By Elžbieta Janušauskaitė, Graduate of Climate Academy, EEB2.
We are the middle children of a lost generation, with no great war and no great depression. — This, however, is not entirely truthful.
Because we do have a war and a depression. Our great war is not one of human combat, our great depression is not tangible. The generations that were born at the turn of the 21st century will no longer know the world their parents or their grandparents inhabited. They will not face the same political, social, or economic challenges. Instead, these generations will grow up in a reality without a fixed symbolical order, a guiding ideology, or sense of morality. The youth of today will fight for a future of survival. They will face a crisis of existence.
The fight against climate change is their war. The sink towards apathy is their depression.
In 1988, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere crossed 350 parts per million, the maximum threshold compatible with stable climate and sustainable human life on this planet. Thirty years later, the Earth’s level of atmospheric CO2 has surpassed 411 parts per million. This is the highest carbon dioxide concentration on Earth in all of human history*. Many have grown wary of the catastrophic consequences that climate change will have on their very own lives, others have turned to fatalism, even denial.
How we respond to the crisis throws our commitments into sharp focus. When framed with Philosophy, a basic contrast in modern thought appears: a choice between existentialism and nihilism.
It could be argued that post-Nietzschean society has widely translated the moral crisis of living a meaningless existence into the worship of a new God – consumerism. Its emergence has spurred the development of a rather superficial culture, which embraces the herd and shuns radical individual action and thought. This culture has highlighted carelessness as a selling point to its younger buyers. This post-modern fascination with meaninglessness and apathy stems from a philosophical assertion that there exists no meaning in the universe. When society stands on the edge of existential abyss, it is because it sees nothing before itself. When we look beyond the superficial religious and commercial narratives that we are constantly being fed, we understand that there is no glue that holds the universe together. We appear to live an existence devoid of meaning and thus, also devoid of cause. This is why the commercialization of nihilism has been so successful – it has subverted a philosophy of meaninglessness into a cultural and radical position of apathy. It has subtly convinced a fairly large population of adolescents that carelessness is the best political stance at a time of global environmental breakdown.
The Apathy Crisis
Today’s consumerist youth is a striking example of blatant apathy; of the way marketing initiatives have successfully molded our care less perceptions of life and the world. Not caring has become the new cool, being apathetic has become synonymous with being accepted. Our experience of political, economic, and social affairs has been shaped by industries of profit. Our identities, molded by the big other of consumption, have grown less and less autonomous. And in the attempt to differentiate ourselves from the homogenous culture that has been manufactured by market forces (both consciously and unconsciously), we have further bought into a large-scale marketing ploy. This has left us feeling insecure about our identities and our function within the consumerist society, our role in existence. It has also embedded the idea that we are miniature and unnecessary, that our being is futile and that we have little to no freedom, no ability to make change.
Deforestation is a large contributor to climate change, because of the amount of carbon dioxide that is released into the atmosphere in the processes of wildfires, clearcutting, livestock ranching, and the loss of carbon sequestering capacity. It is also a leading cause of species extinction on planet Earth. Alongside rising average temperatures in the Amazon, deforestation could lead to the collapse of the whole Basin. An event that would mark a tipping point for the whole climate system.
However, despite its gruesome nature and popular acknowledgement of its consequences, it is an activity that prospers. False promises of environmental rejuvenation and the lack of individual aim to reduce deforestation, have led to mass carelessness. The lack of concern for an act that represents the ravages of the climate crisis is a fundamentals example of our nihilist culture.
A nihilistic approach to climate change dictates that the fight for a sustainable future on Earth is futile. That the current strain on resources, global warming, mass deforestation, and so on, are but the consequences of small-scale human actions that in the grander scheme of things will make no difference. However, this doom and gloom perspective is not only irrational, but contradictory. It is one that offers neither content, nor satisfaction. It is a philosophy under the guise of nothing – therefore, it too offers nothing to its believers. Just as the meaninglessness it worships, nihilism is in of itself lacking in meaning and thus, also – lacking in significance.
Friedrich Nietzsche, who is often falsely credited as being the father of existential nihilism, perceived nihilism not as a philosophical position one had to affirm or deny, but rather as an observation of contemporary society. Nihilism, by definition, did not mean the abandonments of one’s will to exist. On the contrary – it was the assertion that the highest values people had prioritized had, effectively, become meaningless. It was, because we had allowed these higher values to define and give meaning to existence that, after the death of God, these same values lost all meaning.
The contradiction nihilism presents, and that Nietzsche so effortlessly describes, is that there is a separation between a lack of meaning and value in life and in the world. The innate lack of assigned meaning to our existence should not determine the existence of a separate individual, or even planet. The crisis of values and meaning young people face when forging their identities, should not result in the inability or lack of will to solve the environmental crisis of today. The opposite should be true; it is the internal paradox of nihilism that should be held aloft. Acknowledging and accepting the deepest tragedies and contradictions of the state we are in is not the goal – it offers the purest impulse for our responses. This is a position Nietzsche captured in his ecstatic work, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” (1883).
