Philosophy provides ‘exceptional foundation’ for law, environment, all aspects of life

The existential risk and doom narratives so popular around climate change are not helpful in actually addressing the problem, says Dr. Lydia Patton.

That was the basic theory behind the Virginia Tech professor’s Marshall Lecture in Public Philosophy, presented Jan. 24 by Saint Mary’s and the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Public Affairs. A video of her lecture, titled "Fateful Decisions: Reckoning with the Climate and the Future", is available for viewing online.

Patton defined existential risk as any risk with the potential to eliminate all of humanity or, at the very least, kill large swaths of the global population, leaving survivors without means of rebuilding or sustaining life on the planet. This overriding language of threat “makes it seem as if we’re gearing up for war,” she said.

“The warlike metaphors surrounding our relationship to the environment do not help. We cannot win a war on the climate.”

Declaring war on the climate also creates risks that have nothing to do with the climate. Risks of more war among nations as mass migration increases; risks that we will accept authoritarian state intervention as a result of mass panic; and risks that we will allow scientific and technology interventions that do further harm to humans and the planet, because we need to ‘do something’.

It’s time for fateful decisions that will help us foster new strategies and narratives around climate change, Patton said, adding “we don’t necessarily need new tools – but we do need to make better use of the tools we already have.”

Patton, also editor of The Journal of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science, returned to campus the next day to continue the discussion with philosophy classes. While in Halifax, she also did interviews with CBC Mainstreet and the Chronicle Herald; for further reading, see the Herald article “Time to fight back against popular climate perceptions, philosopher says”. 

The powerful public lecture – and meeting Dr. Patton – made a huge impression on graduating student Robbie Mason of Lakeview, Nova Scotia, particularly on the day before her convocation.

“It’s great to see that women are out doing philosophy work professionally and presenting such prestigious talks,” she said. On Jan. 25, Mason graduated summa cum laude with an Honours B.A. in Philosophy and she’s heading to the Schulich School of Law this fall.

Dr. Patton’s lecture showed how philosophy is a crucial lens for examining contemporary issues in all academic disciplines, said Mason. 

“It really creates a good foundation for critical thought, not only in life events but the political climate, current challenges such as climate change, everything really. It can help in all aspects of life.”

Mason said her degree will provide an exceptional foundation for her studies in law. When she first started at SMU, she didn’t expect to pursue a philosophy degree but a first-year intro course drew her in.

“It’s absolutely one of the best things I’ve done with my life up to this point. The professors and your peers within the department are so wonderful. They encourage you to think deeply about topics you’re interested in and just foster really good learning and intellectual debate. I highly recommend doing a philosophy degree!”

Submitted by Marla Cransont, Faculty of Arts.