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Plato’s Warning

Stuart Greenstreet on why global warming won’t be stopped.

Plato was deeply pessimistic about the ability of the human race to govern itself. In The Republic he has Socrates say:

“Unless either philosophers rule in our cities or those whom now we call rulers and potentates engage genuinely and adequately in philosophy, and political power and philosophy coincide, there is no end, my dear Glaucon, to troubles in our cities, nor I think for the human race.” [473c-d]

By ‘troubles’ Plato means both civil strife, such as he had lived through, and that there would be no end of trouble for human societies if they sought democratically to decide what is the best thing to do. He believed democracy to be inherently flawed. To show why, Plato gives us an allegory of a ship at sea. The ship is the Athenian state, and the captain is the Athenian people, who own the state and are supreme therein. This captain is “a bit deaf and short-sighted” and ignorant of navigation. The crew are the politicians, who “quarrel with each other about how to navigate the ship” and “do all they can to get the captain to give them the helm.” Why should this feeble captain (the people) be trusted to choose the best helmsman? Moreover, whoever is made leader by popular choice will not risk popular disfavour by pursuing policies that might make the mass uncomfortable. His position depends on doing whatever keeps them happy, even if there are good reasons for not doing it. This leads Plato to another allegory in which the people, previously symbolized by the ship’s captain, are now described as a powerful and savage beast which lets itself be handled by its keepers provided they study ‘its moods and wants’ and do all they can to humour it. There is, we shall see, a connection between this image of democratic politicians as panderers and the phenomenon of global warming, which likewise threatens no end of trouble for the human race.

That the Earth’s climate is getting hotter is not in any doubt. The 1990s were probably the warmest decade in the last thousand years, and 1998 the warmest year. Nor can it be doubted that global warming has devastating impacts. Some cause immediate misery, others will be gradually destructive. Among the former are deluges, floods, landslides and forest fires, fierce winds and searing heatwaves. Extreme weather is occurring more often, world-wide, and killing more people. The longer-term impacts include drought, which is turning cultivable land into desert and robbing large populations of water; rising sea levels, which are inundating and eroding coastal zones and islands; and the melting of polar and alpine permafrost, which is leading to more erosion. Even where people survive these impacts, their ways of life and livelihoods are being destroyed.

The jury is still out on whether global warming is natural climatic variation, and so beyond human control, or is caused or aggravated by man-made pollution. However, the best qualified experts attribute it to the burning of oil, coal and gas. They’re sure that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases which these fossil fuels give off are to blame. They fear that calamitous overheating (6C / 10.8F above normal) might come from a runaway greenhouse effect if global warming gas emissions continue to increase. The panel below shows how the world has responded.

Six years after Kyoto the protocol remains unfulfilled. Without the US and (so far) Russia it is impossible to muster the majority required to bring it into effect internationally. But it is unfair to criticise the US for quitting the Kyoto agreement. They are an exemplary democracy. Theirs is a government of the people, by the people, for the people. The President’s decision to pull out shows that he knew the American people would not let anyone elected to lead them do what the Kyoto agreement would have required. US global warming gases, which at Kyoto they thought they could cut to 7% below their 1990 level by 2012, are now predicted to rise 26% above that level by 2010. Therefore to have done what they first agreed would have actually required action to suppress one third of all US emissions in just ten years. Such action could not possibly have avoided the imposition of very high taxes on petrol and other fossil fuels, and tolls on the highways. While contemplating this, the President heard the growl of the American beast and backed off, and returned his attention to its moods and wants.

This American realism is lacking in the British government. It has not only ratified the Kyoto Protocol, but promised to outperform it by cutting UK greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2010, and 60% by 2050. No expert believes these targets are attainable, because there are no plans to arrest the constant rise in UK traffic volumes. Quite the reverse, in fact, for in July 2003 the government announced its intention to spend £7 billion on adding extra lanes to all of the most congested motorways (which will be just as congested within months of being opened). Prime Minister Blair, too, had sensed the anger of the beast, caged in a car, and shied away from a sustainable development – namely, congestioncharging, by which car travel demand could be reduced to match the already-available road capacity.

It is not a trivial question we are discussing. It is about how to keep the planet cool enough to live on. Despite their good intentions, those we call our rulers have failed to find an answer. Eleven years after Rio the leading experts still admit the possibility of a calamitous 5.8C (10.4F) rise in global warming. Perhaps we wouldn’t be facing this danger if, as Plato wanted, our rulers had ‘engaged genuinely and adequately in philosophy’. For had they done so they might have found out why their efforts to stabilise the climate have achieved so little. I believe the reasons are as follows.

