THE MARK OF THE SACRED
By Jean-Pierre Dupuy, M. B. DeBevoise
Stanford University Press Copyright © 2008 Carnets Nord
All rights reserved.
Imagining the End
A PERSONAL JOURNEY
Staring at Catastrophe
It is my profound belief that humanity is on a suicidal course, headed straight for catastrophe. I speak of catastrophe in the singular, not to designate a single event, but a whole system of disruptions, discontinuities, and basic structural changes that are the consequence of exceeding critical thresholds. Feeding on one another and growing in strength, the calamities we are witnessing today herald an age of unprecedented violence. My heart sinks when I think of the future that awaits my children and their own children. Anyone who hopes that the present century will escape the horrors of the previous one will already have forgotten the inconceivable brutality of that gruesome September day in 2001. There is a widespread expectation that science and technology will come to our rescue, as they have always done in the past. When I was a child, we were taught in school that the misfortunes of humanity were all due to the fact that scientific progress had not been accompanied by a comparable advance in moral wisdom. Science is pure and noble, but human beings are still weighed down by evil and sin. The naiveté of this lesson beggars belief.
I owe to Ivan Illich, that great critic of industrial society and one of my mentors, the insight that humanity has always had to be on its guard against three types of threat, and not simply the two that immediately come to mind: the brute force of nature and the brutality of human beings—the earthquakes that reduce glorious cities to rubble and the barbarism that massacres, mutilates, and rapes their inhabitants in time of war. By learning more about nature, human beings have partially succeeded in taming it; by better understanding the mechanisms of hatred and vengeance, they have come to see that it is possible to live in peace with their enemies, and in this way to build lasting civilizations.
But there is a third front on which it is much more difficult to fight, for here the enemy is ourselves. We do not recognize this enemy, though it has our own features. Sometimes we suppose it to be the agent of a malign and treacherous Nature, sometimes of a malevolent and vengeful Nemesis. Yet the evil that besieges us from this direction is a consequence of our own faculty of action, which is to say our ability to irreversibly set in motion processes that are liable to turn against us, with lethal effect. As a great admirer of the work of Hannah Arendt, Illich was well aware that this faculty operates first of all upon human beings. Words and deeds, separately or in combination, create stories for which no single person can claim authorship, and that sometimes end in tragedy. It is from the primordial experience of action acquiring autonomy in relation to the intentions of actors that not only the idea of the sacred, but also religion, tragic drama, and politics—so many real and symbolic systems that serve to set limits to the capacity to act—were born. The wholly novel character of modern societies founded on science and technology derives from the fact that they are capable of unleashing irreversible processes in and on nature itself.
Fifty years ago, with extraordinary prescience, Arendt analyzed this transformation of action in her major work, The Human Condition. The droughts, hurricanes, and tsunamis we are now witnessing—and indeed the weather itself (which has always served as a metonym for nature)—are increasingly the products of our behavior. We will not have made them, in the sense of fabrication, for this activity (called poiesis by the Greeks), unlike action (praxis), has not only a beginning but also an end, in both senses of the word: goal and terminus. Instead they will be the unanticipated results of a sequence of events that we have initiated, often without knowing it or intending it.
One of the chief threats weighing upon the future of mankind, it is commonly said, is the energy crisis. The crisis is real: our civilization is founded on the proliferation of mechanical devices designed to satisfy our many needs, and soon there will not be enough fuel to keep them going. But in fact there is no energy shortage; indeed, the very phrase ought to be banned—as energetically as possible! It is quite true, of course, that fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal) are nearing exhaustion, and that they will have disappeared well before the end of the century if emerging powers such as China, India, and Brazil persist in blithely following the same path of development we have chosen. It is also true that alternative energies are not yet at hand. Dark clouds can already be seen gathering on the horizon, portents of a merciless war between the great commercial nations, which can be counted on to fight one another with desperate ferocity for possession of the last barrel of oil and the last ton of coal. Increasing pressure on prices, amplified by a major financial crisis, may well degenerate into widespread panic. Libertarian and other conservative economists, placing their faith in the efficiency of market mechanisms they trust to make whatever substitutions are necessary, discount the prospect of catastrophe: new reserves, as though by a miracle, will rapidly grow in number, for it will now be profitable to mine deposits that are not easily accessible, both on land and beneath the sea; energies that used not to be economical to produce, such as solar energy and biofuels, will suddenly become economical, and so on.
