Stoicism and Sustainability by Kai Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos


Each year, after the Stoicon conference, we ask the speakers and workshop leaders to provide transcripts or summaries of their presentations, so that our readership can enjoy some of the same opportunities for learning as the conference attendees.  We continue that series now with this piece by Kai
Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos, summarizing their plenary presentation at the conference – G. Sadler, Editor

It may seem that trying to incorporate the modern concept of sustainability into Stoic philosophy is like trying to force the proverbial round peg into a square hole. This hunch is backed-up by the various people who, following our Stoicon presentation in London, said that they were “astonished by the glaring connection between the two”. These kinds of comments satisfy us greatly, because they represent a clear demonstration of the applicability of modern Stoicism to 21st century problems, beyond those of a personal nature. What’s more, they give weight to the idea that the Stoic virtues of courage, justice, self-control and wisdom are fundamental to planetary wellbeing, no philosophical gymnastics required. Crucially, the public’s reaction at Stoicon reaffirmed our belief that sustainable development is intrinsically linked to humanity’s individual and collective progress towards virtuous thoughts and actions.
For those who did not attend in person, allow us to explain…

Sustainable Development and its Opposite

Contrary to popular belief, the terms “sustainability” and “sustainable development” are not synonyms of “environmentally-friendly”. Nor are they limited to a set of actions that one might consider as environmentally-conscious or “green”. Rather, the terms encompass the following definition:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs – Brundtland Commission (1987).

It is important to note that “future generations” do not necessary begin life in whatever village or hospital envisioned in 2050. Rather, they represent those babies born right now whilst you are reading this very sentence. These children along with their slightly older, and younger, cohorts represent the future – the next generation – who will inevitably have to tidy-up the mess and mistakes that we are currently making, and which we will take undoubtedly take limited responsibility for.  This is why locating the safe space between the three pillars (or spheres) of sustainable development: the environment, society and economy, is paramount to overcoming the most complex challenges of the 21st century.
In our presentation, we used the image associated with this article to didactically show the unmistakable connection between Stoicism and sustainability. Here, you can see that a white business man is eating more than his fair share of the Earth and tossing aside, without a second thought or a second glance, the crumbs that would otherwise fall from his table. Whilst this image depicts and contrasts the stereotypical fat white Western evil banker with the impoverished sub-Saharan African make no mistake – this is not a rich Global North vs poor Global South problem. Rather it is one of greed (as the opposite of self-control), cowardice, injustice and ignorance. In short, the cartoon portrays a world which propagates the Stoic vices.
Such a world is an unsustainable miserable existence for the many, who in supporting (or in turning a blind eye to) the few “more equal than others”, have not sought justice. Neither have they had the courage to punish greed. Further, the wisdom of knowing what to do, why to do it and how to do it has not been obtained. Thus, greed, injustice, cowardice and ignorance are the polar opposites of sustainable development.

An Anti-Stoic Approach

In order for humanity, non-human beings and the Earth to occupy the safe space defined by the term “sustainability” we must cherish the idea of a world where progress towards virtue is both encouraged and rewarded. More importantly we must take steps to ensure that it is so.  Yet, in a political climate where the likes of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro are deemed charismatic leaders for their most un-Stoic of sentiments and approaches, appealing to common sense, and much less virtue, seems out of step. For some, it may even appear to be hopelessly naïve or futile. But who ever said being Stoic was easy? It certainly wasn’t Seneca.
Each individual’s Stoic journey is a tough one and progress towards eudaimonia (happiness, wellbeing) is a lifelong affair. It is as much about persistence and grit, as it is about having enough vision and desire to acknowledge the value in (sometimes) forsaking momentary pleasure for virtue. And, given just how hard it is for one person to make progress, we are under no illusion as to the near impossibility it is for enough people to coincide in ideas and values to make the difference.  But make the difference we must, because Trump and his tweets aren’t going to save us.  For how can nationalism ever hope to combat the global threat of sea level rise caused by climate change? How can a stream of social media updates help us put a stop to dubious computer algorithms, excessive material consumption, fake news and political apathy?
These are the challenges that we are facing today. They are borderless. They are real. They are complex. And, politicians peddling sexist, racist or nationalistic nonsense are not only out of touch with reality but dangerously ill-equipped to lead us into the 21st century – to the detriment of us all.

