Philosophy in a Time of Collapse

Posted on November 5, 2018
The Stoic Philosopher Epictetus

The Stoic Philosopher Epictetus

Right now, we are witnessing the collapse of democratic institutions and the rule of law, in the United States, in Europe (Hungary, Poland), in Brazil. Democracy in dire straits in the UK. Russia, well known to be a rogue state but also a nuclear superpower, undermining democratic processes by trolling and dissemination of fake news. China tightening its grip on Hong Kong, while rumors continue about the People Republic’s gruesome treatment of ethnic minorities. The United States, by no means the land of equal opportunity anymore but a failing empire, a plutocracy in steep decline, with the world watching in disbelief as its political climate deteriorates by the day.

Newspapers report on the warnings by climate scientists and biologists that go unheaded, on the threats to our habitat, on the rapid disappearance of what is left of our tropical rain forests, on the mass extinction that is underway, on the plastic pollution of our oceans, while our politicians seem completely unable or unwilling to address these pressing issues. The 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change conference, the Climate Summit, ended in chaos. Since then, prospects of a global plan of action have become bleaker, with populism on the rise and climate change brushed aside by demagogues as “fake news”.

We are in trouble indeed. For all who wish to see it, civilisation as we know it is in danger. We continue to pump oil as if the resource is infinite, we go on with emitting carbon dioxide as if there is no tomorrow. The Earth itself is in peril, as habitat for living beings that can florish and survive only as long as the atmosphere protects them from cosmic radiation, only as long as temperatures stay between narrowly defined margins, only as long as the planet stays healthy.

Meanwhile, it looks like many of our fellows are more interested in the entertainment that Netflix has to offer than in the serious and worrying news about what is going on in the real world. We, the privileged cosmopolitan inhabitants of the industrialized countries, continue to indulge in air travel to frivolous destinations. Oblivious to the effects of our lifestyle, we whizz over to Thailand for a beach holiday, to Kenia for a safari, to Bali for a yoga retreat. We go on with business as usual, we ignore warnings, we sedate ourselves.

Still, this is about us. We cannot help being witness of the extraordinary things that are happening, to us, to our world, to our lives. If we choose, we can be aware of our situation. We can, if we are willing to be aware, reflect on our place in history.

You are born, you marvel at the wonders of the world, at the miracle of being alive, and you want to make sense of it all. At first you imbibe the stories that your parents and teachers tell you. For a while, you may even take these stories as self-evident truths. Then, at some point, if you are like me, you begin to see that these are just stories, and you start questioning them.

There is the story of human progress, the idea that the human condition steadily improves because of advances in technology, science and social organization. Can it really be true that humanity is advancing indefinitely? Or is it just a story? Our parents might have believed in it, and their parents. But it does not go very far back, really. Some two hunderd years, at most. That’s not a very long time, given that civilizations have been around for some tens of thousands of years, and that homo sapiens is present on the planet for some three hundred thousand years.

Thus, slowly but surely, we can start to see that the highly industrialized culture we live in now may be just a passing phase, that civilized life as we know it is fragile, and that the foundations of our current lifestyle are very brittle. All the stuff that we take for granted, refrigerators, cars, planes, smartphones, the internet, the abundance of food brought to our supermarkets from all over the world, possibilities for leasure travel and communication, things we rely on, will not be there forever. It can all disappear in a puff, in a bang, or in a whisper. And most likely it will be a bang.

The idea of infinite progress, of growth that continues forever, was silly to begin with. We can see exponential growth in nature everywhere, but invariably it is followed by decline or collapse. A Petri dish with fungi, a colony of microbes doubling every unit of time. Until they run out of agar, and the whole colony dies. Substitute planet Earth for the dish, and you get the picture.

We can seriously ask ourselves questions about where we are now, in the history of our civilisation, in the history of conscious life on this beautiful blue planet. What are we to do? Even if we cannot do anything to prevent the collapse, isn’t it better to bear witness than to sedate ourselves?

In earlier times of chaos, the philosophy of the Stoics flourished, with its emphasis on equanimity in the face of the disasters of life that we cannot avoid or prevent. Something similar is called for now. Even in the face of disaster we can wonder at the fact that we can see what we are facing. This in an invitation to use our predicament as a source of wonder. We were born in interesting times, and there is every reason to regret the fact. Still, things being as they are, we might as well take in the spectacle, and try to enjoy.

Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is reckoned to contain some 250 billion - that is, 250 times 10 to the power 9 - stars. There may be up to 10 billion Earth-sized planets in habitable zones of their Sun-like stars in our galaxy. Surely this galaxy is teeming with life. Surely, there is conscious life elsewhere. Or do we think we are that special?

The observable universe, the part of the cosmos that we can “see” in the sense that light signals have had enough time to reach us, that gigantic ball with us as observers in the middle and with its radius defined by the distance that light has travelled towards us since the Big Bang, the beginning of time, this ball contains some two trillion galaxies, that is, two times 10 to the power 12. These two trillion galaxies are harbouring trillions of unimaginable life forms.

If human life will be over on this particular planet in this particular galaxy, then nothing, absolutely nothing, is lost on a cosmic scale.