But this faith merely conceals the extreme gravity of the threat posed by climate change. Allow me to cite a figure that every citizen of the world, every person in a position to decide policy, even at a very modest level, ought to know and reflect upon. The technical advisors to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) cannot say precisely what the average rise in global temperature will be between now and the end of the century. They do know, however, that half of this uncertainty results from an unknown, namely, which policies for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions will be adopted in the coming years and decades. This situation presents an interesting case of circular causation from the philosopher's point of view, since the policies that are adopted will themselves depend upon the way in which the seriousness of the threat is analyzed—and this analysis depends in part on the uncertainty that hampers forecasts of the extent of global warming.
The same experts fear that climate change will have dreadful consequences. I do not wish to dwell on this point, for anyone who wishes to inform himself—and it would be either criminal or insane not to do so—is able to choose from among a large number of excellent studies. I should like simply to emphasize the following aspect of the matter: if the trends so far observed continue, the climate system will enter into a chaotic state that will cause a set of key variables to reach critical values (popularly known as tipping points). Exceeding these thresholds will trigger in turn a series of irreversible and catastrophic events, amplifying a self-reinforcing dynamic that may be likened to a plunge into the abyss. The deep circulation of the Atlantic may be altered, for example, bringing about a secular cooling trend in Europe that would have dramatic implications for agricultural production; or the permafrost that covers much of the Arctic regions may melt, releasing gigantic quantities of methane, one of the most dangerous greenhouse gases; or the Arctic ice cap may shrink further, causing sea levels to rise throughout the Northern Hemisphere. We do not know exactly where these thresholds lie. When they are discovered, it will be because they have already been exceeded, at which point it will be too late.
I now come to the figure that I promised to reveal a moment ago: one-third. If we wish to avoid the irremediable disaster that an increase of three degrees Celsius (fractionally more than five degrees Fahrenheit) in the average global temperature by the end of the century would represent, humanity must force itself not to extract from the earth more than one-third of its presently known carbon deposits, in the form of oil, gas, and coal. It is not scarcity that should concern us, then, but an overabundance of fossil resources: we have three times too much. If more than a third of this supply is used up, the spontaneous dynamics of the market will produce an uncontrollable stampede in which the weakest will be trampled in a mad rush by governments and corporations and individuals to claim the last remaining resources for themselves.
Popular opinion has begun to show signs of a growing awareness of the mounting peril, but there is little sense of urgency. Official reports such as the Stern Review, issued by the British government, and films such as Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth have shaken public complacency, the first by showing that it would be much less expensive to fight climate change than to let the world economy collapse under the effects of environmental degradation, the second by playing on emotions and fear. This joint appeal to the heart and the wallet notwithstanding, one often hears it said, by the highest government officials, that two dangers threaten the survival of the human race: the growing scarcity of fossil resources and a warming climate. The use of the conjunction here reveals a logical error: if the climate is becoming warmer, then resources are not scarce; they are overabundant. There is no better illustration why the various elements of what at the outset I called the catastrophe must not be considered in isolation from one another. In doing this, one risks concluding the opposite of the truth.
It is a remarkable fact that many—though by no means all—scientists are far more clear-sighted regarding these matters than the general public. It is remarkable because they courageously confront a truth that is ever so inconvenient for them: the civilization they have helped to create, based on the unrestrained development of science and technology, is in danger of dying. In January 2007, the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, renowned for his work in cosmology, and Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal of Great Britain, advanced the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock by two minutes. Three years later, it was pushed back by one minute. In January 2012, it was moved forward again by a minute, so that we are now only five minutes from midnight—the moment when humanity will have annihilated itself. The Doomsday Clock was established in 1947 by a group of physicists who were shocked, somewhat belatedly, by the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The clock was to be administered by the governing board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a journal devoted to warning the public of the dangers posed by this new and incomparably powerful weapon of mass destruction. In the first year of its existence, at the beginning of the nuclear age, the hand of the clock was set at seven minutes before midnight. Since then it has been moved forward and pushed back twenty times. In i953, when the United States and the Soviet Union tested thermonuclear devices within nine months of each other, the needle came closest to midnight, separated from it by only two minutes. In 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, it was pushed back to seventeen minutes, the earliest setting since the clock's inception; then advanced to seven minutes, in 2002, following the terrorist attacks of the previous year in New York and Washington.
