In Pierre Hadot’s little book, “The Present Alone is Our Happiness,” he says: “I have always conceived of philosophy as a transformation of one’s perception of the world.” This sentiment is one I share with him, in philosophy but also in art.The kinds of art that interest me are those that aim at just this same conception. They are “conceived as a transformation of one’s perception of the world.” My own life-long work in art has had this aim and goal.
As “Our Gallant Ship” enters its second year, this is the goal I would like to set out front. During its first year, 2019, I published much about climate change, climate science, and all the various political and social dynamics that surround and (often) envelope it. But, along the way, back in May, something happened to me, something spontaneous and on an altogether different level of experience. This experience was so strong that, for a number of months, I did not know what to do or how to proceed. So I paused. I paused for a long time, sensing that, to be honest with myself, I needed to withdraw until I had a better understanding of how to move forward.
Though I have spoken about this with very few people, I will now speak about it openly. Beginning with my next post, I will explore many of the issues that have occupied my thoughts and explorations over the past few months.
“We must accept our existence as completely as possible; everything, even what is inconceivable, is to become possible in it. Basically, the only courage required of us is to be face up to the strange, the marvelous, and the inexplicable. . . . The fear of the inexplicable has impoverished not only the existence of the individual, but also the relations of person to person, it has taken them away from the river of possibilities, to shelter them in a safe place on the bank.” Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, August, 1904
From this day forward, the winter solstice of 2019, I will begin to steer Our Gallant Ship into this deeper water. I will explore how, given the existential crisis we now face, we can learn to “accept our existence as completely as possible,” and allow “everything, even what is inconceivable” to “become possible in it.”
“Nature is no sentimentalist,—does not cosset or pamper us. We must see that the world is rough and surly, and will not mind drowning a man or a woman; but swallows your ship like a grain of dust. The cold, inconsiderate of persons, tingles your blood, benumbs your feet, freezes a man like an apple. The diseases, the elements, fortune, gravity, lightning, respect no persons. The way of Providence is a little rude. The habit of snake and spider, the snap of the tiger and other leapers and bloody jumpers, the crackle of the bones of his prey in the coil of the anaconda,—these are in the system, and our habits are like theirs. You have just dined, and, however scrupulously the slaughter-house is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity,—expensive races,—race living at the expense of race. The planet is liable to shocks from comets, perturbations from planets, rendings from earthquake and volcano, alterations of climate, precessions of equinoxes. Rivers dry up by opening of the forest. The sea changes its bed. Towns and counties fall into it. At Lisbon, an earthquake killed men like flies. At Naples, three years ago, ten thousand persons were crushed in a few minutes. The scurvy at sea; the sword of the climate in the west of Africa, at Cayenne, at Panama, at New Orleans, cut off men like a massacre. Our western prairie shakes with fever and ague. The cholera, the small-pox, have proved as mortal to some tribes, as a frost to the crickets, which, having filled the summer with noise, are silenced by a fall of the temperature of one night. Without uncovering what does not concern us, or counting how many species of parasites hang on a bombyx; or groping after intestinal parasites, or infusory biters, or the obscurities of alternate generation;—the forms of the shark, the labrus, the jaw of the sea-wolf paved with crushing teeth, the weapons of the grampus, and other warriors hidden in the sea,—are hints of ferocity in the interiors of nature. Let us not deny it up and down. Providence has a wild, rough, incalculable road to its end, and it is of no use to try to whitewash its huge, mixed instrumentalities, or to dress up that terrific benefactor in a clean shirt and white neckcloth of a student in divinity.”
. . . .
“The book of Nature is the book of Fate. She turns the gigantic pages,—leaf after leaf,—never returning one. One leaf she lays down, a floor of granite; then a thousand ages, and a bed of slate; a thousand ages, and a measure of coal; a thousand ages, and a layer of marl and mud: vegetable forms appear; her first misshapen animals, zoophyte, trilobium, fish; then, saurians,—rude forms, in which she has only blocked her future statue, concealing under these unwieldy monsters the fine type of her coming king. The face of the planet cools and dries, the races meliorate, and man is born. But when a race has lived its term, it comes no more again.”
. . . .
“The truth is in the air, and the most impressionable brain will announce it first, but all will announce it a few minutes later. So women, as most susceptible, are the best index of the coming hour. So the great man, that is, the man most imbued with the spirit of the time, is the impressionable man,—of a fiber irritable and delicate, like iodine to light. He feels the infinitesimal attractions. His mind is righter than others, because he yields to a current so feeble as can be felt only by a needle delicately poised.”
