You’re viewing a free article. Subscribe for more.

The Future of Nature

                                              Being implies obligation.

                                                                     Hans Jonas

The most incomprehensible moral idiocy of our time is indifference to the fate of the planet. I say this humbly, because I have not really said it until just now: I am late to the truth. Not that I ever denied it, of course; deferring to science on matters about which only science has authority is a quintessential act of reason and even of love, if love includes the desire to protect and protract the life of who and what is loved. The problem with environmental concern has been precisely that its grounds are so obvious — it has become a part of the standard equipment of an enlightened individual, an ambient truth dulled by its own ambience. It has produced, since the nineteenth century, a beautiful literature, whose beauty seems almost a promise of its futility: to read Muir or Leopold or Carson is to be enchanted when one should be agitated. What does “nature writing” have to do with nature policy? In politics, certainly, the cause of the environment, when it is not outrightly rejected by liars and profiteers, occasions more lip service than any other cause. The apocalypse has become a platitude, as it often does. For many years the temporal distance of the doom blunted the fear of it; time, in a rare role for it, seemed like our friend. And so, like many people, I prevaricated, I cared, but not the most. The truth is never enough to set you free.

Yet now, at least in my case, the fear must be dusted off, and the shock of environmental awareness must be refreshed. Time is a false friend. It helps that the weather is increasingly the breaking news above the fold. (Remember the fold?) Suddenly one must add to the expertise of the scientists the evidence of one’s senses. No, every scalding day of summer does not prove that the world is burning up, but it is invidious — it is unempirical — to pretend that nothing is happening, that it has not begun, that the question of climate change is still purely futural. Have we ever lived so meteorologically? Even in regions of the world where human evil seems unsurpassable, the cruelties of the environment are catching up quickly; but then those cruelties, too, are the consequences of human evil — or more precisely, of human action, even of laudable human action, which, if it continues unmodified into this early era of climate disaster, will indeed become a variety of human evil. About some things, the age of unanticipated consequences is over. We know what the planetary effects of some of our actions will be.

What, really, is the other side of this question? Clearly nobody is for environmental holocaust. But there are political leaders and political parties that, in their anti-regulatory zealotry and their cultural hostility to ecological concerns, may as well be for it. It is indeed the case that scientists may sometimes be wrong; but the fallibility of science is one of its glories, because scientists are the first to acknowledge it, and it comes with a principled impatience for its own correction. The repudiation of science that is now one of the defining characteristics of the American right must not be allowed to hide behind the provisional and experimental nature of scientific research. Being wrong is not as egregious as being stupid. And environmentalists, for their part, must learn to accept that dogmatism is not more attractive when it serves the proper side. The sanctimony of the party of the earth is sometimes hard to take. The worst scenario is not the only scenario. There are many legitimate debates to be had within the community of alarm.

Many years ago I became interested in a debate about environmental regulation between the advocates of the “precautionary principle” and the advocates of cost-benefit analysis. The latter contend that the best way to evaluate environmental damage is in economic terms, as if all of it is quantifiable; and that precipitous action against a particular risk often produces other risks, so that we will only aggravate the problem that we set out to solve; and that a policy of preemption, of general foreboding, would have an excessively inhibiting effect on innovation and growth. The former, the precautionists, who are arguing for extra dollops of prudence, prefer philosophical arguments and humane attitudes that come without the apparatus of social science; they insist that the stakes are too high to think in merely economic ways, which in any event are no guarantee of accuracy or success, and that erring in the direction of caution, which is to say, of economically contested policies, is morally and practically justified. Precaution has been more popular in Europe than in America, as in this typical declaration of a United Nations Economic Conference for Europe in 1990: “In order to achieve sustainable development, policies must be based on the Precautionary Principle. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation.”

It is hard for me to believe that if sensible precautionary measures, which is to say, regulations unpopular in some of the business community, had been adopted in this country (and some were) years ago, the iPhone and the app would not have been invented. Nor should greed be permitted to disguise itself as a high-minded anxiety about sustainable growth. In truth, our predicament is Pascalian, and it calls for a wager: if a strict regime of regulation makes a decisive difference in saving us, then we (and all life) will have won everything, and if it does not, then we will have lost nothing, except some profits. Better safe than incinerated. My summary of this important debate, which is pertinent to many areas of human affairs, will strike economists as tendentious, and they will be right: in a conflict between economics and ethics, I stop caring about the money. When I listen to the anti-regulatory protestations of many Republicans, what I hear is not much more than expressions of corporate avarice, which are hard to dignify in the face of the dangers under discussion. (I feel the same way about our economic policy toward China: on the one side, concentration camps; on the other side, the terrifying prospect that American executives may not be able to afford summer homes.)

