How Can We Overcome Our Laziness and Save the Planet?
A philosophical guide to averting the destruction of Mother Nature.
Last year, amid all the disintegration of our political institutions and the accompanying nightmare death-spiral into fascism, one could have been forgiven for missing all the ways in which things also got worse and worse for our actual physical planet.
Yes, environmental disaster raged on and on throughout 2016, with global high temperature records smashed for a third year in a row – a statistic that is, by all accounts, unprecedented. Glaciers are melting; sea levels are rising; weather systems are growing ever more volatile; and the diversity and richness of life on Earth is being diminished with geologically extraordinary speed.
But what can we do about it? Well, if you believe some scientists: basically nothing. There is speculation that we've already reached the climate change "tipping point", beyond which there is no stopping global warming because rising temperatures will trigger a feedback loop whereby more and more CO2 will accumulate in the atmosphere, with the result that the world will just get warmer and warmer and eventually our planet will end up a scorched hellscape like Venus.
Others – the optimists, I suppose – continue to believe governments can work towards slowing climate change if they focus on investing in renewable energies and bringing down emissions levels, the sort of targets enshrined in conventions like the Paris Agreement. But with Donald Trump in the White House and former Texas Governor/current oil and gas industry executive Rick Perry his pick for Energy Secretary, this strategy seems doomed for the foreseeable future.
So what's going on here? Why do we seem so powerless in tackling such a serious issue? Maybe some philosophy can help.
THERE'S NO SUCH THING AS HARMONY WITH NATURE
Common-sensically, the environmental crisis seems to have resulted from the illegitimate intervention by human beings into a natural system that would otherwise be harmonious or at least self-sustaining. But according to inclusive naturalists like Hans Fink, everything that exists, if it exists at all, counts as part of nature. After all, whatever we're capable of, humans are still animals. This is a "non-contrasting" conception of nature. Elephants are natural, but so are the poachers driving them to extinction.
Either way, the idea that nature is "harmonious", despite what all the white guys with dreads who only drink vinegar out there might tell you, is itself basically a fiction – nature actually displays a great deal of dynamism over time, regardless of human beings.
This further complicates the issue, given that climate sceptics can use this fact to start spreading the seeds of doubt as to whether human intervention is even causing climate change at all.
WHATEVER NATURE IS, HUMANS WANT TO CONTROL IT
In their 1944 book Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno argue that basically all human society is based on a "mythic" fear of the natural forces which structure our environment.
Early human beings existed largely at the mercy of nature – helpless against natural disasters; constantly struggling to forage or capture enough food so as not to go hungry. It is unsurprising, then, that the earliest stages of religious belief are typically structured around attempts to master nature: elemental gods – abstractions from aspects of the natural environment, such as the volcano or the sea – are worshipped in the form of sacrificial rituals that aim to placate and therefore control them.
Seen from this perspective, modern science, engineering and technology are nothing other than the "rationalisation" of this mythic fear. Just like the ritual of the sacrifice, much of modern life is based around a conception of nature as a hostile, alien force that we must master in order to preserve ourselves against it. As Horkheimer and Adorno point out, this process can quickly become distorted. Soon, the need for a bit of extra warmth so as not to freeze to death becomes the compulsion to blast the central heating all day, spend December flouncing about the house in your underwear, racking up a £500 gas bill and giving yourself eczema.
WHICH PERVERSELY EXPLAINS WHY WE'RE OUT OF CONTROL
This distortion, according to Horkheimer and Adorno, is what drives modern capitalism. The capitalist feels compelled to accumulate more and more wealth, churning up more and more of creation in order to do so, out of a warped drive for self-preservation. And ultimately we are all compelled to participate in this system, however unwillingly, out of the same fear: if we don't sell our labour for a wage, if we don't buy things on the capitalist marketplace, we will starve to death, cold and alone.
At least subconsciously we are of the belief that were the process of capitalist production halted, we would be thrown back utterly at the mercy of nature. But this is obviously irrational, since nature is becoming a whole lot more hostile thanks in part to that very process.
It'll be easy to stay in this rut until the first tsunami hits East Anglia, at which point it will become far too obvious to everyone. But of course, by then it really will be too late. Oh well: bad news for us, but probably great news for the bacteria who'll be living in the alkali-clouds floating several hundred kilometres above the now-lifeless surface of the Earth 200 years from now.
SO IS ALL HOPE LOST?
If we're going to solve this crisis, I think, we're going to have to come up with some radically, historically new way of relating to our world as human beings. We must stop relating to the world, in short, as desperate parasites bent on short-term self-preservation and rampant needs-satisfaction and start thinking about how our activity within nature can help us pursue lives both meaningful to us and non-destructive to the planet.
Can we cast off a historic legacy of devastation and stupidity and realise this in time? All signs right now point to "no", but who knows – it's getting harder and harder for people to pretend that things are good, so maybe 2017 will be remembered as the year everyone stopped sleepwalking towards irreversible disaster.
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