The Stoic Solution

So why do we think Stoicism can provide (some of) the answers? Because, as New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Arydern said, in her address to the United Nations, #MeToo must become #WeToo. And, by definition Stoicism, with its cosmopolitan ideal, is the embodiment of #WeToo. The latter will take vision and proactive steps, but we do believe that the Stoic community can provide solutions for everyday life according to Nature and to the facts. However before we can do this, we must recognise that Stoicism is more than a personal philosophy. After all, the personal is political. The ancient Stoics knew this and lived it.
We modern Stoics must return to our roots instead of hiding behind a superficial understanding of “it is beyond my control” or “one should learn to deal with insults”.  We have an obligation to participate in initiatives that break down social barriers.  We should stand beside women and non-white men trapped by a glass ceiling at work and elsewhere. We must make every effort to see things from their perspective, rather than deny the ceiling’s very existence when we are, in fact, standing on it. This is especially the case if we happen to be a straight white middle-class male with all the privileges that entails, through no fault of our own.  In Stoicism, the acknowledgement of fortune’s favour coupled with the need to use it for the betterment of humankind is nothing new. Indeed, Marcus Aurelius, Cato the Younger, Seneca and Musonius Rufus, as members of the ancient elite, all recognised that a position (role), comes with duties, whether they liked it or not.
If we are academics, we must return the philosophy to the Stoa, the marketplace for the exchange of ideas and not an ivory tower built on paywalls. Incidentally, this is why, where possible, Leonidas and I place our Stoic articles in open access. We use precious faculty resources or pay out of our own pockets so you, the reader, do not have to.
Finally, we must all encourage the development of good ideas and back them, regardless of who is stating them. Together, regardless of academic discipline or non-academic walk of life, we must all explore what Stoicism has to offer on a societal/global level, as sustainability is, by definition, about justice, self-control and wisdom, along with having the courage to take difficult decisions.

Stoicism Cannot Go it Alone

Whilst it may have sounded a bit like heresy at the Stoicon conference, we stand by our assertion that Stoic philosophy cannot answer all the questions that might be asked in the 21st century. It cannot even derive all the questions that need to be asked. In fact, in our presentation, we joked that in the word “philosophy” there was no such thing as “T.E.A.M” but that there was definitely an “I”. We said this because it reflects the perverse disincentives that exist in the academic field of philosophy, which serve to discredit teamwork to the point that partnering up can be a major obstacle for those young researchers trying to obtain the job security and prestige that comes from having track tenure.
This has to change. It is absurd to think that one brain can outsmart or out-think the multidisciplinary team required to tackle climate change, the threat of nuclear warfare or the technological disruption that comes with automation, artificial intelligence and mass unemployment. We are in right in thinking that we do need ethics but we also need to get a handle on the facts. That means that philosophers, engineers and international policy analysts, for example, must each recognise that they are only one piece of a puzzle and that they will need to come together to solve it.

So What Does All This Mean?

One of the great thinkers of our times, Yuval Noah Harari says in his new book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century:

If we want to survive and flourish, humankind has little choice but to complement local loyalties with substantial obligations towards a global community. A person can and should be loyal simultaneously to her family, her neighbourhood, her profession and her nation – why not add humankind and planet Earth to that list?

Having proposed adding the “Earth” to the circles of concerns in the academic paper that paved the way for the Stoicon presentation, previous to the publication of Harari’s third book, we are pleased that others are also independently reaching the same conclusions.
In a practical sense, we put forward the idea that if we Stoics agree that Earth should be included in the circles of concern then we cannot philosophically justify intensive farming because of its effect on soil and water quality, biodiversity and carbon emissions. Likewise, we must take steps to curtail the buying and throwing away of single use plastic cups and cheap fashion – there is no “away”.  Furthermore, and perhaps more critically, for those of us who wish to live according to Stoic principles, we cannot continue to support farming practices or diet choices that prevent a livestock’s capacity to live according to their Nature, because they are caged, stapled to the floor, tied-up or separated from their mother – which effectively rules out most of our meat and dairy suppliers.
In the presentation, as we will end here, we left the audience with a simple answer to a question that typically gets bounded about in the various Stoic Facebook groups:
Is it Stoic to… be unsustainable?
No, dear Stoics, it is not!
Kai Whiting is a university lecturer and researcher based at the University of Lisbon, Portugal. His specialist subjects are sustainable resource use and Stoicism. He Tweets over at @KaiWhiting and can be reached over at
Leonidas Konstantakos is a college lecturer and researcher based at the Florida International University. His specialist subjects are Stoicism and International Relations.

13 thoughts on Stoicism and Sustainability by Kai Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos

  1. If the Stoic is to focus on what is within his or her control, which is mainly the management of the self, then how can they simultaneously hold themselves responsible for friends, neighbors, their profession, all the humankind, and the Earth itself?

    • F. O'Brien says:

      Kenneth: ‘If the Stoic is to focus on what is within his or her control, which is mainly the management of the self, then how can they simultaneously hold themselves responsible for friends, neighbors, their profession, all the humankind, and the Earth itself?’
      That’s a good question. An answer is the following.
      What is management of the self? A human is not sealed-off from the outside world like a walnut in a shell, or isolated like an asteroid floating in empty space. We interact with other people, creatures, and things, each day. This is not an accident, but is a necessary condition for our existence. So management of the self is management of one’s journey through the world.
      The next step is to say that broadly speaking the individual is not responsible for the outcome but is responsible for that part of the outcome which is within their sphere of control. For example, I cannot single-handedly stop climate change. Not by changing my lifestyle, not even by rousing other people to action. That is a ridiculous, hubristic, idea, one which can lead to guilt and paralysis. But I can do *something*.
      At this point it is important to warn against taking an overly individualistic view of Stoicism, in this culture today largely defined by a crude form of individualism. As in, humans are social beings. We work together. Change is achieved by co-operation, often on large scales. Things which seem impossible viewed from the perspective of an individual agent become possible when viewed from the perspective of politics or group action.

