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Meteosophy and Scenarios of Climate Crisis

Philosopher René ten Bos ignited a highly urgent and unique discussion on Meteosophy, the philosophy of weather. Philosophy professor at Radboud University and former Dutch Thinker Laureate, Ten Bos has specialized in the connections between the environment and society. Ten Bos introduced the topics he discussed in his recently published book Meteosofie. He firstly outlined how philosophers in history thought of and understood the weather, and how conflicting the notions of the weather are. Nowadays, we no longer speak of the weather, but of climate. Thus, Ten Bos moved on to explore in what ways anxieties and uncertainties on climate are instilled and interpreted in the contemporary era, and how action can be initiated through rhetoric and narrativity. By discussing the weather, the climate and the corresponding anxieties and uncertainties, Ten Bos situated the historical discourse of the weather and the current climate crisis in a philosophical light.

Early Accounts of the Weather

Ten Bos started his lecture with a number of cases in which philosophers thought of the weather, in order to show how this type of philosophy influenced the current discourse on the climate crisis.

The first case he brought up was of Aristophanes and Socrates in ancient Greece. While both were interested in the weather and its changing and unpredictable nature, the rest of the ancient Greek society classified such thinking as ‘sophistry’: telling lies to the unknowing public, being deceitful and meddling with facts. The philosophers were not trusted when it came to the topic of the weather. This was because the weather was seen as something complex, unpredictable and ever-changing. It was assumed that knowledge and certainty of the weather was impossible, and thus whatever these philosophers had to say about the weather was met with distrust. On the other hand, science and knowledge of the cosmos and earth itself was highly valued due to their stability and certainty.

The Weather: Science or Society?

Ten Bos then moves on to discuss a debate between Descartes and Pascal who took up radical and contrasting positions when it comes to the nature of the weather. Descartes, who stressed the value and rationality of science and mathematics, fervently attempted to rationalize, and thereby simplify, the weather. Whereas other phenomena which Descartes investigated could be wholly rationalized and formulated according to mathematics, he was unable to do the same with the weather, a phenomenon that is inherently unpredictable. Finally, he gave up, rejected the topic of the weather, and proclaimed it a purely philosophical topic.

Pascal, on the contrary, explored the complex relationship between the weather and society, thereby situating the discussion in an ethical light. The godfather of modern meteorology, Pascal, invented an anthropological meteorology which investigated this relationship. Pascal insisted that thinking of the weather should never be disconnected or separated from thinking of the state of humanity. Humanity as the finite and the weather as the infinite, Pascal found it unacceptable and impossible that the two could be removed from each other. Instead, they are intricately connected. The complexity of the weather was hereby valued, instead of being simplified as Descartes attempted to do.

Catastrophic Thinking and Rhetoric

At a certain point in the history of philosophy, a shift occurred from speaking about the weather, to speaking about climate. This was in reaction to the evident relationship between climate and the state of society: climate was seen as a phenomenon which radically influences humanity, and therefore must be studied.

The term catastrophe, Ten Bos explained, is meteorological. Every time the weather changes suddenly, we speak of a catastrophe. We live in a world of endless change and differentiation, both in the outer world as well as in our thinking. Thus, Ten Bos discussed the role of catastrophic thinking in the discussion on climate change. We are often confronted by predictions of the future and the impact of climate change in the form of fictitious stories and scenarios.

According to Ten Bos, the purpose of such fictions is not to present reality or to formulate the future, but is about the creation of a mindset which encompasses and accepts probability and uncertainty, which are characteristic of climate and its crisis. The fictions ask: what are we supposed to do in times of complexity and uncertainty? In what light should we display the climate? How can we relate to something so complex and terrifying, and yet so important to human life?

Ten Bos’ answer was that the role of rhetoric is crucial when speaking of the climate crisis and when talking about such scenarios. Ten Bos emphasized the role of existential anxiety in changing the perspective and attitude of individuals. While numbers often cannot impact us or motivate us to act, fearful - yet fictitious - scenarios of a destroyed environment, scarce resources and troubled futures can. Thus, if we want to make those scenarios convincing, we should not only look at science, but particularly focus on the language we use to tell these scenarios and develop this language. Ten Bos stated that a different discourse is necessary in order for individuals to be convinced of the urgency, seriousness and complexity of climate change. While the scenarios need not be real, what is important is that the unthinkable becomes thinkable. We need the words to describe what is going on, in order for us to act upon it.

This report is written by Julée Al-Bayaty de Ridder as part of the Research Master Philosophy at Radboud University.