Focus on Research: Environmental Philosopher Thomas Heyd

by Philip Cox

Thomas Heyd (Philosophy)
Environmental philosopher Thomas Heyd (Photo credit: Philip Cox)

An endlessly active and engaged researcher and author who has been with the department of Philosophy since 1993, Thomas Heyd is also a polyglot who is fluent in English, German, Spanish and French, and semi-fluent in Portuguese and Italian.

Equally numerous is the list of organizations to which Heyd contributes: a founding member of the Canadian Society of Environmental Philosophy, a regular member of the European Network for Environmental Ethics and of the International Society of Environmental Ethics, and a sitting member of the editorial board of the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Ethics, to list but a few.

More locally, Heyd works with UVic in the Anthropocene, an interdisciplinary group that engages the University community to creatively and effectively address the challenges of the Anthropocene, the new geological period defined by humanity’s overarching impact on the earth's systems.

Heyd’s current research primarily focuses on environmental philosophy in the context of the Anthropocene and the human dimensions of climate change.

His most recent article, “COVID-19 and climate change in the times of the Anthropocene,” which was originally published in the fall by the esteemed journal The Anthropocene Review, is being re-published in January because of its continued relevance for the present moment.  

I sat down with Heyd last week to learn more about this vital and timely work.


What is the value of seeing climate change and COVID-19 in relation to the Anthropocene?

The concept of ‘the Anthropocene’ points toward a fertile field of explorations that may help us weather the increasingly rapid changes in our natural environment.

The present COVID-19 pandemic offers us an occasion to better grasp what the Anthropocene stands for — namely, an imbrication of causal processes, such that otherwise innocent behaviours may provoke events with disastrous outcomes.

In this pandemic we can clearly observe that through human interactions and factors that magnified the reach of the virus, which is in part due to globalization, human commerce with animals destined for the dinner table sadly became a very significant the source of illness and death in large sectors of vulnerable human populations worldwide.

A parallel pattern can be seen in relation to climate change, albeit slower in speed but all the more wide-ranging and long-lasting. Take fossil fuels, for example. The naturally occurring combustion of fossil carbons becomes much amplified by human usage. The resulting carbon dioxide is then transmitted across great distances to far-away places like the Arctic or equatorial Africa, where hardly any fossil fuels are used, causing havoc among vulnerable populations like the Inuit, Haitians and Kiribatians.

Understanding these concepts in relation to one another may help us to determine what course of action to take to avoid some significant future harms.


Do you believe that climate change should be treated with the same urgency as the pandemic?

Climate change deserves at least as much quick and effective engagement as the COVID-19 pandemic. Some may be confused in thinking that only ‘fast events’ require a fast response. However, it is not only the speed but also the size of events that must be considered: while the speed of COVID-19 events has spurred us to quick and effective action, the immensity of the size of climate change events should spur us to equally quick and effective action.

Since, despite the terrible toll of COVID-19, climate change over time will be immeasurably more impactful than this pandemic, it is urgent that we address it in a coordinated, quick and efficient manner, without further delay!


What do you see as the biggest obstacles to confronting climate change? Why were these obstacles not a factor in our response to the pandemic?

When thinking of impediments to confronting climate change, the size of certain obstacles may be less important than their type.

Notably, the type of obstacle that was not significantly present in the pandemic but is very importantly present in the case of climate change is corporate resistance, motivated by profit expectations.

The pandemic has caused an economic slowdown, but not the elimination of whole industrial sectors. Addressing climate change would likely require eliminating the immensely-invested fossil fuel extraction and combustion sector. For the corporate sector, their loss would be permanent and final.

In contrast, because addressing the pandemic does not undermine corporate interests (at least not a particular, well-defined, economic sector) there is no coordinated effort to undermine the containment the pandemic.


How can philosophy help us to navigate through the pandemic, climate change, and/or the Anthropocene?

Philosophy can help us navigate through the pandemic and climate change in these times of the Anthropocene because it constitutes an explicit practice of reflection on our basic capacities and activities: distinguishing one thing from another (metaphysics), understanding when we have reason to claim knowledge (epistemology), and alerting us to the need for certain actions (ethics).

Concerning the pandemic and climate change, the physical and social sciences develop responses to questions concerning what is happening from their disciplinary points of view. Philosophy asks us whether our sciences and professions have the concepts required to comprehend the issue, whether they can adequately develop the knowledge that is needed to confront it, and whether there are actions that we ought to be engaged in.


What role do you see your research, and environmental philosophy generally, playing in environmental action?

Environmental philosophy asks how humans may find a place within the wider natural environments in which we are embedded, and proposes ways to re-situate ourselves so as to lessen the disturbances that we cause and achieve greater harmony in our relationship with the earth.

My own research explores some of the key points of human-environmental interaction, to help in determining factors that support the integrity of the natural systems on which we depend, and to help develop resilience in the face of the concerning natural phenomena that humans provoke.

With regard to climate change, part of my present endeavour is to track some of moments in geo-climatic history at which humanity has already confronted significant climatic changes. My view is that our long-term experience gives us warrant to take confidence in our ability to live with the transformation of climates, even as we make our best possible effort to slow down the generation of further greenhouse gas emissions.

In my article that you mention above, COVID-19 and climate change in the times of the Anthropocene, I suggest that emerging threats in the Anthropocene may exhibit patterns that, once understood, would allow us to better determine which actions may help us achieve increased resilience in our societies. I further argue that such resilience can be gained by finding ways to make room for natural, non-human processes, and that we can draw confidence from historical antecedents regarding our species’ capacity to achieve the necessary self-containment that goes hand-in-hand with supporting the integrity of natural ecosystems.


Students interested in Heyd's work can find him teaching in the Human Dimensions of Climate Change Minor Programme's upper-year seminar, HDCC 400.

Next year he will appear at the "Precursors of the Anthropocene” symposium at the congress of the European Association of Archaeologists in Kiel, Germany, between September 8 - 11, 2021.