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COP26: What’s the Point?

image of Sisyphus rolling bolder uphill

The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference is taking place in Glasgow, Scotland. COP26 – as it’s otherwise known – has been touted by many as one of, if not the last, chance to avert the existential threat brought on by man-made climate change, biodiversity collapse, and deforestation.

In an impassioned speech, the naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough urged delegates to set aside their differences, stop chasing short-term gains, and see the bigger picture. He highlighted that actions, not promises, are necessary to reduce carbon in the atmosphere and save the global ecosystem alongside countless human and non-human lives. Sir David stressed that when discussing the people impacted by climate change, we no longer think about those yet to be born. Indeed, gone are the days when we talk about our grandchildren or great-grandchildren feeling climate change’s impacts. Instead, the effects are being felt by people alive today, and these impacts will affect the next generation in ways almost unthinkable.

Despite the seriousness of the topic (and indeed, the task at hand), Attenborough struck a hopeful tone, concluding:

If working apart we are a force powerful enough to destabilize our planet, surely working together, we are powerful enough to save it. In my lifetime, I’ve witnessed a terrible decline. In yours, you could, and should, witness a wonderful recovery. That desperate hope, ladies and gentlemen, delegates, excellencies, is why the world is looking to you and why you are here.

COP26 may be the turning point that so many of us hope it will be. While the effects of the increased levels of carbon already in the atmosphere will be felt for decades to come, some claim it is not too late to reverse course in the long term. Apocalyptic climate change might be avoided if every industry, country, company, and conglomerate bands together and acts not in self-interest but the interest of others. Technologies and policies need creating, not to improve things now but to benefit the planet and those living on it for decades or even centuries to come.

But, history’s shown that humanity’s terrible at thinking long-term and long-distance. After all, we’ve suspected that climate change would cause global devastation for over a century. Yet, when called upon to act, we’ve collectively shrugged and said it was someone else’s problem – that someone else being future generations. As British Prime Minister Boris Johnson noted, “[h]umanity has long since run down the clock on climate change. It is one minute to midnight on that doomsday clock, and we need to act now.” If our past is any indication, while we may need to act now, we probably won’t.

So, one has to ask what the point of COP26 is? If the chances of us doing anything to avoid sleepwalking (or, more accurately, apathetically stumbling while distracted by our brilliance) into a man-made climate oblivion are minute, why should we expend time, effort, and collateral worrying about the inevitable? How can we carry on knowing it’s all going to come crashing down and that our efforts are ultimately pointless?

The latter question was of central focus for the French Philosopher Albert Camus with both his philosophical essays and fictional works addressing life’s meaninglessness. Or, more accurately, how to grasp meaning when all our worldly achievements amount to nothing. As he illustrates in the opening line to his work, The Myth of Sisyphus, “[t]here is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” His reasoning for this is simple. Everything rests upon answering this question. Without knowing why life matters, we can’t be certain anything we do in our lives has a point, including morality, knowledge, passion, justice, etc. Without a clear answer to why life matters, we are left with no reason why we shouldn’t just end it all right now. As a quote often misattributed to Camus captures nicely, “[s]hould I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?” Without meaning, both are valid options.

Unlike other philosophers, Camus thought the correct response to existence’s triviality was not through ignorance, evasion, or despair, but embracement. Camus proposes we should accept that our efforts will amount to naught and that our lives and accomplishments will quickly be forgotten. These things are simply part and parcel of living in a universe lacking a benevolent god’s preordained plan. It is just the way things are, and to try and do anything other than embrace those facts is to deny life itself. To illustrate this, Camus draws upon the titular Myth of Sisyphus.

In most versions, Sisyphus was a feature of ancient Greek mythology punished by the gods for twice tricking Thanatos, the literal embodiment of death. By way of punishment, Sisyphus is forced, for all eternity, to roll a boulder up a hill all day, only to have it roll back down whenever he gets near the top. Thus, never seeing any progress and benefit for his actions; a purposeless task occupying a pointless existence.

