The Mint: Well, good morning Graham. And thank you very much for joining us to talk to The Mint magazine today.
Graham Parkes: Yes. Good morning, Henry. It’s a pleasure for me to be here and to have the opportunity to talk with you.
Conspiracy and Climate Change
The Mint: Well, that’s brilliant. Well, I thought I’d start with the beginning of your book on how to think about climate change, which I thought started with a really intriguing story, wrong evil in California and meeting up first with conspiracy theories in the former [inaudible] that David Bowie was really an alien and this was being hidden. But it raised obviously an intriguing question as to what is a conspiracy theory because a lot of your book, obviously the early sections are about you pinning on various powerful groups. If you like, the accusation for blocking action on climate change and people might say, well, “Aren’t they conspiracy theories?” Can you tell us a bit about those groups and why you think these aren’t conspiracy theories and actually are in a sense, true?
Graham Parkes: Yes. A good question because I think I do allude to it myself with the beginning there and say, so how do I persuade you, the reader that this isn’t just another conspiracy theory? And I suppose the way I start is to try to make myself credible and show that I really don’t have a stake in this issue because I used to say to my students, when I was teaching on climate change, “I won’t be here when the worst hits, it’s you that will take the brunt of it.” I’m now beginning to think, actually, maybe I might still be here because it’s starting already. But I think that the, I mean, the short way of putting it is that conspiracy theories are loony ideas based on flimsy evidence. Whereas in my book, we hear the voice of sober reasoning based on the years of research. That’s the short answer.
I think the, it’s important, I think to ask the how and the why of it and let’s take the example of say the conspiracy theorists, who were saying global warning’s a hoax. There aren’t so many of them left but the idea was that climate scientists are telling us about this because they get more grant money if they find dire consequences or because they’re being paid by their clean energy companies or something. And if you ask how that works, that one would have to falsify temperature records going back to the 19th century. And there would have to be this vast global conspiracy with thousands, literally thousands of climate scientists all over the world who work together a lot to be in cahoots in some way to fool the public. And that how just isn’t the answer to that how, isn’t very plausible. And if you ask, “Well, why?” Well because they want to make money. Well, okay that’s a motivation we can understand but then there have to be easier ways of making money then to have a global conspiracy among popular scientists.
So I would say what my, the how, of let’s take the Koch brothers for example, they’re my main target. So how do these groups operate? They infiltrate universities, they fund university positions so that the big ideas can get gestated. They found think tanks like the Institute of Economic Affairs. So it was one of the first ones in Britain, which is still going strong I see. And then they found these grassroots or AstroTurf organisations that are people’s engagement with these ideas. And so you can see the pattern you can see. I mean, they among themselves are quite clear what they’re doing, this is a grand strategy. And so I think that I can lay out the how, I mean, I think I do lay out the how, in a fairly convincing narrative that is grounded in, I’ve got lots of footnotes.
There are appendixes on the web where there’s even more information than most people would want. And then if we ask the why, I mean, that for me is the interesting question because I think again, you see a pattern that people are in polluting industries and they run afoul of government regulation because they are harming people or the neighbours to their factories or they’re harming the environment and they have to pay fines and they figure often it’s easier just to pay the fines and keep on, keep the cash rolling in. But I think you can see the Koch brothers deciding fairly early on, rather than keeping on because they had to pay massive record breaking fines. Why don’t we change the government? Why don’t we change the rules when we get in there? And I think that’s, you can see that’s precisely what happened.
And it became most obvious with the Trump administration where the freedom partners, these donors that are connected with the Koch’s, that whole seminar network they call it, they gave a laundry list to the Trump administration, so these are the things that we want you to do. And then a year later I quote the… I mean, actually you can find it on the web. They have this triumphant memo that goes around saying, it’s a checklist. Look what they did, they did all these things, including pulling the US out of the Paris climate agreement. So I think that, I mean, I hope that I lay all that out in a convincing way and that people realise certainly my students, when I used to teach it, my students said, “By now we never realised this was going on.”
Climate Change Action Obstruction and Evil
The Mint: It is a thing, isn’t it? And it makes you wonder about these people. I mean, you set out early on for it. You don’t want to be moral but you say, there’s a basic well-established moral principle and a moral principle that, do under others as you will be done to, sort of thing. And obviously these people, these powerful people, such as the Koch brothers but others and people who are powerful in fossil fuel industry more broadly don’t seem to be following this basic, very basic human principle. Are they evil?
