Green Stoics: Stoicism, Cosmopolitanism & Environmental Sustainability
May 10, 2019 2:00 PM   Subscribe

On Stoicism and Sustainability: How can stoicism be used to solve/tackle the problems of climate change? Kai Whiting (@KaiWhiting), a researcher and lecturer in sustainability and Stoicism based at the University of Lisbon, writes on resource use and the practical application of Stoic philosophy, emphasizing its oft-neglected Cosmopolitanism: "given that the ancient Stoics directly connected the good life with living in accordance with the four virtues... Stoicism can certainly do more than support a quest for self-development. In my opinion, it can guide us into a green transition... I believe that Stoicism offers a practical framework that helps you make decisions which bring you closer to the good (and greener) life instead of moving you further from it."

Kai Whiting and Luis Gabriel Carmona: The hidden carbon cost of everyday products. Richer countries import products but not the emissions used to make them.
The targets set in the Paris Agreement on climate change are ambitious but necessary. Failure to meet them will lead to widespread drought, disease and desperation in some of the world’s poorest regions. Under such conditions mass migration by stranded climate refugees is almost inevitable.

Yet if richer nations are to be serious in their commitment to the Paris target, then they must begin to account for the carbon emissions contained within products they import.

Kai Whiting, Leonidas Konstantakos et al: Sustainable Development, Wellbeing and Material Consumption: A Stoic Perspective
Abstract: Since the introduction of neoclassical economic theory, material wealth and accumulation have been linked to hedonic wellbeing. In turn, Utilitarian notions have generated the belief that infinite growth is not only good but necessary for society to prosper. Unsurprisingly, this belief system has supported the considerable depletion of natural resources and has not always led to social equitability or environmental justice, two pillars of sustainable development. Given these limitations, this paper looks into eudaimonic wellbeing, as defined by Stoicism. The latter originating in Classical Greece and Ancient Rome, has been used throughout the centuries to discuss and support the flourishing of individuals, but has rarely been applied to collective wellbeing. Consequently, we explore whether, and to what extent, this virtue-based philosophy can answer questions regarding the value and the role of material acquisition in societal development, as directed by sustainable policy. We propose the idea that the Stoic emphasis on prudence, self-control, courage and justice, as the only means to achieve “happiness”, is intrinsically linked to sustainable wellbeing and that its principles can be used to demonstrate that society does not require limitless growth to flourish.


In this paper and using the concept of material services as a case study, we evaluate the robustness of Stoicism as a philosophical framework, upon being applied to the modern challenge of sustainable wellbeing and development. We do this by examining the role that both modern and ancient forms of Stoic philosophy, its virtue value system and its specific take on eudaimonic wellbeing, could play alongside science, economics and other human endeavours, in aiding the design and propagation of sustainable policies and practices, as an additional and alternative perspective.
Companion piece to the above (with pictures!) Stoicism and Sustainability: Blog piece. Sustainable development is an important concern of the 21st century. But what does Stoicism have to do with it?

Massimo Pigliucci (@mpigliucci): Stoicism and climate change
Let me start with the latter. As I explained previously, the second century Stoic Hierocles summarized the concept of cosmopolitanism (which the Stoics inherited from the Cynics) by saying:
“Each of us is, as it were, [is] circumscribed by many circles; some of which are less, but others larger, and some comprehend, but others are comprehended, according to the different and unequal habitudes with respect to each other. For the first, indeed, and most proximate circle is that which everyone describes about his own mind as a centre, in which circle the body, and whatever is assumed for the sake of the body, are comprehended … The second from this, and which is at a greater distance from the centre, but comprehends the first circle, is that in which parents, brothers, wife, and children are arranged. The third circle from the centre is that which contains uncles and aunts, grandfathers and grandmothers, and the children of brothers and sisters … Next to this is that which contains the common people, then that which comprehends those of the same tribe, afterwards that which contains the citizens; and then two other circles follow, one being the circle of those that dwell in the vicinity of the city, and the other, of those of the same province. But the outermost and greatest circle, and which comprehends all the other circles, is that of the whole human race … it is the province of him who strives to conduct himself properly in each of these connections to collect, in a certain respect, the circles, as it were, to one centre, and always to endeavour earnestly to transfer himself from the comprehending circles to the several particulars which they comprehend.”
To put it simply: we ought to give a crap about everyone on earth, from our close kin and friends to complete strangers on the other side of the globe.

