Ideas

Transcript| The Unborn Future, Lecture 2: 'Lessons Learned' by Todd Dufresne

Philosopher Todd Dufresne has written a three-part lecture series for IDEAS, entitled: Climate Change and the Unborn Future: Capitalism, Philosophy, and Pandemic Politics. He argues that the way we live needs a stem-to-stern overhaul — and a new philosophy of the Anthropocene to see the world with new eyes.

Part 2 of a 3-part lecture series, Climate Change and the Unborn Future: Capitalism, Philosophy, and Pandemic Politics

We often say that climate change is driven by an economic system that begins with industrial capitalism.  And it's true. But this system creates more than harmful pollution.  It also creates a certain kind of society, in particular a consumer society that impoverishes the masses and enriches a small subset of people, the plutocrats.  

Consider a few telling measures of global inequality.  In 2019, a little more than 2,100 billionaires owned as much wealth as almost five billion people — roughly $10 trillion, or 60 per cent of total world wealth.  And in 2020 one billionaire alone, Jeff Bezos, made more than $13 million per hour — which works out to over $50,000 in the time it takes for me to utter this sentence.  

This means that Bezos increased his existing wealth during the first year of the COVID pandemic and world depression by about $74 billion. $74 billion in one year. That's over $200 million a day! As a cheeky headline in GQ Magazine rightly declares, "Billionaires Are the Leading Cause of Climate Change."  

However, capitalism and its billionaire class couldn't, and didn't, do it alone — a fact made far less frequently than the one about the economic system.  It's just this: the world-making and unmaking power of capitalism was made possible by an entire worldview, just as historically significant as economics.  And that worldview is Western philosophy.  

That assertion may seem like hyperbole or the empty musings of someone enamoured with paradox and winking irony.  But philosophy was never just an account and critique of the everyday.  It was, from the outset, anchored to its opposite — namely, to the state apparatus that includes the exploitation, policing, and immiseration of the masses.  

In point of fact, this very particular philosophic system helped rationalize and determine the basic virtues, or anti-virtues, of our global economic system: individualism, rational efficiency, competition, egoistic greed, and rank viciousness. 

In this respect, the neoliberal capitalism of the late 20th and early 21st centuries is quite simply the most brash, forceful, hyper-Americanized expression of a philosophical system of beliefs that doubles today as the cutting edge of our now ubiquitous culture of toxic masculinity.   

The truth is, the twin achievements of astounding wealth and astounding mass production are fundamental by-products of philosophy's oldest dream: the attempt to know the external world and, to that extent, tame, remake, and conquer it, too.  

For this marriage of knowledge and craft, or epistemology and technology, is quite simply, the grand project of Western knowledge and, by extension, Western imperialism.  

The signal importance of philosophy to this project will no doubt surprise some people, including Marxists, since the status of philosophy has rarely been less assured than in the contemporary world.  But the marginalization of philosophy is a defining feature of the project of philosophy.  

And here's why: it was philosophy that first advanced and systematized the values of reason and efficiency that made possible, one by one, all the other disciplines of reason and efficiency, each of which fashioned its own theories and practices in turn.  It was philosophy that set the instrumental world in motion.  

And so it came to be that philosophy proper was eclipsed in the contemporary world or — as Martin Heidegger once put it, "meditative thinking" was eclipsed by "calculative thinking."  Nowadays the cart of economics leads the horse of contemplation — even in our universities, which, it's nice to think, once knew better. 

Against the flow of instrumentality and thoughtlessness, I'd like to start with a big question: what are the philosophical conditions of the current climate crisis?  And since our time is short, I'd like to skip to the obvious, although unsatisfying, answer, which is twofold.

First condition, Enlightenment humanism, the belief that the natural world revolves around human interests. And second condition: philosophic rationalism, the belief that human reason is the lever for moving the world to our will.  

Together, they comprise a significant driver of our world today.  Over the course of roughly 300 years, humanism and reason start out as the answer to every question — but become, over the last 150, the question behind every answer.  

Scientism, the belief that science and technology will save us, combined with the almost perverse evacuation of meaning by managers, efficiency experts, and positivists of every stripe, have come to ruin the aspirational ideals of freedom, progress, happiness, and universal fellowship.  