In a time when the early ravages of global warming can be witnessed and not merely modeled, I cannot comprehend, except in terms of base human motives, the resistance to ambitious historical action. Capitalism has become hysterical. The biggest whiners in our society are its richest members. Every attempted intervention in American capitalism’s own idea of what is best for itself is regarded by its titans as the slippery slope to the Komsomol and the Gulag. Of course the controversial environmental interventions are animated by values that are not at all anti-capitalist, but they do not concede the primacy of economic values. After all, the question of the place of business in a society is not a question for businesspeople to answer, and not only because they are the interested parties. It is a question of philosophy and politics, about which high net-worth individuals have no special competence. Compare the earthly gains of heavy regulation to the earthly costs of light regulation or no regulation at all, and the hit that American capitalists must take for the good of the earth will seem stupendously slight. (We can always give them medals.) Anyway, isn’t existence good for business? And aren’t there obscene sums of money — if that is the only language we wish to understand — to be made in new forms of energy and more responsible forms of consumption? And why should the American people be stirred by the cause of carried interest? The capitalists of our day are giving capitalism a bad name, which is unfortunate for many reasons, not least because the alternatives to the capitalist order have not exactly distinguished themselves with their sensitivity to the skies. They emit a lot of smoke.

There are few more difficult assignments for the human mind than the calibration of fear. Reason and unreason run smack into each other on this ground. Scholars have developed an enormously sophisticated body of work about risks, probabilities, and the “heuristics” that are required for the accurate analysis of them. All this is a boon to technocracy, and people who are in the grip of fear — about the environment, about public health, about the economy — should spare a few kind words for the technocrats. They exist because of the diabolical complexity of the perils we face, and their efforts are a tribute to the astonishing expansion of knowledge in our time. We suffer from conditions that we, I mean the ordinary people in the street, cannot sufficiently understand, and so we are hugely indebted to those who devote their lives to doing so. In its coldness, technocracy is a kind of compassion. It is certainly a part of the answer to fear. But it is not the entirety of the answer, because existential fear needs to be addressed by more than governmental policy. The problem of fear, in the individual and in the mass, is a political and cultural and even spiritual problem — a circumstance in which public reason must be supplemented by private reason, and self-mastery must accompany collective action. Those are glib formulations, I know — Stoicism, yet again; but I am afraid. One must find a way not to be rattled by every news cycle, by every report of every flood and every drought and every riven glacier.

The important thing is that the fears of others must not be belittled. We saw the results of such disrespect in the election of 2016. But neither should the fears of others command perfect deference. Nobody’s fear can have the last word about us all. Fear cannot be overcome without making discriminations among its varieties. There are instances in which the threat precedes the fear and instances in which the fear precedes, or invents, the threat. There are fears that have a basis in reality, the so-called rational fears, which cannot be reduced to psychology or psychopathology. And there are fears that are expressions of subjective realities searching for objective realities with which to justify themselves, and usually finding them. Those latter fears are the ones that hurt people, sometimes many millions of them. The challenge for politics in a populist era is how to address false fears. Of course they will not be constructively addressed unless we are willing to recognize fears that are true, not least in people with whom we disagree. But that is not easily accomplished: the most crushing blow of the pandemic, aside from the number of deaths, was the discovery that not even the plain factuality of the virus sufficed to unite the country, to join us all in a single, empirically warranted fear. If this damaged sense of reality persists into our confrontation with the future of nature, we truly will be the authors of our own destruction.

The singular urgency of the threat to the environment poses also another intellectual difficulty: how to reconcile it with all our other commitments. It is partly for the sake of those other commitments that the campaign to reverse our current course of environmental abuse is conducted. This endangered planet teems with good and beautiful activities (and with bad and ugly activities, of course), and beneath the injured ozone layer there are struggles for justice that do not deserve to be trumped. But there are those who believe that the environmental danger is the danger of dangers, that it trumps everything. Emotionally speaking, the fanaticism on this question can seem commensurate with the fear. Anybody who is not a little panicked is a little crazy. In some instances the fanaticism has issued in violence, in “eco-terrorism,” in an environmental suspension of the ethical, though it would be wrong to tar the whole movement with these crimes; and there have also been explosions of “eco-fascism,” in which right-wing shooters have invoked environmentalism as a motive for their racist massacres. (They are the intersectionalists of the right.)

