Category Archives: Philosophy

Pascal’s Wager: The Climate Change Version


The prevailing view among conservative politicians and their funders (though not so much among actual conservative voters) is that responding to climate change is either unwarranted because it doesn’t exist or unaffordable and undesirable because of the costs and the supposed sacrifices entailed.

Both of those positions, of course, are not valid. I don’t need to go into the falsehoods and disinformation in climate change deniers’ arguments. That’s been dealt with exceedingly well by many others. And in terms of the deniers’ second path of objection – cost and sacrifice – the rebuttal to that is the very basis of EcoOptimism: the things we need to do in response to climate change are desirable in and of themselves.

This latter point brings to mind a famous philosophical argument for believing in God whether or not God actually exists. It’s a type of gaming argument, known as Pascal’s Wager, and it goes like this:

  1. If you believe in God and God does exist, you will be rewarded with eternal life in heaven: thus an infinite gain.
  2. If you do not believe in God and God does exist, you will be condemned to remain in hell forever: thus an infinite loss.
  3. If you believe in God and God does not exist, you will not be rewarded: thus a finite loss.
  4. If you do not believe in God and God does not exist, you will not be rewarded, but you have lived your own life: thus a finite gain.


There’s no way I want to get into a discussion of the existence of God, but the great thing about Pascal’s Wager is that it pretty much says you might as well believe in God since three of the four conditions say it’s in your best interest.

As others have observed [some of the top ones in a quick Google search: 1, 2, 3], we can make a similar argument regarding climate change. (Note I’m using the prevailing term, but I prefer to refer to climate disruption or, better yet, climate chaos.)


But the EcoOptimism take on this is slightly different. The “conventional” environmental version of the wager is that we could lose out in some of the scenarios. However that argument omits the non-environmental benefits of responding to climate change. The argument here comes down to the observation that, as I wrote above, the things we need to do in response to climate change are desirable in and of themselves.

Another important point about this variation on Pascal’s Wager: the original wager merely referred to believing in God; not on doing anything to follow through on the belief. My climate change variation requires action. It’s not sufficient to merely phrase the argument in terms of believing in climate change; the validity of the argument is also predicated on acting on climate change:

  1. If we believe in and act on climate change and climate change does exist, we will be rewarded with both sustainability and thriving lives and civilization: thus an infinite gain.
  2. If we do not believe in and do not act on climate change and climate change does exist, we will be condemned to either greatly diminished lifestyles or human extinction: thus an infinite loss.
  3. If we believe in and act on climate change and climate change does not exist, we will still be rewarded with thriving civilization: thus an infinite gain.
  4. If we do not believe in and do not act on climate change and climate change does not exist, we will not be rewarded, but we will not have gained anything either: thus a finite loss.


Basically, the climate change “wager” says we’ve got everything to gain and nothing to lose.


Interdependence Day

Image: John Fowler, CC 2.0

Image credit: John Fowler, CC 2.0

The Fourth of July tends to spark a number of alternative ideas of independence. One of the most prevalent, to pick a not so arbitrary example, is independence from foreign energy sources, meaning, of course, oil. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s a perfectly good addition to the many reasons to support energy efficiency and renewables.

From an ecological point of view, however, it’s not independence but interdependence that we should be celebrating. The obvious type of interdependence that we are dependent on is that of ecological systems which include such necessities as the provision of oxygen by plants. Unlike the 18th century colonial dependence on the British Kingdom, our relationship – an interrelationship really — to the plant kingdom should be celebrated. It’s not a dependency we want to – or can — break.

Desirable interdependence has other forms as well. Our interdependence on each other via family and community is a basic characteristic of humanity. Very few people would either want to or be able to live in isolation from the give and take of others. Try to imagine it in terms of food or shelter or, moving upward in Maslov’s hierarchy of needs, self-esteem or love.

