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Ancient Thinking for a Green Age


Melissa Lane

The transition to a sustainable society is a profound challenge to ethics and political thought, as well as to humankind. It is comparable to the great transitions of the past, such as the Enlightenment. Yet the distinguished tradition of groundbreaking ideas has not so far been widely invoked in public debates in this area. What can we learn from the history of ethics and political thought to enable us to cope with climate change?
Climate change and sustainability are not just technical problems or problems in applied ethics: they require a new political imagination. Melissa Lane identifies Key messages – on the role of the individual, the household, the nature of citizenship, and the significance of the imagination – which bring the wisdom of the past to bear on the challenges of the present. Using these resources, and building on these insights, she calls for the construction of a ‘new normal’, remaking our imagination of our society and our selves. Drawing on Plato’s Republic as a model while also challenging aspects of Platonic politics, the book sets out the political and psychological challenges that we face in moving beyond the psycho-political settlement of modern commercial society.


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Part I Inertia Prologue to Chapter 1: Plato’s Cave […] what do you think would happen, if [a released prisoner] went back to sit in his old seat in the cave? Wouldn’t his eyes be blinded by the darkness, because he had come in suddenly out of the sunlight? … And if he had to discriminate between the shadows, in competition with the other prisoners, while he was still blinded and before his eyes got used to the darkness – a process that would take some time – wouldn’t he be likely to make a fool of himself? And they would say that his visit to the upper world had ruined his sight, and that the ascent was not worth even attempting. (The character of Socrates speaking in Plato, Republic, Book 7, 516e–517a)1 ‘Crazy!’ ‘Lunatic!’ ‘What is he talking about?’ ‘How dare he challenge our way of life?’, people call out angrily to one another, hostile to a person newly arrived in their midst. The newcomer has challenged the funda- ments of their social order. According to his presumptuous proclamation, what they call success is actually failure. Their career paths to power and prestige lead to public damage, not to public service. What they take to be solid facts are dangerous illusions. The technologies and infrastructure and assumptions in which they have invested their time and money and belief are fraudulent; the glare of reality would expose these as wishful delusions. The newcomer is likely to be shunned...

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