The problem with environmental fanaticism is not that the cause is wrong but that the feeling is wrong. Fanaticism always represents an erroneous analysis of human existence. It erases every commitment except one, and thereby refuses to recognize the unalterably multifarious nature of being human — the multiplicity of the spheres that we inhabit, which is the most fundamental fact about us, more fundamental even than our animal nature because it is our distinction among the animals. We are the species whose diversity is not only external but also internal. We famously search for meaning, and even before we find it, if we find it, we find meanings. There are so many of them because we have so many possibilities and capabilities. Philosophers sometimes call us “self-interpreting beings,” and with that capacity for self-interpretation, with our powers of mind and imagination, we surmount our biology, even to the grotesque point of attempting to surmount our mortality. This defining trait of variousness extends also to the assessment of threats: there is never just one. Obviously we should prioritize the threats we face, but almost never down to one. One way of characterizing the abundance of human life — a dark way — is that there are so many things to be threatened, so many things to protect.

“How immensely the world is simplified,” Walter Benjamin observed, “when it is examined for its worthiness for destruction.” Fanaticism is not the only instrument of simplification in our time. There is a new instrument, a theoretical and ideological innovation, and it has been extended to the discussion of the environment. It is the social and political monism known as intersectionality. It was designed to make the many one. (Monism is the brainstorm of people who are fatigued by their own plurality.) It is a cheap answer to the problem known as the incommensurability of values, which recognizes that there are differences and contradictions, their terms irreducible and irrefutable, that will not be reconciled. Intersectionality knows no such tensions, except with oppressors. It is a theory of the commensurability, the even weighting, of all injustices, though there are victims of prejudice and violence to whom the intersectionalists do not extend their otherwise categorical concern. How ironic it is, that an idea that was originated by celebrants of diversity should be so flattening. Here, for example, is the beginning of a recent book, a rich document of contemporary progressivism, called The Intersectional Environmentalist:

We can’t save the planet without uplifting the voices of its people, especially those most often unheard. We should care about the protection of people as much as we care about the protection of our planet. Unfortunately, as with other animals, some humans are endangered and facing a multitude of social and environmental injustices that impact their ability not only to survive but also to thrive in liberation and joy. Why, then, are conservation efforts not extended to the protection of endangered humans and their human rights? This is a question I’ve struggled with as a Black environmentalist for years, because in my environmental practice, caring for the earth means caring for its people.

When I studied environmental science as an undergrad at a predominantly white institution, social issues were perpetually separated from environmentalism, and sustainability, conservation. As a Black student in STEM, I had to search beyond the classroom to learn about the contributions of people of color to sustainability. The lack of representation of Black, Brown, Indigenous, Asian, low income, LGBTQ+, disabled, and other marginalized voices has led to an ineffective mainstream environmentalism that doesn’t truly stand for the liberation of all peoples and the planet. Social injustice and environmental injustice are fueled by the same flame….

And then the author, a well-known activist named Leah Thomas, continues even more personally:

Patience begins to run out and internal fires begin to burn when you’re silencing parts of yourself. Did the environmental leaders I followed understand the gravity of risk associated with Black citizens across the world who faced violence for public demonstrations? Did they understand the fear that I faced at every protest I’ve attended since watching non-violent protesters in Ferguson be beaten, maced, and terrorized and Black reporters harassed and jailed?

The disconnect was isolating. I watched predominantly white environmental protestors chain themselves to buildings, illegally deface property, trespass, and flaunt their arrests on camera during their protests and I started to wonder: how? When non-violent protesters or innocent Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian citizens are met with injustice for smaller infractions, such as existing, I had to ask: how privileged must one be to so boldly participate in theatrical protests?

Never mind the downpour of cliches. There is an idea here, and a very popular one with a long past unknown to the author. The idea is that every unfairness is like every other unfairness; and luck runs together, too. There is only the party of misfortune and the party of fortune. In such an account, the similarities between social justice and environmental justice outweigh the differences, or there are no differences at all. Warming temperatures are “oppression,” like all other oppression. A disconnect, indeed. Or rather, a disastrous connect. I say disastrous, because the conflation of these problems, of these injustices, will have the consequence of making their respective solutions harder to attain, all the joys of solidarity notwithstanding.

