How do you feel about your great grandparents?
I would like to invite you to a little thought experiment: Think of your eight great grandparents, most of whom probably lived sometime in the late 19th/early 20th century. What feelings do you have about them and their generation? If you don’t feel indifference, your feelings are likely not very strong ones — you never really knew them, they are strangers to you. Perhaps you might blame them for having collectively failed to prevent fascism, mass genocide and two world wars, but you probably don’t deeply hate them for this. After all, it seems that their actions and inactions didn’t have a particularly salient positive or negative impact on your living conditions today. Some of you might even feel pity or thankfulness, as you are likely materially better off than them, considering the hardship and prevalence of diseases, poverty and social injustices of their time. Unless you are among the 4.3 billion souls who are presently living under conditions of poverty, you probably wouldn‘t want to switch places with your great grandparents thanks to a fulfilled promise of relative social and technological progress.
Imagine your great grandchildrens’ feelings about your generation
Now imagine that YOU are the great grandparent and your great grandchildren are asked in the late 21st/early 22nd century to think of you and your generation, living and working in the late 20th/early 21st century. Can you imagine what feelings they might have? I’m afraid that the situation is going to be very different this time. Their feelings towards us will likely be either strongly positive or negative, depending on how successful we are going to be at preserving our planet’s habitability for them. If we succeed, they are likely to feel relief and appreciation for their ancestors having mitigated an existential threat to their wellbeing. But if we fail, they are likely to feel spite, scorn and rage, due to an irresponsible legacy of unbearable living conditions and geopolitical chaos. Besides anger, I imagine that they will also feel sorrow and regret about a missed opportunity that will never come back, about an environmental debt that cannot possibly be repaid. Sadly, in the absence of a rapid and deep civilizational transformation, it is forseeable that our great grandchildren will have every reason to curse us:
- for being too small-minded to seize the moment, when a window of opportunity was still wide open,
- for not taking the science seriously enough, early enough,
- for squandering an unprecedented abundance of low cost (even negative interest) capital available to be invested into a better, cleaner future,
- for failing to comprehend the immense weight of influence and reponsibility resting on our generation’s shoulders.
The magnitude of our generation’s influence on the future
I hope that the thought of our great grandchildrens’ feelings towards us can help us realize what kind of power and responsibility we have over future human lives (unlike our great grandparents). In order to illustrate the scale of the impact that a trillion tons of anthropogenic CO2 injected into the atmosphere can cause, consider this: Human emissions have already postponed the initiation of the next ice age (which naturally would be expected in about 50,000 years) by at least an additional fifty thousand years. There is no doubt that our fossil fuel-based global economy has become a geological force. It is for this reason that the early 21st century marks a critical juncture, a hinge in human history. The ultimate consequence of insufficient climate action over the past 30 years is probably an irreversible hothouse earth dynamic: a self-reinforcing geological process of continuously increasing global temperatures beyond human control, driven by cascading tipping points and playing out over hundreds of millennia. But even if such a hothouse earth dynamic may have become difficult to avoid by now, as leading climate scientists fear, we can still influence the vehemence and speed (centuries or millennia) at which this process impacts human civilization. It is important to keep in mind that mitigating climate change is as much about reducing the risks and damages of extreme weather events and rising sea levels as it is about reducing the real risk of nuclear conflict over national security interests as global temperatures rise. This is already affecting our children and grandchildren. By stabilizing the mean temperature increase to as close as possible to “well below 2.0 degrees C” by 2100, we can still buy precious time for them as well as future generations to adapt sustainably, to make it relatively easier for them to maintain social order and technological/sociocultural progress, at least for substantial parts of the human population. The irreversible loss of our planet’s current habitability would still be an untold, unforgivable tragedy, but it could be one with a silver lining.
Reasons why some of us might not care
Personally, I find it disturbing to think that my own great grandchildren could desire to switch places with me, for the reason that we may be presently much better off than them, during a period when human progress was still ongoing (at least on average/for many), before it predicatbly approaches a peak and goes into reverse under the pressure of accumulating climate disruptions. After all, the 22nd century is not that far away anymore. Yet the lack of determination and ambition in current climate policies and pledges raises the question whether we, as a society, even really care about the fate of future human beings. I have the impression that many of our generation actually don’t find the idea that their descendants might think back of them with feelings of hate disturbing at all. How can this be?
