Kai Whiting is a researcher and lecturer in sustainability and Stoicism based at the University of Lisbon, Portugal. His main research interests are how to better account for resource use and the practical application of Stoic philosophy to the challenges of the 21st century. His background is in Environmental Engineering, but recognized that without philosophy, we will never understand the “why” we do what we do, which is why he combines both disciplines in his approach.
In our interview with Kai, he goes in great depth about the meaning of sustainability, how philosophy applies to environmental issues, the small changes we can all make to have a big impact, and much more. Please enjoy our interview with Kai Whiting!
Could you first tell us about how you first encountered Stoicism. Your background is in Environmental Engineering, but when did you discover the Stoics and why did it resonate?
I came across Stoicism various times before it truly resonated with me. In fact, it took a lot of study and an academic paper called Sustainable Development, Wellbeing and Material Consumption: A Stoic Perspective, where I applied Stoic philosophy to environmental issues, before I can truly say it became a part of me. Interestingly enough, my first encounters with Stoicism’s came through a Ryan Holiday interview with Impact Theory’s Tom Bilyeu. The interview helped me put my emotions and attitude in perspective. It really helped me get a handle on Epictetus’ dichotomy of control, which is an extremely deep concept – in the sense that it is easy to understand and very difficult to practice.
Ryan’s interview encouraged me to buy The Obstacle is the Way, which incidentally I was reading when my grandmother was dying. When I found out she died the book was in my hands. I took a deep breath and understood that I had a choice over what I did next. Death is irreversible. It is final. What you do with it, however, is not. I dedicated the following two years to reading and learning – not about Stoicism but life, generally. I guess death makes you re-think what you value.
Two years later, and coincidentally, I was reading another Stoic book – Massimo Pigliucci’s How to Be a Stoic when my grandfather died. At that point, I decided Stoicism was for me. It had helped me put death into perspective. It helped me process the loss of loved ones.
Is there one Stoic or one text that lands with you most personally? Do you have any favorite quotes or passages?
I personally think the early Stoics are underrated and overlooked, particularly Zeno, the Stoic founder, of all people!
Zeno’s ideal city as explored in his Republic is very different to what many people might expect or typically associate with Stoic philosophy. For one thing, it’s anarchical! It is vision of a city built on principles instead of rules and regulations. In other words, you are responsible for your actions, your thoughts and your attitude. And it is up to you to align your character with the four Stoic virtues of courage, justice, self-control and wisdom. For Zeno, life hacks can only ever make sense if they are integrated in his call to excellence, made manifest through your courageous, just, temperate and wise decisions in your day-to-day activity. This is one element of his call to “live according to Nature”, which is rooted in understanding how the world works (including the science available) and your place/role in the world’s community – including the plants, animals and, of course, other people.
Stoic philosophy didn’t make Zeno poor or a social outcast, even though he did not prioritize money or social standing. In fact, the Athenians gave him the keys to their city and, as he was an immigrant, offered him citizenship – an honour he graciously refused. Posthumously, a statue was built in his likeness, in recognition of his virtuous character. Such accolades would have only been given if Zeno’s contribution to the city was valued and any wealth he had amassed was spent on service to his community through his Stoic school. Of course, had he been only self-serving, virtue-signaling or playing poverty in the comfort of his “penthouse”, there is no reason to believe the Athenians would’ve cared in the slightest who Zeno was or what he did, no matter how resilient or disciplined his otherwise austere lifestyle made him.
I like the fact that the founder of Stoicism openly states that if everyone followed principles and acted with humanity’s best interests in mind, there would be no need for organized religion, temples, courtrooms, or even financial transactions. Now, that is radical, especially if you came to Stoicism through a business background. But that is Stoicism.
What about Stoic exercises? Any favorites?
Personally, I like journaling. I don’t do it for myself though. I see it as my “Stoic role” to make my thought processes available to the general public, which is why I personally pay or use my allotted funding to make my Stoic material openly available.
So, instead of journaling in a diary of some sort, I turn my ideas and reflections into co-authored academic papers (all of which are open access to date), book chapters, magazine articles and blog pieces. I guess that is why, despite the fact that my day job is environmental engineering, sustainable energy and material consumption, I have found the time to write on various Stoic issues, many of which are covered in this interview with Modern Stoicism’s Greg Sadler.
Your expertise is in sustainability. Terms like “sustainability” and “environmentally-friendly” etc. get thrown around a lot. Could you give us your definition?
