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With the release of the IPCC report at the end of the summer came a lot of worry about our future. I’ve noticed many connections between climate anxiety, social responsibility, and philosophy since beginning to study existentialism—particularly in the readings of Jean Paul Sartre.
In thinking about nothingness and negation, the philosopher Sartre suggests that only humans have the capability to destroy because we deem things “as fragile and as precious and because [we adopt] a system of protective measures with regard to them” (86).
We allot meaning to the cities we create, for example. They are valuable places of infrastructure where people carry out their lives. Because of their preciousness and their possibility of not-being, we determine cities to be destroyable. A big distinction Sartre makes between human destruction and disasters via natural processes (tornadoes, hurricanes) is that natural processes don’t truly destroy – they simply shift masses of matter into a before and after. There’s still something there, it’s just changed form. Nature will always find equilibrium, but humans and our structures can end up being collateral damage in the meantime.
Sartre also emphasizes that the actions of an individual define the behavior of all of humankind (37). Our actions as a collective are extremely important for solving the climate crisis, but the decisions and actions of a select few (*ahem* CEOs of the top 100 companies responsible for 71% of greenhouse gas emissions) are currently philosophically and physically making decisions for the future of all of mankind.
Sartre’s idea of anguish in the face of the past is at play in the sense that prior promises to tackle the climate crisis made by world leaders don’t necessarily guarantee their actions in the present. Climate change also brings anguish in the face of the future: the possibility of moving into the future in the mode of not being (124). Many people, especially communities already feeling the effects of climate change and concerned younger generations, are moving ahead with plenty of anguish that we will be in the mode of “not being” simply because there won’t be a sustainable world to live on.
Some people flee from anguish using “reassuring myths” (143); for example, companies denying the reality of what’s happening and focusing on personal gain.
But as Sartre says, “I can not avoid knowing that I am fleeing; and the flight from anguish is only a mode of becoming conscious of anguish” (143). These feelings can inform us of how to behave to shape our own states of being and claim our future, hopefully for the better.