Linking philosophy and low carbon materials

Materials World magazine
1 Dec 2017

There are many activities involved in developing  low carbon materials, underpinned by an urgency to change human activities to prevent climate change. Alastair Marsh* explains why philosophy will be a useful part of the discussion.

Have you ever been frustrated by the progress on fighting climate change? Would onshore wind turbines be more appeaaling if their appearance changed? If so – there is help. 

Philosophy has an unfortunate association with beardy misanthropes and painful overintellectualism. However, it is, at root, a selection of principles to help us live our lives. 

There are philosophical concepts to help us with three distinct situations related to low-carbon materials – the moral arguments for action on climate change, what to do when people don’t make the right environmental decisions, and how to make low carbon beautiful. 

Why should we do something?

We would rightly be expected to concisely explain the science of whatever low-carbon product or research we are working on. But, have you ever had to pause when asked to give an equally rigorous answer of why you are doing such a thing in the first place?

It's largely accepted that humans’ greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) are extremely likely to have caused climate change, and continue to do so. But it's not a trivial step to set out clear, moral arguments for why we should change behaviours, and materials, to reduce emissions. I use moral here, rather than ethical, to mean societal  rather than just individual attitudes.

Let’s remind ourselves what the risks exactly are. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) summarised that ‘climate change will amplify and create new risks for natural and human systems’, which are ‘unevenly distributed and are greater for disadvantaged communities in countries at all levels of development’. 

Said risks include ocean acidification, species extinction, groundwater scarcity, heat stress and flooding. Among other risks, the 2015 Paris Agreement acknowledged ‘the particular vulnerabilities of food production systems to the adverse impacts of climate change’. The simple argument, which prompted this almost worldwide agreement to reduce emissions, is that we should refrain from actions that will make us all worse off. In the absence of any sophisticated philosophical terminology, this just seems like common sense.

Given that over half of the world’s population believes in the world’s two most widely followed religions, Christianity (2.2 bln) and Islam (1.6 bln), according to research published in 2012 by the Pew Research Center, it’s prudent to note their moral arguments. Both introduce an additional argument about the sanctity of creation, and our responsibility for it. The 2016 Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change stated, ‘God created the Earth in perfect equilibrium (mıˉzaˉn)… We have no right to abuse the creation or impair it… [we] recognise the corruption (fasaˉd) that humans have caused on Earth in our relentless pursuit of economic growth and consumption[...] we are accountable for all our actions’. 

The 2015 Papal Encyclical Laudato Si invokes a similar argument that ‘living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue – it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.’ Both also give attention to the very worldly realm of people’s joys and suffering – in both present and future. 

Who should pay?

While there is broad agreement that something should be done, there is disagreement on how the bill for a low carbon transition should be split, and how, if at all, remaining fossil fuel resources should be used. The quantity of unwanted GHG in the atmosphere today is the result of centuries of cumulative emissions. Surely those countries that contributed more to this should pay their fair share for historic actions, rather than agreeing payments on current emission rates? In counter-argument, despite Svante Arrhenius’ identification of the greenhouse effect in 1896, the harmful effect of excessive GHGs was not known until much later. So, is ignorance of one’s actions a valid excuse?

Following the same seam of logic, given that the world’s wealthiest countries industrialised using cheap fossil fuels, surely it would be unjust for those countries to deny the same opportunity to countries currently in poverty? Indeed, amid many words of collective action, the Islamic Declaration notes, ‘the moral obligation to reduce consumption so that the poor may benefit from what is left of the Earth’s non-renewable resources’. This argument has been used by the G77 alliance of countries in previous rounds of climate change negotiations.

A key, yet subtle part of the common sense argument is intergenerational justice. We shouldn’t gamble away our children’s futures to pay our way today. 

To quote Pope Francis, ‘Intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us.' 

There is a question to counter this – will future generations, likely being richer and cleverer than us, solve such thorny problems far more easily? Since there are other problems possibly more grave than climate change – bio-risks, the emergence of artificial intelligence, nuclear security – would we be doing ourselves a disservice to even try to sort out climate change now? This tricky issue of weighing up the value and abilities of future generations is known as discounting, and is the subject of much debate by economists. The Islamic Declaration warns us against undervaluing the needs of today, stating ‘let us not only keep the poor of the future in mind, but also today’s poor, whose life on this earth is brief and who cannot keep on waiting’.

The majority of climate change arguments are over two questions of philosophy. Should those who did the crime pay the fine? And should we prioritise the needs of present generations over those of the future? Rather than debate furiously about discount rates, my personal opinion is that we should note the risks of inaction, and err on the side of caution by doing all we reasonably can to transition now. While it should be acknowledged that it is cumulative emissions that have contributed to the current undesirable state, the cost and cuts should be borne considering current emissions rates and ability to pay, too.

Armed with robust, clear and persuasive arguments as to why we should each take personal and collective responsibility to reduce emissions, the mission would seem half won. However, reality intervenes and we often find ourselves confronted by what is the called either the intention-behaviour gap or the value-action gap.

An example of this was Tony Blair, former UK Prime Minister, who unveiled the 2006 Stern review. ‘Unless we act now, not some time distant but now, these consequences, disastrous as they are, will be irreversible. So there is nothing more serious, more urgent or more demanding of leadership,’ he said. 

The year after, when asked if he considered not flying to Barbados for a holiday, he replied, ‘Yes, but I personally think these things are a bit impractical actually to expect people to do that.’