Yes, unfortunately these terms get thrown around a lot! Even environmental policymakers call for “sustainable growth” which is an oxymoron in terms. Growth, by definition, cannot be sustained on a limited planet (in terms of size and resources). The same thing is true for “environmentally-friendly” when we are talking about consumption that leads to unnecessary waste or still involves the destruction of the marine habitat and animals – just to a lesser extent. Dolphin-friendly tuna is a particularly nefarious example. Many companies put “dolphin-friendly” on the label even though only a small percentage of their tuna is “dolphin-friendly”. It is not rocket science but to be truly dolphin and environmentally friendly we shouldn’t be catching tuna in the first place!
A simple definition of sustainable development was introduced in 1987. It goes:
“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
At Stoicon, I tied sustainable development to the four virtues by explaining that for future generations to be able to meet their own needs, we need to oppose the four vices (the polar opposites of the virtues) of greed, injustice, cowardice and ignorance. To do this we need to be self-controlled in how we think and act, particularly in what we buy and what we promote. After all, the car we drive, the food we eat and so on are clear demonstrations of our values. If you want to live according to Stoic principles, then you need to act justly and courageously and that means you are called to stand up for others (people and corporations) that act unjustly or greedily. Of course, this takes wisdom to know what to do, how to do it, with whom and when, exactly.
You recently published the paper Stoic Theology: Revealing or Redundant? contesting the assumption that the Stoic worldview is incompatible with modern scientific thinking. What do most people miss? How can Stoic theology be applied to environmental challenges?
This paper was a tough one and I am extremely grateful that A.A Long and Chris Gill were on hand to help Leonidas Konstantakos and I to tackle this thorny subject. Among most Stoic academics, there is a tendency to favour atheistic or agnostic interpretations of Stoicism. However, I think that in doing so, you actually lose a significant contribution of Stoic wisdom which can help us navigate the world around us.
Part of the” issue” with Stoic theology or the Stoic god is that many people believe that Abrahamic faiths have a monopoly on the word “god”. The word gets mixed up with ideas and concepts that the ancient Stoics, including Epictetus (arguably the most “spiritual” Stoic) would find strange. Notably, and as Leo and I explain:
In ancient Stoicism there was no leadership hierarchy nor was there an appointed authority, places of worship or sacred books. It was not heretical to question or reject earlier Stoic ideas on the basis of reasoned argument. This was not the case if we look at the historical (and in some cases the present) development of certain religions. Furthermore, while it is true that under the modern Stoic umbrella people can refer to themselves as a Christian Stoic, a Muslim Stoic, a Hindu Stoic, a Buddhist Stoic or an atheist Stoic—as long as they accept that the four Stoic virtues are sufficient and necessary for an adult human being to flourish—the orthodox Stoic position is grounded in a pantheistic vision of the universe. Furthermore, the immanent nature of the Stoic god will certainly conflict with the transcendental aspects of the aforementioned religious traditions, leading to, at the very least, unusual interpretations of key aspects of Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist beliefs—especially those associated with “miracles” and other supernatural events. This is because nothing outside Nature forms any part of what Stoics believe to exist. In other words, the orthodox Stoic understanding of the universe, including god, is entirely grounded in natural phenomena.
Stoic reverence for Nature or “god” does not come through any profession of faith, i.e., an affirmation dependent on the holding of a belief, such as in existence of heaven, hell, angels and other miraculous signs, even in the absence of, or contrary to, available evidence.
Once the above is understood, it becomes clear that Stoic theology, far from being opposed to a factual and scientific understanding of the world, is dependent on science and scientific enquiry. Where any contradictions are found, say in how ancient Stoics viewed animals, we must address them. This is in fact a very Stoic way to approach ethics.
Stoic theology provides the foundation of Zeno’s call for Stoics to “live according to Nature”. So if we are ruining the planet, we are not acting rationally, and thus not operating virtuously. Consequently, and whether or not Stoic theology provides the most accurate description of the universe, it still forces a different view from that corporations, individuals or governments that put profits before people and the planet. In this sense, following Zeno’s lead would play a critical role in how Stoics go about reversing the climate breakdown and environmental damage that the current geopolitical worldview and socioeconomic system are all but ignoring, if not accelerating.
These problems—global warming, mass extinction, deforestation and pollution—are so complex that it’s easy for people to think there’s nothing they can individually do to make a difference. Do you have any recommendations of things people can do in their daily lives that have more impact than one might think?
In my lectures of critical thinking I ask my students “How can you change the world?” After they debate the answer, I tell them “how about don’t buy crap you don’t need”.
