Dwelling in the Age of Climate Change: The Ethics of Adaptation

| July 2020
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Dwelling in the Age of Climate Change: The Ethics of Adaptation, Elaine Kelly (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019), 224 pp., cloth $110, paperback $29.95.

According to the fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, anthropogenic climate change is likely to cause significant human displacement in the coming decades as people scramble to cope with an intensification of natural disasters, increased warming, and the effects of drought on agricultural production. Additional concerns will include access to clean water, sea level rise, and competition over natural resources. But while climate change–induced migration has received extensive analysis from political geographers, security experts, and others, it has been undertheorized by moral and political philosophers. Elaine Kelly’s book goes a long way toward redressing that imbalance of attention.

Granting asylum rights to climate refugees is going to become an increasingly pressing imperative, and there is an obvious moral case to be made—applying the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities—that countries of the Global North will have especially stringent duties to take in relation to a disproportionate number of asylum seekers. But recent events also demonstrate that in the face of this development there will likely be a significant tendency in these countries toward greater exclusion, leading to a furious and reactive effort to build higher “walls” in the form of both physical structures and legal obstacles. This tendency will be reinforced by increasingly vociferous forms of ethnonationalism. Through an engagement with the philosophy of Heidegger as well as the poststructuralism of Derrida and Levinas, Kelly’s purpose is to get us thinking about the normative basis of “hospitality” in the face of this challenge.

The book is an interesting mix of ethnography, philosophical exegesis, and case studies. It is divided into two parts; the first part is theoretical and the second is (mostly) ethnographical/practical. The latter offers some engaging reflections on the problem of migration from the standpoint of inhabitants of Bangladesh and the Torres Strait Islands. These reflections alone make the book worthwhile, but because of space constraints here, I will put them to the side and focus on the more theoretical chapters that comprise the book’s first part.

Kelly begins by framing the phenomenon of migration as a challenge of adaptation. She is at pains to counter reductively scientific understandings of adaptation, such as one based solely on considerations of economic development, or one rooted in narrow security concerns. These are apt critical targets, as they do define a good deal of the extant discourse about migration and adaptation more generally. Kelly puts her contrasting conception this way: “Human-induced climate change requires a more dynamic understanding of adaptation as a process involving multiple overlapping biological, environmental, social, political and psychological factors. How we understand and apply the concept of adaptation reveals to us what we value and how we conceive of our relationship to others and the Earth. Thus a primary question emerges: whose adaptations are we supporting and how?” (p. 20).

What sort of ethics does this expansive notion of adaptation demand? According to Kelly, one “grounded in the relational and responsive . . . needs of the Other” (p. 43). This is eventually developed into a “pro-poor” ethics (p. 112), focused primarily on the needs of vulnerable migrants rather than on the security or economic anxieties of would-be host countries.

The book’s central question then revolves around how members of the Global North (broadly speaking) should think of their homes in order to effect this necessary change of ethical perspective. This is where Heidegger, Derrida, and Levinas come in. With Heidegger we get the concept of “dwelling,” with Derrida that of “hospitality,” and with Levinas the infinite ethical demands of the Other. These are philosophically distinct concepts, obviously, but Kelly does a competent job unifying them in a manner that illuminates the problem of openness to the migrant.

For Heidegger, the concept of dwelling gathers together all the richness of what it means to exist in a specific place, as evoked in the quote from Kelly above. But there are two more specific features of the concept. The first is that it is a part of Heidegger’s more general reflections on what he called “Dasein”—specifically the notion that after the death of god we are never fully at home in the world: “We must embrace our contingency and finitude or, essentially, our groundlessness” (p. 47). The second feature is that being-in-the-world is always for Heidegger a being-with-others. It is a fundamentally social philosophy. Though Heidegger himself does not develop an ethics on the basis of these two features, they are taken up and expanded upon by both Derrida and Levinas (among many others, of course).

How does all of this relate to how we might think about the ethical demands of hospitality in the age of climate change–induced involuntary migration? On her reading of them, the thinkers Kelly deploys converge on a complex and paradoxical claim: that we must consider ourselves wedded to a particular piece of the earth even as our being in this place is without an ontological ground: “This is a dance that at once understands what is going on when we regard dwelling as an act of possession at the same time as it is an opening onto the Other. It is this tension, the paradox of this double move, which provides the possibility for social and political change” (p. 164).

This notion of a creative tension between “closure” and “exposure” is the book’s main conceptual innovation (p. 149). With this intriguing insight, Kelly has captured what it means to ethically inhabit an Earth system whose basic workings have been altered by anthropogenic climate change such that we are likely to be thrown together in unanticipated and unpredictable ways. We cannot now avoid the vast flows of people across borders set to transpire over the coming decades. Kelly tells us that the only pathway to a just response to the demands of the Other involves thinking first about the ontological bases of our own dwelling.

While I applaud this general orientation, the arguments for it are at times underdeveloped. First, there is an attempt early in the book to justify the focus on continental philosophical sources rather than analytic ones. Following Schroeder, Kelly describes the difference between the two as mainly one of “tone,” but that seems superficial and, in any case, does not explain why one tone is methodologically superior to another. This is then accompanied by some rather tired descriptions of the analytic approach as inherently egoistic and linear (pp. 6–7). Insofar as sense can be made of these descriptions, they strike me as simply false. Kelly might instead have emphasized that the continental tradition takes existential analysis more seriously than the analytic tradition does. That is reason enough to foreground it in a book like this.

Second, in discussing Levinas, Kelly seems to privilege one half of the creative tension identified above. She says, for instance, that we must “always meet the demands of the foreigner” (p. 86) and must “give up all that we have: we release any grip on our possessions” (pp. 78–79). This (a) goes too far as a feasible ethical requirement; and (b) contradicts the imperative to take seriously the moral demands of both possession and openness. Kelly does not distance her own more plausible and nuanced view from this one clearly enough.

These reservations aside, this book is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the pressing issue of climate change–induced involuntary migration. Because of its refreshing interdisciplinary focus, it will find a ready audience among philosophers, geographers, anthropologists, and sociologists. It is a theoretically wide-ranging, culturally challenging, and bighearted analysis that will help all of us think more clearly and generously about what it means to adapt wisely and humanely to climate change.


—Byron Williston

Byron Williston is professor of philosophy at Wilfrid Laurier University. His most recent book is Philosophy and the Climate Crisis: How the Past Can Save the Present (2020).

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Category: Book Review, Issue 34.2

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