Graham Parkes: Okay. That’s a bigger question. Yes. Let me just explain why I steer clear of ethics because there’s a big field in philosophy, environmental ethics and people think I do that but I don’t do that. I do, I call it the environmental philosophy. And one reason I don’t, two reasons I don’t do it. One is, it’s very easy to become… You must’ve come across preachy environmentalist. If I say to myself, I’m going to steer clear of the ethical questions, then I’m less likely to come off as preaching. And secondly, because of this is a global problem, the climate crisis is global. And I think we’re going to be able to talk to the Chinese and to the Indians and to the Brazilians a lot more effectively if we steer clear of ethical language because they set that, that’s set up differently in different cultures and in different languages.
And especially with the Chinese. What’s interesting is I think I say at one point that of course there is a minimal ethical principle and you just mentioned it, do unto others or the Confucianist do it, that they have the negative formulations, don’t impose on other people what you yourself don’t want, which is a nice way of looking at the same issue, really but from a different perspective. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we do that a lot, impose on other people, easier for me to get the other person to shape up rather than for me to do it myself. So that’s why I try to avoid ethical discourse, except when it comes down to really that basic, that the golden rule. I mean, you find it in almost every culture and in every ethic, some version of that, of fairness, of basic fairness or justice. And in the case of the polluting factories, the question would be to the factory owner, who just discharges, dumps the toxins into the local water supply. Well, how would it be if your neighbour did that over the fence of your vast country mansion?
And so it’s something that when you say, well, let’s reverse the situation. Most people would see, okay, I get the picture. So instead of that, the question I urge my students to think about is, we can just say, instead of, is this right or wrong morally? We can just ask ourselves, is this the kind of society we want to have? Or is this the way we want things to be in our society? Is this how we want to interact with each other? And if it isn’t, then there are various ways of getting there. We can talk to each other, we can have dialogue or we can have laws and regulations that say, “No, there are certain things that are, that are out of bounds.”
So yes, as I don’t use a category of evil very often, I have to say but I mean, sometimes I have to think, I have to say to myself, yes, I think this thing, I mean, these people are so pathologically selfish and self centred that they hardly know that, they’re hardly aware of other people existing at all. And when that individualism gets to that extreme sense, that really I have no, there’s a total lack of consideration for others or for the effects of my actions. Then I would say, yeah, I suppose I would say rather than evil, I would say pathological narcissism perhaps is, would’ve be my diagnosis.
The Mint: I mean because some people also say that people get stuck in systems, I suppose, leaving aside the Koch brothers who were maybe extreme but say the chief executive of Exxon or of Shell or whatever, who have a huge sets of pressures on them. And I suppose, have got to the position they’re in through following the rules of the organisation they’re in. So they’re not… I mean, I wonder about them. Are they also trapped in some sense, rather than being narcissistic or whatever we want, the pathologically selfish.
Graham Parkes: Yes. Right. I suppose that’s true of quite a lot of people. And I think what your question highlights is really the nature of the corporation because the CEO can say, “Look, my duty, it says so in the rules here, is to maximise profits for my shareholders.” And if that’s all that’s in the rule book or the mission statement of the company, then I think we have a problem because it’s one of the big problems of capitalism that it’s easy to externalise a lot of the costs of doing business, which is precisely what we’re talking about with CO2 emissions. And I see that there is a movement to now make corporations, if they’re legally persons, which is a strange idea but apparently true, can’t we make them socially more conscious persons? Can’t we somehow, can’t the corporation have some responsibilities, not just to its shareholders but to its neighbours, literally the people next to its factories or to the rest of us? So that’s, I think that if we were to change that, it will be easier to be a CEO and sleep at night.
The Mint: And I suppose there’s wider culture as well. I mean, we have in this same issue that your interview will be, we have some writing about denial and who suggested actually that it was counterproductive to attacked or demonise oil companies because actually we have benefited, they have created a lot of benefits. The people involved in them have been told a narrative or a story of what it is to be good. So in a sense, their own values identity are all bound up with a certain way of living and being. So and if you start labelling them in some way as bad people, they will become more defensive and more stuck, that you remove the potential for a bridge or a path to a different space.
Graham Parkes: Right. Right. No, no, I think that’s a good point, maybe I should cool my jets a bit.
