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The Uncomfortable Philosophy Behind Carbon Footprinting

Feb 9, 2024 | Sustainability

Galileo, Descartes and the modern Carbon footprint backing data scientists have one thing in common- the philosophy of separation of body and soul. When reading the works of these philosophers, it might be hard to connect their ideas with the problems of the modern age, such as climate change. But when you connect the dots, they haunt you until you get the thoughts out and I felt the same, when I went to bed last night.

I was reading a book on Imam Gazzali’s understanding of primary and secondary qualities of matter- The primary qualities are shape, count, mass, etc. These exist generally with or without an observer. Our planet Earth can be considered as a mass of solid, liquid and gas using the primary qualities. The secondary qualities on the other hand are colour, taste, titillation, etc. that we observe using our senses. This would include the beauty and the majesty of nature- the hills, lakes, seas and deserts. Separation of the two is the only way to do science for us, technocrats. One is objective and real while the other is subjective to the receiver’s senses.

This has resulted in the separation of the natural and the supernatural, i.e., science and hocus-pocus, as it is to liberal atheistic philosophers of today. When you come from this philosophy, Carbon footprinting seems like the best way to work on climate change. It converts our impact on the planet into data and then we work on reducing the impact through data. How easy would the world be if everything can be converted into data? This was my original idea behind Reshift, to help save the world using data. How foolish was I!

The modern philosophers (except for, maybe Kant) took this philosophy to the extremes converting everything into numbers, the best examples are the metrics used in measuring success in Capitalism today (Hello, GDP growth!). Carbon footprinting shows that buying new EVs are better than buying combustion engine vehicles for the planet while both are bad for the environment. A rarely used EV has more of a carbon footprint than a rarely used petrol or diesel vehicle.

Now, what is the alternative to the primary-oriented objectivity in working on ecological crises? Aristotle, Gazzali and many philosophers in the past did not differentiate between the primary and the secondary. They did not see the world in numbers, they did not see nature as passive, mechanical, mathematical and scientific. The idea that science must approach nature with a blank mind (tabula rasa) is wrong, hence the widespread misappropriation of Carbon offsets and heavy reliance on idea bubbles like Carbon Capture and Utilisation to save the planet today.

How do we move past this philosophy or numbers can save the world? It is well and good to use primary data as it has helped us advance the society in terms of technology however, we must go beyond these comfortable data visualisations to work on environment. The mindset needs to be that of a person in nature, appreciating it and affected by it. We need to connect with our local nature regularly, learn more about it and about how our actions impact it.

From a business perspective, we need more thinkers who go outside the box of data-based thinking within organisations and develop alternative business and operation models. More importantly, we need new economic systems that work with this reality. Now, who is working on that? This is the right time to bring about a revolution.