To me this clearly implies that if we have good reasons to believe that the earth’s climate is changing for the worst as a result of our own actions, then we have a moral duty to intervene. I hope that even those people who reject the premise would readily agree with the conditional itself.

Video: Stoicon 2018: Kai Whiting on Stoicism and Sustainability

Follow-up to the above presentation, by Kai Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos: Stoicism and Sustainability: Where Ancient Wisdom and the challenges of the 21st century collide. How can Stoicism be used to tackle the challenges of climate change, fake news and extreme nationalism.

Kai Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos: Taking Stoicism Beyond the Self: The Power To Change Society. Stoicism is typically used for personal endeavours but it is so much more robust than that.
...we should not assume that a Stoic is expected, or required, to treat everyone in the same way. In fact, ancient Stoics such as Cicero (in On Duties1.50–3) and Hierocles discussed the concept of ‘circles’ of concern to express the idea that we naturally feel a more direct connection with family and friends than we do with others. However, we must recognise that an important feature of Stoic philosophy is the conviction that we all belong and participate in a cosmopolitan society of a shared universal citizenship. Hierocles, in particular, stressed the idea that we should bring the circles of concern inward to reflect the healthy aspects of humanity that constitute the self and the self’s role in humanity. In doing, this Stoicism provides the foundation for a society built on harmony instead of populism.


It takes courage and self-control not to turn the other way when you see gender-based discrimination at work, especially when your promotion depends on appeasing a bully. It takes a great deal of wisdom to bear in mind, and be critical of, the double standards that occur when men and women present the same behaviour at home or at the office. It takes further courage to question how much such views might contribute to a gender pay gap, amongst peers who dismiss race or gender wage disparities as linked to behavioral traits. But it is only by questioning our premises and confronting what holds us back that we can begin to work through societal challenges together.
More on Cosmopolitanism by Paul Meany (@PaulMeany2): The Stoic Origins of Cosmopolitanism: An idea more important now than ever before.
At a time when extreme and harmful nationalism is on the rise at an alarming rate, it is important to reflect on rampant nationalisms arch nemesis: Cosmopolitanism. In short, Nationalism is the belief in economic, political and social systems that support one particular nation’s interests and goals. Cosmopolitanism encapsulates an extremely broad and varied set of beliefs of political, economic and philosophical varieties. These variations of Cosmopolitanism are anchored by an axiomatic commitment to a core idea that all human beings, regardless of race, religion or political orientation are part of one single universal community, comprising of the whole of humanity.


These ideals of Cosmopolitanism are worthy because of what they aspired to achieve: a universal understanding of humanity coupled with a deep respect of all rational beings. The Roman Stoics’ views on the universality of humanity were sadly, in the minority, when it came to contemporary philosophical thought. The value of the Stoics’ philosophy may not have been reflected in its popularity but it remained undiminished and compelling. As Marcus Aurelius opined “does an emerald lose its quality if it is not praised?” Happily, their beliefs were readily available for later thinkers to adamantly make the case for a Cosmopolitan future. A case which is as compelling today as it ever has been with divisive nationalism on the rise at a time when global challenges like the impact of climate change demand a universal level of cooperation across all humanity.

Kai Whiting: The Sustainable Stoic: Does Modern Stoicism Call Us to Be Vegetarian?
Modern Stoicism is far from synonymous with vegetarianism or environmentalism. Another wrinkle is that Stoicism has been hijacked, to a certain extent, by two noisy and loosely connected interest groups: the $toics and the Broics. The former uses “life-hack Stoicism” as a means to gain personal wealth and status by climbing a cut-throat corporate ladder. The latter uses “Stoicism” as a platform for the defense of men’s rights and the status quo. This is something which I believe modern Stoics, such as myself, should openly challenge — if we are to stand firm in our cosmopolitan duty.