. . . .
“Let us build altars to the Beautiful Necessity, which secures that all is made of one piece; that plaintiff and defendant, friend and enemy, animal and planet, food and eater, are of one kind. In astronomy, is vast space, but no foreign system; in geology, vast time, but the same laws as today. Why should we be afraid of Nature, which is no other than “philosophy and theology embodied?” Why should we fear to be crushed by savage elements, we who are made up of the same elements? Let us build to the Beautiful Necessity, which makes man brave in believing that he cannot shun a danger that is appointed, nor incur one that is not; to the Necessity which rudely or softly educates him to the perception that there are no contingencies; that Law rules throughout existence, a Law which is not intelligent but intelligence,—not personal nor impersonal,—it disdains words and passes understanding; it dissolves persons; it vivifies nature; yet solicits the pure in heart to draw on all its omnipotence.”
A few days ago I began reading Climate Matters: ethics in a warming world, by John Broome, an economist and moral philosopher. Chapters One and Two are very good, as he introduces the book and lays out the science of climate change in a clear and succinct way. But as soon as I got into chapters 2, 3, 4, 5, I began to feel uncomfortable: something seemed wrong.
When I picked it up again today, I skipped a few chapters and went directly to Chapter 10 on population. It was while reading this chapter that I realized the problem: He never addresses the issue of human suffering. He never addresses the suffering of those who remain alive but who will suffer greatly from day to day, perhaps for their entire lives, in ways that are unimaginable to those of us who live in the industrialized West.
the index, I see that there is only one reference to human suffering
in the entire book and that is on page 180 where he describes
features of climate catastrophe that will be genuinely bad. He lists
three such features. It is the first of his three features that
mentions suffering: “First, global-warming catastrophe will cause
suffering and death to a great many people. There will be starvation.
There will be wars over water and other resources. There will be
deaths from diseases and floods, and from many other causes.”
This is the only time he mentions human suffering. He does address the ethical ramifications of deaths by climate change, but he does not address the massive suffering of those who remain alive. This is striking to me. How can this be? Is suffering not quantifiable?Is it not something that can be put in economic terms?
must lay this book down. I do this because my ‘cost/benefit analysis’
prevents me from reading more at this time. Perhaps I will return to
it in the future.
all of this, I cannot help but think of the words of Pope Francis:
“Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but
rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening
to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover
what each of us can do about it (from Laudato
we do not reach beyond complicated theoretical arguments, and open
ourselves to the suffering of others in a very direct and personal
way, we shall never find our way home.
In the next few weeks, I will focus on hope as it pertains to the present climate disruption. This first meditation is from Thucydides. I offer it without comment, and suggest that the good reader to meditate on the text for an hour or so and try to express the ideas that come to mind. The portion I’ve selected is from the famous Melian Dialogue. This is the discussion in which the Athenians articulate the bald facts of perennial power-politics when they say to the Melians: “since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must (lines 87-89).” Here are the remarks that bear upon the question of hope:
Melians: “It were surely great baseness and cowardice in us who are still free not to try everything that can be tried . . . to submit is to give ourselves over to despair, while action still preserves for us a hope that we may stand erect.”
Athenians: “Hope, danger’s comforter, may be indulged in by those who have abundant resources, if not without loss at all events without ruin; but its nature is to be extravagant, and those who go so far as to put their all upon the venture see it in its true colors only when they are ruined; but so long as the discovery would enable them to guard against it, it is never found wanting. Let not this be the case with you, who are weak and hang on a single turn of the scale; nor be like the vulgar, who, abandoning such security as human means may still afford, when visible hopes fail them in extremity, turn to invisible, to prophecies and oracles, and other such inventions that delude men with hopes to their destruction.”
The words and concepts we use when discussing the negative effects of climate change―warmer weather, more intense storms, drought, sea-level rise—often mask the deeper reality of what these words entail. Especially when discussing the science—the statistics, numbers, graphs, and charts—we lose track of the deeper experience of what this all means. For, in every case, in every statistic and graph, there lies immense and unprecedented suffering for the human species and all sentient life.
Last night, we watched two news reports. The first was a BBC report about air pollution in Mongolia, the other was a follow-up report on Cyclone Idai in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi. Both videos are apocalyptic in scale. And both are harbingers of what is to come.
In his important book, Peace Is Every Step, Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh lists what he calls The 14 Precepts of Inter-Being. Number four speaks most directly to how we should relate to this suffering:
Do not avoid contact with suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world. Find ways to be with those who are suffering, by all means, including personal contact and visits, images, and sound. By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.