Stoicism and Sustainability by Kai Whiting

Sustainable development is an important concern of the 21st century and is one that this article will hopefully show can and should be navigated with a stoic framework. Environmental degradation can be measured using footprints of all sorts: carbon, water, ecological and material. These footprints are enlarging, which shows that humankind’s impact on the planetary system is increasing to the detriment of the other beings we share space with [1]. Consequently, it is of no coincidence that there are serious talks and working groups proposing that the current geological epoch is no longer the Holocene but rather the Anthropocene [2]. The “anthro-” prefix reflects the growing realisation and physical evidence that human activity, more than any other force of nature, is driving the climate.

When hearing about global warming, mass extinction, deforestation and pollution many of us point a finger at an economic system built on consumerism. We consider the mantra of growth as the culprit of environmental degradation and in some instances social ills. We almost certainly agree that the Pareto Principle applies to wealth acquisition because of the focus and favouring of the rich individuals and corporations when it comes to say tax breaks and tax havens. But for all the finger pointing, a 21st century stoic led philosopher would not state that systems are teleological; in the sense that they do not have reasons, purposes or inclinations. Rather, they would reflect on the fact that in a human made system, it is the collective virtue of those that create systems and not the system itself, which direct them.

The near-universal acceptance of money and the capitalist-consumerist ideal is something that Harari, in his book Sapiens [3], argues most people (unfortunately) live up to, more so than say their Christian, Buddhist, or dare I say stoic, ideals. Certainly, the authority given to the market as a ruler of the Earth, rather than a subject reined in by its physical limitations, bears an uncanny resemblance to Spinoza’s god in Ethics [4] to the point of being able to quote it almost directly:

“Money is to be], endowed with human freedom, to take care of all things for men, make all things for their use and direct all things for the use of men in order to bind men and be held by men in the highest honour.

The privilege given to money and thus intrinsically economic growth, to be upheld above all else, is found even in the unlikeliest of places, should we agree that, by definition growth cannot be sustained. The bias towards growth and the valuing of growth first and foremost is clearly seen in the language of the United Nation Sustainable Development Goals declaration [5] where the term is mentioned 17 times in contradictory phrases (sustained growth, being sustainable) such as this one:

Sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth is essential for prosperity (Point 27)

The overemphasis on growth and its rhetoric not only continues to go unnoticed even in the most socially aware circles (one would at least hope) but also crowds out environmental goals which continue to be less in number, less well-defined and more often than not addressed as secondary points under a socio-economic banner [6]. The push for growth at the expense of environmental concerns seems to me, at least, to be the antithesis of achieving the United Nation’s long –held target of “reversing the depletion of environmental resources” or combating climate change.

The axiom that “growth is good” and thus “more growth is better” is also sketched out in the economic models that dominate our thinking processes. The so-called environmental Kuznet’s curve (Kuznet, the economist who developed the metric of GDP and warned against its use as a measure of wellbeing), for example, is established on the premise that environmental degradation is the cost of progress. The problem is that growth is considered limitless and a preference that must be favoured and sustained over all else. For its devotees, and there are enough of them, it is only growth that will un-do this mess (for a comic look at the absurdities of this proposition please see here.).

Unsurprisingly, given the prevalence of the aforementioned belief it is hard to see growth for what it is. It is even harder to argue against its necessity, beyond a certain point of meeting basic needs, to further degrees of wellbeing and fulfilment. Critiques of the aforementioned growth hypothesis are downplayed, considered politically unsound, or at the very least, engaged in wishful thinking. So even, when empirical evidence shows that a one percent growth in GDP leads to a 0.6 percent growth in material consumption, and that a one percent growth in GDP leading to a 0.5 to 0.7 percent increase in carbon emissions [7,8], proponents of sustainability still call for growth, proclaiming greener alternatives such as decoupling and not a paradigm shift towards prosperity without growth as the answer.

Stoic Considerations: Virtue and Physics

It is hard to imagine a philosophical framework further away from Stoicism then the status quo described above. For a Stoic, it is virtue and not growth that must be placed above all in our progress towards eudaimonia. And, it is virtue, not money that is the ultimate source of a life worth living.

In my opinion, it is our moral obligation as students of Stoicism to ask ourselves if we believe in the neoclassical economic view of preferences. We are called to question the underlying assumption that utility is gained when we add more of x and y to our possession. For a stoic, at best, x and y if things (and not virtues) are preferred indifferents, as long as having them does not diminish our virtue and (perhaps) improves our life. And in such case, we shouldn’t prefer having more of them or having them at all. At worse, x and y undermine our virtue because in purchasing them we buy into the processes that created them: questionable labour practices in Bangladeshi sweatshops and Chinese factories, Brazilian rainforest destruction or shady banking deals in London and New York.

