Guest essay by Eric Worrall
By emphasising the collective conscience implicit in the philosophy of Existentialism, policy planners might win more support for climate action.
Existentialism: A guiding philosophy for tackling climate change in cities?
January 8, 2019 8.56am AEDT
Associate professor, University of Waterloo
The evidence of human-induced climate change is clear. At minimum, climate change will cost us dearly due to the economic impacts and lives lost from the increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events. At worst, it presents an existential threat.
But, importantly, existentialism also includes a collective conscience. As Sartre noted: “Am I really a man who is entitled to act in such a way that the entire human race should be measuring itself by my actions?”
In other words, the philosophy argues that individual freedoms cannot be preserved if all individuals are completely free to choose their actions. The reference point for making decisions then becomes the impact our individual actions would have on society as a whole if everyone else modelled their actions after ours.
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If existentialism is making a comeback, it may provide precisely the philosophical fodder planners, and other policymakers, need to help the public understand why solving collective problems, such as climate change, may require restricting some choices and not only creating new ones.
If everyone continues to drive carbon-emitting cars, current and future generations will face severe restrictions on their own choices because of the impacts of climate change.
In an increasingly individualistic society, a philosophy that helps us validate our personal freedoms all the while emphasizing our collective responsibilities holds great potential to provide meaning to a large number of people.
The following from the Wikipedia entry on Existentialism stood out;
… Confusion with nihilism
Although nihilism and existentialism are distinct philosophies, they are often confused with one another as both are rooted in the human experience of anguish and confusion stemming from the apparent meaninglessness of a world in which humans are compelled to find or create meaning. A primary cause of confusion is that Friedrich Nietzsche is an important philosopher in both fields. Existentialist philosophers often stress the importance of Angst as signifying the absolute lack of any objective ground for action, a move that is often reduced to a moral or an existential nihilism. A pervasive theme in the works of existentialist philosophy, however, is to persist through encounters with the absurd, as seen in Camus‘ The Myth of Sisyphus (“One must imagine Sisyphus happy”), and it is only very rarely that existentialist philosophers dismiss morality or one’s self-created meaning: Kierkegaard regained a sort of morality in the religious (although he wouldn’t himself agree that it was ethical; the religious suspends the ethical), and Sartre‘s final words in Being and Nothingness are “All these questions, which refer us to a pure and not an accessory (or impure) reflection, can find their reply only on the ethical plane. We shall devote to them a future work.”…
Read more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Existentialism
Sisyphus is a metaphor for futility, or maybe a metaphor for a life of brutal manual drudgery. Sisyphus was a Greek king who was condemned by the gods to endure eternal torment, by pushing a large rock up a steep hill, but he was condemned to never have the satisfaction of finishing his hopeless task – the rock always rolled back down before he reached the top.
Existentialists urge us not to make objective judgements about the fate of Sisyphus, because we don’t know what is actually happening in his head. We need to imagine that Sisyphus might be happy with his hopeless task, because “his rock is his thing”.
Fossil fuel alleviates drudgery, by replacing manual effort with machines – but from an Existential viewpoint all experience is subjective; you cannot know that people who live lives of brutal drudgery want their burden alleviated, especially if that alleviation comes at a cost for future generations.