Philosophical ideas and climate change
The Mint: It’s very difficult when you see the Koch brothers. I mean, when I read Dark Money, I was amazed. And if you didn’t know that this was written by, I mean, this is, you’ve got to rely on that, it’s written by a reputable journalist. You’d think God, you couldn’t make it up because it is extraordinary. I wanted to move on to the core of your book, which is more of a, I suppose, the philosophic centre. And what struck me first was, I studied philosophy in the early 1980s in England and we certainly, philosophy was not like the course when you studied was nothing like the philosophical discussions that you had because it was analytical circle, Western analytical philosophy and it wasn’t about what is a good life or how to have self constraint or be linked to the environment.
It was about theory of knowledge, lots of argumentation of complex argumentation. I know I had a friend who also started in philosophy and she was deeply disillusioned because she thought she was going to get the sort of discussion that you provided in the book. Do you think Western or Anglo-Saxon maybe philosophy at the broadest level has taken a wrong path over the last centuries in terms of moving into this highly analytical and theoretical space that it’s tended populate. And is that part of the problem and the source of the extreme libertarianism that’s come out as well?
Graham Parkes: Yes. I think it is. If I may slip in a short anecdote about my undergraduate experience, I went on a scholarship to Oxford in modern languages but I wanted to change to philosophy because I discovered nature. And so at the interview, they had three people in French and German and then there was a philosopher who didn’t say anything. And at the end he said, “Oh Mr Parkes, we understand you want to change to a philosophy. Why is that exactly?” And I said, “Well, because philosophy is about the meaning of it all. That’s what I’m concerned with.” And he burst out laughing and he said, “Good God.” He said, “I don’t think you’ll find anyone here interested in that question.”
He was more or less, right unfortunately because it was mostly analytic philosophy of language. Yes, I mean, I think there are two ways that we step back from this. There are two ways really of doing philosophy. And one is, as a theoretical exercise and you think about things and you think at meta levels and meta levels. So, or there’s also a philosophy as a way of life. And there’s a wonderful book by Pierre Ado, on showing that if you go back to Socrates, there was, we have that in our tradition that Socrates was concerned with finding the right way to live. And he often said, “Don’t listen to what I say, look at how I live. Look at my actions, look at what I do.” And that says a lot to me. I mean, that, I think, I think that distinction of two basic ways of doing philosophy is valid.
And I think that what happened in the west is that we had a change, a turn away from philosophy as a way of life to philosophy as theoretical activity. There was a ascent to the theoretical level and we tended to get stuck there. And it gave us all kinds of wonderful things like science, the scientific revolution and enlightenment and technology and so on. But yes, I think we then lost the path in a way, which leads through people like Mantegna and Emerson and Thoreau and Nietzsche and so on. So it got marginalised, philosophy as a way of life got marginalised. But if you look at the Chinese tradition, they never got to the theory part. They just said, “We’re looking for the way that Dao the way to live or the way things work and therefore the way to live as humans.”
And that informed the whole tradition, they were relatively uninterested in merely theoretical speculation. And so now, yeah, we can do environmental ethics or the ethics of the climate crisis or whatever but it seems to me, we have a situation where the world is not going very well and that the kind of philosophical ideas we would benefit from or for to put it another way, in the debate about the climate there’s very often a unstated premise or there’s something in the background that nobody really brings up, which is what do we think the good life is? I mean, what is, what does it mean to live a fulfilled life? Because they’re all arguing work from very different positions on that. And so that was the question I wanted to bring to the fore and say, “Yeah, that’s really what we, this is what would be most fruitful to think about. This would be the way to think about the climate crisis.”
The Mint: Is this topic coming back into favour in the Western or Anglo-Saxon philosophical tradition or are you an outlier on this?
Graham Parkes: I think I’ve always been an outlier. I don’t see me being asked to come back towards the centre anymore. I think it is coming back a bit. I think one factor is that comparative philosophy with Asian traditions say or intercultural philosophy with Latin American traditions, whatever you call it, there are various kinds of philosophy that groups of philosophers, I should say, who say, look, the idea that philosophy is essentially Greek and then German and then now English and American with the analytic philosophy is a very parochial notion of what philosophy is because other people have done it, other cultures have it.
And not everyone agrees with that but I’ve been studying those cultures, those traditions for a long time. And I’m convinced there’s philosophy that’s every bit as profound as ours in the Indian and Chinese and many other traditions. And I think that’s beginning to open people up because those philosophies are philosophies as a way of life and that young people today are seeing, yeah the world isn’t in great shape. Why don’t we have philosophers talking about these problems more concretely and directly and offering possible solutions to them?