Our pinnacle of independence, the Declaration of Independence, is itself a declaration of interdependence. Joe Romm at Climate Progress addresses this when he rereads the text of the Declaration of Independence, adding specific emphasis at points, and concludes “By saying that it is a self-evident truth that all humans are created equal and that our inalienable rights include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, our Founding Fathers were telling us that we are all in this together, that we are interdependent, that we have a moral duty to protect these inalienable rights for all humans.”

In my own post, “Stealing from the Future,” I wrote of a related point that Romm also explores: “intergenerational remote tyranny.” The concept, Romm and others explain, derives from a passage in a 1789 letter written by Thomas Jefferson to James Madison: “the earth belongs to the living…… man may by natural right oblige the land he owns or occupies to debts greater than those that may be paid during his own lifetime.”

Though I referenced it in my post, I’ve always thought that it was a bit of a logical leap to jump from that line to intergenerational responsibilities. The missing link, it turns out, is also in that letter, which begins: “The question [w]hether one generation of men has a right to bind another … is a question of such consequences as not only to merit decision, but place also among the fundamental principles of every government…. I set out on this ground, which I suppose to be self-evident, ‘that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living’ ….”

It’s a fascinating letter, worth reading in full as I did this Fourth of July. At points, he seems to invalidate the inheritance of both debts and assets to succeeding generations (“The 2d. generation receives it clear of the debts and incumberances of the 1st.”) and seems to advocate that no law or constitution should run in perpetuity. Both points have fundamental implications regarding the rights of the currently living versus those not yet on board.

Romm goes on to focus on a specific word, “usufruct,” in the opening passage of the letter. The word is a combination of the roots for use and fruit, and refers to the usage of the fruits, as in the output or products, of something. The Constitutional Law Foundation (CLF), quoted by Romm, writes: “In Jefferson’s time, as now, “usufruct” referred to “the right to make all the use and profit of a thing that can be made without injuring the substance of the thing itself.” It was a term used to describe the rights and responsibilities of tenants, trustees, or other parties temporarily entrusted with the use of an asset — usually land.”

Read that way, the definition appears to refer to the fruits of land being a right of whoever owns or rents the land. But other definitions add a crucial meaning. Miriam Webster Online defines usufruct: “the legal right of using and enjoying the fruits or profits of something belonging to another” [emphasis added]. Other dictionaries have a similar definition.

This would, among other things, be in accordance with Jefferson’s argument that the Earth belongs to the living, not merely to those with artificial “legal rights” to land. That would upset the entire basis of property rights, something I pondered in my post, “Lines in the Earth.”

It ain’t easy finding an image to represent a word like usufruct. Credit for this find goes to a site called Eurozine in an article called “From abuse to usufruct.”

It ain’t easy finding an image to represent a word like usufruct. Credit for this find goes to a site called Eurozine in an article called “From abuse to usufruct.”

But there’s a still more interesting and environmentally relevant (as well as more practicable) aspect to look at. The CLF elaborates: “Jefferson’s philosophy that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living at least partially reiterates the biblical/Lockean paradigm of the earth as intergenerational commons, the fruits and benefits of which should be accessible to every member of every generation.” This is tricky stuff for one such as me, untrained in philosophy or law, to decipher. One reading of “the earth belongs in usufruct to the living,” I think, might be interpretable in the biblical sense of man’s dominion over the Earth.  Were it not for the second part of the sentence referring to “every generation,” that interpretation would be antithetical to any environmentalist as it could provide justification for simply living in the present, with no regard for anything but our own interests.

When we start thinking in terms of “intergenerational commons,” however, the picture changes entirely. It pulls together several of the themes that have been running through this blog. One is the concept, well employed by any ecological economist, of externalities. The other, of course, is the responsibility of any generation to its descendants.