The principle of sustainable development requires us to change the way we live our lives. We should stop consuming and doing those things that do not meet a real need in our lives, if by stopping we will help later generations to meet their needs. With respect to global warming, we should stop demanding more than we need of goods and services the production or consumption of which involves the burning of fossil fuels. The principle of sustainable development is idle – can have no effect – unless we ‘the people’ agree to put a greater value on the future quality of the environment than on our present quality of life, by which I mean our being able to live in the kind of ways that we do actually most enjoy. Sustainable development is a moral concept: it implies that we have a moral obligation to persons yet unborn to consume only what we need even if that makes our own lives less enjoyable. The concept is idle for the further reason that there is no normative standard of ‘need’. Everyone (in a free market economy, at least) is their own judge of what they need: the only possible criterion to which they can refer is the strength of their own desires.

The principle of sustainable development could only be applied in practice if a majority of people in democratic societies were willing to make their own lives less easy for the sake of generations yet unborn. Such an altruistic majority would, for example, willingly vote for politicians promising to impose taxes and tolls that would stop all but the well-off from using cars. How great the contrast between these saintly folk and Plato’s image of the people as a savage beast which turns nasty if its keeper doesn’t pander to its every whim. The idea that there are democratic majorities in favour of sustainable development measures that would deprive them of hard-won comforts and convenience is deeply implausible – a fantasy, in fact. A principle that denies people more than they ‘need’ of desirable goods and services opposes their aspirations. The popular notion of ‘getting ahead’ is to get beyond being able merely to satisfy one’s needs, and to acquire ‘discretionary goods’ – things that we could do without but which make our lives more enjoyable. Civilisation, like leisure, is only possible after needs have been met.

It is equally implausible to believe that any successful democratic politician (the beast’s keeper) would put his popularity at risk by upsetting the voters who gave him power by giving priority to voters yet unborn. That is precisely why President George W. Bush jettisoned the Kyoto agreement, and why Prime Minister Blair suddenly decided it is right to widen the motorways.

The people’s refusal to let their elected leaders deal adequately with the crisis of global warming may be the ultimate justification of Plato’s pessimism about democratic government. No doubt he would tell us, “You could keep democracy, or you could keep Earth cool enough to live on, but not both.”


Stuart Greenstreet, a business manager by day, began philosophy in the evenings at Birkbeck College in the 1980s, and has kept at it ever since because he’s ‘afraid to stop’. He’s currently doing postgraduate philosophy with the Open University.

International efforts to reverse climate change

At the UN summit conference on the environment in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 governments agreed to:

• act on the presumption that global warming is the result of human activities; and

• design national policies of ‘sustainable development’ to modify these activities in ways that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. (Development is said to be ‘sustainable’ when it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.)

Even so, in the decade after Rio temperatures across the globe rose 0.5C (0.9F) above the historic average. The latest and most authoritative estimate warns of further rises in the range 1.4C to 5.8C (2.5F to 10.4F) by 2100.

A protocol was drawn up at Kyoto in 1997 requiring all industrialised countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by an average 5% over the period 2008-2012. Although at Kyoto the United States agreed to a 7% reduction, it has subsequently decided not to ratify the protocol.

Plato’s Ship Analogy

“Suppose the following to be the state of affairs on board a ship or ships. The captain is larger and stronger than any of the crew, but a bit deaf and shortsighted, and similarly limited in seamanship. The crew are all quarrelling with each other about how to navigate the ship, each thinking he ought to be at the helm; they have never learned the art of navigation and cannot say that anyone ever taught it them, or that they spent any time studying it; indeed they say it can’t be taught and are ready to murder anyone who says it can. They spend all their time milling round the captain and doing all they can to get him to give them the helm. If one faction is more successful than the another, their rivals may kill them and throw them overboard, lay out the honest captain with drugs or drink or in some other way, take control of the ship, help themselves to what’s on board,and turn the voyage into the sort of drunken pleasure-cruise you would expect. Finally, they reserve their admiration for the man who knows how to lend a hand in controlling the captain by force or fraud; they praise his seamanship and navigation and knowledge of the sea and condemn everyone else as useless. They have no idea that the true navigator must study the seasons of the year, the sky, the stars, the winds and all the other subjects appropriate to his profession if he is to be really fit to control a ship ...” Plato, The Republic 488b-d

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