One must begin a critical analysis of this progressive mentality by noting immediately that there is indeed a linkage between the injustices that enjoys an incontrovertible basis in reality. There is no question but that the poor suffer environmental afflictions as they suffer all other afflictions: more severely than the rest of us. Is there a more punished land on earth than Bangladesh? They have no need for war; they have water. Moreover, the conjunction of poverty with race and ethnicity validates the claim that in heterogeneous societies such as ours the effects of environmental degradation fall disproportionately upon people of color. (This is not to say that as a rule pollution is racially motivated, though in a case such as Flint, Michigan, and I do not doubt that there are others, the relevance of race is difficult to deny.) Thomas cites a paper by researchers at USC called “The Climate Gap: Inequalities in How Climate Change Hurts Americans and How to Close the Gap,” in a journal called Race, Poverty & the Environment in 2009, which concluded that “African Americans on average emit nearly twenty percent less greenhouse gases than non-Hispanic whites per capita. Though less responsible for climate change, African Americans are significantly more vulnerable to its effects than non-Hispanic whites.” The distortions of inequality penetrate everywhere. In Flint, inequality was in the water supply.

There are two reasons, however, for dissociating the injustices even when they are experienced by the same people. The first is that, like all “systemic” approaches, the intersectional or conflationary approach increases the difficulty of identifying actual causality and attributing actual responsibility. Isolation may be emotionally crushing, as Thomas attests, but it can be intellectually clarifying. To argue that the hole in the ozone layer was made by racism is to play into the hands of the hole-punchers. Such an account distracts attention from the actual etiology of the crisis, which is the necessary preliminary to measures for change. In the reckoning with how technology and economic development came to disfigure the atmosphere, political and cultural analysis must take a back seat to more proximate causes. In an emergency, one must be concrete. When a scientist or an engineer makes a significant breakthrough in the struggle for the planet, it may turn out that the providential individual in the lab coat or the hard hat is also a bigot, but that must be left for another day. His or her scientific integrity will be all that counts; we possess, or we lack, many integrities, and everyone’s record is mottled. And so I could not care less that medical discoveries have been made by anti-Semites. I do not mean to say that science washes away all sins; but the application of science to particular political and social objectives, its historical alliances with good or with evil, is another matter — another blessing or another curse. Moreover, if we were to postpone the healing of our environment for the healing of our society, if the regulation of air and water must await the eradication of prejudice, then we will all die. The rhetoric of activism is not the language of research and reform. Everybody always complains about the weather but nobody ever does anything about it, said the Catskills comedian, and he was onto something.

The second reason for insisting upon a disjunction between the explanations, for making a distinction between the social climate and the physical climate, is that it honors the scale of the environmental crisis — the natural scale and the ethical scale. I know how I would respond if one of my brethren asked whether carbon is bad for the Jews: I would be embarrassed by the solipsism and amused by the provinciality. The same holds for all other groups. Sometimes only a thin line separates the special pleadings of identities from the special pleadings of interest groups. The analysis of a planetary crisis in terms of identity misunderstands the reach of the crisis, unless of course the identity that is championed is the human one. Now there is an intersection — the one between every living being on the planet! An intersection, and an opportunity for the most comprehensive solidarity in history. Indeed, the planetary character of this crisis arrives as a correction to the plague of particularisms that is injuring so many contemporary societies. There is no greater commonality than the sky. (“When skies are blue,” says the holy fool in the Ian Dury song, “we all feel the benefit.”)

Is it selfish to evaluate the danger only, or mainly, in terms of one’s own? Environmental catastrophe is a great equalizer, and it is equality that we seek, though not only of the morbid sort. It is wonderful that we are all in this together. Surely we can devise ways to fulfill our specific identities without squandering the occasion for a genuinely universal affirmation. A great philosopher once wrote that “humanity” is a name not only for a species but also for a quality — that is, we may interpret our biological being in a way that raises us above it, and above the self. The entirety of the human world now finds itself joined in a single desperate situation, even if it is experienced at different intensities. And so does the non-human world, thanks to us.

For this reason, the environmental crisis should complicate the centripetal tendencies of our society, the post-liberal shibboleths that now abound. The prestige of universalism has long been in tatters, for various sorry intellectual and political reasons, but in recent years we have seen the same scorn applied to the category of the global. It is true that globalism served for decades as an alibi for economic rapacity, and that the globalized economy issued in obscene disparities in wealth and security, though it did raise standards of living for untold millions as well. For these reasons — and for uglier ones, including a frightened international recoil from the strenuous expectations of modernity, such as liberty, democracy, egalitarianism, and toleration — there is occurring a great revival of localism. I am told that even corporations, recently schooled in the fragilities of far-flung supply chains, are now “coming home.” The spirit of all this localism is exclusionary and unadventurous. We have become habituated to the tiny idea that all that we must become is what we already are. We regard influences as assaults, as appropriations, as betrayals; we are always policing the cultural and psychological perimeters. Increasingly the only nationalism that we can envision is ethnonationalism. We mistake tradition for a sacralized sclerosis. Within the confinements of our specificities, we exhaust ourselves in strident differentiations from all others. We are authenticity gangsters. When it comes to a generous sense of the other, there is little to choose between the Magyarism of the post-liberal right and the indigenism of the post-liberal left.

