Stoicism serves well as a practical system of values for confronting modern-day dilemmas. And there is perhaps no more imposing set of problems facing society today than climate change and global warming. The question is, how can a philosophy founded thousands of years ago help us respond to the climate emergency?
While we can’t say with complete certainty what the Stoics would do in our current situation, we know that they saw the world as one interconnected, global community, or cosmopolis.
They acknowledged the interdependence of all of humanity, known as sympatheia, and believed in natural law and universal logos, of which every living thing was a part of. Most notably, they strived to live “in accordance with nature” by applying logic and reason to life’s challenges.
“Never in reply to the question, to what country you belong, say that you are an Athenian or a Corinthian, but that you are a citizen of the world” —Epictetus, Discourses 1.9
In short, most ancient philosophers believed that humans’ unique ability for rational discernment gave us an inherent responsibility to protect other living beings, such as plants and animals. For a chance at preserving our planet for future generations, we must embrace a similar mindset. Solving climate change will involve recognizing humanity’s shared role in creating the problem. Then, confronting it with a cohesive, unified effort that addresses the root causes with logical solutions.
“Every hour of the day, countless situations arise that call for advice, and for that advice, we have to look to philosophy.” —Seneca, Letters from a Stoic XVI
The Stoic idea of cosmopolitanism, or a single global community, has become fully realized in our connected, technologically advanced society. Climate change affects everyone, and humans are the only ones that can do anything about it. But before taking action, we must agree on a standard set of facts.
Climate change is defined as a long-term shift in weather patterns due to global warming. While climate change is, in part, a natural phenomenon, human activity and the burning of fossil fuels have accelerated global temperature changes over the past 200 years.
According to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), “Human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels, with a likely range of 0.8°C to 1.2°C.” Many scientists agree that a global average temperature rise of 2°C above pre-industrial levels would result in irreversible societal, economic, and ecological damage – also known as “the point of no return.”
The Stoics acknowledged that the universe is cyclical, and that existence is both self-creating and destroying. But they also believed that the matter of the cosmos could be explained through observation.
Based on the scientific data available, it’s decidedly irrational and unethical to human society to collectively continue engaging in the activities that are destroying our planet. We can’t resolve this situation the way we created it—through single-state policies, greed, and unrestrained development. To course-correct, we must accept that our habits, values, and behaviors have contributed to the climate crisis and then take action.
The four Stoic virtues of wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance can help guide us. Importantly, we need to realize that we have a responsibility to act collectively AND individually. Even if political leadership is stifling our ability to react, even if victory against climate change seems almost impossible at times to realize, it is our duties if we believe it to be a worldwide crisis to take action against it.
Don’t Wait for Society—Take Individual Action
It’s no secret that the Stoics were big on personal responsibility. They also spent a lot of time reading, writing, and studying the world around them. It follows that the logical first step to getting involved with climate change would be to get informed on the issues. You can do that by following reports from organizations like the IPCC and Climate Central, as well as making an effort to keep abreast of developments by following the news. As a Stoic, you need to take responsibility for learning about the climate crisis and turning that knowledge into action, whether it’s by talking about it with other people or ascertaining what you can do in your own life.
Travel less, and travel light
The Stoics were skeptical of too much travel, even thousands of years ago. In his letter On Travel (CIV), Seneca asks, “What good has travel of itself ever been able to do anyone?” Today, travel and transportation are two of the most significant contributors of carbon emissions and greenhouse gases. In confronting the climate crisis, you should follow the lead of the Stoics and shy away from excessive travel. Minimizing international air travel is one way to do that: avoid unnecessary business travel, or traveling long distances for vacations more than once or twice a year.
Another way to minimize one’s carbon footprint is by avoiding overly convenient modes of travel. Owning a vehicle that guzzles gas or driving three blocks to the grocery store are indicative of a lack of patience. Replace your driving with walking or biking where possible. If possible, commute to work by public transportation, even if it means waking up a little earlier. What benefit do you get from rushing from place to place? Not only are you contributing bit by bit to the climate crisis, you miss out on the true pleasures in life: the ability to commune with nature, the pleasure of exercising your body, of being one with the world.