Building Bridges with China through Ideas
The Mint: But as you admit, holding the Chinese up as an example of the right way of living is a tough sell, given Hong Kong and so on and I suppose the narrative that people read generally in papers. And one of the things that you say is that you accept that maybe due to the pursuit of power and money, the true way, the two traditional ethics of Chinese society, even though premiere president espouses them are not really followed. So that’s for me, slightly begs the question of, well, how powerful are these ethics or ideas if in the background, you can say that you can go to written sources in China and see them but then you look at actually, what is being done, I suppose, in Socrates’ terms, look at what you do and doesn’t come out with a good result? So, portraying China as a potential example or model is quite a hard sell.
Graham Parkes: Yes. Right. And so two things. One is that the move to Chinese ideas that I recommend that we entertain them, that we look at them and I think try to appreciate them, is a strategic one in a way because I think we have to have a very robust dialogue with China on the climate crisis or we burn the planet. I mean, it’s that serious if we can’t-
The Mint: We have no choice basically, but to engage.
Graham Parkes: Yeah, right. Now, rather than say and so what I’m saying is, we can respect or show respect for the ideas in their tradition because this is one of the reasons the Chinese are so crinkly. They think that we, their whole tradition or that we don’t know anything about Chinese civilization. And so I like to say, if we look at that and we look at the tradition of Chinese philosophy, we see some very interesting ideas and some ideas that are very pertinent to our current climate predicament. And we can show respect for those ideas without showing respect for the Chinese communist party, which has espoused those ideas publicly.
And she didn’t ping quotes, a form that the Confucian and Daoist classics but the follow-up the walking of the walk in that sense is pretty meagre. And so I agree with you but if we keep the focus on the ideas, then another interesting thing happens because when we see these Confucian Daoist ideas that are different from mainstream Western, especially the post scientific revolution ideas, we see that actually we have counterparts to those ideas in our own tradition, in Plato, to some extent, in the Stoics, in the Epicureans.
But these again are those marginalised figures and schools of philosophy, philosophy as a way of life. And that’s why, and I think and what I’m trying to say is that on the basis of that, these shared ideas, I mean, ideas that are really basically quite similar, we can have a conversation with a civilization and a culture as different, in many ways as China is from ours. If we just do a little homework and inform ourselves a little and not continue because when we continue to say to the Chinese, “We had the scientific revolution, you didn’t. We have the enlightenment of the 18th century, which gave us a reason that allowed us to reach truth, you didn’t have that.” Therefore, we talk on our terms and in our concepts, they see that as just more Western imperialism or forcing our way of conceiving the world and our way of talking onto them. Whereas I’m trying to say, can we not find some common ground for this dialogue where we show that we understand something about their culture too.
The Mint: Ironically, there are parts of the environment movement that have picked up positives from some elements of China, isn’t there? I was at a speech by, I think it was the director general of The Club of Rome a few years ago, when I was astounded, actually, basically he said, “Well, if only we were like China and could impose targets and control that we’d be able to address climate change.” And others have picked up on those themes that we should desert democracy and pick up on central authoritarian control.
Graham Parkes: Yes. I mean, there is something to that, unfortunately. I mean, I hope we’re not going to continue to press democracy on them because it’s not, the last couple of years have been good years for democracy when you look at our leaders these days. But you have to say, there are, again, I think it’s both sides could learn from the other in this way, that if we look at how their system is run it’s to some extent, really a meritocracy, they have these public service examinations that, they interrupted them for a while but they’ve been going for 2000 years. I mean, that was what they ran the empire through these and they still have them, which means that the technocrats in the Politburo, in the communist party, there’s no climate deniers there, they know stuff.
They understand, they have not only been educated to be political leaders but they’ve also had experienced, they work their way up through the bureaucracy at different levels and in different places. And when you look at the Trump phenomenon, for example, here’s someone who doesn’t know anything and has no experience in being a politician. And if democracy, if that’s what you can get from a democracy, there must be something wrong with it. So that’s something I think we can look, they could learn from us, something about checks and balances. I think that’s one of the great things about democracy and it used to be you had the emperor and then you had the literati, the intellectual class who would say, “Oh, wait a minute, they’re a tax relief, I don’t know that we should do that.” But they lacked that now in China, unfortunately. And it would certainly improve things I think if there were some counter balance within the system where you could have internal criticism of it.
