Could existentialism be the key to tackling climate change?

An existentialist: Jean Paul Satre (left), with film director Jean-Luc Goddard, in 1971. Image: Getty.

The evidence of human-induced climate change is clear. At minimum, climate change will cost us dearly due to the economic impacts and lives lost from the increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events. At worst, it presents an existential threat.

Living in North American cities often means heavy reliance on the automobile. Many planners have been calling for changes to how we develop our cities. They hope to reduce automobile use and its environmental burdens, especially carbon emissions that are a factor behind climate change.

When it comes to urban planning, the question is not so much how to physically plan our cities and suburbs differently: there are many well thought-out planning tools and techniques already. Rather, the question is how to convince both the public and our politicians to implement change.

Planners and politicians have pitched public transit and cycling infrastructure projects as a matter of increasing choice to a weary public still largely dependent on cars. We built our cities around the car. So it would only seem fair that we should now make provisions for those that choose alternate ways of getting around.

But how can we expect broad reductions in car use from the approach of pitching expanding choices to the public, when clearly, our consumption behaviour needs to be changed and limited?

An unexpected resurgent philosophical movement, existentialism may provide some assistance. This philosophy emphasises the dynamic between individual choice and collective impacts.

These choices are at the core of public policies of all sorts. To counter the damage of carbon emissions, we need to change the guiding philosophy behind approaches to address climate change in cities.

The failure of market-driven individual choice

Like most aspects of our lives, planning is shaped by philosophies of how we think the world works, or ought to work. It is perhaps not surprising then that the rhetoric of increasing choice has become more prevalent in recent years.

After all, we live in an age that values individualism and where market-driven views of the world have become more dominant. People are increasingly depicted as consumers, as opposed to residents or citizens, and increasing consumption choices is seen as inherently beneficial.

Unfortunately, pitching alternatives to the car as a means to increase our choices will likely undermine the success of carbon emission reduction initiatives. Public transit and bike lanes are often implemented to help attract new residents with pre-existing preferences for these transport modes into previously declining or otherwise struggling neighbourhoods.

This shift contributes to what has become called “green gentrification”. That is the displacement of people with lower incomes to more car-oriented suburbs due to the growing demand for housing in areas with alternative transportation infrastructures.

The possibility of broad reductions in emissions is limited not only because of the displacement of communities but also because these new projects do not serve the large share of the population currently living in low-density suburbs. Anyone may “choose” not to participate in reducing their emissions. A change in the way we view choice may help, and this is where existentialism may hold some potential.


A collective conscience

Existentialism is a philosophy that became popular in the 1940s, emphasising individual freedoms in the face of Fascism. The root of existentialism as a philosophy is often attributed to the ideas of Husserl, Jaspers and Heidegger. The philosophy became more explicitly defined through the works of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and in particular Jean-Paul Sartre.

Existentialists are often seen as highly pragmatic, which makes it an appealing philosophy for an applied discipline such as planning. Existentialism focuses on questions about the ways we experience life. Individual freedom and the ability to question are two fundamental existentialist axioms. Our existence is determined, from an existentialist view, mainly by our actions, although it does also acknowledge constraints we cannot control.

Existentialist philosophy has seen a bit of revival in recent years. For instance, the immense success of Sarah Bakewell’s book, At The Existentialist Café, named one of the Top 10 books of 2016 by the New York Times, suggests a renewed appetite for existentialist ideas. One reason for the revival may be the congruence between existentialist ideas about individual freedoms and our growing individualistic society.

But, importantly, existentialism also includes a collective conscience. As Sartre noted: “Am I really a man who is entitled to act in such a way that the entire human race should be measuring itself by my actions?”

In other words, the philosophy argues that individual freedoms cannot be preserved if all individuals are completely free to choose their actions. The reference point for making decisions then becomes the impact our individual actions would have on society as a whole if everyone else modelled their actions after ours.

Reduce your carbon emissions now

If existentialism is making a comeback, it may provide precisely the philosophical fodder planners, and other policymakers, need to help the public understand why solving collective problems, such as climate change, may require restricting some choices and not only creating new ones.

If everyone continues to drive carbon-emitting cars, current and future generations will face severe restrictions on their own choices because of the impacts of climate change.

In an increasingly individualistic society, a philosophy that helps us validate our personal freedoms all the while emphasising our collective responsibilities holds great potential to provide meaning to a large number of people.

The evidence is abundant. We can still reduce some of the effects of climate change by collectively agreeing to reduce carbon emissions now. But the rhetoric of expanding choice is not going to get us there.

Existentialism may provide a new underlying philosophical justification for why people should care about the collective in an age of growing individualism. Well, new-ish, at least.

The Conversation

Markus Moos, Associate professor, University of Waterloo

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.