As we contract ourselves, however, the environmental crisis requires that we expand ourselves. Not in our customary way, by clinging against all sense to a program of reckless development or endless growth: the earth has had quite enough of our expansionist talents. We are headed into an era of restraint or ruin. No, this time we must expand ourselves imaginatively, by recognizing that similarities are sometimes more significant than differences, and that the local and the global coincide. Culture is replete with examples of this coincidence. When we enjoy foreign music, it is because the local and the global coincide. Is rhythm particular or universal? When we celebrate the beauty of a building whose design is based on native traditions unlike our own, we erase the tiresome distinction between here and elsewhere. There are cases in politics and policy in which the same erasure must be performed. When we oppose nuclear war and nuclear proliferation, are we dreading only for the fate of one, or some, of our communities? When it comes to the environment, every person is a microcosm of our macrocosmic — of our cosmic — vulnerability. This time we represent not only ourselves but also each other. (And owing to our accountability for their predicament, we represent non-human beings and other organic entities as well.) The forces that are now indifferent to the fate of the planet, who are damaging the air and the water, who refuse to accept the science because they are economically dependent on, or prosper from, fossil fuels — they are the ones who represent only themselves. 

“You shall not take a wife nor shall you have sons and daughters in this place. For thus said the Lord concerning the sons and concerning the daughters born in this place and concerning their mothers who bore them and concerning the fathers who begat them in this land: Deaths by illness shall they die. They shall not be lamented and shall not be buried. Dung on the face of the soil they shall become, and by the sword and by famine they shall come to an end, and their carcasses shall be food for the fowl of the heaven and the beasts of the earth.” The sixteenth chapter of Jeremiah records this Divine admonition to the tormented prophet. The promise of catastrophe compels a drastic renunciation: Jeremiah is forbidden to have a family, to wed and to have children. The prohibition flies in the face of God’s first instruction to humankind, which was to be fruitful and multiply, and also in the face of the moral priority of the family that was established in the Biblical pre-history of Judaism. It also defies the ancient Jewish belief, stated in the Psalms and elsewhere, in the eternal perdurability of the Jewish people. It is a shocking punishment. But it is not delivered as a punishment: the ferocity of God’s description of the coming horrors makes the command to the prophet seem almost merciful. Jeremiah will be lucky: he will have less to lose, his childlessness will spare him the savage experience of parental bereavement. It would be wrong to bring children into such a world, says the deity who has authorized the inexorable atrocity. 

“Is it still OK to have a child?” Not long ago Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked the question on social media. This is more radical than anything in the Green New Deal. But the question is not hers alone. Environmental alarm has shaken many people’s confidence in the future to the point of their speculating about a willing abdication of it. A parent who reads the macabre timeline to 2° C and its aftermath is immediately put in mind of the age of his own child. (I speak from unpleasant experience.) In a brilliant essay in the London Review of Books two years ago, Meehan Crist reported that “I have​ spent more time than I’d like to admit scrolling through posts by people who have made the decision not to have children because of the climate crisis. These posts radiate varying degrees of fear, despair, political commitment, solidarity, anxiety, and a care for and delight in already existing children.” One such post read: “I always imagined myself having children. However I have felt incredibly hopeless for our future for many years because of the interaction [sic] of governments on climate change … I love kids and feel deeply saddened by this, but I would not willingly want to bring a child into a world I see will be plagued by disaster, ruin, famine & wars… total destruction.” Another post read: “The science is clear. We are about to witness the destruction of everything we love because of the climate crisis. I feel incapable of welcoming an innocent human being into this world knowing the facts.” Crist’s essay was cited by Jia Tolentino in a heartfelt but somewhat incoherent piece in favor of abortion in the New Yorker, where she noted: “I gave birth in the middle of a pandemic that previewed a future of cross-species viral transmission exacerbated by global warming, and during a summer when ten million acres on the West Coast burned. I knew that my child would not only live in this degrading world but contribute to that degradation.”