      • Kai Whiting says:

        Dear F. O’Brien,
        I absolutely loved this sentence: “For example, I cannot single-handedly stop climate change. Not by changing my lifestyle, not even by rousing other people to action. That is a ridiculous, hubristic, idea, one which can lead to guilt and paralysis. But I can do *something*.”

    • Rob J says:

      I don’t believe that the authors are saying that Stoics have to “hold themselves responsible for friends, neighbors…” Don’t neglect to read on, where they say “We modern Stoics must return to our roots instead of hiding behind a superficial understanding of “it is beyond my control” or “one should learn to deal with insults”. We have an obligation to participate…”.
      Participating in society is something that most or all of the ancient Stoics talked about. As the world has shrunk for most of us in the last hundred years, it follows that now that our actions or decisions can and will affect things not just within our own home or town or region, but across the world. With those repercussions, we modern Stoics must take that into consideration, and, for example, recognize that greed is antithetical to the Stoic view, and act accordingly.
      I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the editors of Modern Stoicism for articles such as this, which truly does work to apply the ancient views of Stoicism to the modern world. This article is a perfect exmple of that, so thanks go to Mr. Whiting and Mr. Konstantakos for this piece, and making it publicly available to everyone.

      • OK. I must “participate” and I must “take into account repercussions” but I am not ultimately “responsible”
        This is not unreasonable, but it is also somewhat vague and would support both action and empty rhetoric.
        In this article, the authors expressed some of their own political views on current issues, quoted modern authors, made ad hominem or straw men attacks, and claimed that their positions are supported by the views of ancient authors but did not elaborate.
        Perhaps this was covered in the workshop, but it would take the discussion to a more specific level to see some quotations from M.A. or Epictetus or Seneca that are relevant to “sustainability”

        • Kai Whiting says:

          In response to your second comment Kenneth. Here is the academic paper that formed the basis of the talk and which goes into more detail:

        • Adrian Lever says:

          Seneca tells us in his essay “On the Part Played by Philosophy in the Progress of Man”:
          ‘A thatched roof once covered free men; under marble and gold dwells slavery.’
          ‘Nature has laid on us no stern and difficult law when she tells us that we can live without the marble-cutter and the engineer, that we can clothe ourselves without traffic in silk fabrics, that we can have everything that is indispensable to our use, provided only that we are content with what the earth has placed upon its surface.’
          And elsewhere Seneca also talks of Nature having hidden that which is harmful to us under the earth with the suggestion that we ought not to bring such to the surface – and here we are today in a position whereby the extraction of carbon fuels is now one of the greatest threats to civilisation and to Mother Earth herself.

          • Kai Whiting says:

            Hi Adrian, I do indeed think we need to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels and that Stoicism gives us a road map on that. We are looking at exactly what that road map entails through our academic papers. Be sure to follow my blog if you would like to be kept informed of our work :). Thanks for taking the time to comment.

        • Steve McCown says:

          My thoughts on this essay are in line with yours. An individual’s perspective on Stoicism may lead him to the positions discussed in the essay, but I think it is wrong to project Stoicism into those positions. Others may find that Stoicism leads them to highly divergent views.
          I also think it is wise, particularly in the spheres of politics and economics, to keep in mind the advice of Thomas Sowell: “There are no solutions; there are only tradeoffs.” I don’t know about Sowell’s personal philosophy, but I think his observation should encourage us to always be somewhat tentative when prescribing broad remedies. The road to hell and all that.

          • Kai Whiting says:

            Hi Steve,
            I agree with you that there are trade-offs. That is why we must be careful not to trade off any virtues for vices :). Could you expand more on what projection you are concerned about? I don’t want to respond to a point you are not trying to make and I am not sure exactly what you mean.

      • Kai Whiting says:

        You are most welcome Rob! I think you may also appreciate an interview I did whilst at Stoicon with Greg Sadler, It expands upon what Leo and I wrote about here. Let me know if there is anything you find particularly interesting or if you would like more information on a particular topic/stance!

        • Rob J says:

          Kai, thank you for the link to the interview. It’s an hour long, I’ll carve out time to watch it. I spent a few minutes skimming over your blog, I’ll subscribe to that, too, for the less academic pieces (don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the deep work that entails, but with kids and a demanding job, time…).
          The QUAKE book is an interesting idea; for reading, I _do_ find time! Off the cuff, I’d say that the book that hooked me into (actually, spoke to me) stoicism was Irving’s “Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy”; that would have been my QUAKE book for a time. Today, I’ve moved to primary sources, and I have my daily Morning with Marcus session. Still on my first pass, I am in no hurry to get through it. I re-read chapters several times to not just understand, but think deeply on how to apply those ancient words to my own life today, and how they relate to the condition of the world today. Those words, observations and ideas have traveled through time, ringing still such truth of the human experience.

    • Kai Whiting says:

      Thank you for your question Kenneth. Rob has answered it succinctly below :).

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