Change your diet
The Stoics prescribed a diet of moderation and simplicity, which also happens to be good for the environment. Avoid the urge to order out every night, something that produces waste from the packaging and the delivery driver’s travel. Instead, shop at your local farmer’s market, or buy local produce from your grocery store. Use this as a way to stay connected with your local environment, fostering awareness of place and situating yourself within your community. Eat less carbon-intensive food as well. If you make the switch from red meat (the most carbon-intensive meat) to poultry and fish or try to eat vegetarian or vegan just once a week, you can make a real impact on how much carbon your diet produces.
Take Political Action
Most ancient Greek and Stoic philosophers were politically involved in some way, either as writers, orators, advisors, or emperors. While they didn’t always agree on policy, they still tried to hold themselves to high ethical standards—regardless of whether a tyrant like Nero or a Stoic like Marcus Aurelius was in charge. In fact, Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, believed that society could function based on individual principles alone rather than the rule of law. Political infighting or a lack of consensus on climate matters shouldn’t preclude private citizens from acting with virtue.
Political action is indispensable for a modern Stoic and there are many ways to get involved. Even writing letters to your representatives in state or federal government, pushing them to support climate legislation, can have a real impact. If you’re already involved in government, you can introduce environmentally-friendly legislation and align with groups like Climate Mayors. If you’d rather work behind the scenes, you can volunteer for a campaign or donate to green politicians.
Consider joining a climate action committee or participating in climate strikes. Write to your local representatives and show up at town hall meetings. Tell them you support a zero emissions target. Vote for green politicians. Use your voice to speak up for others who may not have one. Even if you can’t single-handedly protect islands in the South Pacific from sea-level rise, you can fight public policies that are causing it in the first place. The Stoics wouldn’t sit quietly in the face of global injustices – they would muster up the courage to act. If you don’t observe the change you’re seeking in your political leaders, demand it or change what you can control.
Protect the Collective Good
“…we should look upon all people in general to be our fellow-countryfolk and citizens, observing one manner of living and one kind of order, like a flock feeding together with equal right in one common pasture.” —Plutarch
Marcus Aurelius said in Meditations that “what’s bad for the hive is bad for the bee.” As a phenomenon with immeasurably negative consequences for life on Earth, climate change is a key example of something “bad for the hive.” The Stoics were mindful of the importance of justice, deeming it the most important of the four Stoic virtues. Today, they would likely be mindful of how climate change can disproportionately affect people with less economic influence and power and try to correct such injustices.
Is it ethical to save mansions in Miami from sea-level rise while the citizens of Kiribati are displaced? The Stoics might argue that we have a moral obligation to protect poor and disadvantaged populations. That means participating in cooperative, multilateral treaties like the Paris Climate Agreement, which aims to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
To help look out and show up for others, it’s important to make your voice heard. With the broad reach of online media and technological tools at our disposal today, communication and organization are two of the most powerful, effective, and low-cost ways to make an impact. You can subscribe to scientific journals and environmental news organizations, start a podcast, website or blog, or organize a simple beach clean-up. Write, speak, and otherwise share your knowledge. If Chrysippus could write 700 books, you can write one.
Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
Since the Industrial Revolution, economic development and prosperity have gone hand-in-hand, but not without environmental consequences. Rather than spending all of your money on extravagant indulgences or growing your investment portfolio, use your prosperity and fortune to protect the planet. Some Stoics were born into wealth, while others acquired riches over time, but they all ascribed to the idea that the good life was a simple life. Marcus Aurelius would remind himself that luxury was in the eye of the beholder. An expensive bottle of wine was really just old grape juice. And his regal robes were made of sheep’s wool dyed with shellfish blood.
