Chaos and Acceptance

Posted on November 6, 2018

In The Artist and his Time, an address that Albert Camus gave in Sweden in 1957, the author conjures up the image of the martyr and the lion in a Roman circus. As an artist, he asserts, one has always had this choice: either be on the side of the martyrs or side with the lions. The only difference with former times is that nowadays the artist does not find himself on the galeries but in the arena. Philosophers and writers are no longer spectators: they cannot avoid being participants in a gruesome spectacle that unfolds. In Camus’ days it was the merciless war that France was waging in Algeria.

More than fifty years later, we are all among the lions in the arena: artists, politicians, scientists, anyone who is trying to make sense of the world we live in. No politician in his right mind can believe, nowadays, that the way their ilk goes about their business is going to solve our societal problems. No scientist in his right mind can believe that science will deliver the technological solutions to clear up the mess we are in. Serious newspapers are full of very serious news, these days. The 2018 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stresses the importance of limiting global warming to one and a half degree Celcius, but it also states: “Countries’ pledges to reduce their emissions are currently not in line with limiting global warming to 1.5°C”. The report sounds the alarm but does not offer a marching plan to avoid disaster. Everyone seems to be at a loss. Only the populists pretend that they know a way out, but their solutions are invariably based on a refusal to take in the relevant facts.

With a bit of basic education we can all see the writing on the wall, and still most of us seem mainly concerned with futilities. Repairs to our house, our next holiday destination. A few years ago, we were very busy with restoring the foundations of our house in the centre of Amsterdam. Now the repair works are over, and our foundations should hold good for another two hundred years. Only, it is not at all sure that Amsterdam will still exist in two centuries from now. No projections go beyond the year 2100, when a main sea level rise of between 0.40 and 1.05 metres is expected. For what will happen after that there are simply no reliable guesses. Amsterdam may be swallowed by the sea in 2200, with our house proudly going under on its firm foundations.

It is business as usual on the Amsterdam housing market. Prices go through the roof, and banks and buyers happily swap mortgage contracts with running times of thirty years and more. Everybody seems to believe that we can predict what is going to happen to our city, to our society, to our culture, during the next thirty years, and people expect progress and prosperity forever, as usual.

Belief in progress is a strange thing. Our basic education should have given us a sense of history. When did the myth of progress start? It is an idea of the Enlightement, it goes back to our great rationalist philosophers Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz. This was followed by the Industrial Revolution, the start of a time of boundless confidence in the power of human reason to improve the condition of humanity. And indeed, the living conditions of our grandparents were an improvement of those of their parents, and the conditions of our parents were better than those of our grandparents.

Optimists in Amsterdam may still believe in eternal progress and peace - simply because they are used to progress and peace and a pleasant life in a wonderful city - but in many places the illusion of steady improvement in living conditions has already been shattered. Millennials growing up in the United States - bar the children of the one percent - know from bitter personal experience that they are worse off than their parents in standard of living, upward mobility, social protection against poverty, or access to medical care. If they have jobs at all then their wages are going down and their job security has disappeared. Medical insurance is harder for them to come by. Worst of all, their country is in a state of permanent political chaos.

No, this is “not the future we ordered”, to quote the title of an illuminating book by John Michael Greer. Greer’s analysis of our troubled times - focussing on the US, but with relevance to Europe - makes a lot of sense. Economic conditions are worsening, and attributing the troubled economy to malevolent actors - a lazy working class, inadequate job training, corruption of greedy speculators - is missing the point that an economy can go downhill without there being anyone to blame. For many people it is hard to accept that important features of economic development are outside of people’s control, that things go wrong while nobody is in charge.

Our economy is fueled by energy, and most of that energy is still provided by non-renewable resources. Non-renewable means that there is only a finite amount of the resource, and that at some point we are bound to run out of it. There has to be a point where oil production is at its peak and on the path to a steady decline afterward. How close we are to that point - called peak oil - is hotly debated. Greer claims that this point was passed somewhere around 2005. His book discusses the reasons for our unwillingness to face the fact that soon rather than later we will run out of non-renewable fuel.

Just replace the whole lot - coal, oil, natural gas and uranium - by renewable sources - solar, tidal, hydroelectric, wind - and problem solved? Well, not quite. The switch to renewable energy sources poses a gigantic challenge, and it is fair to say that we do not yet have a “plan that adds up”, to borrow a phrase from a key authority in this area, the late professor David MacKay from Cambridge University. Anyone who wants to educate themselves on the challenges that we are facing can do no better than read his book Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air (Cambridge, 2009).

The amount of renewable energy we can generate per year will be limited in any case, so even if we succeed in replacing non-renewable by renewable sources, we will have to give up the aspiration to grow indefinitely. Sustainable economic growth is an illusion. Indeed, “sustainable growth” is an oxymoron: nothing that grows forever is sustainable.

Maybe we have to accept that there is no solution, that our civilization is in inevitable decline, and that our downfall is imminent. But the least we can do is act as human beings, using our faculties of feeling and understanding, and look deeply into the situation of our culture. For, as the philosopher John Stuart Mill reminds us, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is only because they only know their own side of the question.”