Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Schelling and the Sixth Extinction: The Environmental Ethics Behind Schelling's Anthropomorphization of Nature

Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Schelling and the Sixth Extinction: The Environmental Ethics Behind Schelling's Anthropomorphization of Nature

Article excerpt

One of the major crises of our day is anthropogenic climate change by which humans have developed the capacity to cause widespread ecological disaster, and hence endanger all life including ourselves. In The Sixth Extinction, the best recent book on anthropogenic global warming, Elizabeth Kolbert draws upon the research and findings of climate scientists to detail how humans' appropriation of subterranean reserves of energy such as fossil fuel traps greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane near the earth's surface, thereby raising the atmosphere's temperature. (1) According to Kolbert's figures, since the nineteenth century industrial revolution, our ever-increasing use of fossil fuel, combustion and deforestation has raised the levels of greenhouse gases in the air by 40%, with a 6% increase in carbon dioxide per year. Since 1975, computer modelling has calculated that a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would lead to an irreversible increase in global temperature around 3[degrees]C above what it was in the 1950s.

As Kolbert argues, even small increases in C[O.sub.2] beyond this event horizon would have three devastating effects. Firstly, since carbon dioxide dissolves water, its increasing concentration will lead to the melting of the north and soul poles and ocean acidification, which will create immense difficulties for the many species that depend on ice and coral reefs to survive. Secondly, it threatens the existence of our own species and social order as masses of climate refugees are predicted to either die or migrate when their resources have dried up and their homelands have become inhabitable disaster zones. Finally, anthropogenic climate change threatens the earth in its entirety as a habitable planet by any standards of what we could consider to be acceptable living. In light of all this, Kolbert argues that we are presently undergoing a 'sixth mass extinction' on the same scale as the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event, when an asteroid hit earth and created a dust-ridden environment that wiped out the dinosaurs along with three quarters of life's diversity. (2)

It is true that other climate scientists have criticized the precise predictions of the computer modelling upon which Kolbert relies. According to leading U.S. climate researcher James Hansen, this is because the modelling assumes that variables and quantities remain fixed over large time scales, and is therefore insensitive to possible and unknown climate processes and feedback factors. (3) Nonetheless, Hansen's alternate argument that the Earth is demonstrably absorbing more heat than it is radiating out comes to the same general conclusion that the Earth is indeed heating up: 'regardless of the validity of such assumptions, Charney's idealized problem allowed attention to be focused on certain climate processes that are surely important'; and: 'the startling conclusion is that continued exploitation of all fossil fuels on Earth threatens not only the other millions of species on the planet but also the survival of humanity itself'. (4) While there is therefore room for some doubt and much clarification apropos the precise details of runaway greenhouse effects, in light of all the actual and potential destructive changes, Kolbert's general conclusion that we are on the brink of another mass extinction is clearly justified. So, the general startling picture that ultimately emerges from contemporary climate science no matter which climate scientist's argument or data we look at is the brute fact that humans are radically reliant upon our external environment to survive, an environment which is itself subject to contingency, mutation and destruction.

Given the existential threats it entails, anthropogenic climate change has obliged us to rethink many of our traditional scientific, politico-economic and philosophical assumptions about the rapport between humans and nature. In The Decline of Nature, Gilbert F. …

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