If you were on social media at the beginning of 2020, the year started as profoundly pessimistic. Instead of a Jetsons-style chrome-coated future of flying cars, we have the COVID-19 pandemic, memes of a third World War and, to top it all off, a continent on fire because of human-induced climate change. And on the internet, all of it was meme-d.
In short, we are beginning a new decade all too aware of our fragility, not only as individuals, but as a species. And yet, we have been here before.
By the middle of the 20th century, humanity had been through two world wars that had unleashed the power of science in a search for ever more efficient ways of exterminating each other. This rapid descent into the possibility of species-ending thermonuclear death prompted the philosopher Karl Jaspers to ask in his 1961 work, The Future of Mankind, how humanity should deal with humanity’s ability to end, well, humanity.
But as Rahm Emanuel, one-time mayor of Chicago and former White House chief of staff for Barack Obama, once said: “You never want a good crisis to go to waste.” Looking around the world, we have an existential crisis.
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Not with a whimper but with a nuclear bang
Humanity, Jaspers observes, is in a unique situation; we are at the dawn of the thermonuclear age. He says that it is an entirely novel scenario for humans to not only to be aware of their mortality but to also be alert to the likely ending of their existence as a species through nuclear war. He argues given this bleak reality:
“…a prerequisite of everything else, is to think: to look around; to observe what is going on; to visualize the possibilities, the consequences of events and actions; to clarify the situation in the directions that emerge.”
We can do this by using our rationality and reason even if, as Jaspers concedes, we cannot “plum the ultimate depths.” But reason gives us clarity as we experience the calamity of events caused and carried out by humans.
But you might ask: how can you trust reason if it’s reason that gave us the ability to annihilate ourselves in the first place? Jaspers offers at least two responses.
First, we are easily distracted. Instead of dealing with these ultimate questions, we tend to become preoccupied with other concerns such as economic prosperity.
Second, there is a distinction within how we reason between “intellectual thought” and “rational thought.”
Intellectual thought, according to Jaspers, is concerned with the production of the mechanistic parts of our existence where we pool our resources to “get things done.” (This is similar to an amalgamation of philosopher Hannah Arendt’s idea of labour and work aspect of life that was outlined in her 1958 work, The Human Condition.)
The activities that fall under intellectual thought would include the production of resources that sustain us (like agriculture) and the construction of structure like roads and buildings that live beyond the person who constructed them. These are necessary activities, but the thought processes behind them — thinking largely of our own individual survival — cannot lead to solving failures in collective action or the species-level existential crisis we now face.
Jaspers describes rational thought as thinking that must be done by the individual by choice, resolve and action but that “creates a common spirit.” (Here again, there is a similarity to Arendt’s concept of action.)
What we need is this category of rational thought not only to reason as individuals, but ultimately, act as a collective in everyday decisions. The recent climate strikes would be an example of that kind of creation of a common spirit. This movement was carried out by individuals who each individually concluded that action must be taken.
Need a villain? Take a selfie
“Neither hopelessness nor confidence can be proven by rational knowledge. The arguments for despair, deducing inevitabilities from total knowledge, are inadequate, as are the arguments trusting in the victory of common sense. Despair and confidence are moods, not insights. We call them pessimism and optimism. Neither one is open to persuasion; each finds infinite arguments and overlooks the counterarguments.” - Karl Jaspers, 1961.
Jaspers is not providing a panacea on the proper response to the realization that our self-destruction is not only possible but likely.
Instead, he’s asking us to take radical ownership over the fact that if the world does end or convulses through terrible near-death experiences, we need only look, take a selfie and realize who is to blame. Jaspers demands that each of us has a responsibility to use our rational thought and then act.
It seems clear, however, that, despite the nihilism and pessimism of the memes that erupted over the internet this year, people understand the direness of the situation.
Nihilism requires a deep trauma of belief, meaning nihilists need to start in a state of idealism which is then ground out of them by experience. However, the deep belief is still inherently part of them, and it is that constant juxtaposition that fuels their idealistic resentment and reaction to the objective world around them.
We are reacting like stereotypical teenagers in an era where leadership has come from actual teenagers like Greta Thunberg and Autumn Peltier. Jaspers’ advice might contain precisely the wisdom that’s required for adults to grow into our maturity. We have taken the first step by recognizing our predicament, but we need to go from wise-guy cynicism of meme culture to earnest action.