A Review of
What the Ancients Can
Teach Us About Ethics, Virtue
and Sustainable Living.
Hardback: Princeton U Press, 2011.
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Reviewed by Eric Judge.
It’s a bad sign when I have to read the dust jacket description of a book and the endorsements on the back in an attempt to help myself understand a book that I have just finished. I say this only slightly in jest. I have followed my fair share of long, difficult, and dense arguments in academic books, whether because of grad school assignments and research or from a vague sense of “If I just read this book then I will be a hip intellectual”. Reading Eco-Republic by Melissa Lane, was an exercise in . . . well let’s just call it exercise. And if exercise is often both difficult and rewarding, this book is decidedly on the difficult side of the equation, though not without its rewards. Classical philosophy is in a great gap in my education and so much of Lane’s discussion of both classical thought in general and Plato in particular was new to me and this has colored my reading and enjoyment of this book.
Eco-Republic is divided into three sections: Inertia, Imagination, and Initiative. In part one, Inertia, Lane is concerned with understanding how modern life, as dominated by market economies, consumerism and consumption, contrasts with life in classical cities and economies. She focuses on how greed, one of the vices in classical Greek thought, came to be thought of as a virtue in modern market-driven societies. This greed has undoubtedly given rise to levels of affluence for large numbers of people that would have been unthinkable to the ancients. But, predictably, Lane focuses on the flip side of this affluence: the ecological unsustainablility of our use of natural resources that has fueled the rise of the modern world. She argues that the seemingly insatiable use of natural resources has created a sense of inevitability, an inertia, toward further consumption that simply perpetuates the unsustainable nature of modern life.
Lane points out that this unsustainable inertia is the driving force behind environmental and ecological degradation the world over. In many quarters there is widespread acknowledgement that this is a serious problem that must be addressed. However, even among people who accept the problem of man-made climate change, there is a disconnect between what they know and the changes they are willing to make to help solve this and other problems. Lane focuses on the idea of negligibility as the “underpinning of inertia”. Basically this is the feeling that since what I do is so small in light of the whole problem, what I do in either direction does not matter. Her key insight is laudable, clear, and convincing: that individuals must overcome their sense of negligibility to affect ecologically sustainable change via an imaginative vision of ‘the good’. To counter what she sees as a pervasive sense of negligibility, Lane lays out a theory of political action, which aims to help individual members of a community be so caught up in a vision of an excellent, sustainable culture that they will begin to act sustainably of their own accord.
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