From climate change to pandemics: we can fix this mess together, argues philosopher

We’re all in this together, suffering equally, as the planet struggles through the Anthropocene age — an era created by human activity. It’s why the author of The Democracy of Suffering, Todd Dufresne, is calling on philosophy — and all of us — to revolutionize what it means to be human.

Our collective future faces a now-or-never moment, Todd Dufresne writes in The Democracy of Suffering

An Indian fisherman pushes his bicycle over dried mud on the banks of the Yamuna river in Allahabad, Sept 2015. In this age of the Anthropecene, philosopher and author Todd Dufresne says, 'we will all not be alone, at least in our suffering.' (Sanjay Kanojia/AFP via Getty Images)

*Originally published on April 8, 2020.

Scientists divide up the Earth's geological history into eras and periods and epochs, according to when they consider great events have fundamentally changed our planet. 

The age we're in now, some reckon, started quite recently: the Anthropocene, an era during which human activity is the major force changing the planet — whether it's global warming, pandemics, forest destruction, or vanishing species.

And as it turns out, philosophers are playing a major role in all this rethinking — philosophers like Lakehead University professor, Todd Dufresne. 

"We really don't need philosophers telling us what to do and who to be. What we really do need, though, is for more of us to become philosophically curious about the conditions of existence today — to be (let's just say) journalist-philosophers in and of our own perilous time," Dufresne writes in his book, The Democracy of Suffering: Life on the Edge of Catastrophe, Philosophy in the Anthropocene.

In his book The Democracy of Suffering, philosopher Todd Dufresne proposes a list of 13 major features of the Anthropocene condition - such as the rise in social inequality, the return of existential angst, and a revolutionary shift in human consciousness. (McGill-Queens University Press/Lakehead University)

The title (irony intended) is meant to highlight that suffering is democratic. If —  and/or when — the planet burns up, it simply won't matter if you're rich or poor, brown or white. 

"We will all not be alone, at least in our suffering," the Canadian social and cultural theorist tells IDEAS.

A revolution in thinking

Dufresne's book also comes with an urgent call to arms for thinkers, philosophers — and all of us — to come up with new ways of understanding what we've been doing wrong, and new ways of thinking about how to live in the future. 

He argues what we need is a shift in human consciousness, to redefine what it means to be human in this world. 

"In a way… the environmental movement failed… but the failure leads to this new crisis, this new catastrophe [climate change], and that will absolutely change the way the people have to think about the world and their place in it," Dufresne says.

"When you add to that all the other major crises that we're facing, population crises, future refugee problems, unemployment, mass unemployment, people will have to live different kinds of lives."

Graffiti artwork, suspected to have been created by the British street artist Banksy, is pictured opposite the environmental protest group Extinction Rebellion's camp at Marble Arch in London, April 26, 2019. (Isabel Infantes/AFP via Getty Images)

He adds that if the old tropes have got us into the present trouble — the coronavirus, climate change, global wealth inequity — then we have the instincts to start again and find new ideas to move forward.

"In the end, wisdom loving isn't just a calling. It's a practice," Dufresne writes.

"The Anthropocene has given birth to a condition that makes this practice vitally useful. The final answer to our guiding question is just that: anthropocenity is the call to be useful and, by being useful, to be responsible. 

"The philosophical life is one that embodies wisdom — and then does something to show it. It's knowing and showing, thinking and being. The Anthropocene condition is our chance, maybe our last chance, to matter. We should take it."

Excerpt from The Democracy of Suffering (p. 198), published by McGill-Queen's University Press.

* This episode was produced by Philip Coulter and Nahlah Ayed.

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