The meaninglessness of life is what can be empowering when creating a world that is meaningful.
Political Branding in Marketing
The cultural push existentialism has brought about in 21st century youth consumerism has manifested itself in false political activism on the part of brands and various other marketing initiatives. What once was a policy of appeasement is now a policy of aggression.
Instead of hiding away from radical thought, companies use the existence of global issues to their advantage. The sport company Nike advertised on the basis of the fight against racism in sports, Calvin Klein based their marketing around LGBTQI+ inclusivity, Pepsi created a commercial that mirrored the Trump era protests in the United States. In an attempt to align themselves with a culture that preaches freedom and the political activism, it transformed various global issues into “fetish objects”. Buying a pair of Nike shoes, Calvin Klein underwear, or a bottler of Pepsi does not equate to actually caring about those issues these brands advocate for.
‘Lettres françaises’ (1944)
“We were never more free than during the German occupation. We had lost all our rights, beginning with the right to talk. Every day we were insulted to our faces and had to take it in silence. Under one pretext or another, as workers, Jews, or political prisoners, were deported en masse. Everywhere, on billboards, in the newspapers, on the screen, we encountered the revolting and insipid picture of ourselves that our suppressors wanted us to accept. And because of all this we were free.
Because the Nazi venom seeped into our thoughts, every accurate thought was a conquest. Because an all-powerful police tried to force us to hold our tongues, every word took on the value of a declaration of principles. Because we were hunted down, every one of our gestures had the weight of a solemn commitment.”
The Freedom Crisis
Following the chaos and tragedy of the First and Second World War, many began to value the individual over society. In the background, Philosophy had destroyed the search for a higher truth, an all-encompassing symbolical order. This individual quickly felt alienated and lost in the consumer culture that followed. This has left generations that followed feeling alienated not only from their surroundings, but from their very own existence.
In this context, existentialists claimed that through a combination of awareness, free will, and personal responsibility people could construct their own meanings within a world that had none. In a way existentialism combined the innate nothingness of existence along with being, with freedom. It advocated for the recognition of the fact that meaninglessness creates meaning in the form of freedom.
Loosely translated, this meant that people could no longer sink into complete apathy. To trust in a higher power that decreed everything to be meaningless was not only inauthentic, but the posture of someone who rejected freedom. In contrast to this, the existentialists wanted to keep people awake. Life, no matter its lack of meaning, had to be lived to its fullest. The innate liberty of living an undescribed existence had to be accepted and celebrated. That same apathy and resentment that had grown out of nihilism, could now be replaced by a joyous worship of human existence. Not every philosopher could join in with the childish joy that Nietzsche embraced at the end of his works. But the thrill of being free was the driving force of the existentialists that followed.
Jean Paul Sartre, perhaps the most well-known existentialist and anti- establishmentarian of the 1960s, found solace in the nothingness offered by a life without a higher symbolical order. Guided by Nietzsche’s proclamation that God is dead, he understood that the only thing that exists is existence itself in its brute facticity.
Our inability to face this harsh reality, or on the contrary our reliance on nihilism, comes from our dependence on simple truths. We want life to feel comfortable; we provide each other with narratives of being trapped or not being able to change in order to repress existential dread. We victimize ourselves from existence itself, connect random dots of life to give “being” sense. However, we are not trapped. Humans, according to Sartre, are free agents – capable and responsible for various changes. Nothing is fixed and thus, we are always free to interpret the world in a new and fresh way. This awareness of nothing and freedom should be the basis of our will to move forward as a human species.
Yet, in contrast to the joy of Nietzsche, this level of freedom for Sartre was actually something that could petrify and nauseate. In “Being and Nothingness” (1943) Sartre describes freedom as radical – it means that we are simply the products of our actions, without an essence, and completely responsible for each one of our actions. It also means that we are defined by how we respond to different contexts, by how we respond to the material conditions of life and the struggles we, ourselves, cause. If we are to take life by the horns and accept freedom in a radical way, we have to understand that the climate crisis is ours to solve. Pretending that it is not our problem, or that we have no agency, is just a comforting illusion that Sartre labelled ‘bad faith’.
We are condemned to be free. It is only in moments of crisis that we become aware of our choices becoming choices, it is when we wake up to freedom in the face of death. Climate change is an existential crisis, because not only does it threaten the very survival of our species, but it also puts us dangerously close to transcending our understanding of total freedom. We are already in the midst of the 6th mass extinction of life on Earth, with over 200 species becoming extinct every day. We are facing increasingly more and more cases of extreme weather – floods, droughts, wildfires, and crop failures. And yet, many still deny the extent of human induced climate change. There are a great range of reasons for this, but many are still chained to the nihilist idea that change cannot be made, that given the work of epic forces – the lives of billions of beings and the life of planet Earth appears to be futile. We are so utterly afraid of deconstructing the narratives we have built up and taking responsibility for our actions, that we continue living in a constant state of existential paralysis.
