What On Earth?
“The earth has a skin and that skin has diseases; one of its diseases is called man.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
Nietzsche was a German philosopher and outspoken cultural critic among many other things whose work has exerted a profound influence on modern intellectual history. Nietzsche held a pessimistic view about modern society and culture. He was against the concept of popular culture. He believed that the press and mass culture led to conformity and brought about mediocrity.
One of his particular cultural targets was consumerism, the continual buying and consuming of material possessions so essential to the capitalist economy. Nietzsche was part of an anti-consumerist movement that was concerned with the private actions of corporations in pursuit of financial and economic goals at the expense of the public welfare. Especially in matters of environmental protection as well as social stratification and ethics in the governing of a society.
It would come as no surprise to Nietzsche 120 years after his death that “America’s economy has almost doubled in size over the last four decades, but broad measures of the nation’s economic health conceal the unequal distribution of gains” as noted by David Leonhardt and Yaryna Serkez in the April 10 New York Times. “A small portion of the population,” they continued, “has pocketed most of the new wealth, and the coronavirus pandemic is laying bare the consequences of the unequal distribution of prosperity.” Social stratification writ large.
In the 1992 book Beyond the Limits, an update to the Club of Rome’s foundational 1972 book The Limits to Growth, the lead author of that earlier report, Donella Meadows, writes that “humanity’s future will be defined not by a single emergency but by many separate yet related crises stemming from our failure to live sustainably. By using the Earth’s resources faster than they can be restored, and by releasing wastes and pollutants faster than they can be absorbed, we have long been setting ourselves up for disaster.”
Nietzsche’s pessimism is alive and unwell as Covid-19 batters our feeble institutions, revealing and exacerbating preexisting social and racial vulnerabilities, and laying bare the inadequacies of even the most robust social safety nets. We are living on a crisis-struck planet where surplus lives are struggling to survive in the wastelands of a rapidly shrinking economic order. The U.S. is staring at its sharpest unemployment rise in history.
Cracks in the system should present political opportunities, but pose such a threat to the status quo that they will be quashed. Elites, backed up by a corporate and acquiescent media, scramble to return society to “normal” their normal.
Herein lies the tragedy of our present chance to shake the system up, one repeated time and time again. Capitalism is built upon inequities, contradictions and crises. Billions live under the most depressing and violent of systems, where the lines between slavery, naked survival and wage labor bleed together. But capitalism, under an impressive sleight of hand, only ever presents “more capitalism” as a solution to its discontents. Our imaginations are so caged by what British political theorist Mark Fisher termed “capitalist realism” that alternatives to “business as usual” are unthinkable.
The current administration and Congress have just passed a $2 trillion plus bill in the hope of sustaining business as usual. The problem is that business as usual is working against mitigating our climate crisis. A common and widely held misconception among climate deniers is about the costs of stopping climate change. It would, they say, cost too much money to eliminate our global crisis. So would the cost of ignoring it. More, in fact. Estimates show that if we don’t act right now, it could cost us over 20% of our global GDP by 2029.
However, our government “found it essential” to stabilize our pandemic caused economic crisis with a couple of trillion dollars with more in the works. The coronavirus crisis is a wake-up call to stop exceeding the planet’s limits. The fact is that deforestation, biodiversity loss, and climate change all make pandemics more likely.
To stabilize our climate crisis would call for a modern day Marshall Plan. It could be funded initially by redirecting some or most the $5.2 trillion in subsidies and tax cuts that governments continue to supply the fossil fuel sector, which is at the center of spewing out the massive amounts of carbon emissions that in large part create global warming. The amount that the industry receives comes to 6% of global GDP. According to the Climate Central, if we just set aside 1% of the world’s GDP for climate action, we could lower carbon emissions, reduce air pollution deaths and increase government revenue to direct toward the green economy and health sectors.
However, with no thanks to the heavy duty funding by the fossil fuel industry, anti-climate political lobbyists and irresponsible celebs, we are living in an age where large chunks of the population are still in denial about our climate crisis. Although much of the public have become more aware about the depth of our planetary emergency, with growing student climate strikes, Extinction Rebellion protests and better media coverage all helping to drive this shift, we still have a way to go to convince every single person to overturn their untrue perceptions
Carl Sagan in his book, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human in Space, wrote Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
Therefore, we have to help ourselves meaning that every single country needs to act on climate change if human civilization itself can be sustained. The Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit reported that the entire world needs to go carbon zero by 2050 to stand a chance. There is simply no time to argue about which country is more responsible for carbon emissions – every single country has to step up to the plate.
Back to Friedrich Nietzsche. In his later work, he became increasingly preoccupied with the creative powers of the individual to overcome social, cultural and moral contexts in pursuit of new values and aesthetic health. Which leads me to hope that enough of us come through the Covid 19 calamity to create a new normal, one in which we learn what Jane Goodall has been trying to teach us for years: that You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.