Psychological research on what factors contribute to this gap concludes that it is complex. It’s a cocktail of internal (e.g. knowledge, emotions) and external (e.g. infrastructure, social situation) factors. The urge for collective behaviour change often takes the form of a pleading for a change in culture. However, there is one, perhaps more straightforward method in which to change people’s behaviours and choices – legislation. Posing and answering questions around what rights and freedoms people should have, what should be prohibited, and how to decide such things is the realm of political philosophy.

When is it right to legislate?

But, what is a robust way to determine what is or is not an appropriate responsibility of the state? One such criterion is the common good, defined as ‘certain general conditions that are [...] equally to everyone's advantage’ by John Rawls. 

The ability to inhabit any building in the UK without risk of being crushed is a common good. While it is conceivable that building regulations could be run by a non-governmental body, it is only the government that has the authority to enforce adherence to, and penalties for flouting of, say, regulations for the load-bearing abilities of buildings. Likewise, having a stable climate that allows us to provide for ourselves is also a common good. Therefore, whenever our society might be deprived of this through products and services that contribute to high national emissions, there is a strong argument for government regulation to protect this common good.

However, there is a difference between what is a common good in theory and in practice. Jean-Jacques Rousseau introduced the concept of the General Will of the people – a collective opinion based on individuals’ opinions, which then informs a government’s laws. This is clearly a proactive, messy process – we cannot necessarily rely on every person to be equally enlightened about every aspect of what’s important for our society.

With regards to how legislation is used, the responsible manufacture and specification of materials is a little like a responsible diet. There’s rarely such thing as a bad material, but there’s problems when they’re used to excess or in the wrong way. Therefore, legislation shouldn’t be used to ban certain materials, but to shift economic incentives towards low carbon. 

Even though an evaluation of the impact of legislation on GHG emissions and other environmental matters is beyond this article, it is certainly timely. The UK recently announced legislation ending the sale of all new conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040. This follows EU legislation tightening down on emissions by 2021. Although the primary motivator for this is air quality, it will contribute to the longer term UK goal in the Climate Change Act 2008 (CCA) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050, as compared to a 1990 baseline. 

There have been legislative false dawns though. The UK Government made said that all new homes must be zero carbon from 2016 onwards, but scrapped it in 2015.

Much of the current language about reducing GHG emissions focuses on individual behaviour and ethical choices. Awareness of one’s own actions is essential, but relating a complex planetary situation to one’s everyday shopping is prone to induce both helplessness and anxiety. There is much scope for behaviour change although surely it is preferable, as far as possible, to adjust the underlying systems through which individual behaviours have impacts? Adjusting prices or options so that the easiest or cheapest option is also the most environmentally sound is indeed the most reliable way of reducing emissions. This is also softer and more practical than an outright ban on certain materials or other products, as the undesirable choice is still obtainable, but at a greater cost. 

As scientists and designers, one of the best opportunities for positive influence is giving sound technical advice so that legislation walks the balance between ambitious and achievable, specific yet not smothering. It is essential to make clear that it’s for a common good, otherwise people may be cynical that it may simply be yet another lobby ploy to advance a given group’s narrow commercial interests. 

Beautiful materials

Out of all the aspects of philosophy, surely the woolly world of aesthetics is irrelevant to us materialists? Like it or not, it is an important factor of decision-making. 

Where do our perceptions of what we find appealing in materials arise? The classical conception claims that beauty is an objective quantity, and looms particularly large for buildings. Aristotle was a well-known proponent, instructing that ‘the chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry and definiteness, which the mathematical sciences demonstrate in a special degree’. This is a freakishly objective but peculiarly satisfying philosophy, particularly for those who like rules.

In the opposite corner, many have claimed that beauty is subjective, being in the eye of the beholder. Many ways have been described in which people find beauty, including the idealist conception – that beauty is present when things are in harmonious unity and link to a higher purpose and the hedonist conception – that beauty is simply whatever happens to please people.

How to shift perceptions

So why are photovoltaic (PV) panels on cottages, external insulation on terraced houses and wind turbines on moors offensive to some? Are they perceived as a threat to the visual representation of the UK’s national identity? This would have a certain irony, given that much of this cherished scenery is itself a result of human meddling in the environment. The rolling hills on which patchwork fields now carpet were once ancient forests, as were the Cumbrian hillsides now home to flocks of sheep. 

If we are to pick and choose the scenery we view to be our national identity, we would do better to follow on the values each represents – that is, appeal to people’s idealist conception of beauty. Both PV panels and wind turbines are ultimately temporary in their visual impact, as both are dismantled at the end of their lifetime. However, both embody the values of harvesting useful things from the natural world, while respecting our impacts – surely these are values commensurate with our agricultural heritage?

It may comfort some to be reminded that the hedonist conception is as fickle as it is flexible. Among a slew of big names in the 'protest of the artists' against the planned construction of the Eiffel Tower, the writer Guy de Maupassant said, ‘This high and skinny pyramid of iron ladders, this giant ungainly skeleton upon a base that looks built to carry a colossal monument of Cyclops, but which just peters out into a ridiculous thin shape like a factory chimney.’ Nevertheless, the Eiffel Tower would soon become the much-loved monument it is today. 

We know our aesthetic tastes to be fickle, but ultimately predictable in that they represent a yearning for certain ideals, which aren’t necessarily fixed. Appealing to the core values that a new material or technology stands for may provide a more robust way of appealing to people’s aesthetic tastes than a mere pastiche of traditional appearances. 

Although philosophy cannot give us the right answers, it can help us find the right questions, and certainly provide a way to express our thoughts logically and powerfully.

* Alastair Marsh is a PhD researcher in the Decarbonisation of the Built Environment (dCarb) CDT in the Department of Architecture & Civil Engineering, University of Bath, UK.