But how would we truly represent the interests of those who do not yet exist? The fact that they’re not (yet) here is a pretty basic problem. Mark Bittman, in a New York Times column on climate disruption, presents a slightly science fictional concept and then suggests its potentially less hypothetical outcome:

Imagine a democracy across space, time and class, where legislative bodies represented not only those living in the world’s low-lying areas but their great-grandchildren — and ours. Or imagine that our elected representatives were proxies for those people. Imagine those representatives determining our current energy policy. Is there any doubt that things would change more rapidly?

It would be neat if a solution could be that simple. The future could send their votes back in time. Not likely unfortunately. The best we can hope for is legislative bodies that, along with their living constituents, are willing to act as those proxies, and our track record on politicians favoring the greater good over their campaign-financing interests is pretty dismal.

This brings to mind, though, another disenfranchised group – a group I discussed in yet another post: “Planets are People, My Friends.” In that post I conjectured how the interests of nature (or the Earth, if you prefer) could be represented in human decision making, how that oxygen-providing plant kingdom, for instance might have rights and votes. As with Bittman’s imagined intertemporal government, it would require proxy voting;  a proxy, though, merely delegates one “person’s” vote to another. It doesn’t necessarily mean voting against your own interests when they conflict with the person you’re representing. What we’re talking about here is putting yourself in someone or something else’s shoes. An ability that most of us are not very good at.

As befits a post on interdependence, there are a lot of intertwined tentacles here: property rights, voting rights, future generations, our relationship to nature. Just a few ethical and existential questions.

No pressure though. It’s the future, not the present, we’re talking about.


The Nature of Nature

Yep, it’s Earth Day. Again. Or Earth Week, judging from the plethora of announcements and invitations that have come in. There are all kinds of reasons a curmudgeon can question the validity of this occasion, ranging from criticizing the idea of “honoring” the Earth for just this short period of time each year, to questioning what can sometimes appear to be the commercialization, perhaps the corporatization, of that occasion. In between, one can wonder about the effectiveness and impact it has had on this, its 43rd, occurrence.


I – the supposed EcoOptimist – am skipping virtually all the festivities: the tree plantings, the film screenings, the organic foodfests and the rest. And while that probably does make me at least a part-time member of the aforementioned curmudgeons, there is in fact an EcoOptimistic silver lining in that I’m spending this time thinking long and hard about nature.

The pondering is due to a presentation I’m giving at a conference in a few days in Mexico City. I’m not sure if this conference, called the “2nd Sustainable Design and Building Encounter” (which, I suspect, sounds better in its original Spanish) is intentionally scheduled during Earth Week or not.  Its theme this year is “Rebuilding Paradise: towards the ideal city of the 21st century” and it appears to take as its starting point the view that cities are “characterized by nature’s degradation and species annihilation.”

Few would question that our dense habitations are artificial encroachments on the natural landscape, and that we have pushed aside, bulldozed, what once were virgin ecosystems, existing happily or at least sustainably without our intrusions. But are the things we build – the “modifications” to “physical geography” as one of the first ecologists put it in 1864 – unnatural? Does the fact that they are built by people automatically mean they are not a part of nature?

In one of the courses I created and teach at Parsons, “Economics and Ethics of Sustainable Design,” we spend some of the first few weeks discussing the relationship between humanity and nature and analyzing the fundamental question of whether there is a separation between the two – an “us and them” – or whether we are a part of nature, a subset of the whole. The question touches on religion (paganism and animism vs Christianity) as well as science (atomism vs systems thinking) and law (do animals – or all of nature, for that matter — have rights?).

There are many environmental implications within the answer to this question: seemingly basic ones like whether it is ethical to eat meat and more complicated ones such as whether it is our “right” to take from nature’s resources without limit. The more relevant point for my upcoming talk concerns, I guess, the nature of nature. More specifically, if the conclusion, as most environmentalists would probably agree, is that we are part of nature, not a separate group, then it stands to reason that our creations – buildings, cars, salad spinners, and all – are not “unnatural.” To say our cities are unnatural and therefore lacking in nature, is akin to saying a beehive or an ant hill is unnatural.