Sartre would find it easy to identify 21st century adolescents living in bad faith. They do not live authentically; they pretend that they are trapped to escape the fear and anguish of accepting existentialism and its implications. They fear having no narrative or no identity, they deny their nothingness. Corrupted by the false narrative of freedom implemented by profit industries, they attempt to exercise their independence through shallow and ironic means. Furthermore, convicted of their nihilist beliefs, their attempts to establish autonomy, while holding on to a certain identity, is often self-destructive. What is apathy towards others, in nihilism is translated to apathy towards oneself in existentialism. Faced with a crisis, not of morals or values, but of identity, many young people become clinically depressed and suicidal. Unable to envisage themselves in an utterly meaningless, yet free world they test the limits of their identity, of their existence by self-harming.
This inversion of carelessness highlights, not only the conflict between existentialism and nihilism, but the crisis of existence that perturbs younger generations. It is because of this powerlessness, that our culture has sublimated the concept of freedom. The climate crisis seems to be so far out of reach and possible solutions seem so unattainable, that we appear to push ourselves backwards. Instead of thinking beyond the constrains of simple truths, we recline on a culture of apathy and give into false interpretations of freedom to comfort ourselves. However, this should not be the response of younger generations that will have to face the disastrous consequences of environmental breakdown.
Whether it be the lack of concern for the world nihilism presents or the lack of basic understanding discussing the role of generation Z in climate change. On one hand, fighting for a sustainable future on earth when you see no meaning in life or the world, seems contradictory. On the other, fighting for survival, whilst simultaneously killing yourself to feel more in touch with the reality of existence, is hypocritical. Given this state of affairs, it is philosophy that should pave the way forward.
The contradiction of nihilism is resolved forwards by Nietzsche. The knots of existentialism seem more complicated to deal with. In existentialism, a free being chooses to ‘be himself’† by selecting his own values, thus becoming authentic. As a consequence of this, the same person becomes responsible for his actions, however he then also becomes responsible for the world. To choose oneself is to also choose the world. To become authentic and free is also to take the responsibility for ensuring the freedom and authenticity of the world. If we are to exit the lifestyle of bad faith and fight for a sustainable planet, we must place our and the Earth’s existence as the first and most important value. We must end the trend of apathy and confront this crisis of existence face to face, freely.
Climate change is a systemic problem. It is a threat the likes of which humanity has never seen. It requires us to look beyond the system of profit that dominates our culture and examine ourselves. The climate crisis necessitates an in-depth analysis of our very own existence and the false narratives we have created to distract ourselves from this destructiveness. It demands that we take responsibility for our actions.
Philosophy has made clear that existence is absurd. That our being seeks comfort and omniscience, and when it fails to find it – it subverts it. We should be in utter awe of our ability to use philosophy to break apart social illusions. Yet, we should also be aware of what cruelties we are capable of imposing on each other and the planet; aware of the innate destructiveness anguish and fear can bring. Absurdism, to some extent, unites nihilism and existentialism. It claims that the search for meaning is inherently in conflict with the lack of meaning, that one should simultaneously accept and rebel against it by embracing what life has to offer.
It is philosophy that should be our guiding light in embracing the climate crisis. Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean Paul Sartre teach us to break away from social ‘truths’ and reject bad faith. They encourage us to live free, radical and meaningful lives. Both of these European philosophers attempted to solve the unsolvable – to radically change systems of thoughts and culture that had been the backdrop of human everyday life for decades. We should attempt to do the same.
Acceptance of and rebellion against the existential crisis of today is the first step towards solving the global predicament of climate change. The youth of today is already fighting for a future of survival. They are already facing a crisis of existence. The fight against climate change is their war. The sink towards apathy is their depression. The generations that were born at the turn of the 21st century are growing up in a reality without a fixed symbolical order, a guiding ideology, or sense of morality. It is their responsibility to ensure that apathy and widespread existential dread do not result in the death of Earth and humanity. It is their duty to embrace philosophy in all its glory and institute radical and freeing system change.
About the author
Graduate of Climate Academy, EEB2
Now reading PPE at Utrecht University
Lithuanian, Aged 18
- *In fact, it is more notable than just the c300,000 years of human history. “The last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was 3-5 million years ago, when the temperature was 2-3°C warmer and sea level was 10-20 meters higher than now.” Former WMO Secretary General, Petteri Taalas. WMO Greenhouse Gas Bulletin (GHG Bulletin) – No. 14: The State of Greenhouse Gases in the Atmosphere Based on Global Observations through 2017.
- †Being oneself is simply to exercise freedom, as there is no essence to anybody apart from their freedom.