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.

 
 
 
 

The Fire Brigades Union’s statement on Theresa May’s resignation is completely damning

Grenfell Tower. Image: Getty.

Just after 10 this morning, Theresa May announced that she would resign as Britain’s prime minister on 7 June. A mere half an hour later, a statement from Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire arrived in my inbox with a ping:

“The news that Theresa May will step down as Prime Minister leaves the country in limbo while the clock ticks down to the latest deadline of 31 October. While much is uncertain, one thing remains clear – a no deal is no option for architecture or the wider construction sector. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister must focus on taking the country forward with policies beyond Brexit that tackle the major challenges facing the country such as the housing crisis and climate change emergency.”

I was a bit baffled by this – why would the architecture profession try to get its thoughts into a political story? But then Merlin Fulcher of Architects Journal put me right:

Well you know construction is a larger contributor to GDP than financial services, and most of the work UK architects do is for export, and at least half of the largest practice (Foster + Partners) are EU, so there's a lot at stake

— Merlin Fulcher (@merlinfulcher) May 24, 2019

So, the thoughts of the RIBA president are an entirely legitimate thing to send to any construction sector-adjacent journalists who might be writing about today’s big news, and frankly I felt a little silly.

Someone else who should be feeling more than a little silly, though, is Theresa May herself. When listing her government’s achievements, such as they were, she included, setting up “the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower” – a fire in a West London public housing block in June 2017 – “to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, is having precisely none of this. Here’s his statement:

“Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.”

A total of 72 people died in the Grenfell fire. At time of writing, nobody has been prosecuted.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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