That isn’t an argument that our urban scapes have a sufficient amount of non-human living organisms. It is, though, a way to look at the biodiversity of urban ecosystems. With this definition of nature, we can say that cities are too populated  and dominated by humans, and that other species of life are underrepresented, resulting in ecosystems that are both unsustainable in an ecological sense and probably unhealthy for humans in a biophilic sense.

Biophilia, in case you are unfamiliar with the term, is our innate need to bond with other living systems. As a long time urban denizen who rarely feels the need to venture beyond the wildlife of the subway (a treehugger who doesn’t actually want to hug trees) and whose home includes no living organisms aside from two humans and a dog, I’ve long questioned the strength of that need.

I do derive loads of pleasure (and probably much lowering of blood pressure) from the hours of petting my dog. However, I don’t feel imprisoned by the city; I don’t feel deprived when not exposed to enough flowers or farms (or mosquitoes or poison ivy).

Yes, there are studies showing that hospital patients recuperate faster when they views from their rooms. And a recent report, The Economics of Biophilia, found that there are substantial benefits in health and productivity from biophilic design. There’s no doubt, even in my urban-centric mind, that more sunlight and exposure to non-human nature would be beneficial to those of us who live or work in dense city centers. It would also provide us with a greater connection to aspects of nature that we are so dependent on but which are unseen and often therefore unappreciated. How many New Yorker’s have ever visited the upstate lakes and reservoirs that serve us water that’s healthier than most bottled waters? Do they even know where their tap water comes from?

I’m probably more aware than most, due to exploring topics like this, of the dependency of cities on their surrounding environs. (Let’s not forget, by the way, that this is really an interdependency, working both ways – as, in fact, all ecosystems do.) But is it critical for me to visit and interact with our watershed, to experience harvesting my food, or hear nothing but birds and my footsteps while hiking? Personally, I don’t feel that need, and I can still both feel fulfilled and have an appreciation for the ecological diversity that makes my Manhattan existence possible. But I also know that I am probably not normal in that respect. (I can virtually hear the exclamations of my more outdoorsy friends.)  I’m the one singing the refrain “New York is where I’d rather stay. I get allergic smelling hay.” So I don’t disagree with the common view that we need more views, or that cities could and should be more self-sustaining ecosystems.

But I don’t think cities or urban living are unnatural. No more unnatural than we are. Over half the human population now lives in cities, and that trend will only continue. The question I hope to address at the conference – as well as hear from others about – is how we best combine the human and non-human forms of nature to create cities that are both sustainable ecosystems and fulfilling places to live and flourish.

Lines in the Earth

(In a previous post, I mused about the idea of assigning the rights to the Earth’s resources to the Earth itself, similarly to the way rights are assigned to people and to corporations. The post here is more or less the opposite. It’s about the artificiality of our current concept of property rights: dividing up and assigning the rights to pieces of the Earth, not to the Earth but to people and other legal entities.)

Several of my teenage summers were spent working for local surveyors. In many ways, it was an ideal summer job (if you ignored the poison ivy factor). We started work early and got off early, in time for a swim or a bike ride. If it was a nice day, we were “in the field” running surveys and, if it rained, I sat at a drafting table and manually plotted the numbers from the surveyor’s notebook, in essence recreating the land I’d just walked from the mathematical version of it.

This was in the early seventies, in or after the tail end of the baby boom, but there was still plenty of land subdivision going on in my increasingly suburban county.  A few orchards remained, though most now bore cul-de-sacs rather than apples.

On several occasions we were surveying in dense wetlands, perhaps the closest thing the northeast has to a rainforest. A clear sightline had to be created between the guy with the theodolite on a tripod (the “instrument man”) and each point to be measured. Being the new guy, I was usually the “rodman” – the one who walked out to each of those points and gingerly held a rod balanced upright between my fingers so that it was exactly vertical.

