by Ryul Song and Christian Schweitzer
So now we are living in the anthropocene, the man-made age, the period during which our activity has been the dominant influence on our planet, its resources, its climate, its environment, its gene pool, down to its atoms. We rule them all and decided to use our powers to knowingly and in full consciousness commit collective suicide.
We know exactly what it takes to prevent this collective suicide, but we are not willing to act on it. It would require fundamental change: a new global economic system, a new global governance, a new social contract, equal distribution of resources. Well, read any book by Buckminster Fuller dating back to the 1950s, it is all laid out in great detail. But change is what we fear most. Change implies uncertainty and we are not made to endure uncertainty. We are the rabbit in the headlights in rigor mortis staring at the catastrophe, heading at us in full speed, thinking “It won’t hurt as much as change”.
By 2050 the world’s population will grow by another 2.2 billion to 10 billion people. In parallel temperatures will rise by conservative estimates around 2.3 degrees globally until 2050. The consequences are already dire: the world is burning, drowning, melting, drying up, extreme weather will become the normal, ecosystems are failing, food scarcity is spreading. Mass migration, distributional conflicts, wars will be the consequence leading to more food scarcity, migration, wars. The next decades will be a catastrophe for humanity; nobody is prepared for this.
And then COVID happened. We can only start to understand the impact of such a global disruption of the life we thought to know. We architects, historically located in the liberal educated middle-class, are able to retreat to our home-offices, sitting out the situation. Can the decrease of the speed of life or the temporary reduction of greenhouse emissions really be seen as a positive? Can we demand from our position a radical change while we will be the last affected by the consequences of action and of non-action?
“There is no true life within a false life.” As the historian Volker Weiss points out, Theodor Adorno’s aphorism in “Minima Moralia” refers to the impossibility of setting up private happiness amid a society’s catastrophic developments. Adorno used it to explain how far-right movements were intertwined with capitalism and nontransparent democracy, but now it has to be widened to describe all humankind. Modern society has a tendency to affect every sphere of life; the individual cannot escape it, and thereby is willingly and unwillingly complicit. In the TV show “The Good Place” since the beginning of the industrialization, no single human soul went to heaven. There we are judged by a score system with positive and negative points for good and bad deeds; and just living an ordinary life accumulates so many negative points through our CO2 footprint that we automatically go to hell. Even as we try to live a consciously true life as individuals, our global society operates and is structured in a way that this is made impossible. There is no nice way to talk around it: we are living a false life.
“But who is ‘we’?” Felwine Sarr, the Senegalese academic, musician and writer, states it very clearly: “It is an occident-ocene, not an anthropocene. It is about the occident, the west. They want to share the responsibility but caused the problem. The west separated the world into nature and culture. Because they saw nature as an object with resources, they took nature into possession and altered it. They say ‘we against them’, but we should accomplish a collective ‘we’. But how do we accomplish a collective ‘we’ with people who don’t want that?” The west, as in the ‘developed world’, is put on the spot. ‘We’, as the west, have to act, have to make good, have to change, without pointing fingers, without waiting for ‘a global solution’. We all know that, but are still only whispering it.
And don’t get me started on the men-ocene. “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” A quote made popular in the discourse during the #Metoo movement, referring to the need to dismantle the patriarchy, fits equally to the responsibility of the west towards the prevention of climate change and its consequences. We have to radically change our way of life in order to achieve global equality. A common standard for humanity cannot be maintained sustainably on the current level of the west.
“But what can I do as an individual?” – accomplish a collective ‘we’, simple as that. Since the beginning of industrialization and the rise of capitalism, we have been told that every man is the architect of his own fortune. The ‘we’ slowly but persistently got replaced with the ‘I’; I the consumer, I the social media persona, I the individualist, I phone. Neoliberalism sped up this trend, completely shifting responsibility from the ‘we’ to the ‘I’. The industry invented the concept of the “personal CO2 footprint”, suggesting if we dump our single-use cup into a recycling container we will save the planet on our own, diverting from their responsibility to not offer these disposable products in the first place and at the same time lobbying politics to prevent any restrictions on them.
And now we are sliding even deeper into repression and denial, where opinions are equated with facts, where individual truths claim the same importance as hard-won consensus. It opened the door for greenwashing where the fossil fuel industry and the companies responsible for the most plastic waste claim carbon neutrality by buying into carbon offset schemes, which promise to prevent deforestation. The obvious contradiction that conserving the status quo cannot offset continuous growth is just washed away. Only active reforestation in contrast to only the prevention of the destruction of already existing forests would make any common sense. But this would require action and investment in contrast to just fencing off the rainforest and cutting off the indigenous population or designating golf courses as such areas.
We have to find our ‘we’ again, reclaim it, fight for it, and then hold the ‘we’ accountable. Reclaim requires antagonism, confrontation, resistance against institutionalized thinking, opposition to established structures. As Pablo Helguera notes in his book “Education for Socially Engaged Art”: “Confrontation implies taking a critical position on a given issue without necessarily proposing an alternative. Its greatest strength is in raising questions, not in providing answers.” Only when confrontation grows to a critical mass, the cultural and political mindset can swing towards answers, towards meaningful action, only then fundamental change can actually happen. COVID is a warning, a symptom, a wake-up call to finally come to terms to tackle the underlying cause. I fear we will not hear it.