Another key element when it comes to Stoic food choices — one that goes beyond simply thinking in terms of personal preferences — is the moral importance of living in harmony with natural processes. In fact, “living in accordance with Nature” is the only prescription that exists in Stoicism going back to its founder, Zeno of Citium. It is one that evokes thoughts and actions that acknowledge the value of all elements of the Earth’s community, and thus represents the antithesis of the Broic “message.” This understanding forms the basis of the ethical framework of cosmopolitanism, which promotes the collective interests of the universal human tribe. It is also represented in the concentric “circles of concern,” a Stoic metaphor which highlights the moral obligations we have towards our selves, our family, friends, community, and all humanity.


Climate change is also an excellent reason to be vegetarian. From a Stoic point of view, what makes a 2 to 3 °C average in global temperature increases wrong is the fact that we are pushing the planetary boundaries beyond a threshold that can bring about and sustain life. This in turn hinders our ability to fulfill our cosmopolitan duty of taking care of ourselves and others. Climate breakdown also demonstrates the moral necessity to urgently re-evaluate our role on, and relationship with, Earth. This is because our behavior should align with our rational desire to make the planet more hospitable and conducive to life. Consequently, we must consider the environmental facts regarding what and how we eat.

Being a Stoic means that we must do due diligence on the latest celebrity fad diets. We must question the moral, not to mention the health and factual, grounds of the Mikhaila and Jordan Peterson beef diet — a meat-heavy Paleo or meaty keto diet that many $toics and Broics put their faith in. Doing so doesn’t make us (and I quote) “fake Stoics,” “climate fraudsters,” or “Marxist morons of the radical left.”

Of course, very few people outside of die-hard Jordan Peterson fans or “beef and leaf Paleo” pushers are going to make the case that we should eat more meat. At the very least, we should eat less of it, pay more for it, use all of it, and know where it’s from. We might also promote research and industrial practices that lead to potentially more sustainable food sources such as clean meats or insect protein.

For more on $toics, see these:

Nellie Bowles (@NellieBowles): Why Is Silicon Valley So Obsessed With the Virtue of Suffering? The Stoics and friends continue to be the dominant thought leaders from Google to Apple
“It’s very interesting to see their sort of sad lethargy,” Dr. Palmer said. “When you’re 37, rich, retired and unhappy, it’s very perplexing.”

To her, it makes sense that they then turn to Stoicism. She called Stoicism “a wonderful therapy against grief and the blinders of the rat race.”

“So much of Stoicism is about achieving interior tranquillity,” she said.

That works for business leaders. Other schools of thought during Stoicism’s ancient rise had warned that politics and the pursuit of wealth would lead only to stress and risk, Dr. Palmer said, and some encouraged retiring from active life and even renouncing property. But Stoicism did not.

Instead, Stoics believed that everything in the universe is already perfect and that things that seem bad or unjust are secretly good underneath. The philosophy is handy if you already believe that the rich are meant to be rich and the poor meant to be poor.

“The new popularity of Stoicism among the tech crowd is, in my view, strikingly similar to Stoicism’s popularity among the powerful elites of ancient Rome,” Dr. Palmer said. “As Rome took over, it surged in popularity because it was the one system of ethics that worked well for the rich and powerful.”
Ada Palmer (@Ada_Palmer) Stoicism’s Appeal to the Rich and Powerful
Thus, turning to the questions that Nellie asked me for her article, when I see a fad for stoicism among today’s rising rich, I see a good side and a bad side. The good side is that stoicism, sharing a lot with Buddhism [links added], teaches that the only real treasures are inner treasures–virtue, self-mastery, courage, charity–and that all things in existence are part of one good, divine, and sacred whole, a stance which can combat selfishness and intolerance by encouraging self-discipline and teaching us to love and value every stranger as much as we love our families and ourselves. But on the negative side, stoicism’s Providential claim that everything in the universe is already perfect and that things which seem bad or unjust are secretly good underneath (a claim Christianity borrowed from Stoicism) can be used to justify the idea that the rich and powerful are meant to be rich and powerful, that the poor and downtrodden are meant to be poor and downtrodden, and that even the worst actions are actually good in an ineffable and eternal way. Such claims can be used to justify complacency, social callousness, and even exploitative or destructive behavior.


