In our world of instantaneous communication it seems that not the inconvenient truths but the convenient untruths are the bigger problem. During the current pandemic it is easy to forget that viruses are not mankind’s only problem. Like climate change, though, the pandemic is rather a symptom than the cause for the quagmire into which mankind has led itself. Poorer folk knew this already: lack of access to water or arable land, housing, sanitation or food have been reality for many for a long time. Deforestation and other unsustainable forms of exploitation of natural resources as well as the destruction of habitats and eco-diversity are enormous problems even without climate change.
The even relatively modest rise in average wealth of the Chinese population during the last two decades shows what an explosion in resource use and pollution results from attempting to free the world population from the scourges of poverty and need. If our planet is at all able to feed a growing world population, it is more than questionable that it could do so at levels we are used to in industrialised nations. Still, within these industrialised nations we complain that too few children are born in fear for our pension systems.
Confronted with such problems, however, counteraction seems not to be the prevailing response. Whenever a new issue arises, people can almost instantly pick and choose from a whole marketplace of opinions offering them either convenient denial, consolation or distraction through more consuming or entertainment. It seems that even rage and hatred are served as twisted ways of distraction and a terrible form of entertainment. All of these offerings have in common to provide psychological escape routes from an insight. The insight that extinction is a real possibility for the future of mankind.
Even those, however, who basically accept that something has to be done, are often baffled on what we realistically can do. Change at a scale necessary to ensure mankind’s survival (and general prosperity) seems almost impossible. There are those, who favour even bolder steps forward, to use technology even more intensively. Hawking’s idea that humankind has to flee into space falls into this category. But technologies are not produced from nothing. They always include even more intense use of this planet’s resources, even if single devices or technologies use more renewable resources and are getting more effective. Others therefore say we have to de-grow, de-industrialise and de-urbanise in order to curb our use of natural resources. In its most radical form this means to more or less undo the industrial revolution.
What, therefore, should we do? If you ask me, I honestly don’t know. I am, however, neither convinced that more “clever” use of technology nor the mere “green-painting” of bad habits will help. I fully realise, how difficult change already individually is (not least for myself). Even there, on a mere personal level, strong motivators are needed to provoke any change.
Besides our basic drives, maybe surprisingly, our ethics is such a motivator. I believe it to be very difficult, if not impossible, for humans to persistently and over a long period of time to live in conflict with their own ethical and value system. They will either adapt their ethical system and glide into psychopathy (the way, one or the other dictator did) or they will adapt their behaviour in a way to be justifiable under their ethical norms. Even bad people want to believe they are good people. Ethics, actually, matter. Our internal ethical system colours everything we do, what ideas we have and what solutions we choose.
In the Western tradition, systems of ethics are all directed to the wellbeing of humans, only. This is because we humans have seen us on top of a value chain. The so-called Cultural Mandate expressed in Genesis 1:28 (man’s mandate to subdue the natural world) exemplifies this. There is a strong underlying notion that because of our sentience we are different (and somehow more worthy) than everything else in the universe. It is in this spirit that Hawking suggests we grab another planet if this one gives up. The same idea underlies also the often heard saying that we have to preserve Earth for “future generations” (of humans, not frogs, mind you).
This view is so pervasive that it is easily forgotten that many peoples and cultures had quite a different understanding of our place in the universe. In these cultures, Man is rather seen as a citizen, not the master of the natural world. But also in the West like-minded notions have been growing.
From time to time, I have mentioned here the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess. He is generally credited with creation of the “deep ecology movement”. But what does “deep” mean here? Deep, according to Naess, means driven by our core premises not by utility. This needs unfolding: Naess rejects solutions that make our behaviour just more sustainable, or one could say merely more compatible with nature. He thinks that any solution has to come from a different ethical core that gives up on the idea of the Cultural Mandate. In his gentle and polite ways Naess told us that we are quite delusional with regard to our importance and that everything around us is of equal value. Everything is an end to itself and nothing is merely means.
What then is right, the anthropocentric view of the Cultural Mandate or Naess’ ecocentric view (to give these views their proper names)? There might not be any objective method to decide this. Still, the history of science is also a history of findings that make us less unique or special than we liked to believe. Nature seems to consist of an awful lot of balancing cycles, which also apply to us. Such cycles are for example the population strength of predator and prey or control of population density by disease. And no, the epic battle there is not between us and the coronavirus and other disease agents. It is between the bacteria and phage-viruses that prey on them. And estimates say that there are more bacteriophage-viruses than every other organism on Earth, including bacteria, combined…
What I am trying to say here is that we act just like an arrogant upstart species, not like “masters” – otherwise we wouldn’t have to face the possibility of our own extinction caused by our own actions. Every victory we claim just seems to evoke a stronger counter-balancing act by nature. Through antibiotics there came multiple-resistant bacteria. Our heating up the planet comes back to us in waves and storms. It just seems to me that “masters” would have managed not to poison their own food.
What then if we would stop thinking of ourselves as masters and instead re-invent ourselves as benign, maybe even enlightened, citizen of the natural world? We would suddenly look out on a quite different reality, a strange place indeed, where balance and diversity play a major role.
But, this is for the next part of this post – and, eventually, I still intend to at some time even explain what in the world all of this has to do with art and photography.