taken so long as “there is enough and as good left in common for others.” But this, thought Locke, would probably never be a problem as there was easily enough for each man.

This way of viewing nature exacerbated during the 18th and 19th century as urbanisation increasingly led to nature being viewed as something alien, dark and scary. Consider, for example, the 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill’s attitudes to nature. “The doctrine that man ought to follow nature… is equally irrational and immoral. Irrational because all useful… [human] action, consists in improving the spontaneous course of nature. Immoral, because the course of natural phenomena being replete with everything which when committed by human beings is most worthy of abhorrence, any one who endeavoured… to imitate [nature] would be universally seen and acknowledged to be the wickedest of men.” Though writing post-enlightenment Mill’s writing clearly represents an extension of the logic of enlightenment attitudes to nature as something to be controlled; nature as undermining the scientific rationalism of the age.

So how does any of this philosophy help us when we are trying to deal with current climate change issues? Well there are, I believe, two facts that we should recognise from this. Firstly the West cannot claim to be powerless when faced with high CO2 emissions from the third world. The dissemination of the ideas of the enlightenment have been responsible for nations like China and India pillaging the earth in much the same way as the West has done. But we finally appear to have broken Locke’s caveat forever, there is no longer enough left in common for others.

Secondly, and crucially, we cannot hope to combat climate change without deeper and more fundamental changes in the way in which we view and conceptualise nature. Nature must be seen not as something to be used up and discarded or as something which can be conquered by man but as a force that we must seek to live with within its means. This requires a fundamental change in philosophical attitudes towards the environment which often seem counter-intuitive to our post-Enlightenment logic. Whether this can be achieved in a culture in which enlightenment ideas of freedom have morphed into an individualist culture of consumption and vast economic growth remains doubtful but we cannot begin the process properly until we realise how deeply rooted into the philosophy of our society the problem is.

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