Along with the ecological skepticism about reproduction, the outraged response to Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization has contributed to a certain progressive disenchantment with pregnancy. “It was violent even as I loved it,” Tolentino remarks. She describes “the paralyzing back spasms, the ragged desperation of sleeplessness, [and later] the thundering doom that pervaded every cell in my body when I weaned my child.” And she concludes: “Abortion is often talked about as a grave act that requires justification, but bringing a new life into the world felt, to me, like the decision that more clearly risked being a moral mistake.” By all the authority vested in me by fatherhood, I cannot follow her. I do not live in a surfeit of enchantment, and “a new life,” if it landed in a basket at my doorstep like in the old movies, would justify adjustments to my urbanity. Or at least it could not be summarily dismissed as a “moral mistake.” My mother once told me that, when I was three years old, I rushed home from school one afternoon to tell her exciting news: I had just learned that because I was a boy I would never have to endure labor pains. It was good to be me! Later the gender boundary — the womb that I lack — prompted me to empathy and respect: women have physical and biological experiences that men can only imagine, if they can, and their singularity in this regard must be honored. But the fact that I cannot speak about the birth process from the inside does not disqualify me from speaking about it altogether. (Women have hardly been inhibited by their personal unfamiliarity with the subjectivity of manhood from telling men how to live; women’s knowingness about men is one of the salient themes of our culture.) So the bad reputation of pregnancy troubles me, and not only because I have a gamete to give. Soon afterward, in The New York Times, Amanda Hess, one of the paper’s gender commissars, developed the alienation further. “Pregnancy” she complained, “has the power to render any body ridiculous. And yet, as I trudge down the street, my increasingly preposterous dimensions inspire such affirmational outbursts from strangers that I feel at the center of an immense gendered conspiracy, where the self-evident absurdity of my physical situation is instead pitched as the cheerful apotheosis of my life as a woman.” And this: “Though I am of course aware of the biological process through which babies are made, it still feels so supernatural that if you told me that people get pregnant by gobbling up live infants, I might believe it.” I am quite sure that there is nothing that I, or perhaps any man, could have said to relieve her distress. But I swear I never saw a pregnant woman who looked absurd to me.

         There are two ways in which human fertility is considered bad for the planet. The first is that the decaying world will be bad for the child. The second is that the child will be bad for the decaying world. The latter worry is as old as Malthus, and eventually issued in the doctrines of population control and family planning. Those doctrines insist that every decision to have a child, a personal decision if ever there was one, must include a sense of planetariness; and that on the same cosmopolitan grounds measures must be introduced to lower the numbers of involuntary pregnancies and unwanted children. Or, to put it differently, love and desire must find a place for reason, so that values can have an influence on passions. All this, of course, is premised on a consciousness of limits, which is easier said than done for limited beings with dreams of limitlessness. The population of the world is now close to eight billion. The fastest doubling of the world population occurred between 1950 and 1987, from two and a half billion to five billion. The peak population growth in a single year — 2.1% — happened in 1962, and the rate of growth has somewhat slowed. By the end of this century the planet is projected to hold more than eleven billion people. The case for population control is completely persuasive, and the distaste for large families among secular people in the West is morally admirable if emotionally unattractive. (It is worth noting that there may be groups who demand an exemption from demographic austerity as a consequence of historical injustice. Consider the prodigious fertility rates of haredi Jews. Of all the Jewries that were decimated in the Holocaust, the haredim were among the most decimated. Their rate of reproduction is owed, if you will pardon the expression, to a replacement theory, but they are not replacing the living, they are replacing the dead. Genocide, after all, is also a method of population control. There are tens of millions of Jews missing from the world today. When I was growing up, I often heard Jews assent to the idea of population control on condition that we do not go first. My inner universalist and my inner particularist began a battle that has not yet ended.)

