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PaulS's picture

Alain de Botton on the environment, the universe and everything

Alain de Botton on the environment, the universe and everything

Alain de Botton gives a philosopher's take on our ecological dilemmas. He argues that fear of environmental destruction has changed for ever our relationship with nature. Far from being a threat, it is now something to be pitied and protected. There are also changes in the way we view ourselves; we're being asked to conceive of ourselves as unthinking killers:


The environmental dangers that now face mankind put non-scientific philosophical types like me into a bit of an awkward situation. We have to acknowledge that we can have precisely nothing interesting to say on the two most interesting in the air right now, namely what’s going to happen to the human race and what should we do about it.

It’s not really from a philosopher you stand to be enlightened. Nevertheless maybe there is still a point in trying to reflect on rather then solve our ecological dilemmas. It remains valid to try and fathom what the idea of planetary abuse has done to our minds.

We may ask what the awareness of the environmental crisis has done to our inner landscape, how it has altered the human psyche.

We can begin by observing that there is nothing new for mankind about confronting the possibility of its own destruction. The feeling that the present order, the neat fields, the ordered laundry cupboards, the granaries might soon disappears would have been intensely familiar to any inhabitant to medieval Europe. You need only to study the carvings on the sides of cathedrals to see that our imaginations have for centuries been haunted by visions of Armageddon. However, we have grown to conceiving our present environmental situation as unparalleled. Perhaps its because we’ve learned of it through the media and because, for the daily newspaper, everything is always necessarily ‘novel’. There never was a Lisbon earthquake or sack of Rome, no one’s ever murdered their children or wasted their money. This isn’t to deny some intensely novel features behind our anxieties, just to insist that we should probably carefully separate out the familiar long standing morbidity of homo sapience from the particular features of the current predicament.

We might do worse than to date our present ecological awareness to the moment when the two bombs exploded over Japan. These weapons showed us not only that mankind was perishable, a very old thought, but that it was perishable through human action, rather than through disease bearing rats. In other words that we acquired the power to commit species suicide.

We have always known ourselves to be short sighted and murderous. We’ve only in the past few generations learned that we’re also very powerful. We’ve been blessed with enough intelligence to alter our fates in a way no other animal can, while being denied enough wisdom to keep our baser sides under control. Yet, despite similarities environmental destruction differs from its nuclear counterpart in a crucial component. General who blow up bombs know that they want to kill people, however, chief executives, who just manage lorries transporting milk from depots to supermarkets generally have no motives more sinister than the wish to make some money for their shareholders. When we use ample water to brush our teeth or fly to Florence to see some Titians, aggression is far from our minds. However, we are now frequently reminded that innocent, every day actions have a cumulative destructive potential greater than an A-bomb. We’ve been asked to re-conceived of ourselves as unthinking killers. For destruction is occurring not primarily through what any one of us has done, but through what we are doing collectively as a race.

We’re implicated in a crime that we cannot control on our own, salvation must be collective, so we’re guilty but also unusually powerless. Murders have it almost easy in this respect. They can free themselves of sin by repenting and then changing their ways through their own willpower. They have no need to secure simultaneous agreement from six billion others from 193 countries.

And yet, for us to give up altogether, to do nothing is not an option, because we are sternly reminded that if everyone thought this way we would be lost.

We’re returned to the Christian injunction to avoid despair, not because there is anything to feel specially cheerful about, but because hope is equated with humanity and concern for other people.

The ecological situation has for ever changed our relationship to nature. An unusually warm Spring day cannot now be what it was for Chaucer and Wordsworth, a manifestation of the mystery and power of the non-human realm. Since our beginnings the experience of nature involved an encounter with ‘the other’. The mountains and valleys reminded us that the planet was built by something other than our own hands, be a force greater than we could gather, long before we were born and set to continue long after our own extinction. We could see that we were the playthings of forces that laid out the oceans and chiseled the mountains.

How mindsets have changed. The equation has been entirely reversed. Nature does not remind us that we are small, but rather provides chilling, awesome evidence of our size and strength. We glance up to the snows of Mount Kilimanjaro and think how quickly our coal generated electricity has heated the Earth. We fly over the denuded stretches of the Amazon and see how easily we have gashed the planet.

Nature used to terrify us, now we terrify ourselves. We are responsible for the early flowering of the Wordsworthian daffodils, our fingerprints are all over the uncannily early return of migratory birds. We control not only the traffic and the planes, but also the very cycle of the seasons. We have, in response to our situation, become hysterically sentimental towards nature. We take pity on her, we treat all of her like a wounded Panda. We’ve come far from the attitude of the ancient Greeks who saw nature as their adversary, potentially generous, but at heart a foe. We have lost all sense of the ancient fight and now just feel responsible all the time. Despite our puny frames and lifespans we’ve even succeeded in feeling guilt towards glaciers.

The role of the commentators on the environment is at one level to enable us to notice changes that are occurring, but at another level it’s also a question of getting us to care. And this is a tall order! For we’re being asked to worry about the possible reduction in the number of our species three generations hence when we all need to deal with far more imminent problem, our own death. We are being asked to worry about other people, who are not yet born as much as we worry about ourselves.

Never before in the history of humanity have we been asked to care so much about others of whom we know so little. Our empathetic powers have been stretched to breaking point.

This may be were art has to come in. It is artists who will have to help us picture, literally, figuratively, dangers which are generally invisible and are therefore constantly subsumed under the weight of our more mundane personal concerns. Artists may have no solutions, but they are the ones who can come up with the words and images to make visible the most important abstract and impersonal of challenges.

The environmental crisis forces us to find our feeling of awe elsewhere, out in the Universe. Science should matter to us. Not only because it helps us to control parts of the world, but also because it shows us things we will never master. Thus we would do well to meditate daily, like the religious do on their god, on the nine point five trillion kilometres, which comprise a single light year, or perhaps on the luminosity of the largest known star of our Galaxy, Eta Carinae, 7,500 light years distant, 400 times the size of the Sun, and four million times as bright. We should punctuate our calendars with celebrations in honour of VY Canis Majoris, red hyper giant in constellation Canis Major, 5,000 light years from Earth and 2,100 times bigger than our Sun. Nightly we might contemplate the 200 to 400 billion stars in our own galaxy and the hundred billion galaxies in the Universe. Whatever their value may be to science, at least the stars can be a solution to our megalomania, self pity and anxiety.

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