Like us, Sisyphus is trapped by circumstances beyond his control and forced to undertake a meaningless undertaking. The difference is that our pointless task is life itself. Much like Sisyphus, when we die, nothing ultimately changes. No universal plans will have been advanced, nor any of our impacts on the earth last for more than a couple of millennia.

But, Camus sees Sisyphus not as a depressive cautionary tale but as an inspiration. For him, despite being faced with an existence devoid of a grand meaning, we should simply do what we can. We must triumph over the hopelessness of life by seeking out meaning where we can find it and acknowledge that while this is absurd, so is the universe. When concluding The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus writes, “[o]ne must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Yes, acknowledging this leads one to oblivion’s edge, but it also forces one to engage with life more fully. Embracing existence’s absurdity gives one license to disregard the nay-sayers, enjoy life’s pleasures (something Camus did with enthusiasm), and “to live and to create, in the very midst of the desert.” Thus, Camus provides a road map for dealing with life’s meaninglessness.

This approach to existence provides us with more than mere despair when considering the likelihood of addressing climate change. It might be the case that our efforts to address the impending man-made climate crisis fail. That our nature as finite beings, devoid of divine guidance, prevents us from looking beyond our shortsightedness. But, this doesn’t mean that the task of trying to make a difference is itself meaningless. On the contrary, this task can be given meaning if we imbue it with such. Fighting against the inevitable may seem absurd, but so is everything else we do. Indeed, the universe itself, with its gravity, black holes, hummingbirds, earthquakes, x-men, and suntan lotion, is nothing but absurdity. So, why should we think that our lives should be any different? Why should the absurd task of saving the world from climate change be notably outrageous compared to everything else?

Graduation: A Moment of Upheaval

photograph of graudation programs on rows of empty chairs

Even in normal circumstances May represents a moment of disruption and distress as seniors transition out of college into the post-grad life. At this time last year, some would go straight into their careers, some prepared for graduate school, some planned to move out of the country to teach English, and some yet took a break and tried to figure out their next move.

The Class of 2020 will see their college career end in an unexpected and abrupt way. And while they will be robbed of the many meaningful farewell moments of the final weeks, the Class of 2020 will experience what every preceding graduating class has experienced: the end.

Despite the variance in circumstance, our feelings before we set off are likely the same: sadness about the end. Seemingly just as the seeds of relationships and daily routines took root, watered by the unique sense of community and stability only offered by a university campus, the hoe of finality came down and tore those roots out. We will never live that life again.

In the waning weeks of any usual last semester, seniors conduct final run-throughs of their favorite social rituals, staples of their college lives that would soon no longer be. There is a mad scramble to fit in as much as possible into those waning weeks and days, as if four years had not been enough time. Then names are called and diplomas were given.

Once the moment is over, it is over. No member of the Class of 2020 can ever retrieve it, revisit it, or relive it outside of their individual memory. Realizing that, of course, is what anchors you in the feeling of sadness and longing.

Be it the loss of a relative, the severing of a relationship, or the end of a fun vacation; big or small, tragic or happy—some things stay with us and encumber our progress forward through time. After an experience such as that, we jostle with some variation of the question: How do I find satisfaction in the present again? The answer, obviously, does not lie in longing for the past. Yet we do.

Certainly, we do ourselves a disservice by not moving forward. But what role should the past play in our present life? What relationship with our past to we owe ourselves?

Envying the Forgetful Cattle

In his On the Uses & Disadvantages of History for Life, Friedrich Nietzsche writes that humans are jealous of animals’ happiness:

“Consider the cattle, grazing as they pass you by: they do not know what is meant by yesterday or today, they leap about, eat, rest, digest, leap about again, and so from morn till night and from day to day, fettered to the moment and its pleasure or displeasure, and thus neither melancholy nor bored. This is a hard sight for man to see… he cannot help envying them their happiness.” 