In other words, the promise of the Enlightenment turned into its dialectical opposite: unfreedom, the famous diagnosis of Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School — the famous killjoys of modern life in the West.  Freedom, they teach, has been abandoned for consumption; progress for triumphalism; universal fellowship for a winner-takes-all individualism.  

So although humanism and reason begin as radical ways of revaluing all values hitherto — for example, debunking superstition, prejudice, and religious literalism — they later morph into highly conservative tools for policing thought and action.

In effect, reason became part of a regime of terror, and rejecting it wasn't just the duty of radical artists, from Samuel Beckett and Thelonius Monk to Andy Warhol and Little Richard, but the feature of the postmodern condition.  According to this condition, high culture must be undone by low, the authentic by the hybrid, the sacred by the profane, and humanism by anti-humanism —  or, more fashionably yet, by post-humanism.   

And yet while the postmodernism of the post-war period began, like the Enlightenment, as a reactive and normative call for greater freedoms, it collapsed almost instantly into something unexpected.  Freedom to think became the freedom to buy products, consume fashions, and strike a daring pose.  

Over the decades the beards, flowers, and denim of the Baby Boomers have simply been swapped out for the man-buns, tattoos, eyelash extensions, and painted eyebrows of their children, the Millennials.  But capitalism, same as it ever was, had merely perfected the magic of conjuring enormous profits no matter which fashion, political party, or source of protein one happened to embrace.  

We're all branded products now, cogs in an unending parade of phony mass individualism and pseudo-radicalism.  Such is the freedom to consume. As the American public intellectual Thomas Frank argues, the rebellious subjects of the 1960s quickly traded in sex, drugs, and rock and roll for investment portfolios, liposuction, and Wall Street.

The real legacy of Boomer politics isn't, therefore, Black rights, gay rights, and women's rights, the impetus of which started in the 1950s.  The real legacy is Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, the cult of Ayn Rand, and the rise of an increasingly vicious form of right wing populism.  The real legacy is globalization and the rollback of progressive values.  

For that, indeed, is how things shook out in the 1980s and 90s, especially in the United States, when Boomers ascended to positions of power in every field and the forces of globalization assured that the rest of us would follow.  Instead of progressive ideals, universal health care, pharmacare, and high quality education, too many citizens in the wealthy West got "capitalist realism," the military industrial complex, and tax cuts.  

Instead of progressive leadership we got politicians like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair — two proper names, like Reagan and Thatcher, that function today as proxies for the complete capitulation of the left to the beliefs of the neoliberal Right. 

By the time this remarkable capitulation was over, Democratic politician Barack Obama would become — and the irony is intended — the best Republican President in recent U.S. history.  Only a deep history of racism toward Black men can explain why so many conservative Republicans nonetheless hated him.  

As for liberal Democrats, they were satisfied with the warm and fuzzy gains made in identity politics and the symbolism conferred by Obama's two-term presidency.  But the consequences were disastrous, and not just to the victims of his drone wars in the Middle East.  For when Obama simply continued the Democratic absorption of neoliberal beliefs and policies, he inadvertently did something far worse than sell out his party's values.  

Like Clinton before him, he ended up pushing doctrinaire conservatives even further away into Tea Party libertarianism, conspiracy theories, Trumpism, and QAnon lunacy.  And that, simply put, is how both U.S. liberals and conservatives paved the way for the kind of demagoguery, evil at its core, that Plato wrote about over 2,000 years ago.  This is the "city in high fever" and, with it, the tyranny Plato warned us about — the consequence, not merely of unjust souls, but of marrying bad philosophy to bad economics.    

Of course it's important to recall that the U.S. was not alone in these regards.  Let's not forget Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire trailblazer of sleaze and corruption.  Or, more recently, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro and, in Canada, a string of conservative radicals running from Ontario Premier Mike Harris to Prime Minister Stephen Harper to Toronto mayor Rob Ford, to his brother, the Premier of Ontario Doug Ford, and beyond.  

