Meaning Is a Many-Splendored Thing, Part 2

Roy Scranton’s “We’re Doomed. Now What?” begins with a different premise than Charlie Hueneman’s “Everything Is Meaningless – But That’s Okay” (which I went on about two weeks ago). Scranton thinks that global warming, escalating violence or a combination of the two will one day put our species out of its misery:

Today, as every hour brings new alarms of war and climate disaster, we might wish we could take Nietzsche’s place. He had to cope only with the death of God, after all, while we must come to terms with the death of our world….

We stand today on a precipice of annihilation that Nietzsche could not have even imagined. There is little reason to hope that we’ll be able to slow down global warming before we pass a tipping point….The West Antarctic ice sheet is collapsing, Greenland is melting, permafrost across the world is liquefying, and methane has been detected leaking from sea floors and Siberian craters: it’s probably already too late to stop these feedbacks, which means it’s probably already too late to stop apocalyptic planetary warming. Meanwhile the world slides into hate-filled, bloody havoc, like the last act of a particularly ugly Shakespearean tragedy.

It’s fair to say that without a major technological breakthrough on one hand or the collapse of the carbon-based global economy on the other, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will continue to increase. That could have horrific consequences. A “runaway” greenhouse effect may have given Venus its thick atmosphere of carbon dioxide and average surface temperature of 842 degrees.

Scranton implies that we’re doomed because four common responses to the global warming crisis are seriously misguided. He says “denialists” deny the problem exists, “accelerationists” think more technology is the answer, “incrementalists” favor the kind of modest changes already being made, and “activists” argue that “we have to fight, even though we’re sure to lose”. He thinks “we respond according to our prejudices”.

He then calls attention to what could be thought of as a fifth type of response, except that it’s closer to no response at all. Scranton thinks nihilism “defines our current moment”. Too many of us believe that “if all is already lost, nothing matters anyway”. What he apparently has in mind is the point of view sometimes referred to as “existential nihilism”. That’s the idea that life, whether individual lives or human life as a whole, lacks meaning, purpose or value.

What evidence is there for this increasing nihilism? Scranton mentions four television programs (I’ve watched two of them – they’re very good). Maybe more convincingly, he says “you can see it in the rush to war, sectarianism and racial hatred”. There is also the advance of “scientific materialism”, which has been undermining religious beliefs since at least the 17th century.

But war, sectarianism and racial hatred aren’t examples of nihilism. Nobody goes to war because they think everything is meaningless. People don’t divide into sects because they lack purpose. Racists value some people more than others for no good reason. That’s stupid, but not nihilistic. Science conflicts with some religious doctrine, but people who take science seriously aren’t generally amoral. So, putting aside the issue of nihilism for the moment, what does Scranton say we should do?

Oddly, by the end of the article, Scranton has declared himself to be a kind of “activist”. He believes some of us will survive global warming. Our species isn’t due for extinction. Therefore:

…it’s up to us … to secure the future of the human species. We can’t do it by clinging to the progressivist, profit-seeking, technology-can-fix-it ideology of fossil-fueled capitalism. We can’t do it by trying to control the future. We need to learn to let our current civilization die, to accept our mortality and practice humility. We need to work together to transform a global order of meaning focused on accumulation into a new order of meaning that knows the value of limits, transience and restraint.

In other words, we need to find meaning in taking care of the planet, not in the all the stuff we can get from burning carbon. We can’t wait for the global carbon-based economy to collapse. If we want to keep the planet habitable for human beings (a few of us anyway) and other living things, we need to immediately cut back our use of fossil fuels.

I’m sure Scranton would like to explain how we can accomplish this. How will it come to pass that so many people will change their way of looking at the world, of valuing what oil and coal do for us? Global warming isn’t such an obviously imminent crisis that the powerful or the mass of humanity will quickly reorient their thinking. It’s not as if a planet-destroying asteroid is heading our way. Nor are we in danger of running out of fossil fuels in the foreseeable future. There are billions of tons of the stuff just waiting to be extracted.

But all that Scranton offers as a way forward is to cite Nietzsche. The German philosopher set forth a position known as “perspectivism”. It’s not exactly clear what he meant by that (clarity wasn’t one of his strengths), but the general idea is that we each have our own perspective on the world; none of our perspectives give us access to the world as it really is; so the best we can do is view the world from as many points of view as possible. Adopting more and more perspectives can get us closer to the truth, even though we can never attain absolute, completely objective, non-perspectival truth about anything at all.

At least that’s how Scranton interprets Nietzsche. Life may be meaningless. The planet is probably doomed. But human beings have a tremendous capacity to find meaning in all kinds of situations. We need to use that capacity to view the planet’s future from as many perspectives as possible, human and non-human:

We need to learn to see not just with Western eyes but with Islamic eyes and Inuit eyes, not just with human eyes but with golden-cheeked warbler eyes, coho salmon eyes and polar bear eyes…

If we can manage that, difficult as it may be, we may be able to stop the Earth from becoming another Venus.

Perhaps you agree about adopting new perspectives, but I think it’s highly unlikely that the world’s leaders or the mass of humanity will ever stop finding most of life’s meaning in the here and now, based on their own particular points of view. Denialists will continue denying there’s a problem. Technologists will continue looking for technological solutions. Incrementalists will advocate or settle for incremental change. Activists like Scranton will propose new ways of finding meaning, while nihilists won’t think it matters what happens.

My own view is that the human race may get lucky but probably won’t. We should, however, still make intense efforts to stop burning so much carbon, while making life as decent as possible for those of us who are already here, including the fish of the sea, the fowl of the air, and everything that travels or grows upon the earth (except maybe mosquitoes and poison ivy). We have to balance the near future in which life is hard for so many and the more distant future in which life may not be possible at all. We will probably fail, but it’s the right thing to do.

One thought on “Meaning Is a Many-Splendored Thing, Part 2

  1. SelfAwarePatterns

    I personally think absolute success or absolute failure is the wrong way to look at our climate change strategies. This is a case where applying the rule of the excluded middle is not helpful. The world is going to become warmer. As I understand, we’ve set too much in motion to stop on a dime.

    If we do nothing, there will be climate change and suffering. If we do everything, there will still be climate change and suffering, but a lot less of it. We can mitigate the damage substantially for future generations. A little action will help, a lot will help more. Anything we can do will help. Our inability to implement perfect solutions shouldn’t drive us to despair, fatalism, or complacency.

    Reply

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