Of course, sometimes we would all prefer to eat, rest, digest, and leap about but what Nietzsche is asserting is that the cow is happy because it retains nothing of the past and anticipates nothing of the future.

Nietzsche expounds: “In the case of the smallest or of the greatest happiness […] it is always the same thing that makes happiness happiness: the ability to forget.” The ability to forget is the key to happiness, or so the German Existentialist would argue. But Nietzsche notes that is impossible for people to do. He observes a human “cannot learn to forget but clings relentlessly to the past.” A person’s fixation with the past ends up defining the present moment, preventing the person from enjoying it and thus ensuring that it is wasted.

And so are we destined to be like the man he describes in his passage?

“Then the man says, ‘I remember’ and envies the animal, who at once forgets and for whom every moment really dies, sinks back into night and fog and is extinguished for ever…”

Perhaps some would argue that we should strive to be more like the forgetful cattle and simply, however contrary to our human nature, live in the present at all moments; thus, never longing for the past and never being anxious about the future. Perhaps then we can be happy again. But however appealing the happy life of leaping about and grazing may sound, it is absent of many qualities that characterize a good life.

Remembering a “Moment”

Noted screenwriter Aaron Sorkin delivered a commencement address from Syracuse University’s graduating class of 2012. Among many insightful anecdotes and useful pieces of advice, he said the following, contradicting Nietzsche’s prescription:

“Baseball players say they don’t have to look to see if they hit a home run, they can feel it. So I wish for you a moment—a moment soon—when you really put the bat on the ball, when you really get a hold of one and drive it into the upper deck, when you feel it. When you aim high and hit your target, when just for a moment all else disappears, and you soar with wings as eagles. The moment will end as quickly as it came, and so you’ll have to have it back, and so you’ll get it back no matter what the obstacles.”

The past plays a central role in Sorkin’s prescription. There will be a moment that will end as quickly as it came. It will die, sink back into the night and fog, extinguished forever. But you will have to have it back. And it is in pursuit of reliving that fleeting moment when you hit your target that will give your life purpose. Sometimes it is those fleeting moments, which exist longer in the past than they ever could in the present that drive an individual, motivating them to move through time.

Indeed, the past plays an important role in our lives. Yes, the beast may lead a life of happiness but it will never remember what made it happy. It will never know ambition because it will never remember what it wants. It will never remember the moment that it realized its passion. It will never remember the moment it fell in love. It will never remember the long-standing joke between friends. In short, it will never long for anything because it will never remember what it would long for.

Happiness may arrive when the past is forgotten. But it entails the loss of meaning, purpose, passion, desire, and sustained relationships. We owe ourselves those things, too.

Moving On

Our relationship with our own past is one of the most important relationships we will have in our lives. Understanding how to forge a good one and tend to it properly is key. We should not aspire to be like the forgetful cattle because they know no motivation for today or tomorrow. But we should not allow the past to shackle us either. Temporally, there is no going back. Time moves forward, and the longer it takes us to realize that the longer we will have wasted the present moment. It is good to move on. It is right to move on. You should move on.

But you should not forget the moments that make it hard to move on. It is those moments that are often worth contemplating but not seeking out to relive exactly. It is those moments that can provide a standard for what we desire from the future, even if it cannot be a carbon-copy of those moments. Indeed, it is only because of past experience that you know what you like and what you don’t like.

Whether its a traumatic experience, like the passing of a friend; or a good experience, like a fun weekend too short; or a bad experience, like a poor performance on the ACT; or a memorable experience, like the laugh produced by a joke, which soon becomes recurring between friends: past moments inform what we seek in the present and future. But moving on can overcome the often crippling longing for the past.

Yes, it is time to move on. And that means acknowledging a moment has gone and will never come again. But it also means striving to find another moment like the one that makes it so difficult to move on and being grateful you had such an experience.

