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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Monday, May 8, 2017

Does Philosophical Materialism Tend to Indirectly Increase Global Warming?

There are two definitions of the word “materialism.” One refers to a lifestyle emphasis, and the other refers to a philosophical position. Materialism as a lifestyle emphasis means centering your life around the acquisition and enjoyment of material things. A person pursuing a materialistic lifestyle may organize his life around getting a bigger house, getting a bigger or faster car, buying fancy clothes and gadgets, and so forth.

A person's carbon footprint is the amount of carbon dioxide emitted as the result of a person's consumption activities. Assuming that what we are told is correct (that increased carbon footprints tend to increase global warming), it is rather clear that lifestyle materialism tends to increase global warming. If a person thinks that “happily ever after” means a 2000-square-foot home and two big gas-guzzling cars, along with frequent trips to luxury hotels in distant cities, he may well have a carbon footprint much greater than if he put little value on such things.

Philosophical materialism is something quite different from lifestyle materialism. Philosophical materialism is the position that matter (or mass-energy) is all that exists (with the possible exception of blind impersonal forces such as gravitation, or laws of nature). Not believing in any type of deity, spirits or souls, a philosophical materialist thinks that this earthly life is the only life a human will ever have, and that no one will have an afterlife.

You might think that whether a person is a philosophical materialist has no relevance to global warming. But this may not be true. There is a reason for thinking that philosophical materialists may be more likely to have higher carbon footprints, and do more of the activities that increase global warming. The reason has nothing to do with the philosophical materialist's lack of belief in a deity. The reason has to do with the philosophical materialist's lack of belief in an afterlife.

Let us imagine two people, one named Joe and another named Jane. Joe is a hard-boiled philosophical materialist. He believes that this earthly life is the only life he will ever live. But Jane believes rather vaguely in some type of afterlife. She thinks that when she dies she may continue to live on in some type of heaven. She also thinks that perhaps she will be reincarnated, and come back to our planet to live another life.

Joe's attitude is summarized by slogans such as “you only live once.” Believing that he will have no afterlife, Joe thinks that this earthly life is his only chance to see the world's wonders and enjoy various types of pleasure. So Joe may create in his mind a “bucket list” consisting of a list of items he wants to do before he “kicks the bucket.” These may be items like this:

  1. See the view from the Eiffel Tower.
  2. Walk on the Great Wall of China
  3. Take a glass-bottom boat tour in the Great Barrier Reef
  4. Climb to the top of the Uluru rock in Australia
  5. Swim in some beautiful lagoon in Tahiti

A "bucket list" of places to see before you die

Doing all of these things and other items on Joe's “bucket list” will add to global warming. That's because Joe will have to buy lots of jet plane tickets, and jet planes dump lots of carbon dioxide high into the atmosphere. But Joe justifies this by saying to himself, “This is the only chance I'll ever get to see such things.”

Joe may also buy himself a big home with a high carbon footprint, reasoning, “This is the only chance I'll ever get to live well.” And he may buy himself some gas-guzzling car or recreational vehicle, reasoning, “This is the only chance I'll ever get to drive well,” or “This is the only chance I'll ever get to see the whole USA.” With such reasoning, Joe's carbon footprint gets higher and higher.

But now let us consider Jane. Jane does not assume that her pleasures will be limited to the pleasures she gets during her earthly life. Jane thinks she will have some kind of afterlife, and that such an afterlife may offer unlimited opportunities for different kinds of pleasure. Thinking that she may find herself in some magnificent heavenly realm that totally surpasses the splendor of the home of the richest billionaire, Jane doesn't think along the lines of, “This is the only chance I'll ever have to live in grand style.” Jane thinks that perhaps as a disembodied spirit she may be able to move around to any place on the planet she wants to go, or that perhaps she will be reincarnated and have additional opportunities for physical earthly experiences. So she doesn't engage in thinking along the lines of, “This earthly life is my one chance to see the Great Wall of China.”

When it comes to eating habits, there may also be a difference between Jane and Joe. Jane may believe or suspect that all animals have souls, and this may cause her to limit her meat eating or may cause her to become a vegetarian. Jane may reason that raising pigs and cows for food may cause suffering for animals with souls, and that we should therefore not eat such animals. But not believing in any types of souls, Joe may eat lots of meat. In fact, when he comes to a restaurant, Joe's attitude of “this life is my only chance for pleasure” may cause him to try some meat dish he has never tried before. This is relevant to global warming, because the raising of animals for meat is one of the biggest contributors to global warming.

Now, who is more likely to have a higher carbon footprint, Jane or Joe? It seems that Joe will be much more likely to have a higher carbon footprint. Joe's thinking may well lead him to engage in activities that increase global warming. But Jane's thinking may make her less likely to engage in a high-carbon-footprint lifestyle.

It is certainly true that we can imagine a rather austere philosophical materialist whose carbon footprint is low. The main driver of a high-carbon lifestyle is not any philosophical position but a consumerist culture which is constantly sending us silly messages implying that your success in life is proportional to the size of your house, the size or cost of your car, and the distance you travel in jet planes. But by encouraging the thinking that this earthly life is our only chance for satisfaction, philosophical materialism does nothing to put a check on such a consumerist culture. So compared to rival assumptions, philosophical materialism does a bad job at discouraging the high consumption that worsens global warming. Although philosophical materialism does not necessitate lifestyle materialism, philosophical materialism may tend to encourage lifestyle materialism, which tends to increase global warming.

The armchair considerations here don't prove anything, but a systematic scientific study could shed further light on such a topic. I suggest this as a topic for a scientific researcher looking for a topic for a scientific paper. I can imagine such a study being done at low cost. You simply submit question lists to a wide variety of age groups and income levels, asking people both about their philosophical and religious beliefs and also about their consumption practices and carbon footprints. Then you look to see whether there is any correlation between the two.

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