How ideas from ancient Greek philosophy may have driven civilization toward climate change

The Athens fires were a dangerous reflection of Atomist philosophies that see the world as exploitable, for sale and open to waste and abuse.

By Michael Paul Nelson Published on Oct 20, 2021.
Firefighters and residents battle a blaze in hot, dry conditions in Athens, Greece, in August 2021. AP Photo/Petros Karadjias

Wildfires driven by increasing winds and unprecedented heat surrounded Athens, Greece, this past summer, blanketing its ancient marble monuments and olive groves with ash and acrid smoke. These are the same places where philosophers gathered almost 2,500 years ago to debate questions about the nature of matter and morality.

The ideas formulated then echo through Western civilization – for better or for worse. At its best, classical Greek philosophy imagined humans as capable of great honor and achievement, guided by reasoned discussion. At their worst, some of their ideas have licensed an exploitative, expansionist way of life that has helped fuel global warming and pushed civilization toward the brink of self-destruction.

The centuries since classical Greek philosophers took stock of the world constitute an experiment on a global scale, testing which philosophies invite planetary thriving and which invite ruin.

Aspects of the worldview formulated by classical Greek philosophers – coupled, compounded and refined by others over centuries – helped set the stage for the climate changes that now fuel destructive fires and extreme weather around the world.

The Atomists’ perilous path

The early Greek philosophers were primarily interested in two kinds of questions. The first kind was metaphysical: What is the world? The second kind was ethical: What is a good person? The two sorts of questions were intertwined, as the physical description of the world shaped humanity’s place in it.

So where did the early Greeks take a perilous path? A group of philosophers now known as The Atomists – among them, Leucippus and Democritus – argued that matter is composed of atoms that, for them, are tiny solid particles that vary only by their shape, size and speed. A fire atom, for example, was sharp, small and fast; whereas an olive oil atom was round, large and slow. The tiny particles are independent of one another, interacting only when they collide.

If the world is only matter, it has no purpose or intentionality, no divine design or intervention, no spirit or sanctity. It’s just stuff moving around or not, crashing or not. The particles operate according to mechanistic laws, as expressed by the principles of geometry. Consequently, the world has no emergent qualities – soul, mind, consciousness – that cannot be expressed in numbers.

In that view, the world is profane, a word that comes from “profanum,” meaning “outside the temple.” There is nothing special about it, nothing inspiring respect or veneration.

An open door to exploitation and waste

Before the Atomists, early Greeks generally did not draw a sharp distinction between the material and the spiritual worlds. In their view, everything – river, mountain, child, tree – is enlivened by a life force.

But the mechanistic, reductionist, matter-in-motion worldview stripped the spirit from the natural world. In doing so, it also stripped the world’s inherent value. The world became unremarkable, reducible, explainable, ownable, for sale. And so, the mechanistic worldview opened the door to exploitation, waste and abuse.

Over time, this worldview became deeply embedded in Western thought. And so human enterprise, following this view, could damage and destroy the matter of the world and offend no god, value or sacred place.

A thick, intact rainforest stands on one side with the clear line where it was cut away, leaving an open field.
Soy farmers and cattle ranchers have cleared millions of acres of the Amazon rainforest, a region important for global biodiversity and regulating carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Ricardo Beliel/Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images

Of course, the Greek philosophers did not anticipate or intend this result. But over time, their ideas both fostered and sanctioned the ever-increasing human ability to exploit the planet, a process that began in the Renaissance and developed throughout the Industrial Revolution.

Civilizations’ social license to create an existential environmental disaster coincided with their power to do exactly that. At the same time, the power of their ideas – and the way in which those ideas served the interests of the powerful – demeaned, disempowered and in many cases destroyed Indigenous and other competing worldviews. In American Indian residential schools, for example, the federal government, often with the assistance of religious institutions, forced Native children to give up their cultural and religious traditions.

A call for a new worldview

With a new worldview, or one inspired by ancient Indigenous cultures, we believe it may be possible for Western civilization to free itself from the old materialism and restore life, spirit, purpose, value – and thus, some measure of protection – to the substance of the planet. Consider alternative answers to the two great questions:

Reconsider: What is the world?

Today, in a great convergence, ecological science, evolutionary theory, quantum theory, Indigenous wisdom and the religions of the world are all telling us that the story told by the mechanistic worldview is too small. On this expanded view, there is complexity in the cosmos, in rivers, plants, animals that can’t be explained by matter in motion.

The converging worldviews emphasize that new properties and entities evolve or emerge from the interdependencies and interactions of natural systems, not from their matter alone. Orchids or consciousness or beauty, for example, aren’t snapped together from particles of matter like Legos. Rather, they emerge over long expanses of time from the evolving organization of particular systems. As systems become more complex and interactive, they organize themselves into new patterns, new life forms, new realities.

[Over 115,000 readers rely on The Conversation’s newsletter to understand the world. Sign up today.]

And what of the second ancient question: What is a good person?

Ethics begins by recognizing that entities of this Earth are both material and animate. In this re-imagined worldview, humans are members of the community of beings. We share the urgency of life, shaped by our cultural, ecological and physical relationships. We will share a common fate.

There is no hierarchy of value in such a world; the value assigned to human beings is generously distributed throughout the world. If all beings are worthy, then all count in the calculation of what is morally permissible – and what is not.

Stopping the fires of planetary ruin

As strong winds drove wildfires through Greek forests this past summer, authorities organized boats for evacuations, and fire crews used helicopters, bombers and hoses to slow the fires’ advance. Firefighters from other countries urged the Greek crews to set backfires, pouring flames from torches in advance of the line of the firestorm; the strategy was to burn the ground clear of the heavy buildup of fuel, and so slow the advance of the fire.

As global catastrophe unfolds, it is unlikely that there will be boats for a planetary evacuation to a safe place. But we can adopt the strategy of the backfire to slow the conflagration. We can burn away the old mechanistic ways of thinking that are fueling the fires of planetary ruin and create space for a world where people live in respectful relation among other beings.

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Read These Next