Over and over again, citizens in the West have been subjected to one more embarrassingly infantile man-child elected after another — all the trust funds, bunga bunga parties, prostitutes, secret deal-making, golfing trips, absurd expense accounts, billionaire-funded campaigns, pork-barrel politics, gerrymandering of voting districts, stupid populist mantras, crack pipes, Wall Street recruitments, lobbyists who write bills, voter suppression schemes, tax cuts for the rich, trickle down nonsense, Ubuesque guts, abnormal haircuts, and hair-dye-running-down-the-temple absurdities finally exhausting the limits of parody and late night punch-lines.  

In truth, this parade of buffoons served up 24-hour reality programs of non-stop horror: austerity for the masses on the one hand, privatized enrichment for their overlords on the other.  Socialized losses and privatized gains.  A Wall Street fantastically disconnected from the reality, not just of Main Street but of the earth upon which we live and work — the economy a pure simulation signifying nothing, finally, but itself.      

Like catastrophic climate change, this dystopia of the everyday is, in part, our own fault: we did this, we created these monsters.

Or better put, we failed to stop the plutocrats and their minions as they brazenly, openly, unapologetically cooked our tax systems, cooked our education systems, cooked our voting systems, cooked our environmental laws, cooked our politicians, and then lied repeatedly about it all through the media outlets they often owned, so that they could amass fortunes — even thousands of dollars a second, every hour of every day — that would make the robber barons of old blush with shame.  

We applauded and then elected these monsters, or let them steal elections, and they have never stopped punishing us for our remarkable apathy, dimwittedness, foolishness, and, let's just admit it, our false consciousness.  

But, to be fair, individual agency is nothing next to the economic and philosophical structures that created the modern world.  For these structures function like black holes sucking all human agency and resistance into the void — rendering the dystopic effect of it all seemingly unavoidable, naturalized.  No wonder we accept the lie that 'there is no alternative.'  And no wonder we fall back on consumerism, shopping our way out of depression or, easier yet, simply changing the channel to something less disturbing.  

So, yes: the ancient project of Western philosophy, most especially its marriage of reason and humanism, has a lot to apologize for.  While it enabled and rationalized the expansion of human ambitions, creating incredible monuments to civilization, ego, and white male pride; and while it generated unimaginable wealth for those lucky enough to be born into the right demographic, in the right country, in the right epoch, it also established and then accelerated all the conditions associated with catastrophic climate change.  

These changes include mass suffering and death in the form of droughts, wars, dislocations, and extreme weather events; the sixth mass extinction; and almost certainly —  here's my bet — the end of civilization as we have known and enjoyed it over the last 70 years or so.  Let's keep all this in mind when we confront what I take to be the three big lessons of philosophy in the Anthropocene condition.  

First lesson: we're only now living with the most extraordinary consequences of Western reason and humanism.  For this project is not a feature of the distant past, something we overcame and left behind, but the omnipresent source of all the colossal changes to the natural world that are terraforming the planet today.  

We might even say, with only the slightest exaggeration, that what is flooding, burning, baking, drying, freezing, and pummeling us all is the concrete manifestation of Western humanism itself.  Because now the natural world really does revolve around human interests, concerns, and ideas.  

Bottom line: climate catastrophe is the concrete manifestation of 300 years of Western thinking and doing.  

Second lesson: it's nonetheless clear that we can't address the challenges of this refashioned planet without the continued use of reason and humanism.  If anything, catastrophic climate change requires more reason and, indeed, more humanism than ever before.  Why?  Because only human beings, and not bees, trees, and ocean currents, can curate the results.  Let's be blunt about it: nature doesn't care if we survive; only human beings do.  So best we get to work saving what we can, where we can, in the ways that only human beings can.    

The third and most difficult lesson is this: Anthropogenic climate change therefore demands of us a kind of absolute responsibility for the conditions we have wrought.  We broke it; we own it.  There are no escapes possible beyond the intelligence, creativity, reason, and care we bring to this collective problem.  

So, yes: the project of Western philosophy helped determine not just the weather, but the geologic shift called the Anthropocene.  And sure, that means the West in particular is responsible.  But this unexpected, regrettable, and tragic result no more vitiates the use of reason for our collective good than the horrors of the Holocaust vitiates the use of census data for advancing social welfare.

