Published 07 September 2020
Extinction is a word that gained a new meaning during the bushfire crisis of last summer. This crisis brought into focus the possibility of human extinction in a situation when nature asserted its powers so strongly and unpredictably that they could no longer be controlled. What became crystal clear in the smoke seeping in from under our doors was that there is no escape, nowhere to hide, nowhere to turn when air becomes so thick that breathing is painful and finally impossible, suffocating everyone and everything that met the fires head-on.
Over one billion burnt animals and ecosystems weighed heavily on our minds, and also on our lungs for months, and triggered in many the realisation that we, as a species, are not invincible, that we are not separate from our environment and that we will eventually go down together if we cannot stop destroying what supports and nourishes us. This insight is so simple that it is almost painful to see how human ingenuity continues to be used to explain why it is desirable to keep going just as before, instead of justifying the need for change.
“There is no escape, nowhere to hide, nowhere to turn when air becomes so thick that breathing is painful and finally impossible, suffocating everyone and everything that met the fires head-on.”
Humans have long been celebrated for their ingenuity and, in the history of philosophy, reason has typically been identified as the distinguishing mark of the human species, a mark that elevates our species above all others due to reason’s power to set the mind free from the determining influences of nature. Yet admirable as human reason might be, for some it constituted no more than an Ersatz-capacity. Johann Gottfried Herder for instance argued that humans are fundamentally lacking creatures (Mängelwesen). They lack the specifically adapted organs and instincts that enable animals to fit into a specific environmental niche. To make up for this lack, humans developed reason, which enabled them to live anywhere on the planet.
The question to be asked here is how useful this sort of compensation is. For although humans are endowed with reason, they all too often find it difficult to comprehend the interdependence that connects their own well-being with the health of other species (think of microplastic in fish for instance) and the ecosystems that sustain these species. Because of this interdependence, a lack of physical adaptation does not entail that there is no need to cooperate with nature. As Herder was well-aware, humans, like any other species, form an integral part of the complex causal patterns governing the production and maintenance of life. And this means that if nature does not take care of a species’ cooperation with nature—for instance through the production of physical organs and instincts that fit this species into a particular environmental niche—it is the species itself that has to make sure that it fits in with the environmental patterns sustaining its life.
To formulate this point more negatively, one can say that reason, the much-celebrated capacity of the human species, becomes useless and even self-destructive, if let loose in a world in which the complex interdependences constituting the governing principle of life are ignored. The effects of climate change put this self-destructiveness rather clearly on display by fundamentally challenging human survival.
“Reason, the much-celebrated capacity of the human species, becomes useless and even self-destructive, if let loose in a world in which the complex interdependences constituting the governing principle of life are ignored.”
Ecological interdependences stretch far and wide and take on new forms with each new crisis. Most recently, they manifested in the reality of a virus that does not respect borders or privileges. The harm caused through the ignorance of such interdependences will without doubt multiply and increase the pressure to accept that there is no place for humans outside of nature. And yet how and whether the human species will put this insight to use in the fight against extinction remains to be seen. But if there is a chance of survival, human reason must become something quite different. From its frequent occupation with cost-benefit calculations based on an individualistic conception of the human being and its short-term desires, which is so common in many areas of political decision making, it has to move on to the cultivation of a deep concern with the interdependences of life from which no one can escape. In this orientation, reason will help us to adapt to an increasingly uninhabitable environment. But more importantly, it will enable us to stop the killing of nature that renders this world uninhabitable in the first place.
Anik Waldow is an Associate Professor in the Philosophy Department at the University of Sydney. She mainly works in early modern philosophy and has published articles on the moral and cognitive function of sympathy, theories of personal identity, the role of affect in the formation of the self, skepticism and associationist theories of thought and language. She received a Leverhulme research grant (2014-2016) for the interdisciplinary project “Sympathy and its Reflections in History”, and has an ARC Discovery Project on the “Experimental Self” (2017-19).