Those wetland areas were certainly not my favorite locations during the hot and sticky NY summers. (The best places, it turned out, were inside large sewer pipes that were kept cool by the ground above them. It took more than a little convincing before I acknowledged the fact that the, um, fluid didn’t smell when it was moving and that, in fact, the pipes were cool and shady places to eat lunch.)

Forested wetland image, source US Fish & Wildlife Service

Forested wetland image, source US Fish & Wildlife Service









Clearing the sightlines involved using a tool I never thought had a place in suburbia: a machete. We’d hack away at tall weeds and reeds, hoping nothing had a stem or trunk too thick to survive the machete, advancing in the straightest line we could from the seemingly arbitrary point where the tripod had been set. The instrument man would tell us if we were “off course.” It could often take half an hour of hacking to get to each point.

I recalled this experience recently while reading a chapter in The Agile City in which the author discusses the evolution of property rights here and abroad. On more than one occasion, I had thought about the “nature” of property rights and how, given a different cultural view, the idea of individuals possessing parts of the Earth could be seen as strange and unnatural.  Why should our freedom to walk – to be — anywhere be curtailed by the artificial concept of property rights.

The manifestation of property rights seems, in retrospect, to be particularly artificial in those wetlands where we were carving straight lines – human geometry — into the landscape. Straight lines, I’ve often heard, do not exist in nature; they are a creation of our minds, necessitated by our need to, among other things, define borders. Look, for instance, at the border dividing Canada from the United States. Parts of it are “natural,” defined by the middle of the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes (what happens if a river border meanders over time?), but then there’s a huge distance through most of the western half of the continent demarked by nothing visible: just the 49th Parallel, an artificial construct derived from geometry that didn’t even exist when the Earth was still thought to be flat.

The Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 laid a relentless grid over the varied topography of Manhattan. Image source:

The Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 laid a relentless grid over the varied topography of Manhattan. Image source:






The property lines we were “staking” in those wetlands, or through the soon to be ex-farms and orchards, were just as artificial. This became especially clear to me when one day we were sent out to confirm the locations of the corners of a new house’s foundation. The numbers weren’t making any sense until we realized that the foundation had been poured in error on the adjacent property. So artificial were the divisions overlaid on the terrain that you couldn’t tell one piece of property from another. (I never did find out how the problem was legally resolved.)

In a recent online thread, an architect inquired how to find a property corner stake that had disappeared underground. Some of the replies were straightforward: presuming the stake to be metal, borrow a metal detector. (At significant survey points, a concrete post with an indent on top is often placed to mark the precise survey point. I always thought it interesting that those markers were called “monuments.” Though they bore no human figure in the sense that a conventional monument might, they surely were monuments to man’s claim to nature.)

 A survey monument. Image source:

A survey monument. Image source:









If the stake was wood, though, the answer as much more complicated. First, of course, there’s no such thing as a “wood detector.” Moreover, if the stake was in the soil and had been there for a while, it might have decomposed. What could be more appropriate? Nature devouring – digesting – man’s attempt to define and claim it.

In The Agile City, James Russell notes that during the constitutional convention, there was a debate between Jefferson and Franklin as to whether the Constitution should guarantee “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” or “life, liberty and property.” In spite of happiness (and Franklin) winning out, property rights in this country have an extraordinary place in law and in our ethos. For some, property equates to happiness, especially in a material society. But perhaps we should refocus on the decision to emphasize happiness versus property. It stands to reason that we would be happier.

Planets Are People, My Friends

Let’s try this out and see where it takes us. In the blogworld a few days ago, I came across a post about a river in New Zealand being given official legal personhood. Elsewhere in the world, animals and nature are being awarded human-like rights. And just last week, a group of prominent scientists including Stephen Hawking declared that there is no unique difference between humans and other animals.

Call that point #1. Point 2: In the US, as we all know, corporations are people. (Some would say corporations are animals, so I guess that makes sense, though a few would say that’s an insult to animals.)