- In many cases they might be aware that climate change is a “thing” but simply lack the urgency awareness, the full comprehension regarding the urgency and gravity of planteary heating, the scale and persistence of its damages and risks, as well as the scale and speed of the civilizational transformation needed to avert an unimaginable catastrophe. They simply don’t feel responsible and perhaps it just hasn’t occured to them yet that their great grandchildren will hold them accountable for their negligence nevertheless. So they actually would care but don’t know yet how much they ought to.
- At a deeper level, it seems to me that the thought of future living conditions past one’s limited biological lifespan — i.e. the reality of a world sans one’s own existence — is so terrifying for many that they prefer to ignore it. It appears that the habit of suppressing the thought of our own death, which is typical for our time (i.e. “Western civilization”), causes us to be less concerned for what happens thereafter. In this context, we are probably well advised to cultivate death awareness, as does the Buddhist meditation practice known as “Maraṇasati”, for example.
- In addition, a mostly self-centered self-identity that is primarily concerned with the personal experience of pleasure and pain, can make it rather difficult to care about the fate of future humans who contribute little to our current wellbeing. So do unfulfilled basic human needs, of course. However, while it is understandable when people fighing for their own or their family’s survival may have litte energy to be concerned about the fate of other humans, the same cannot be said from the more illusory unmet need for constant gratification that is being artificially created and promoted by modern consumer culture.
- Finally, it appears that some of us might have acquired a rather misanthropic image of human beings as evolved but myopic and greedy apes, who seemingly don’t deserve to be rescued from their own suicidal tendencies. This image doesn’t seem to offer an accurate description of human nature to me, but rather describes the effects of a society that has yet failed to realize the full human potential for empathy and wisdom.
Believing in something that is higher than ourselves
Looking back at human history, great monuments that took multiple generations to build demonstrate that intergenerational “cathedral” thinking is indeed possible. These examples indicate that long-term efforts across generations require a belief in an idea that transcends our individual selves. This idea doesn’t necessarily have to be a religious dogma (as was the case in the past) — it can also be a belief in the dignity and in the potentiality of the human species, for example, or in the general desirability of civilizational progress, in which tyranny, poverty and war gradually become less prevalent while social justice expand alongside cultural and scientific achievements. But for such a belief to make sense, we will need to learn to better deal with the finite nature of our own individual existence. We will need to rediscover what it means to be human in order to embrace a self-identity as a species, one that transcends our contextual and socially constructed collective and individiual self-identities.
Existentialist humanism: What it means to be human
I believe that an existentialist humanism, a humanism that is grounded in existentialism, represents a key to strengthen our self-identity as a species. The existentialism that I’m referring to is based on our experience that, as we gain our self-consciousness, we are finding ourselves thrown into a strange social and physical world, terrified of the possibility of death and in despair about the limitedness of our knowledge, our life, and our agency. However, we are not simply thrown into this world, into a given societal, historical and social context: we are born as children of loving parents, who (hopefully) have been there to guide us as we took our first steps. In addition to the existential dread we also experience curiosity from the very beginning, driving us to a constant search for meaning, as we yearn to live, love and be loved. Morever, we ourselves can potentially or actually become parents (as well as aunts/uncles, mentors, teachers, friends etc) of children that remind us of ourselves when we were at their age. In this way, the experience — and even just the possibility — of parenthood can help us extend the scope of our temporal concern towards the wellbeing of our real (or imaged) children and their descendants.
A way to imagine what it might be like to be born as someone else
If we look closely into the behavior and motivations of other human beings, we should be able to recognize that our own existentialist experience is one of a shared human condition. It then becomes apparent that all human beings are essentially similar in an abstract sense: sentient, anxious, curious souls that are innocent at the moment of their birth and pre-determined to become increasingly self-conscious over time. Of course, our social context, our upbringing and our genetic dispositions are making us unique in some way, but from an existential viewpoint we all would still be the same at the same time. I believe that this conception of existentialist humanism can enable us to identify a common ground to empathize with every human being — in fact with every conscious being — and to develop a self-identity as a species that is gifted and cursed at the same time. Once we take a step back from the struggle of daily time management and imagine, for example, what it might be like if we were to be born as our great grandchildren, (who are “only” 1/8th related to us), it is not that difficult to start caring more about the living conditions of unrelated future humans even after we may be (long) gone.