Stoicism for Climate

BY ETHAN OLSON


The size, complexity, and importance of the fight against climate change is overwhelming. Listening to the Stoics can help.



In La Jolla, one small street away from the University of California, San Diego where I attend school, there are steep bluffs, stretching over two miles from North to South, that sit above the Pacific Ocean. When most people want to experience the ocean, they go to a beach. But I find that if you really want to get a good sense of what the Pacific is — as an ecosystem, a beast, a god — what have you, it's much better to look at it from a few hundred feet up. Only then do you perceive the sheer enormity and absurdity of the Earth we live on.


It is in many ways impossible to imagine how big our planet is. As a self-prescribed map enthusiast (and international studies major), I feel like I should know more than most. Because of my love for Google Earth, I have a great spacial awareness of the size, lengths, directions, elevations, etc. of my surrounding neighborhoods. Buildings I see when I drive to the grocery store, parking lots I pass on my way to school, and fields I run past on my jogs around the block all are easily identifiable on my digital map. I can zoom in and out to compare each site to its surrounding landscapes. Thanks to personal experience, I know roughly about how long a trip from each place takes to another, be it by driving, walking, or bus. In San Diego alone, there are dozens of toponyms to remember, but it is not too difficult for someone as map-savvy as myself to become familiar with the basic locales — La Jolla, Mira Mesa, Clairemont, Pacific Beach, Littly Italy, etc. I know where these places are. The farther away from my own neighborhood, the blurrier my mental maps of these places become, but at least by comparing their sizes and topography to my own neighborhood on the map, and by additionally buttressing this with my own experiences in, around, or near these locations, I can get a decent idea of their actual scope.


Looking out at the Pacific from one of the bluffs changes everything. How stupid anyone is to imagine that they truly have a good sense of how big our world is. With a body so immense, so raw, so devoid of human architecture, so empty of visible geography, so expansive, and so perilously never-ending, understanding the entirety of it is impossible to fathom. There are no markers — no mountains or skyscrapers — to orient yourself out there. For distances so long they hide behind the curve of the Earth, there are only the stars.


Thinking about climate change at such moments creates a sort of cognitive dissonance within my head. The Earth is so huge. How could we as humans, just one species among countless others, be capable of altering its climate? This, of course, is a popular thought-process for climate deniers. It is also one that science has clearly proven untrue. Still, it is a tough pill to swallow.


Not as tough however, as the reality that we must mitigate climate change for the sake of our livelihoods and future generations. If the forces of man have created systems so destructive that they grind against the divine and previously imagined impenetrable workings of the heavens, how can we possibly reverse such power? How might we possibly make things right? It feels like we are praying for rain after we have drained the river.


There are many, many facets of the effort to mitigate climate change. If you, like myself, are passionate about it, you’ve likely felt overwhelmed by its complexity and size. Climate change is a global issue, but it's also a local issue. It is something that can be blamed on specific countries, powerful corporations, consumer choices, or capitalism itself. Meanwhile, it is caused by emissions across all the large economic sectors — transportation, agriculture, energy, and industry. No one person can become an expert on all of these features. We must pick and choose.


In today’s information age, it is common to feel immobilized by an infinite array of options. How, in the face of a looming global crisis, can one make an impact? How can one be vigilant against a problem that seems impossibly large and complex? How should we deal with the anxiety of climate change? Here is my recommendation:


Be a stoic.


Before I continue, let me address two potential misinterpretations here. First, I am not advocating for anyone to become complacent in the fight against climate change because they view it as inevitable. Stoicism advises individuals to accept the things in life they cannot control; anthropogenic climate change is something that we can and do control (why would we attach the word “anthropogenic” to it if we didn’t?).


Second, when many people hear the word stoicism, they imagine ancient Greeks sitting about with straight faces, devoid of emotion, content with solitude, and unyielding to the dynamic pleasures and throes of life. In reality, the Stoics were not not like this at all. Most were active participants of civil society, and none were taught to suppress their feelings when enjoying the fruits of existence.

Stoicism instead calls for people to accept those things that they cannot control, and to be purposeful about completing those things they can. It does not preach emotional repression; rather, full-hearted acceptance of life’s developments and unexpected circumstances.


As such, in the face of an impending climate catastrophe, stoicism offers us guidance: it tells us to recognize that we as individuals cannot always control misfortune, whether that be in the form of an oil lobbyist persuading a policymaker to vote against an emissions reduction law, or a discarded cigarette sparking a wildfire that ravages across thousands of acres. There is no point in torturing ourselves with thoughts that scream “There must have been a way to prevent this!” because, although that statement is likely true, you alone cannot control everything, and the past is immalleable to even our most passionate wishes. It is cliché, and common knowledge, but the past is in the past.


Acceptance alone, of course, will not save ourselves from a planetary crisis. Which is why we should look towards stoicism for another piece of wisdom: Stop focusing on the things you cannot control, or the unanticipated misfortune that has befallen you. Instead, devote your attention to what you can do. For example, if the aforementioned policymaker votes for Big Oil, join a protest movement that fights to hold them accountable. In the wake of massive wildfires, see what you can do to help better adapt our forest-management to a drier climate. Stoicism does not advocate that you repress the grief you feel from seeing the Redwoods charred. It advocates that you accept that grief, and focus your energy on tangible action to make a difference.



The Stoics believed in developing four virtues — wisdom, temperance, justice, and courage — in order to achieve happiness as individuals (by reaching a state they called eudaimonia) and to better the world around them. If you are reading this, I imagine that climate change is as much a personal issue as a global issue for you. Remembering the Stoics may help us not only protect the world around us, but ease our minds in the process.


If you live in San Diego, I suggest you visit the bluffs in northern La Jolla and take a long look at the Pacific Ocean. The sheer size of the world is intimidating. Every day, an absurd amount of carbon emissions are released into the atmosphere. Reversing a global process created by its inhabitants — one that is directly linked to their social and economic systems — can seem unfathomable. Yet it is not impossible. If we all take a page or two from the Stoics and focus on actionable goals, a more sustainable world is within our grasps.


As the old prayer says:


“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

courage to change the things I can,

and wisdom to know the difference.”


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