That’s why when I hear that rich, powerful people are into stoicism I think it’s great that people are excited by the idea that we should hold all life sacred and look for meaning beyond wealth and worldly power. I think it’s a great philosophy for anyone, and certainly for those who need help zooming out from a high-stress, high-competition world to think about the human and humane big picture, and to pay more attention to self-care, and loving others. But it also makes me a little wary. Because I think it’s important that we mingle some Voltaire in with our Seneca, and remember that stoicism’s invaluable advice for taking better care of ourselves inside can–if we fail to mix it with other ideas–come with a big blind spot regarding the world outside ourselves, and whether we should change it. An activist can be a stoic–activism absolutely needs some way to help cope with the pain when we pour our hearts and hours into trying to help someone, or pass new legislation, or resist, and fail. For such moments, stoicism is a precious remedy against despair and burn-out, but it doesn’t in itself offer us the impetus toward activism and resistance in the first place. That we need to get from somewhere else.

For more on Broics and the alt-right appropriation of Stoicism, see these:

Mike Stuchbery (💀🍷@MikeStuchbery_) "I’ve noticed that certain figures on the online Right have been referring to Stoicism - Paul Joseph Watson, most recently. What is clear from their words is that they have very little idea of what it actually entails. Here’s a little explainer..."

Donna Zuckerberg (@donnazuck): Guess who’s championing Homer? Radical online conservatives.
One of the most insidious and disturbing examples of classical appropriation by the alt-right is its embrace of Stoicism, a philosophical school that began with Zeno of Citium around 300 B.C. Today, the adjective “stoic” is most commonly used to describe people who don’t show what they’re feeling, instead keeping their emotions under tight control. Ancient Stoics, though, were less interested in the display of emotions than in understanding what causes them. The Stoics aspired to live rationally, which meant accepting that each person could exert complete control over their own behavior. Emotions, they thought, were usually a result of irrationally believing that somebody else’s actions, or other outside forces, determined one’s psychological reaction. The Stoic thinker Epictetus wrote in his “Discourses” that the appropriate response to the death of your child is to say to yourself, “I knew I had fathered a mortal.” Anger was particularly anathema to the Stoics: The Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca the Younger wrote an entire treatise about anger’s destructive force: “De Ira” (“About Anger”).

It may seem strange that the alt-right, of all groups, would embrace a philosophy hostile to anger — think of the images from last summer’s “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville of young white men holding tiki torches, their faces contorted with rage. Online, however, many influential alt-right writers profess to be devotees of Stoicism. Marcus Aurelius’s “Meditations” and Epictetus’s “Enchiridion” appear on lists of recommended texts on the Red Pill subreddit.


Alt-right thinkers present themselves as protectors of the classics who are saving the cultural heritage of the West from social-justice-warrior professors who secretly want to destroy it. This vision resonates powerfully in our cultural moment. But it’s silly. The challenge for progressives who love the classics is to present a vision that’s just as vital and relevant, but that sees ancient racism and sexism, where they exist, as topics to be explored thoughtfully rather than mindlessly celebrated.

Cosmopolitanism previously.

Stoicism previously.
posted by homunculus (17 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
If anyone is interested, in addition to the links I added to the quote from the piece by Ada Palmer (@Ada_Palmer) above, there are more pieces comparing Buddhism and Stoicism linked in this Twitter thread, tweets # 34-40 & 43.
posted by homunculus at 2:19 PM on May 10 [1 favorite]

Existential Comics: Stoic Apathy
posted by homunculus at 2:39 PM on May 10 [4 favorites]

I’ve been seeing this misunderstanding of Stoicism flying around everywhere lately and it is extremely disturbing. And tge worst of it is when someone claims to be Stoic and it is supremely obvious that they are letting their passions control them.

I am also of the thought that not everyone_should_ be Stoic. That would actually go completely against the core foundation of the philosophy. If everyone were fully actually Stoic, there would be nothing to be Stoic for. It would create a true Utopia, in the classical sense of THE END/extinction. Life only works by balancing multiple forces. Without anything to balance against, life becomes death. Static. Unmoving. Without meaning.

Also, good god people, seek out multiple translations, and if you can, read a translation from Greek or Roman Latin into another language other than your native tongue. It seriously highlights how much being stuck on a single source tends to destroy the original concept (unless you are well versed in ancient Greek or Latin, then just read the source).

