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End Times And Ecology: Finding Meaning With Our Planet In Peril

Can the possibility of the end of the world give meaning to life? A French philosopher (and mother of young children) fears the worst but tries to live the best she can.

Smoke on the water
Smoke on the water
Marianne Durano*


DREUX — As I write these lines, I am pregnant with my third child. The first two pick currants in the garden. The birds are singing. The breeze is blowing. Above the roof, a tree sways its palm leaves. And for me ... I am writing an article about the end of the world.

Before any philosophical reflection, two contradictory, but inseparable, feelings haunt my mind: disbelief and guilt. Isn't it criminal to give birth in a world destined for destruction? This question casts its shadow like a scythe over all ecological debates.

We know the success of neo-Malthusian discourses, justified by scientific reports and figures that have been accumulating for decades. Inequalities are increasing, resources are running out, biodiversity is declining, temperatures are increasing, ice is melting, migrants are migrating — and there is a rising degree of anxiety. "What's the use of poets in these times of distress?," said Friedrich Hölderlin. What's the use of children in times of collapse? we are tempted to think. What's the point of living if we have to die?

Formulated in its nakedness, this problem reveals its obscene banality. We create precarious lives, we create perishable works. "We civilizations now know that we are mortal," said Paul Valery long before the first report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The whole of philosophy has taken on the task of thinking about this mortality in order to give meaning to the absurd and offer a response to the what's-the-use attitude it implies.

The answers are varied, but more or less converge on this point: the horizon of death gives meaning to life. It is because my life has an end that it can have a purpose. It is because my time is limited that it must be used wisely. Only the awareness of my finiteness can allow me to carry out a work to the end. The "end" is both the term and the goal. A life, or a work, "completed" is one that is accomplished, both perfect and passed. I bring children into the world wishing them well for all their days, no matter how many they'll have.

The prospect of ecological collapse does not change the terms of this eternal wisdom, but rather radicalizes its lessons. So how can we think of the end of the world? Let us distinguish among three complementary approaches, from the most superficial to the most radical.

First scenario, the most optimistic: we would witness less the end of the world than the end of a world, our own, productivist, consumerist, globalized. It would then be an opportunity to be seized, a possible conversion to a fairer world, "sustainable" development, "green" growth. But this happy hypothesis becomes more utopian with each new free trade agreement. As Donald Trump's tweets, climate summits and garbage heaps accumulate, the hope of such a chosen transition fades away and the prospect of a sustained decline is confirmed.

The threats we're facing now are irreversible and extend to our entire planet.

Second scenario, more realistic: we would see the end of the affluent society. This is the definition of the collapse given by environmentalist and former member of French Parliament Yves Cochet: "Basic needs (water, food, housing, clothing, energy, mobility, security) are no longer provided to a majority of the population by services regulated by law." What are we seeing now in France and elsewhere? The price of energy (fuel, gas, electricity) is rising, while basic services (transport, security, water treatment) are being privatised. The "yellow vests" movement can thus be read as the first jolt of a society that breaks when it comes time to pay the bill. Faced with the predicted chaos, some people arm themselves: the survivalists. Others rely on mutual aid, such as the collapsologist Pablo Servigne.

Yet, however catastrophic it may be, this hypothesis of the end of the political world remains on a human scale: we can think of it, imagine it, turn it into bestsellers. Many societies in the past have disappeared without questioning the very viability of our planet. That is what we are talking about today.

The really dizzying question is not about the end of a world, but about the end of the world: the exorbitant possibility that — by nuclear war or climate change — the world itself will become uninhabitable. It was the fear of the philosopher Günther Anders (The Obsolescence of Man) after Hiroshima or that of Hans Jonas (The Principle of Responsibility) in the face of ecological disaster.

While past crises were limited to a given society and generation, the threats we're facing now are irreversible and extend to our entire planet. Scientists now call it the "sixth mass extinction" to denounce the current destruction of ecosystems. Studies regularly published in scientific journals estimate that 50% of animal and plant species will have disappeared by the end of the century, a disaster that would take the Earth several million years to recover from. By now we know that species, as well, are mortal.

Can we imagine the end of the world then? This is the challenge taken up by the controversial filmmaker Lars von Trier in his very beautiful film, Melancholia. We follow two sisters, one single and suicidal, the other a happy mother, confronted with the imminent approach of a planet that must destroy ours. The former is calmed by the idea that the whole world shares his imminent death, while the latter, desperate, refuses to believe it. The finale is a grandiose metaphor of the human condition, where we see the two women, accompanied by the child, huddled in a fragile reed hut, waiting for the apocalypse. The child, confident, loves those around him one last time before abandoning himself to fate.

I am between these two women and this child, hesitating between morbid resignation and tragic denial. Is there, as always in philosophy, a way to overcome the contradiction, a third way? I think so, and that's why I'm having my third child. I think that the possibility of the end of the world can give meaning to my life, and to the one I feed. Individually, we are responsible, not for the coming disaster, but for the present we must live with. We are not the cause of the end, but the end gives us a cause: to live, here and now, the best possible life.

This is always the lesson of the Ancients, and it is comes at the right time, because this good life they agree on is also the one that can stop the disaster, or help us to survive it. Plato, Aristotle, Epicure, Seneca, Epictetus ... but also Descartes, Montaigne, Pascal, for once, agree: the wise man is sober and joyful, he prefers "to change his desires rather than the order of the world" (Discourse on the Method, part III, Descartes, 1637), does not accumulate the objects of his lust but enjoys life knowing himself mortal.

If we have to lead a simple life, it is not because it is ecologically necessary, but because it is morally desirable.

If we have to lead a simple life, it is not because it is ecologically necessary, but because it is morally desirable. If we must cultivate our individual and collective autonomy, it is not only in order to survive the end of the world, but because it is the real condition of our freedom. If I educate my children in temperance, it is not to prepare them for chaos, but because it is good for them. And if, during their lifetime, the end of the world must come, they will have lived well.

In a few weeks, we will join an "eco-hamlet", located in a village in the Loire Valley. We will not hole ourselves inside in the hope of surviving the end of the world. It is neither a bunker nor a Noah's Ark, supposed to protect us from the disaster. We will not clench our teeth there. We go there to live, not to die: to give our children the life we think is best for them, away from pollution of all kinds and a world that does not make us happy.

This world is a world of endless, indefinite growth, that is, limitless and meaningless. By destroying the idea of "cosmos' — finite, limited, organized world — and replacing it with the idea of "universe" — infinite and chaotic space (From the Closed World to Infinite Universe, Alexandre Koyré) — modernity has created the conditions for an unprecedented ecological crisis. We are painfully rediscovering that our world is not a neutral space with infinite expansion, but that it is first and foremost a fragile ecosystem: a cosmos. The infinite world theorized by modern philosophy has long believed that it was immortal, it was actually aimless, and it may well cause our end.

From this point of view, then, the idea of the end of the world, whether it is a probable future or a new political myth — a hyped-up version of the Apocalypse — seems to me to be a necessary remedy: a remedy for the lack of meaning that characterizes industrial civilization.

Kant defended the need to think of "regulatory horizons," great ideas that cannot be demonstrated: God, the soul, the cosmos, but that allow us to give meaning to our actions. I believe that we need such ideas more than ever, and that it is urgent that our world finally envisions its end.

*Marianne Durano is a philosopher and high school teacher in Dreux, France, and a founding member of the journal of integral ecology "Limite."

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