         The world will not be redeemed, of course, by a loss of enthusiasm for babies in progressive neighborhoods of the West. But that is hardly the only objection to such a policy. The decision not to have children so as not to increase the burden on the world’s resources is based on a probability, not on a certainty; and the precise probabilities for particular calamities differ, including among scholars. There is, again, a plethora of scenarios. I cannot pretend to be impartial about the outcome of this debate, or to follow only my intellect. There is an outcome that I wish, and it looks like a child. And so I intend to think my way out of the Jeremiah paradigm, and refuse to allow (in Crist’s splendid words) “the toxic logic of the carbon footprint to shape our sense of what [is] possible.” This is not only for sentimental reasons; there are also philosophical reasons to eschew fatalism. There is a lower limit of human renunciation beneath which life is no longer recognizably human. Human parenthood serves more than a merely evolutionary end; it is a laboratory of our beliefs, of our understanding of the aims of human existence. Thoughtful parenthood is lived philosophy. And history has shown again and again that survival need not require a surrender of our deepest purposes. There are many ways to propagate the species and the communities that comprise it, but childlessness is not one of them: it is another technique of extinction. Why would we mortify ourselves for the sake of nature if we did not hold that our humanity, our supra-natural meaningfulness, is worth preserving? The good news about climate change, as well as the bad news, is that it is a dynamic situation, and a great deal will depend on how we intervene against it. We have not yet really begun the fight.

The question of the environment is the question of technology. It was technology that enabled us to despoil the environment and it is technology that may enable us to repair it.

I met Hans Jonas before I knew who he was. When I was seventeen, and a little restless at the end of my high school years, I received permission from its intellectually encouraging principal to attend a few night courses in philosophy at the New School for Social Research. One of the courses was on pre-Socratic philosophy — the remarkable rabbi who was the head of my school had agreed to my study of chochmah yevanit, or Greek wisdom, which was precisely what the ancient rabbis had forbidden me to study! I still remember the strange magic of reading Anaxagaros and Parmenides on the D train from Flatbush to Greenwich Village. The instructor was a certain Professor Jonas. I did not know that he was the author of probably the greatest book ever written about Gnosticism, or that he was one of Heidegger’s most distinguished students (the faculty of the New School in 1969 was rich with students of Husserl and Heidegger) and then one of Heidegger’s most withering critics, or that he had been a confirmed Zionist who lived in the yishuv in Palestine for sixteen years, or that he had served as a soldier both in the Jewish Brigade of the British army in the Second World War and in the Haganah, or that he was the world’s preeminent philosopher of the environment. Some of his earliest elaborations of his philosophy of biology, his “philosophy of life,” were made in 1944 and 1945 in “didactic letters” to his wife during his military service in southern Italy. The man was, in a word, a hero. I had never before heard such a pure philosophical voice. Many years later we came to know each other and I was able to express my admiration. By that time I had read his environmental-philosophical writings — first The Phenomenon of Life, according to which “the organic even in its lowest forms prefigures mind and mind even in its highest reaches remains part of the organic,” and which appeared in English in 1966, and then The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for a Technological Age, his masterpiece, which appeared in English in 1984. When its German original appeared in Germany five years earlier, it was a sensation, intellectually and politically. He died in New York in 1993.

In his posthumously published memoirs, Jonas attributed the enormous influence of his book “to the general recognition, which even then relatively attentive observers could less and less ignore, that something could go wrong with the human race, that it was even on the verge of putting its own existence in jeopardy through ever-increasing technical interventions in nature.” The critique of technology was one of the distinctive contributions of German thought in the twentieth century: from Heidegger to the Frankfurt School, in their different idioms, technology was denounced as a way of denaturing the human, of compressing the individual into a life of pure instrumentality, of alienating us from what we most profoundly are. “There are times,” Jonas wrote, “when the [technological] drive needs moral encouragement, when hope and daring rather than fear and caution should lead. Ours is not one of them.” And Jonas went further. In his writings technology is not an impersonal force that acts upon us. He was exercised not only by what technology is doing to us, but also, and even more, by what we are doing with technology. And so he was moved by the plight of nature, technology’s great target, because his “philosophical biology” persuaded him of the unimaginability of human meaning without the nexus with the natural world. In technology Jonas saw, above all, human agency. His critique of technology led him directly to ethics, because human agency implied human responsibility. There was nothing anti-modern about him. He did not bemoan our powers; he demanded that they be responsibly used.

The primacy of ethics in Jonas is not to be confused with the primacy of ethics in Buber and Levinas. The ethical relationship that Jonas enjoins is larger and deeper: it is not a relationship between individuals and it is not occasioned by an encounter with an “other.” For Jonas, “being is obligation” — not social being or communal being, but being itself. Heidegger’s renegade student was still in the business of ontology, except that it served for him as a basis for duty rather than rapture. In Jonas’ account of the human, to be alive is to be responsible for life. One takes away from his work an indelible sense of stewardship. He is a philosopher of our obligations to the world. (His teaching is a little reminiscent of Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic” and “ecological conscience.”) Our species-task is to do everything we can to avoid what he nicely calls “the apocalypse of the ‘too much.’” And this requires a new ecological focus. “We know the thing at stake only when we know that it is at stake,” Jonas wrote. “Because this is the way we are made: the perception of the malum is infinitely easier to us than the perception of the bonum.”

