I watched a talk yesterday by a respected philosopher. At first, I found his straightforward, gentle but firm presentation of evidence that humanity is unlikely to save itself from extinction, at worst; or face unprecedented and awful challenges, at best, to be a relief. There are fearless witnesses to our predicament out there – the Green Party, Roy Scranton, Jem Bendell, the Extinction Rebellion movement, Quakers, Greta Thunberg, David Attenborough – but most of our friends, families and friendly neighbourhood dog walkers are not engaged in the end is nigh ideology, and so the voices that speak the truth as we see it are rare and precious.
So the slump in my mood was even bigger once I’d digested part two of the talk – what to do about it – from storing money under the bed (yes, indeed – if you have money to store) to ending freedom of movement.
Hang on, ending freedom of movement?
Yes, it seems. With a heavy heart, when resources are scarce we can, potentially, take some climate refugees – after all, there’s the awkward issue that much of this is our fault – but, well, you know, we just ‘don’t have capacity. ‘ We do, then have ‘more in common’ but it turns out it’s with Donald Trump, not our neighbour fleeing the very catastrophe we condemn the President for not recognising.
There are not many models for us to aspire to in this situation. But why must our response be to turn inwards? Why are the seemingly brave, innovative thinkers resorting to ideologies which, in previous incarnations, ended up with the Third Reich? Because, apparently, it would be better for some civilisation to survive, than no civilisation at all. Guess which one, folks?
If we are all ultimately condemned, then the only freedom we have is to choose how we live out the last minutes of humanity. In the seconds before we have to make this decision, to panic into a tribal defensiveness and othering would be to leave a legacy even worse than one in which we’ve knowingly destroyed our planet. If we save civilisation by erasing compassion, what does it become?
As Etty Hillesum was forcibly deported from Westerbork to Auschwitz in November 1943, she thew a note out of the train. On it she’d written, ‘We left the camp singing.’ Her diaries and letters tell of her struggle, in isolation, to nurture humanity in the face of a pitiless and inhumane world. While I admire the philosopher for his commitment to truth and answers, it is Etty’s conviction that meaning lies in ‘self-emptying’ and love for her fellow humans which we need to heed and nourish. If we destroy grace, what possible value could we then, in all consciousness, live by?