The failure of technical know-how and instrumental reason in the 20th century, while tremendous, is no excuse to embrace unreason or arationality — or pretend that there is any position outside of human reason from whence we might stand, virtuously as it were, above all the effects of humanism.  

Of course, doubling down on reason and humanism is ironic and even discomforting, especially for the critics of reason and humanism, including myself.  But no matter.  Our complicity with human destructiveness, married to our capacity for reasoned self-criticism, are major planks of any meaningful pathway forward.  As paradoxical or contradictory as it may seem, we're now obliged to reason our way out of a situation that was, in part, caused by the perversion of reason itself.

By the same token, we must rethink the domains of Western philosophy and economics.  We certainly don't have to respect the old shibboleths about the unified subject of human reason and so-called 'rational man theory' — both of which are laughably naïve, and have been since at least the time of Nietzsche.  

As even some economists now admit, our decisions are very often anything but rational.  The same point holds for the reign of homo economicus.  If we can agree that the economic system is created by imperfect human beings and isn't part of the natural world, then we are free to reject its distillation to the unlivable binaries of reason and unreason, rich and poor, elites and masses.  

In other words, there really are alternatives to a planet-destroying capitalism.  Together we fashioned this unjust society. And together we can — and must — do better, refashioning it all again but differently.  Accordingly, we must work both with and against the humanist and capitalist systems that made it all possible.  

To these ends I suggest we rethink five of the defining features of human existence, most of which overlap in important ways, which I'll mention in descending order of difficulty.

First: at the political level, the masses must embrace legitimate street-level movements for social justice, such as Black Lives Matters, and their reasonable aspirations, such as reallocating police budgets, if we ever hope to create a meaningful uprising based on justice and equality.  

The key is creating loose coalitions of as many people as possible from across every class, race, gender, and age grouping, not only to protect the vulnerable who risk their lives with such actions, but to render state and police violence impractical and, in time, null and void.  

For if the vast majority of citizens agree that we must change systemic injustice in its many forms – and I think they do – then by gathering together in protest, the rules of democracy, and not the billionaire class, will start once again to dictate the behaviour of our spineless politicians. 

Second: at the societal level we must embrace collectivism and some form of democratic socialism.  This isn't especially quixotic, since there are many practical, truly non-radical models available — from Sweden today to Canada in the 1970s.  Clearly we can and should do better, and soon.  

Moving forward, we should institute the three-day work week and some form of universal basic income as we start shedding jobs from advances in artificial intelligence, the automation of white collar professions, and the shift toward post-capitalism.  In turn, we need to delegitimize nonsensical measures like GDP, the Gross Domestic Product, and validate meaningful measures like the famous one developed in Bhutan, the GNH or Gross National Happiness index.  

Why bother? Because we all know by now that wealth beyond a certain point doesn't improve happiness at all. But human connections and a sense of purpose do.  So forego importing the purebred puppy from Asia and cook supper for your friends instead.

Third, at the economic level we must embrace degrowth, which means we should double down on sustainable energy and reduce our production of thoughtless, often useless stuff.  This doesn't have to mean austerity and deprivation.  

As Annie Leonard puts it in the brilliant documentary, The Story of Stuff, in the United States 99 per cent of all "the stuff we mine, harvest, process, transport… is [literally] trashed within 6 months" of being purchased.  Consider that for a moment.  Ninety-nine percent is trashed.

Let's start, therefore, by restricting the production of disposable products, including cell phones and computers, and minimizing the production of plastic tchotchkes.  Beyond that, we must tax billionaires out of existence and redistribute their incredible wealth.

In this respect, let's aim high and reinstitute progressive taxation as last seen in the immediate postwar era.  People forget that in 1945, the U.S. tax rate on earnings over $200,000 was 94 per cent — or about $3 million today.  That's still a lot of money for any one individual.  But fine, let's triple that ceiling, since it would still be only a fraction of the outrageous earnings of the 2,100 absurd and truly dangerous billionaires living today.

Fourth, at the psychological level we must embrace what I call the "globalization of empathy."  This shouldn't be insurmountably hard to achieve because the masses are already well on their way — at both the cognitive and emotional levels.  As American liberal Jeremy Rifkin argues, human beings have over history forged ever-greater collectivities, identifying first with families, tribes, communities, and then with nation states.  