At the same time, Stoicism doesn’t call us to abandon capitalism (which in its simplest form is a way of distributing goods through the market rather than central government) or refrain from consuming in a way that Diogenes of Sinope would approve. Rather, and as Massimo Pigliucci states in How to be a Stoic [9]:

Stoicism is about developing the tools to deal as effectively as humanly possible, with the ensuing conflicts, does not demand perfection and does not provide specific answers: those are for fools, who think the world is black and white, good versus evil, where it is always possible to clearly tell the good guys from the bad guys. That is not the world we live in, and to pretend otherwise is more than a bit dangerous and not at all wise.

So, if a student of Stoicism is not charged with coming up with a specific answer, how can our philosophy offer solutions to the sustainable development debate? Other than demanding of ourselves that which is virtuous, a practice that involves making tough and sometimes inconvenient choices, we are also called to “follow nature” or to study “physics”. To paraphrase Lawrence Becker [10], it is our duty to come to terms with the nature of reality and those facts that dictate our physical existence and our mental representation of the world. It is in undertaking this exercise that useful insights provide us with the means to tackle the complexity of sustainability.

In my opinion, understanding physics starts at the first and second law of thermodynamics for it are these that provide an absolute mark of where possibility begins and ends, regardless of how efficient our technologies become. The second law also demonstrates that there is an un-negotiable qualitative change in the universe. It bestows society with a non-arbitrary sense of economic value. It states that in every irreversible transaction, such as mining for precious metals or contaminating the ocean depths, quality (exergy) is lost and that it is lost forever [11]. It provides irrefutable evidence that we are transgressing planetary boundaries [12] and that with every subsequent dig for more gold, more oil and more stuff, we are simply accelerating towards our own unvirtuous demise.

The encroachment of human activity on every corner of the globe is perhaps best seen through the lens of material consumption. Just sixty years ago relatively few elements were used widely to support most applications. Fast forward until today and, in the name of enhanced performance, complex mixtures of up to two-thirds of the periodic table have become the norm as our “needs” have proliferated [13,14].

Our physical limits, meanwhile, haven’t changed; we still inhabit a small planet and whilst are always able to create more money (making our obsession with it all the more incongruous), we cannot create more space. Sure, techno-optimists having silenced Malthus’ [15] alarmist predictions will point to our ability to overcome nature’s limits but what they are really demonstrating to us is our ability to re-shape nature, to crush her, in order to make, not more space per se but more space for us. That aside, population bombs are a moot point, if not a red herring.

Population growth is not a problem when compared to the population’s demand for growth. The richest citizens of the 21st century want more interesting materials to fulfil and excite them. Some, if Ray Kurweil’s dream is anything to go by, look to materials to advance their abilities beyond their humanity and even beyond the grave [9, 16]. These Homo Deus request deeper holes and extended plots to commemorate their latest success via towering monuments and testaments (skyscrapers, pen houses, etc.) to their wealth, extravagance and sense of self-importance.

To give some perspective on the matter, material stock, which includes buildings, increased 23-fold from 1900 to 2010, in line with GDP (27-fold) over the same period whilst the amount of primary material input used to build up or renew stocks rose from 1 Gt/year to 36 Gt/year [17]. These figures, if nothing else, reflect the considerable effort and resource society expends to build, enlarge and maintain what they already have. They demonstrate that Kahneman et al. [18]’s microeconomic behavioural study on endowment effect and loss aversion is prevalent at all levels and that a Stoic perspective on loss is very much needed to re-address the balance:

With regard to whatever objects give you delight, are useful, or are deeply loved, remember to tell yourself of what general nature they are. If you have a favourite cup or mug, say that it is not your favourite, then when it breaks you won’t be disturbed. – Epictetus, The Enchiridion, Ch 3. [19,20]

Changing the way we view materials

Practicing un-attachment when things break (or die) in order to curb the desire to hang onto what is lost or what has now passed, is only one piece of the sustainable materials puzzle. We ought to, as stoics and as members of society at large, deeply and deliberately consider the nature of the materials, with regards to how their extraction, manufacture, use and disposal affects the world around us. We should delve into the nature of our individual and collective desires which lead to the existence of products in the first place.