There’s a direct correlation between individual consumption and your environmental footprint. Buying less stuff is a start, but you can make a considerable statement with your purchase decisions. Support companies that use sustainable materials and business practices. Contribute to politicians who support environmentally friendly policies. Donate to environmental causes such as the Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club, and World Wildlife Fund. When in doubt, purchase carbon offset credits. You don’t have to sleep on the ground or live on stale bread to conserve the planet. But where could you make more conscious choices?
Help Future Generations Find Their Own Power
The Stoics believed that virtue could be taught and recognized the importance of passing on their philosophy to future generations. They did this through education – priming their successors for lives of public service from a young age. Marcus Aurelius began his studies at six or seven years old. In Discourses, Epictetus wrote (through his pupil, Arrian), “Be careful to leave your sons well instructed rather than rich, for the hopes of the instructed are better than the wealth of the ignorant.” (CXLV)
Education isn’t enough, however. The Stoics knew they had to lead by example in their private lives. It’s enough to start with focusing on what’s within your control in your household. Apply the four cardinal virtues of wisdom, morality, courage, and moderation to each decision you make. For example, is it wise to leave the lights on all day? Is it moral to fail to act when animals are going extinct and people are forced to become climate refugees? Can you exhibit more moderation in your consumption of food and online shopping?
Climate change is a multi-generational problem, one whose solutions will need to be imparted to our children, and our children’s children. But right now, things are backwards. The youth are the role models who are pressing (begging) the adults with power to act. The Stoics surely would admire Greta Thunberg’s courage, conviction, leadership, and sense of personal responsibility. But they would likely be wondering, where are all the adults in the room?
In our interview with Kai Whiting, he defined sustainable development as: “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” We need to keep this goal in mind so that both we and our children can live happy, fulfilled lives on this planet. The only way to do that is by setting a good example through our individual actions while holding each other accountable, as the Stoics did in their lives. Who are you teaching to be a steward of the planet? Who is emulating your actions?
Prepare for Disasters—but Keep Them in Perspective
Climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of climatic events. Extreme event attribution is “one of the most rapidly expanding subfields of climate science,” according to Scientific American.
The Stoics recognized that external events were outside of their control. When faced with a problem, they would take action, but they wouldn’t overreact or get consumed by fear and emotional anguish. Today, they would likely caution us against obsessing over extreme weather events and natural disasters.
From a Stoic perspective, practicing askêsis—clear judgment and inner calm—is undoubtedly preferable to cultivating mass hysteria every time there’s a hurricane. Suffice to say, the Stoics would not spend much time glued to The Weather Channel, worrying about what might happen. They would remind themselves—and each other—that we have as much control over imminent threats as we do over death. Still, they would take appropriate precautions, busying themselves with what they can control while leaving the rest up to fate.
In the aftermath of a storm, when the floodwaters subsided, how would Stoics react? Likely, to help those who suffered by doing what they can—be it delivering aid, volunteering their time, or donating money and resources.
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own . . .” —Epictetus
We have many options before us. We can panic as super storms brew in the oceans or watch helplessly as the ice caps melt and the Amazon burns. We can wait for someone else to save the world, or we can do it ourselves. The Stoics would undoubtedly choose the latter, focusing on doing what’s right rather than worrying about the outcome.
What will you decide to do next?
- Adopt a more plant-based diet?
- Switch over to eco-friendly cleaning products?
- Think twice before clicking the “Buy Now” button on Amazon?
- Run for public office?
- Trade your SUV for a Tesla?
- Travel less?
We can’t single-handedly diffuse a hurricane or save a species from extinction, but we can double down on what it means to live a principled life, remembering that it’s what you do when no one else is looking that makes the difference.
Each of us has the power to align our pursuit of happiness and the good life with ethical, responsible action in the best interest of the planet. We should accept our ability to make a difference – albeit small.
“Call to mind things which you have done that have been upright or courageous; run over in your mind the finest parts that you have played.” —Seneca
Are you playing your part in the climate crisis? Are you rising to the occasion? Only you can be the judge.