But is that really so? The widespread spectacle of environmental complacence would suggest otherwise. The malum is everywhere and it is still unimpeded. Perhaps our ability to sustain a commitment to historical change died with the death of our attention. There is also a vexing political dimension to the environmental challenge. Aside from the satisfaction of doing the right thing, is it realistic to rely for the salvation of the planet upon the consciences of individuals? Will there ever be enough of them, in our country and in others, to form a social basis for decisive ecological action? Did David Buckel, the man who set himself on fire in Prospect Park in Brooklyn some years ago because “my early death by fossil fuels reflects what we are doing to ourselves” — did his suicide change a thing? The biologist Garrett Hardin, in a famous lecture on “the tragedy of the commons” in 1968, warned, against the grain of his conscience-stricken time, about trusting in appeals to conscience: they would produce mainly anxiety and “feelings of guilt in non-cooperators.” Moreover, decisive ecological action will involve infringements on personal freedom — not for the first time in our constitutional order, to be sure, but these infringements may be ascetic and rough. Hardin called them “mutual coercion mutually agreed upon.” But we are not living in the heyday of mutual agreement, and there are powerful interests at work to prevent any such consensus, even though Congress has passed the Inflation Reduction Act as I write. Nor are we living in a society with any special skill for mortifying itself even in the name of a high ideal.

Recall the conundrum of population control. Hardin cites a resolution in the United Nations in 1967 that reads: “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights describes the family as the natural and fundamental unit of society. It follows that any choices and decisions with regard to the size of the family must irrevocably rest with the family itself, and cannot be made by anyone else.” From the standpoint of the failing environment, however, this is untenable. The family’s autonomous power to determine its own size cannot be completely sacrosanct. But what political power will revoke it, or modify it? Will the government deliver the blow? That will depend on its composition — on us. We live in a democracy: arriving at a social basis for policy is how we govern ourselves. We believe, as a matter of principle, in persuasion and deliberation, one by one by one. But there will never be a majority of citizens who will agree to allow the government into the bedroom, China-style; and their objections will not be mischievous. That is why the logic of environmental reform has led certain thinkers into heretical precincts of thought. “Coercion is a dirty word to most liberals now,” Hardin remarked, “but it need not forever be so.”  It comes as a bit of a shock to read Jonas, who was a lifelong foe of totalitarianism and whose mother was murdered in Auschwitz, suggest that “in the coming severity of a politics of responsible abnegation, democracy (in which the interests of the day necessarily hold the stage) is at least temporarily unsuited, and our present comparative weighing is, reluctantly, between different forms of ‘tyranny.’” Socialism — by which he meant a directed economy — “has an advantage here.” Many readers were upset by these pages in The Imperative of Responsibility. They are weak pages. Which socialist or communist regime has ever improved the environment?

Jonas was aware that his “reluctant” conclusion about politics, his uncharacteristic soft spot for dirigisme, was owed to his importation into political philosophy of a criterion — will it protect life? — that is not native to it. The environmentalist imperative was given sway over everything else, including liberty. And yet Jonas’ perplexity must be faced. The question of whether the many processes of democracy can work effectively enough and efficiently enough to retard and reverse our present trajectory is a discomfiting question, because it may not have an edifying answer. The scale of the crisis and the speed of the crisis mean that solutions will have to be the work of concentrated political power. Bold legislation and stringent regulation, the ordinary work of elected bodies and federal agencies, need formidable political cover. Does the cause of the planet warrant a unitary executive of its own?

Once nature mastered us. Then we mastered nature. Now we must master our mastery.  Hardin was wrong when he assured his listeners that “the tragedy of the commons” was a “no technical solution problem.” In the end, so that there will be no end, we may be dependent on technology to save us from the ravages of technology. This is certainly more likely than a massive intellectual and political mobilization across the globe and its various regimes to enact with alacrity a broad and concerted series of unilateral and multilateral measures to reverse all aspects of the planet’s decline. We may be wiser to turn to Prometheus to make amends for the excesses of Prometheanism. Our powers can take back what our powers wrought. Science and technology can vindicate themselves as never before. The prospects for humility, then, are mixed: a crisis that was supposed to convince us of the limits of our power may require more gargantuan exercises of it. The instrumental mind may yet save us for the elevated life beyond instrumentality. With some luck, we may preserve both the earth and the republic.