All this makes it but a minor leap to conclude that, if animals, rivers, forests and corporations have legal rights, why not the planet? You know, Gaia, Mother Earth and all that. This, of course, could profoundly change how we see ourselves — legally and morally — in relation to the other occupants, both living and inert, of this planet.

But I’ve got another reason for contemplating this vast, to put it mildly, extension of the definition of personhood. I’ve written elsewhere in this blog about the fundamental economics explanation for pollution: externalities. A decent definition of an externality is “an effect of a purchase or use decision by one set of parties on others who did not have a choice and whose interests were not taken into account.” A classic example would be the evil factory dumping its effluent into a river.  The cost of that pollution is borne by the people and governments downstream. Similarly, when a fossil fuel burning power plant dumps carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, its owners don’t pay for the resulting climate disruption. Want a more tangible example? Look at the towns whose water sources are being polluted by nearby fracking.

But what if nature – the planet – had rights and, furthermore, had standing in court? What if nature could sue for damages? Would that, in effect, lay the economic and legal groundwork for internalizing those externalities? Among other outcomes, we could have the equivalent of carbon pricing – without involving the government so it wouldn’t be vulnerable to attack as a tax.

We can take this idea – odd as it may sound – further and say that the Earth owns all the natural resources “onboard.” You want some steel? First you have to buy the ore from Earth Inc. (Notice that twist? If the planet becomes a corporation, it has rights through that legal standing as well.) Same for baby seals (unless the seals themselves are granted rights), or for oil or the Amazon rainforest.





Logo by Lori Greenberg/Bergworks

There is at least one major problem, aside that is from figuring out who the signatories on Earth Inc.’s checking account are. Mother Nature would be the biggest monopoly imaginable. OPEC’s oligopoly would seem like an unfettered free market in comparison. And imagine an antitrust suit against the Earth.

Could this be a conservative’s dream? A solution based upon free market principles and an expansion of both individual (if you can get your head around seeing the planet as an individual) rights and property rights.

Yeah, there are a lot of details to be worked out in this hypothetical monetizing of the Earth. Some ethical ones, too. Would it amount to commoditizing nature? That’s bad, right? Right? Is it worse than assigning no value to nature, which is essentially what the market does now?

Corporations, of course, have shareholders. I propose that every person on the planet be granted a share in Earth Inc. (Yes, I know. What about animals and rivers and forests? If they have personhood rights, shouldn’t they have shares in Earth inc. as well? Yes, they should, but the problem is figuring out who represents them, as well as who their signatories are.  I didn’t say this would be simple.)

So if the planet’s resources are polluted or drawn down, compensation is paid to the shareholders. Now that sounds really odd. The effect would be higher prices for many industrial processes and products as those companies had to pay fees to Earth Inc., but those fees would be redistributed back to us, the shareholders. Many things would be more expensive, but we’d get money back in the form of dividends. In theory, we’d be no worse off financially, but we’d be paying the true cost of things and making our consumption choices more accurately.

In a modern context, all of this evolves from philosophies of animal rights. Kant said treating animals well is “good practice” for treating humans well. (Not trying to show off here and I’m certainly no Kant expert. It’s part of the material I cover in one of my Parsons courses.) “We can judge the heart of man by his treatment of animals.” In his world, though, animals were considered non-sentient (which, in case you’ve been mislead by Star Trek episodes, means non-feeling, not non-thinking) and soul-less, barely more than the mechanical vessels described by Descartes.

Just as there are varying beliefs as to what constitutes a soul, there are ethics and religions that believe the Earth has a soul. But that isn’t the issue here, at least as long as we’re defining corporations as people; I don’t think anyone could argue that a corporation has a soul.

Could this possibly work? I’m treading here into the realms of economics, law, ethics, religion and who knows what else. But maybe this type of fundamental re-envisioning is just what we need.