So many of us get fooled by marketing and tricked into desiring things we don’t need and, which despite a marketeer’s best efforts to make us believe the contrary, won’t make us happy. Once we understand that progressing in the good life is progressing in the four virtues and not “keeping up with the Joneses” we massively reduce our waste. We stop fuelling needless production. This change of attitude alone cuts your ecological, carbon, water and material footprint. It also saves your efforts and resources (including time) because you don’t have to work so hard for things that you won’t use and don’t really want.
Other than that, cutting down your meat and dairy by having a meat-free day of the week or meat-free dinners or lunches, or aligning your lifestyle with a plant-based diet, is the biggest change you can make. It also says something about how you value animals and the world around you. It is very difficult to argue that eating large quantities of meat is good for the environment or just when the impact of your diet and lifestyle choice is negatively affecting others through your carbon footprint or land use (a meat eater’s diet will take up much more land).
All of us need to get more knowledgeable about what we are eating! For example, many vegetarians and vegans are criticised for eating soya, but 70 percent of US soybeans are destined for livestock consumption. When it comes to diet, there is a lot of push back even in Stoic communities, but who said that aligning ourselves with the four Stoic virtues is easy? Acting Stoically is very nuanced and there is no universal answer for every single person or occasion, but the fact remains there is not enough land for 7 billion of us to eat as much meat as the average American. The same is true when it comes to carbon emissions – the climate destruction caused if everyone ate large quantities of meat would push our world to thresholds that we will not be able to come back from.
Our impact on the planet is an urgent matter and when considered in line with the definition of “sustainable development”, and the direction that our diets need to take in the West becomes exceeding clear, especially when one considers the “virtues” of intensive farming.
When we interviewed Martha Nussbaum, she brought up her disagreement with the Stoic stance on animal rights. We get the sense that you would also make revisions to that aspect of Stoicism. Could you elaborate?
First of all, I don’t think that the ancient Stoics would have disagreed to a modified ethical framework that considers our obligations to animals (Stoics wouldn’t agree that animals have rights) if we showed scientific evidence to support our new position. The adaptation of Stoic ethics in light of new discoveries occurred along the development of the Stoic school from the early to late Stoa – so there is no reason to think that Stoics would have been reluctant to incorporate modern discoveries into the Stoic framework, had they known about them.
In Stoic ethics, value is attached to rationality, rather than humanity as such; humans are seen as having a special place among animals because adult humans are uniquely rational. There were also differences in opinion within the ancient Stoic community, with for instance, Cleanthes making a case for the collective intelligence of ants. It is worth noting that, according to the principles of Stoic theology, the natural universe or cosmos, taken as a whole, is rational and is a more complete expression of rationality than that which could ever be possessed by human beings, including the sages (the perfectly virtuous person, who is completely aligned with the essence of the universe and thus lives according to Nature). For the Stoics, the universe is seen as rational because it is characterised by order, structure and wholeness. So, although the Stoics distinguish human beings from other animals, they do not see rationality as a purely species-specific characteristic.
The key moral distinction in Stoicism is not between humans and animals but between sages and non-sages. The question of the extent to which different types of animals, for instance elephants, dogs or ants, can be seen as rational, by modern criteria, is something that requires further investigation, as fresh scientific evidence appears. I think it is reasonable to believe that if the ancient Stoics had formed a view of the psychological capacities of animals closer to modern accounts, they would not have drawn such a sharp distinction between humans and animals in this respect.
Throughout my work, I have explored usefulness of applying ancient Stoic ideas to very modern challenges. For those particularly interested in my take on expanding Stoicism to include non-humans in our obligations and circles I would suggest that you read “Were Neanderthals Rational? A Stoic Approach”.
What books and writers have had the biggest influence on your thinking and how you live your life? Any lesser-known Stoic texts that you would encourage readers to explore?
I hope I have made a good case for Zeno! For if you want to go crystallize the message of Stoicism – go back to Zeno, don’t just focus on the Roman Stoics, as you will miss a lot out! And, if you want to change your world and the world generally – follow Zeno!
In terms of modern Stoic texts that I find underrated, I would suggest Stoic Virtues: Chrysippus and the Religious Character of Stoic Ethics by Christoph Jedan, especially if you are deeply interested in Stoic theology. Another book that I find both interesting and well written, which is far more suitable for the general reader, is More Than Happiness: Buddhist and Stoic Wisdom for a Sceptical Age by Antonia Macaro.
In terms of a non-Stoic book, I recently enjoyed Laura Vanderkam’s Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done.
Kai Whiting is a Stoicism and sustainability lecturer and researcher based at the University of Lisbon, Portugal. He blogs over at StoicKai.com and Tweets @kaiwhiting.