This expansion of human empathy, not human reason, has been the primary driver of civilization throughout history. Consequently, Rifkin is probably right to forecast for humankind a leap forward toward a planetary consciousness of each other and of the planet.

For we obviously don't need to live in Australia, be Australian, or have friends or family who are Australian to weep over the loss of a billion animals in the great fires of the Black Summer of late 2019.  All we need is a newspaper, radio, television screen, or social media feed.

All we need is access to information sufficient enough to trigger our capacity for empathy with others.  Hence the great motto of our time: If you're not worried, you're not paying attention.  Luckily or not, the "democracy of suffering" practically guarantees that the amazing privilege of not caring, of not paying attention, and of pooh-poohing of the science and facts you don't like, will not survive the concrete experiences of climate catastrophe that are baked into our collective futures.

And finally, fifth, at the intellectual level we must embrace a prospective or aspirational philosophy, one that abandons the worst thoughts and actions of the recent past for the very best. 

This means reaffirming the boldest aspirations of Immanuel Kant, who foresaw cosmopolitanism and perpetual peace; and Karl Marx, who foresaw collective freedom and the dawning of meaningful existence for the masses.  

By the same token, this principle also means continuing to critique the philosophy that has thwarted their dreams and made the immiseration of the masses possible and climate catastrophe inevitable.  In other words, we must 'hope for the best and prepare for the worst'.  Let's therefore be brave enough to save utopia from the utopians.  Let's be brave enough for a new utopic realism.  

By invoking these five conditions, I'm not saying that everyone will achieve a Kumbaya moment of blissful enlightenment.  Greed, individualism, and indifference won't go away any more than altruism, collectivism, and empathy disappeared under capitalism.  It's not one or the other, but the relative weight given to each characteristic by society at large.  

But a society that favours empathy has consequences for our existing philosophic and economic systems; systems that are supported by myths that naturalize and even deify human reason, egoism, violence, and competition.  

Rational self-interested individualism, the philosophical bedrock of what Pope Francis calls the "globalization of indifference," will not help us survive in conditions that no longer favour life on earth.  But the globalization of empathy will.  Collectivism and some form of socialism will.  An aspirational philosophy will.  These are highly practical matters, not just abstractions.  
  
If so, then maybe the biggest lesson of the Anthropocene condition is just this: how we think and feel about the world and its inhabitants matters.  For how we think and feel about the world creates and recreates the world.  It's past time we hapless curators of the human and natural worlds more carefully fashioned a home where happiness and meaning still exist, and to this end resist the forces of fascism, unfreedom, and evil that keep us down.  

I'm afraid this also means we must let go of the innumerable reasons we've devised to stick with the past, with tradition, where the dead still hold the living in their grasp.  Clearly our responsibility today is to the unborn future, and to the call of life itself.  This call of life is nothing less than the call of our revolutionary present, the call of the Anthropocene.  

So let's be wise together.  Let's accept this call and think and feel our way into a better world for everyone, everywhere, now.   
 


References

Darby, Luke (2018).  Billionaires Are the Leading Cause of Climate Change. GQ.  October 11. 

Dufresne, Todd (2019). The Democracy of Suffering: Life on the Edge of Catastrophe, Philosophy in the Anthropocene, Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.

Fisher, Mark (2009).  Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Winchester, UK: Zero Books.  

Gupta, Ruchi (2020). How Much Does Jeff Bezos Make a Second? Market Realist. August. 

Lawson, Max et. al. (2020). Time to care. Oxfam International.  January 20. 

Leonard, Annie (2007).  The Story of Stuff.  

Peterson-Withorn, Chase (2020). The World's Billionaires Have Gotten $1.9 Trillion Richer In 2020. Forbes.  December 16. 

Pitcher, Jack (2020). Jeff Bezos Adds Record $13 Billion in Single Day to Fortune. Bloomberg. July 20. 

Pope Francis (2015).  Laudato Si': On Care For Our Common Home. Encyclical Letter. 

Rifkin, Jeremy (2009).  The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis.  New York: Penguin.  

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