WILL THE CLIMATE CRISIS SET US FREE AT LAST?
From the forthcoming SURVEILLANCE OF ICEBERGS: Great Philosophers and Climate Change
What is it like to “be” in the midst of a climate crisis? It is something one hears about, reads about, sees the results of on various screens. It is something that expresses itself in chatter about weather patterns, as in “It seems to rain a lot more nowadays” or “Our weather seems to go in extremes now” or “It’s much hotter than usual and has been for a long while now, it seems.” One is interested, anxious, unsure of what to believe or think. One wonders if everyone is living on borrowed time. Is this the beginning of the end? One may be aware that everyone is extremely lucky to be living in the 21st century with unparalleled convenience, nourishment, health, and technology. How long can it last? Where’s the catch?
Another thing: We cannot not live in a time of climate crisis. Even if it were a hoax, the constant talk is real. The evidence is frightening. If you lived in England or France or Belgium in 1814 you could not avoid living in the Napoleonic Wars. To “ be” is to ezist in history, termed by Joyce as a nightmare from which one cannot except in vain awake. If you are lucky, it’s not a nightmare but only an anxiety dream.
The sheer historicity and anxiety of being in a world of climate crisis is a standard operating model for the existential tradition. Philosophers not in the existentialist bracket have worried that we will think that the world of appearances is all there is, or that we will look behind the appearances for something invisible but get the whole thing wrong. Existentialists worry that we will not take the world of appearances seriously enough. It is, amid these appearances, not what the world really is that counts but what it means. And what is that? They have no idea. Over to you and me.
But knowledge is not out of the picture. We “know” that talk of climate crisis is all around us. We know that we cannot avoid living in a world worried about it. We know that it often makes us fret. We know these things. What does it mean? Are we sentenced by whatever gods may be to ask? Why does the climate crisis seem so imminent and yet so far off? Is this paradox some sort of condemnatory question for us?
Edmund Husserl, the founding phenomenologist who influenced the great existential thinkers like Heidegger, Sartre, and de Beauvoir, advocated that we look at phenomena, train ourselves to be conscious of phenomena, in a way that is neither conventional nor scientific. One of Shakespeare’s hayseed characters, in As You Like It (Corin) said he only knew that sun was hot and water was wet. This seems unsophisticated, but in Husserl’s view it might have been no less so than the knowledge that water is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen or that sunlight travels 186 thousand miles a second. Neither Corin nor your local science teacher has said anything about water that is meaningful. Neither has observed anything that has meaning in the life world of human beings.
If our own life world, our own being in the world, is tied up with the climate crisis—all that chatter and scientific proof and floods—then what does it mean for human existence? Again, over to you and me. It’s up to us to find what it is for ourselves as individuals. We can’t outsource the answer to Sartre or Camus (who always said he was never an existentialist anyhow). But Sartre and Heidegger do give us a few pointers. Here’s one: Don’t look for meaning outside your own time. Don’t don medieval armor and pretend you are a knight, like that bad faith guy Dn Quixote. Don’t look back to the good old days. Face the bad new days.
And here’s another tip: Remember your freedom. Even if you are burning up on the recently transformed Nebraska Plains, now called the Nebraska Desert, no one, not even the searing sun, can make you think what you don’t want to think. When you perceive the Nebraska waste land, you are in a double procedure. You are perceiving the Nebraska waste land, and you are AWARE that you are perceiving the Nebraska waste land, and in that awareness, you are free to see it in the way that summons meaning for YOU.
Yet another hint: Amid climate crisis some things will not change. You will still bear the burden of having been convinced that you are not like other animals—you are a rational one—and that you are much closer to being like God than any dog or beetle is. And yet you and your fellow “beings” have done the irrational thing of fouling your own planetary nest and how can you carry a spark of divinity when your body is so frail as to burn in a forest fire or parch in the area of a razed rain forest? You will still have to carry the weight of your own magnificent fragility and unsuccess. Even if there were no climate crisis, you would still have to cope with that. And you have to cope with it whether you think about it or not.
When Sartre was a young man, he was thrilled when a friend of his, who had returned from Germany where he had discovered Husserl, told him that he knew of a new philosophy where you could start with a pear aperitif popular in France at the time. Philosophers who discuss Husserl say that his methods may begin with whatever you might be looking at, such as a glass of water. How can anything possibly be more unremarkable? And yet in your and my being in the world, a glass of water has significance.
Is it significant that this glass of water contains clean and safe water? How did that come to be? Could you have lived, or mibght you live, in a place and time where there were no such guarantees? How did the glass come to be? What sands were fleeced or what chemicals were burned for it to come into existence? You too came into existence, with no vote about your own time and place, so you and the glass in the same world, on the same side? Are you dependent on each other? What would you do, or what would you think, if a dearth set in—if the climate change monitors were right—and the waters were no longer readily available? What of a world in which a glass of water would be a treat? How accidental or purposeful is it that we all came to inhabit a planet where water is essential? Were we and water thrown upon the same world? Ws this a pointless happenstance, and if so, what is the meaning in that? If you are dying of thirst, are you still free to think what you like, or will you be compelled to think only of water and pain? Would you really be the first in human history to be deprived of water?
In his later years Heidegger wrote movingly of poetry, which he defined as summoning objects meaningfully. Objects do not inherently have meaning. The collective group gives them meaning, but it is ravaged by unthinking conformity. Scientists give them a formula, but this is not meaning. Post-God, only the conscious self can make meaning out of objects. The subjective self does not find meaning, as there is no way to find what is not there. Meaning can only be made. And this is the ultimate freedom if indeed the ice bergs melt into the sea above the city walls and the ash from the Leviathan fires cancel all flights from Milan for a month. “Before the Great War,” said Evelyn Waugh, “if one thing went wrong, it ruined the day. After the war, if one thing went right, it made the day.” When everything goes wrong, real freedom begins.