The Mint: And I suppose if they felt more self confident in their fundamental ideas and less continuously on the defensive, then maybe more open possibly.
Graham Parkes: Yes, I think so. And I think the other thing I meant to say was that, of course, our Western ideas of we’re separate from nature, we’re superior to it, we’re individuals, we’re independent and so on all the ideas that I think aren’t very helpful because they got us into the climate crisis. Of course, they spread around the world in the 19th century and Japan in particular realised if we don’t modernise, we’re going to be colonised. It was a very clear choice. And so when people say, “But look at the environment in China, they completely destroyed their environment.” Well, yes but that was under the influence of Western ideas. They went on, whole on those. And so they were forgetting their own tradition during that period.
Philosophical ideas and climate change protest
The Mint: So just finally, yeah, I thought this was a fascinating discussion of these different ideas and how we could introduce different, rediscover history of ideas and also learn from China. But what, apart from actually learning about these things and being more knowledgeable, how do you think that might affect what we do in terms of say protest or demonstrating different ways of living or in terms of the environment? When I’m struck by how XR has introduced a new language, almost a new way of dressing, a new way of being, I don’t know if that gels at all with your ideas but is this the direction that you think the environment movement should go in to reflect, to bring this philosophical, ethical dimension into its being?
Graham Parkes: Yes. I think it would be helpful because maybe I don’t make it sufficiently explicit in the book but the idea, this war of ideas that we’re so interested to discover is taking place. And Jane Meyer’s work is very good on that. She really points out of how that is, that’s their language, that’s what they’ve been doing. And we don’t seem to have cared very much. And I’m thinking if they’ve been waging a war of ideas to push the libertarian agenda, who’s pushing back? And don’t philosophers deal with ideas? Do we not meet some pushback from people like me? And that’s, I think what I wanted to leave people with because is to say, I mean, the book is called how to think rather than what to think about the climate crisis. And so I lay out the libertarian hyper individualist notion of we are separate autonomous individuals, independent of almost everything. And we’re in competition. There’s a neo Darwinist idea-
The Mint: Can I… Look, what’s interests me, is in a way your ideas are about how to be, aren’t they? And that you’re saying that ideas should be about how you’re being. So I was thinking almost actually, you could retitle your book, not how to be about your but I was thinking, being is about obviously acting and demonstrating or behaving or a set of rules for etiquette and interactions and so on. And I was just, it struck me that the direction of your philosophical ideas suggested there was a practical implementation, how you act and so that getting the environment movement to integrate that dimension into what they do, if your like seemed to be an implication.
Graham Parkes: Yes. Because if you, how you act, if you buy into the, let’s call it, the Western individualist notion of the economist person is you do act selfishly. And it’s only when you’re called upon to do so, that you say, “How would it look like from the other person’s perspective or what would considerate this be in this instance?” The alternative is the notion of, we are embedded in a world of interconnections and interactions, it to a large extent defines us. I mean, that’s who we are and this is very much the Chinese idea but you do have it in the west tradition as well. And therefore we’re anything but independent. We are interdependent both with other people and very obviously with the world of nature, the resource basis that we’re on, on which we depend.
And so, yes, I’m, that there’s, along with philosophy as a way of life, there’s the idea of experimental philosophy that comes from Mantegna and then Emerson, where you say, “These ideas, I’m not claiming a truth value from them. I’m just saying they could work for you. So experiment with them, try them out in your own experience and see.” And so that’s in a way, what I want to invite the reader to do is to say, “Look at it this other way or see, choose whether these are two diametrically opposed understandings of who we are as human beings and therefore of what it means to be a good human being or to lead a fulfilled human life.” I know which one I’m opt for, it makes more sense and it probably comes through in the book but I’m inviting the reader to try these out and see. And if some people say, “Well, I prefer to be a libertarian.” Well, that’s fine.
The Mint: Okay. Well, that’s a good point. I think to end. And I really hope people will look at your book because as you say, I think fundamentally we have to understand China, we have to work with China. And if you find the good in people as Nelson Mandela suggested, then they will behave better.
Graham Parkes: Yep. Yep.
The Mint: Thank you very much Graham.
Graham Parkes: Thank you. Thank you. Bye-bye.