Also so glad to see others gaining an understanding of themselves and their place in society through the study of these philosophical frameworks. Been a long time coming.
posted by daq at 3:15 PM on May 10 [4 favorites]

When I hear that Silicon Valley's philosophy of choice is Stoicism I think of this:
posted by Pembquist at 8:11 PM on May 10 [3 favorites]

Here are a couple of pieces on Cosmopolitan education:

Martha Nussbaum: Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism
The Stoics stress that to be a citizen of the world one does not need to give up local identifications, which can frequently be a source of great richness in life. They suggest that we think of ourselves not as devoid of local affiliations, but as surrounded by a series of concentric circles. The first one is drawn around the self; the next takes in one’s immediate family; then follows the extended family; then, in order, one’s neighbors or local group, one’s fellow city-dwellers, one’s fellow countrymen—and we can easily add to this list groupings based on ethnic, linguistic, historical, professional, gender and sexual identities. Outside all these circles is the largest one, that of humanity as a whole. Our task as citizens of the world will be to “draw the circles somehow toward the center” (Stoic philosopher Hierocles, 1st-2nd CE), making all human beings more like our fellow city dwellers, and so on. In other words, we need not give up our special affections and identifications, whether ethnic or gender-based or religious. We need not think of them as superficial, and we may think of our identity as in part constituted by them. We may and should devote special attention to them in education. But we should work to make all human beings part of our community of dialogue and concern, base our political deliberations on that interlocking commonality, and give the circle that defines our humanity a special attention and respect.

This means, in educational terms, that the student in the United States, for example, may continue to regard herself as in part defined by her particular loves—her family, her religious, ethnic, or racial communities, or even for her country. But she must also, and centrally, learn to recognize humanity wherever she encounters it, undeterred by traits that are strange to her, and be eager to understand humanity in its “strange” guises. She must learn enough about the different to recognize common aims, aspirations, and values, and enough about these common ends to see how variously they are instantiated in the many cultures and many histories. Stoic writers insist that the vivid imagining of the different is an essential task of education; and that requires in turn, of course, a mastery of many facts about the different. Marcus Aurelius gives himself the following advice, which might be called the basis for cosmopolitan education: “Accustom yourself not to be inattentive to what another person says, and as far as possible enter into that person’s mind” (VI.53). “Generally,” he concludes, “one must first learn many things before one can judge another’s action with understanding.”
Kai Whiting et al: Education for the Sustainable Global Citizen: What Can We Learn from Stoic Philosophy and Freirean Environmental Pedagogies?
Abstract: In support of sustainable development, the United Nations (UN) launched its Global Education First Initiative (GEFI) with the aims of accelerating progress towards universal access to education, good quality learning and the fostering of global citizenship. This paper explores how and to what extent Stoic virtue ethics and critical Freirean ecopedagogies can advance the UN’s vision for progressive educational systems with transformative societal effects. We propose an integrated solution that provides ecopedagogical concepts a more robust philosophical foundation whilst also offering Stoicism additional tools to tackle 21st-century problems, such as climate change and environmental degradation. The result of the paper is the preliminary theoretical underpinnings of an educational framework that encompasses planetary-level concerns and offers a fuller expression of the terms “sustainable development” and “global citizen”.
posted by homunculus at 8:14 PM on May 10

Cosmopolitanism encapsulates an extremely broad and varied set of beliefs of political, economic and philosophical varieties.

As well as mind blowing sex tips that you can try tonight.
posted by otherchaz at 2:47 AM on May 11 [2 favorites]

Massimo Pigliucci (@mpigliucci): Nope, Jeff Bezos is not a Stoic
I don’t like billionaires. Not individually, of course, I’m sure some of them are reasonably decent human beings with whom it would be pleasant to share a double shot of top notch 18-yr old Scotch (at their expense, of course). But I simply can’t shake the notion that in order to become a billionaire one has to exploit people, and that therefore their wealth is ill gotten, morally (if not legally) speaking. Call me a socialist, if you’d like, but I think a 90% taxation rate on wealth over a billion is a good beginning.

Now that I’ve turned away half my audience, I can tell you the real reason for this post: billionaires are not Stoics, despite repeated claims that at least some of them “live by” ancient Stoic philosophy, as in this article by Sam Barry, published in (surprise, surprise!) Entrepreneur magazine.