Under capitalism and the supply and demand function, something is produced as soon as there demand for it, at a price agreeable to both the producer and consumer. This price does of course fluctuate and is a driver for a more efficient means of production in order to make the product more competitive. Yet, as an academic devoted to sustainable energy and materials, I am far from satisfied with the so-called law of supply and demand. Firstly, because, unlike the aforementioned Second Law of Thermodynamics, or the Law of Motion, it is not a law at all (economists borrowed from Physics to enhance the credibility of their theories, which they turned into laws). It is not a law precisely because it is not subject to a physical limit (i.e. the true nature of things) but rather the whims of the consumer and the marketing expertise of the producer who tells the consumer that what they sell is far from a preferred indifferent but an absolute necessity.

Importantly and despite claims to the contrary, neither material consumption nor material efficiency tell us what materials are destined for nor whether their production is beneficial. This is because consumerism or market values, including the price mechanism, tell us nothing as to the service materials provide. They can’t answer the harder and more important questions of; “How can materials provide individuals with what they really (or think they) want?” “How should materials be used to support societal goals and aspirations?” and “Besides profit, why should we make this product?”

In my team’s and I research, we realised that a concept was needed to move even the hardened members of sustainability community to do what students of Stoicism put into practice daily: ascertaining the nature of a thing and the virtue of possessing (producing) it. We put together a (hopefully) complete list of material services (Figure 1) and defined them as “Those benefits that materials contribute to societal wellbeing, through fuels and products (regardless of whether or not they are supplied by the market) when they are put to proper use”.

Figure 1. Material services at a glance. Note: Some services can be placed in more than one category depending on the exact nature of the service provided * Health aids include glasses, wheel chairs, etc [14].

From Theory to Practice

Sustainable theory is one thing, putting it into practice is much better. It is also much more in line with Stoicism:

If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?  – Epictetus, Discourses I, 29.35

The nature of materials and material services, as opposed to energy, which is another major concern within the sustainability discourse, is that whilst one cannot distinguish one kWh from another or dictate energy policy from a non-political occupation, everyone regardless of societal position has the ability to choose what they put in their mouth or upon their back. Both clothing and food choices are to be made daily and although we may not think about it, they are statements (overtly made or otherwise) of who we are and what we value.

Let’s take vegetarianism as an example of food as a material service. When we abstain from meat, we are also turning away from mass produced meat products, which in all instances cause suffering (the animal is slaughtered against its will) and in more than enough cases involve cramped conditions and the destruction of familiar/communal animal ties (the young are forcibly separated from their mother and herd). We are likewise making a statement about the unacceptability of deforestation and environmental activist murders by unscrupulous ranchers in Latin America [21,22]. We are rejecting the use of agricultural land to feed animals when we can more efficiently use that same land area for crops that we eat directly and thus feed more people with less waste.

In abstaining or curbing meat we are also be taking a stand against shady industry practices that are detrimental to our health (one just needs to think back to the outbreak of mad cow disease and the reasons behind it) or be thinking about the effect that animal fat has on our arteries and our wellbeing generally. Certainly, Stoic thought lends itself well to plant-based diets as Seneca, Rufus and this Modern Stoicism article testifies.

That said vegetarianism, or even veganism, isn’t a blanket solution of course. There are some key ethical concerns to be navigated when it comes to mass soya production, some of which is undertaken in vulnerable areas and has led to Brazilian rainforest encroachment and devastation in a similar way to beef cattle [23]. There is also the issue of genetically modified soya crops. One thus should also look at the origin of soya (Italy is a key producer, for example) to ensure that one particular set of poor behaviour is not simply replaced by another.

Clothing is another material service which requires some thought. Both slave and child labour are unacceptable side effects of the cheap throw-away fashion industry. Fair trade cooperative sourcing provides one way to steer clear of such practices as does paying special attention to labels or, in the absence of a suitable alternative, simply buying less.  Research into smaller grassroot initiatives, such as the British based The Hemp Trading Company (THTC), is also a way to challenge the mass produced fashion label and the indiscriminate chemical spraying of cotton fields to devastating social and environmental effect.

In the end, Stoicism may not provide specific answers but it does provide a philosophical framework to do more than scratch at the surface, in search for virtue and a truer understanding of the nature of things. And that is precisely what we need to arrive at to move the sustainability discourse forward.



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  21. Global Witness (2016) On dangerous ground
  22. Global Witness (2017) Defenders of the Earth, Global killings of land and environmental defenders in 2016. United Kingdom
  23. Rausch, L. L., & Gibbs, H. K. (2016). Property arrangements and soy governance in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso: Implications for deforestation-free production. Land, 5(2), 7.

Kai Whiting is a university lecturer and researcher based at the University of Lisbon, Portugal. His specialist subject is sustainable energy and materials. He Tweets over at @KaiWhiting

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

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