A philosophy for saving the planet

Published on Friday, 8 May 2020

What are mankind’s responsibilities towards the planet? What is the relationship between ethics and science? And what role must philosophy play at a time dominated by uncertainty?

The cycle of meetings “A tu per tu con la filosofia (“Face to face with philosophy”) organised by the Enel Group began at the end of October, long before the Covid-19 emergency, and it attempted to provide answers to a series of questions that the pandemic has made even more pertinent and pressing.

The meetings examined two main themes: the relationship between philosophy and responsibility, which was developed by professor Emidio Spinelli, who lectures on the History of Ancient Philosophy at the Sapienza University in Rome and is currently the President of the Italian Philosophical Society; and the relationship between philosophy and trust, which was outlined by professor Gaspare Polizzi, Honorary Chairman of the renowned Florence section of the Italian Philosophical Society.

All of the meetings were chaired by Marco Deriu, educational scientist and counsellor. They were initially held at the Enel Auditorium, but the series concluded with two live-streamed webinars. 

The biosphere and mankind’s responsibilities

“What can a philosopher do in the time of coronavirus?” was the question posed by Spinelli, who went on to explain that a disciplinary specialisation is not sufficient to tackle mankind’s responsibility towards environmental issues but that it is necessary to develop critical thinking.

The scholar traced the evolution of the concept of responsibility through history, examining in particular the thoughts of German philosopher Hans Jonas. The dramatic effects of climate change on our planet require us to rethink the foundations of ethics. A new form of “practical reason” is required which, from a necessarily Kantian starting point, must still be relevant to mankind today, whose rights to individual liberty should be limited by a respect for the world around us. This leads to the requirement to “reward a series of virtuous behaviours that also operate in terms of communication”, Spinelli explained. He outlined the concept with an example: “Take the price of free range eggs compared with those produced by battery farms: intervention is necessary to bring the two price ranges into line in order to encourage people’s purchasing habits to move in a direction that is more respectful to the ecosystem.”

The planet as a rights holder

Polizzi, on the other hand, identified the “crisis of the future” as a starting point: throughout our times we have been too focused on lamenting the past rather than reasoning in a proactive way about a new “possible world”. The first step to take is to reopen a dialogue with nature. Introducing the thoughts of French philosopher Michel Serres, Polizzi showed the way with a solution which can meet the challenges of the present and that is capable of seeing far ahead: a new political philosophy that is more conscious of the need to understand nature as the “Biogea”.

“The problem of limits has been intertwined with the history of thought: the legal protection of the Biogea is a problem that the UN should tackle”. When it was created in 1946, the World Health Organisation established that health is a social, psychological and environmental problem and depends also on the relationship that each individual establishes with the world around him/her.

Serres hoped for the constitution of a new supranational global institution, the WAFEL (Water, Air, Fire, Earth, Life), led by people who, thanks to their skills in science, law and politics, could ensure global peace. Today there are global institutions and initiatives that head in this direction, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – the IPCC, and the UN’s 2030 Agenda with its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which our Group has placed at the very centre of its strategy and business model.

Citing the essay by Serres on The Global War, Polizzi evoked a celebrated painting by Francisco Goya, Dos Forasteros (Fight with Cudgels), which depicts two duelling men fighting one another while their feet are sinking into a swamp. “We forget the very existence of a world in which we are consuming ever-more resources, and in this war with the world we are in the quicksand just like in that painting”.

A new relationship between science and philosophy

Science can help us to build a new “contract” with nature. “Even this epidemic cycle is linked to our complete incomprehension of the nature that surrounds us and our relationship with it”, explained Polizzi.

In the last 30 to 40 years the frequency of epidemics has increased, as described in David Quammen’s book Spillover. “Therefore, if we do not rise to the challenge of the biosphere we risk disappearing from the face of the Earth”, added Spinelli. “But science cannot be self-referential: this crisis has taught us that in an interconnected world, delays, silence and omissions can lead to tragedy”. Science and philosophy are not two parallel networks destined never to meet: Jonas, in fact, talked of “ethics for technological civilisation”.

Fear was another theme examined during the meetings: there is a “fear of” that paralyses action, but also a “fear for” which can be a stimulus for change and a means to find new solutions. Faced with a health crisis, “fear can provide an opportunity for reflection on a change that, although terrible, can transform into a force that enables me to deal with a reality that I hadn’t foreseen”.

Indeed, that was the lesson from this cycle of meetings. Learning to come together more frequently for a face-to-face encounter with philosophy can teach us to reflect on our relationship with the planet, on what we can do to change it, and on what might happen if we are unable to do so.

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