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Introduction to Decarbonizing Character

Published onAug 30, 2022
Introduction to Decarbonizing Character

To what extent has our use of fossil fuels for heat, energy, and raw material in the United States and elsewhere shaped contemporary conceptions of good human character and community? Have contemporary pursuits of moral virtue and human flourishing contributed to climate change? If so, what transition in thought, culture, and everyday practice might need to accompany an energy transition away from fossil fuels?

Students from Wake Forest University address these questions through their contributions to this volume. During a course entitled “Climate, Carbon, and Character,” each student studied the relationship between, on the one hand, the use of coal, oil, and natural gas and, on the other, a selected character trait that, according to positive psychologists, contributes to a flourishing life and a healthy community. Engaging with the work of the VIA Institute on Character, students sought to understand both how praiseworthy character traits have been shaped in the modern world by the widespread use of fossil fuels — if they have — and whether character development should be seen as an effective response to climate change. Together, their groundbreaking studies challenge readers to ask themselves, “To what extent must I say that I not only use fossil fuels but, in some real sense, I am fossil fuels?” For these essays explore how deeply the use of fossil fuels over the past few decades and centuries has shaped contemporary personhood. Each contributor also proposes ways to go about “decarbonizing” notions of character and community through imagining how their target character traits might conduce to a more sustainable way of life and a more ecologically attuned vision of human flourishing. Let me explain.


Because massive human emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are the primary cause of climate change, many have called for mitigating climate change through “decarbonizing” contemporary economies, policies, and technologies. Used in this standard way, decarbonization means adopting practices, policies, and technologies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Broadly embracing this description of climate change and its solutions, the contributors to this volume nevertheless delve deeper by taking the concept of “decarbonization” in a more metaphorical direction and applying it to learned traits of character. In dialogue with scholarship in what is called the energy humanities, their object of study is the dynamic relationship between the material properties of fossil fuels — coal, oil, and gas — and human life, thought, and culture. For instance, the material shift from wood to coal for heat in England was accompanied by a cultural shift in conceptions of gender, work, risk, the city and country, and health. In another example, the introduction and eventual normalization of coal-fired trains, first in England and then elsewhere, was accompanied by changed cultural conceptions of time, speed, movement, safety, beauty, expectations for one’s life, and relationships with non-human animals, such as horses. In both instances, the perceived benefits of coal were accompanied by new forms of human suffering and environmental change, such as mine explosions and poor air quality, that coal’s beneficiaries had to learn to justify, ignore, or address, thus developing the terms of morality in a fossil-fueled modernity. The rising use of oil and gas accelerated these changes — in transportation and electricity, of course, but also in the patterns of production and consumption that shaped modern selves, bodies, purposes, and communities. For instance, the synthetic fertilizers that undergird the global food supply are derived from natural gas, and a great deal of the material that people wear, ride on, build with, slather on, medicate with, and even ingest is derived from petroleum. The new conceptions of time, self, goodness, gender, and more brought about by this world of fossil fuels and their derivatives also drove further demand for and pursuits of fossil fuels and fossil-fueled machines in a feedback loop that has brought us to the point where many people today would find it difficult to imagine their lives — in particular, to imagine a good and flourishing life — apart from fossil fuels. It is for this reason that contributors to this volume examine the extent to which praiseworthy character traits have been “carbonized” and ask what a therapy of “decarbonizing” character and community would entail.

Understanding climate change — its causes and solutions — is as much about matters of human meaning as it is about geology, engineering, and atmospheric science. Failing to understand the human dimensions of climate change may inadvertently delay effective responses to it. With reference to climate denialism, for instance, the literary scholar Amitav Ghosh writes that it is a mistake to assume that it is “only a function of money and manipulation. There is an excess to denialist attitudes that suggests that the climate crisis threatens to unravel something deeper, without which large numbers of people would be at a loss to find meaning in their history and indeed their existence in the world.”1 Denial of climate change, according to Ghosh, is more than economic and political in nature; it is also a function of the degree to which many modern peoples have built symbolic worlds of meaning and purpose, such as their conceptions of freedom, around fossil fuels. The scholar Hannes Bergthaller adds, “If we ask what it felt like to be ‘modern’ in the twentieth century, our answers will invariably lead us back to petroleum. It fueled not only cars, ships and airplanes, but, along with them, visions of the good life, individual and collective aspirations, and a cultural style.” For this reason, Bergthaller argues, the work of decarbonization must address “just how deeply fossil fuels, and the economic dynamism they made possible, are woven into the fabric of modern industrial society.”2 If Ghosh and Bergthaller are right, then our use of fossil fuels reaches deep into our individual and collective psyches, in short, our characters.

Imagining Our Postcarbon Future

Yet the work of diagnosis — Where are we and how did we get here? — is only half the challenge; the other half is to imagine a way forward. For this reason, the essays in this volume seek not to necessarily condemn previous or currently existing generations for their (and our) “climate sins,” so to speak. They seek instead to understand our deep entanglements with coal, oil, and gas in a way that opens new possibilities and fires the imagination of communities that would like to build a more sustainable and just world. In this, they resonate with the conclusion drawn by cultural studies scholar Bob Johnson, “We are trapped, for better or worse, into using the fossil takeoff to lift us into a postcarbon future.” The material and symbolic worlds we have built are made of coal, oil, and gas; yet we should consider these fossil worlds a launching pad for a world after fossil fuels. Johnson continues, “We have reached an impasse and are stuck with what we’ve got, with learning to leverage the capacities of fossil energy to generate a more sustainable and just future.”3 In other words, considering how deeply we have become entangled with fossil fuels, the way forward is to become conscious of their reach and impact — the good, the bad, and the ugly — in order to bring about a future that does not simply repeat the past. Building on the work of Ghosh, Bergthaller, Johnson, and other scholars in the energy humanities, the contributors to this volume creatively adapt and apply the concept of decarbonization to character and community in hopes that cultivating communities of decarbonized character will contribute to living well amidst a changing climate.

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