Is climate change an “existential crisis”?

Published online 24 September 2014.

Naomi Klein has a recent book out, “This Changes Everything,” about climate change.  I am still waiting for my copy to come in the mail, so I apologize for not being able to say anything of substance about the book.  But at any rate Klein is in the news today, with this comment:

TORONTO, Sept. 23 (Xinhua) — Climate change is an “existential crisis for human species”, wrote a Canadian author as world leaders gathered at the UN headquarters in New York for a climate summit on Tuesday.

Much as I tend to agree with most everything Naomi Klein says, here I can’t.  Climate change isn’t an existential crisis for the human species, at least not yet.  To be clear, a definition of “existential crisis.”  Yeah, from Wikipedia, but even the Wikipedia entry cites another source:

An existential crisis is a moment at which an individual questions the very foundations of their life: whether their life has any meaning, purpose or value

The Wikipedia piece continues on to discuss how the questioning of life’s meaning takes place in a world of freedom; as Jean-Paul Sartre said, “humankind is ‘condemned’ to freedom.”But in real life in the present day (and here I ask you, dear readers, to step aside from mid-20th-century philosophy for a moment), adults, thinking adults in a philosophic sense, are the ones who question the foundations of their lives, and it’s generally those who are doing well who can see themselves as “free.”  And as for the world’s leaders?  The politicians will say anything to present a public-relations veneer, whereas what George Carlin called the “real owners” of our society are consumed by the narcissistic pursuit of capital accumulation.  Present-day lives are, then, lived in a system so ironclad, so hemmed in by technology, by economic compulsion, and by the system’s geographic domination of the Earth’s surface, that they are for the most part lived beyond questioning.  For climate change to be an “existential crisis,” humanity would have to be doing a lot more in terms of questioning than it currently does.

(Yeah, I know, there was a glorious rally in NYC this weekend.  It’s a start!)

There are, of course, different types of people, living in different situations.  For the most part the individual’s situation is economic, but to a certain extent in understanding the various positionings of the world’s people (i.e. those portions of social identity each of us is compelled to assume), we can observe cultural status, gender, and political geographies.  Human beings exist within a world-system, with a core of nations dedicated to accumulation and a periphery in which extraction occurs.  In the global periphery, the few who belong to what we would call a “middle class” are too busy staying out of poverty, while the vast lower classes attempt each day to make a living.  In the global core, the middle classes are still embedded in a matrix of consumer products, roads and freeways, individual units of private property, and so on.  David Byrne was only dreaming when he sung this song:

The lower classes today live the lives more or less discussed in Jennifer Silva’s Coming Up Short: claiming to depend upon nobody but themselves, they live a dystopia that could only be the product of neoliberal ideology.

Generally, then, the world of today is the product of what Philip Mirowski calls the “neoliberal thought collective,” with most of its adult human residents compelled more-or-less to be the “utility-maximizing individuals” that the economics textbooks of mainstream economics claim they are.

In light of this, I would propose that we organize a vast movement, penetrating all of humanity’s institutions as well as what Karl Marx called its “reserve labor army,” in which both education and activism combine forces — and maybe at some point, hopefully soon, with increases in internal well-being and philosophic maturity, the human species can be brought to a point at which it can in fact have an existential crisis about abrupt climate change.



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