Moral and Existential Lessons from “Chernobyl”

Photograph of Pripyat ferris wheel from inside abandoned building

HBO’s five-part mini-series documenting the 1986 nuclear power plant disaster in the Soviet Union is powerful because of the existential and moral messages it conveys—critical messages for our time.

The explosion takes place in the opening moments of the first episode. Right out of the gate, there is a clear juxtaposition between the childlike naiveté demonstrated by the control room operators on one hand, and the microcosm of the universe that is the nuclear explosion on the other. For many of the characters, the magnitude of the event is, quite literally, beyond comprehension. At one point, a disbelieving middle manager orders an employee to climb to the top of the tower and stare directly down at the ruptured core. We are reminded of Nietzsche’s admonition that, “if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” He turns back in a silent report on what he has seen—his face like a Munch painting, signs of deadly radiation damage already clear.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus describes the absurdity of the human experience. There are moments when this absurdity hits us with full force—the universe is not the kind of thing that cares about the desires of human beings. Camus describes these moments of recognition, “At this point of his effort man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for rationality. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.” At Chernobyl, rather than silence, the indifference is signaled by a ceaseless, pulsating hum.

Camus also describes absurd heroes—people who, in full recognition of the absurdity of their situation, respond to that absurdity authentically. The miniseries tells the true stories of the truly stunning number of people who were willing to charge into situations in which completion of the required task was unlikely and death was seemingly certain. In this way, it is an inspiring tale of human resilience and spirit.

In fact, despite the existential premise, much of the story motivates the intuition that, despite our insignificance from the perspective of the universe, the choices we make now really do matter now, and that virtue should be pursued and vice avoided. Chernobyl was a disaster of unimaginable proportions, but were it not for the actions of those who gave their health and even their lives in the service of others, it could have been much worse. The series highlights the value of courage as a virtue. It also explores the perils of blind ambition as a vice. The accident happened as a result of decisions that had foreseeable bad consequences, but those involved in the bad decision-making valued their own promotion over the safety of others.

Some of the most significant lessons from Chernobyl are epistemic—they have to do with how we form our beliefs and what we regard as knowledge. The tragedy of Chernobyl highlights the consequences of confusing power with expertise. This message is always important and is especially salient today. Chernobyl demonstrates how dangerous fallacious appeals to authority can be. Sometimes, powerful figures are presumed to be truth tellers or experts simply because they happen to be in power. Attaining knowledge can be hard work, and we should respect the process. This doesn’t mean that we should blindly accept the pronouncements of anyone with a PhD, but we should recognize that, for example, physicists know more about nuclear reactions than government bureaucrats. Similarly, climate scientists know more about global warming than presidents or the CEOs of oil companies.

Viewers are left with a better understanding of how dangerous it can be when people are put in charge of things that they know very little about. Powerful positions should not be doled out based on nepotism or on past support or level of loyalty, but should instead be based on knowledge base and experience level. Lack of qualification is easily obfuscated when times are good. Perhaps these appointments should always be made with the understanding that times can get very, very bad extremely quickly.

The series also speaks to the peril to which wishful thinking can give rise. Some beliefs are comforting, pleasant, and familiar. These aren’t good reasons for thinking those beliefs are true. When lives are on the line, it is important that we believe and act on what the best evidence supports, rather than believing whatever our strongest desires motivate us to believe.

Finally, the series is about the importance of speaking truth to power. Truth telling is important because lies have consequences—especially when those lies are about the finer details of nuclear power plants. When the government is the body doing the lying, the effects are vast. Speaking truth to power is about more than consequences however; it is also about dignity and authenticity. A person exercises autonomy of a crucial sort when they refuse to abandon their responsiveness to reasons when faced with the coerciveness of power. Such an act makes the statement that facts don’t cease to be facts because they are inconvenient for the powerful. 

We learn from Chernobyl that the consequences of letting lust for power and the fear of looking foolish can be, in the right circumstances, complete global catastrophe. There are forces that dwarf the significance of fragile human egos. Perhaps those forces should properly humble us, as we do our best to understand them.