We stand today five minutes from midnight, which is to say two minutes closer than in i947. Three arguments are put forward to justify this sinister prognostication. First, there is the fact that humanity has entered into a second nuclear age, in which the dangers of continuing proliferation are now aggravated by terrorism. Additionally, the taboo against using the bomb that prevailed after Hiroshima and Nagasaki has begun to lose its force—a result of the passage of time and creeping forgetfulness. Finally, and for the first time in the history of the Doomsday Clock, a reason has been advanced that has nothing to do with the nuclear threat. It has to do instead with the risks associated with climate change.
Some of the greatest scientists of the age therefore recognize that humanity can do away with itself in one of two ways: either through internal violence—civil war on a global scale—or through destruction of the natural environment necessary to its survival. These two methods are evidently not independent of each other. The first tragic manifestations of a warming climate will not be a rise in the level of the oceans, the increasing frequency of heat waves and other extreme weather events, or the drying up of entire regions of the planet, but rather the conflicts and wars caused by the massive migrations that anticipation of these events will provoke. The Norwegian Nobel Committee laid emphasis on exactly this point in awarding the Nobel Peace Prize jointly to Al Gore and the IPCC in 2007.
The destruction of nature produces violence, and violence destroys nature in return. Human beings do not destroy nature because they hate it. They destroy it because, in hating one another, they fail to take due care to protect the third parties that are liable to be injured by their conflict—foremost among them the natural environment. Indifference and blindness kill many more living things than hatred alone.
Some scientists mention a third threat to the survival of humanity: the unrestrained competition to develop advanced technologies and to bring about their "convergence." It is remarkable that they should take notice of such a threat, for it is precisely on this technology race that the world is counting in order to be able to cope with the other threats. But what if, as we may well ask, the cure were to prove worse than the disease?
Scientists cannot avoid being the bearers of bad news: they have, as Martin Rees makes clear, special obligations. Alas, their warnings have not been heard. Signs of the catastrophic future that awaits us, of the chaotic disruption of the climate to come and the unprecedented violence that will result from it, remain largely unheeded. The prophets of doom are mocked and jeered. In a world dominated by economic rivalry, the relationship to the future is conceived in terms of price movements that anticipate future scarcities. This is why imaginary energy shortages have overtaken the climate threat in the popular mind: the climate threat is too abstract to comprehend. Even when we see catastrophe staring us in the face, we do not believe what we know to be the case. In part this is because the willingness of a community to recognize the existence of a risk depends on the degree to which it is convinced that solutions exist. Many, if not most, business executives and political leaders today understand that radical changes in our way of life are the price that must be paid for avoiding disaster; but because this price—amounting to a renunciation of "progress"—seems to them exorbitant, they inevitably succumb to what the philosopher Günther Anders called "blindness toward the Apocalypse."
The problem, then, is that catastrophe is not believable: it is held to be possible only once it has occurred, and by that point it is too late. This obstacle can be overcome, I believe, only if an utterly new metaphysical conception is adopted of our relationship to time, which I have called enlightened doomsaying. One cannot help but be struck by the fact that, in France at least, the technocracy is by and large much more alert to the seriousness of the problem than the general public. But its role is to propose solutions, not to play Cassandra. The admirably rigorous work of one senior civil servant in particular, Henri Prévot, has shown that if France were to commit itself to a program of cutting greenhouse-gas emissions by two-thirds in the next thirty or forty years, it would benefit from doing this, even if it were obliged to act alone; and, what is more, that such a program could be carried out without either excessive expenditures or major changes in the way people are accustomed to live today. It nevertheless would require a drastic overhaul of the country's economic infrastructure, and therefore could succeed only if there were an unwavering political determination to put it into effect without delay—which brings us back once more to the question of the state of public opinion.
Excerpted from THE MARK OF THE SACRED by Jean-Pierre Dupuy, M. B. DeBevoise. Copyright © 2008 Carnets Nord. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press.
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