Barry begins by mentioning investor and entrepreneur Tim Ferriss, who claims that Stoic philosophy is “a simple and immensely practical set of rules for better results with less effort,” a caricature of Stoicism that would have Seneca turn in his tomb, many times over.


The fundamental mistake made by Barry (and by Tim Ferriss, who really does think of himself as a Stoic) is to separate Stoic techniques from the underlying philosophy. But as I’ve argued before, Stoicism is a philosophy, not a magic wand, a bag of tricks, or a prosperity gospel. The reason people like Bezos are not Stoic has nothing to do with their alleged embracing of the three basic pieces of advice listed above. It has to do with the fact that they don’t seem -- at least from the outside -- to practice any of the cardinal virtues, and moreover to act contrary to the basic goals of Stoic philosophy.
posted by homunculus at 2:47 PM on May 11 [2 favorites]

It's a trap!
posted by homunculus at 4:00 PM on May 11 [2 favorites]

see the thing that bugs me about stoicism is that it deprives us of a short, clear, straightforward term for people who just really like hanging out on porches.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 10:45 PM on May 11 [3 favorites]

Question for Silicon Valley “Stoics”: if true meaning comes from internal virtues, why do you keep trying to sell everyone shit they don’t need?
posted by freecellwizard at 11:32 AM on May 12 [1 favorite]

Speaking of classical antiquity and the environment:

Roman mining activities polluted European air more heavily than previously thought. "Roman-era mining activities increased atmospheric lead concentrations by at least a factor of 10, polluting air over Europe more heavily and for longer than previously thought, according to a new analysis of ice cores taken from glaciers on France's Mont Blanc."
posted by homunculus at 8:47 PM on May 12

Leonidas Konstantakos: Would A Stoic Save The Elephants?
In a very real sense, separated by mere chance, time, and circumstance, other animals on this planet are our kinsmen, and even plants are our (no longer so distant) cousins. In another sense, the Earth is our mother and the universe is our City, its ruling faculty is our Father Zeus. The new Stoics, per the advice of Hierocles, can start by using inclusive terminology when referring to the outer circles of our ecological family, and educate the young in our inclusive paradigm of progression toward virtue: how social, rational animals ought to behave toward their family members and their surroundings. Neil deGrasse Tyson once said, “We are all connected to each other biologically, to the earth chemically, and to the rest of the universe atomically… [We] are part of the universe. We are in the universe and the universe is in us.” The ancient Stoics agreed, and added that we are responsible for our world, insofar as our judgments and choices are involved. The upshot is that Stoics need not challenge the most fundamental doctrines in order to find reasons to protect the fellow-inhabitants of our planet and universal city. Human oikeiosis provides perfectly good motivation to take care of our land and resources. I challenge you new Stoics to conduct your ‘appropriate actions’ by implementing Stoic environmental virtue ethics based on Hierocles’s concentric circles of moral concern and, Zeus permitting, save our elephant kinsmen from unnecessary suffering and extinction in the wild.
posted by homunculus at 7:42 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]

Chrysippus believed that dogs have a kind of rationality. He claimed to have observed a dog trailing somone at a crossroads who sniffed two paths, and then running off along the third without sniffing, having deduced that if there's no-smell on those it must be the remaining path. So it's not impossible that modern stoics could consider some animal as having reason, though I don't think any ancient stoic went that far.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 9:13 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]

I agree. With all the contemporary research showing the cognitive abilities of animals like tool creation, fairness, etc, the circle of relationships should have far more overlap today than they did in ancient times.

I didn't know that about Chrysippus and dogs, so thanks! I'll have to find more on that.
posted by homunculus at 7:20 PM on May 17

Kwame Anthony Appiah (@KAnthonyAppiah): The Importance of Elsewhere - In Defense of Cosmopolitanism
The cosmopolitan task, in fact, is to be able to focus on both far and near. Cosmopolitanism is an expansive act of the moral imagination. It sees human beings as shaping their lives within nesting memberships: a family, a neighborhood, a plurality of overlapping identity groups, spiraling out to encompass all humanity. It asks us to be many things, because we are many things. And if its critics have seldom been more clamorous, the creed has never been so necessary.
posted by homunculus at 7:23 PM on May 17

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