What connects Plato, ancient Athenian philosopher, to the most pressing long term problem of the 21st century? In his new book Plato Tackles Climate Change, Brussels-based author and teacher Matthew Pye offers a guide to making sense of the climate crisis. Journeying through the ideas of Western philosophy’s founding father, the book boldly brings together an information rich scientific perspective on the climate crisis with the probing playfulness of Plato’s work. The book blends accessibility with depth, and does not shy away from the big questions, writes Tori Macdonald.
The student of Socrates, Plato, is perhaps the best known of the ancient philosophers. He had a deep influence in classical Antiquity. Plato established the first university, an academy of Philosophy in Athens where his students worked on important philosophical issues concerning truth, virtues and metaphysics. Centuries later, the rediscovery of Plato in the West provided a major stimulus to the Renaissance – a rebirth that was (arguably) triggered by the crisis of the Black Death. Matthew Pye brings Plato back to life, resurrecting his insights to make sense of our current climate emergency.
The problem of climate change, Matthew Pye demonstrates, demands another major rethink of everything. Confronted by the non-negotiable laws of physics, the threat of systemic breakdown, and a society with an increasingly slippery relationship with the truth, this book offers a safe and challenging intellectual space to chew over everything. He argues that it seems rather reckless to allow our short-sighted desires and over excitable human pride to get the better of some simple truths about reality. Pye highlights how unwise it is to play around with deep seated equilibriums in nature, and how risky it is to have a slack and casual attitude to the truth; and with carefully constructed points he brings in Plato’s life and works to help make things clear.
One section is concerned with “Truth Decay”. He notes that the stale tactics of the climate sceptics, with their glib conversations that are designed to distract and dissuade, now look increasingly marginalised, and that the surge in climate change awareness has been long overdue. However, Pye exposes just how serious the crisis remains and how disconnected from reality we still are. He points out that we are still not asking some very basic questions, such as “How fast must we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to stay below 1.5°C or 2°C?”, “Why are climate targets still not rooted in the mainstream science of the carbon budget?”.
Matthew Pye weaves into the analysis personal accounts of his expedition into the world of climate change education and action. Ten years ago, he founded a Climate Academy for secondary school students in Brussels. At the centre of this effort has been a collaboration with some pioneering work by scientists who have created an index to make clear the vital statistics behind the climate crisis. Endorsed by the numerous world authorities in climate science, the project “cut11percent.org” provides the percentage reductions of GHG emissions that every country should be reducing every year to stay within a ‘safe’ operating space of warming. The book explains the key facts and principles in the agreement among scientists that in order to have a chance of staying within the temperature thresholds of the Paris Agreement, the Very High Developed nations of the must cut global emissions by 11% each year, starting now. Every country has its own yearly percentage of emission reductions that increases with inaction. People have the right to know these vital statistics that are updated every year. Pye argues that they are the survival codes to a safe future – and the absence of laws to embody this basic act of common sense is starkly revealing of the human condition.
Championing this right to knowledge and the determined call that political efforts must be uniquely based on the scientific reality of the climate crisis, acts as the book’s central message.
Plato was the first to point to the fault lines that exist in a system where popular belief can usurp the truth through the democratic process; the ancient Athenians voted to get into a catastrophic war with the Spartans and they voted to execute wise old Socrates. Indeed, beyond the figure of the high-minded philosopher juggling with concepts such as virtues, truth and the soul, there is the human called Plato who experienced major trauma and tragedy in his life. When the democracy that he lived in made reckless decisions, when the booming culture of Athenian society was overtaken by the forces of the Spartan army, he struggled to make sense of everything. How could such a noble and progressive society be so short-sighted? How could such an innovative and advanced culture, with remarkable achievements in both the arts and technology fail so catastrophically? Pye brings the historical context of Plato to life, and then turns the same questions towards our own time.
Plato’s early criticism of democracy holds true when analysing the contemporary politics of climate change as much as it does in making sense of the success of recent right-wing populism.
Matthew takes on both of these, tailoring a thread between them and Plato’s ‘Simile of the Ship’. In this simile, the ship is like a State, where the captain is blind and needs to be guided. The ship’s navigator (the Philosopher), who is trained in the art of navigation, is overthrown by quarrelling, truth-averse sailors (the Demos). We have all embarked on the journey of climate change – we cannot escape it. The ultimate decision, Pye highlights, rests on who we are going to appoint as the captain of our ship – the deniers and delayers or those who have the courage to face the truth of climate change and act upon it?
Pye concludes that the central solutions to tackle climate change have to be legal and they have to be courageous. Legal because a systemic problem requires a systemic solution – laws have far more leverage and power than individual actions. Courageous because thinking outside of the cultural clichés of climate change requires us to be genuinely modesty about our own efforts, and it also means that we have to be brave enough to acknowledge the true scale of the crisis. The book, like his Academy and his lessons to young people, invites the reader into a space where these things seem both doable and reasonable.
Matthew Pye’s book “Plato Tackles Climate Change” is available to buy at Bol and Amazon. For more information on Matthew Pye’s Climate Academy click here.
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