On a virtually daily basis, one is confronted with more dreadful news pertaining to the destruction of the world as we know it – or knew it – by forces that seem to be, almost irrefutably, related to anthropogenic climate change in the shape of global warming. For example, a report on Yahoo News (27 July 2019: https://uk.news.yahoo.com/climate-change-warning-arctic-circle-124100906.html ) shows an almost incomprehensibly large area of the Arctic being engulfed in flames. This is how the report starts:

‘An unprecedented outbreak of wildfires in the Arctic has sent smoke across Eurasia and released more carbon dioxide in two months than the Czech Republic or Belgium does in a year.

‘As 44C heatwaves struck Europe, scientists observed more than 100 long-lasting, intense fires in the Arctic in June, the hottest month on record, and are seeing even more in July, according to Mark Parrington of the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts.

‘Mostly in Alaska and Russia, the infernos have collectively released more than 120 million tonnes of CO2, more than the annual output of most countries. It is the most carbon emitted since satellite monitoring began in the early 2000s.

‘This will further exacerbate climate change and has sent smoke pouring toward more populated parts of the world. Pollutants can persist more than a month in the atmosphere and spread thousands of kilometres.’

It is mind-boggling that more than 30000 square kilometres are burning at present, and the effects of this on human beings (let alone other living creatures in these large boreal forests) can be gauged from the fact that the number of patients in cardiac wards of hospitals in Russian cities that smoke pollution from the fires has reached, have allegedly doubled.

The worst thing about such dire news is that, as an individual, one feels entirely helpless. After all, what can one person do, or even countries’ governments? Even if the latter harness all their available resources to quell these fires, the fact of the matter is that the conditions that made them possible, or probable, have reached a point where it would take decades before they improve, even if all the factors responsible for present conditions were to be arrested, or reversed – beginning with the termination of all fossil-fuel usage. Impossible, you say – the world economy could not continue functioning if this were implemented. I agree. But what is more important – the world economy or life on the planet, including human life?

In Living in the End Times (Verso, 2010), Slavoj Žiźek has remarked on the paradoxical state of affairs, that today, people can more easily imagine the end of the world (that is, life) as we know it, than the end of the global capitalist economy. Which puts a new gloss on the meaning of the word ‘absurdity’; Samuel Beckett would turn in his grave…The situation seems so grave, or serious, that it is utterly paralysing. So, what to do in the face of these conditions?

There are many sources of wisdom that we can turn to to gather the moral courage to confront this lamentable state of affairs, for example the following. In a wonderful essay titled ‘The need for transcendence in the postmodern world’ (see http://www.worldtrans.org/whole/havelspeech.html ), the erstwhile poet-president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel – probably the closest the modern world has come to Plato’s idea of the ‘philosopher-king’ – has this to say about ‘Science and modern civilization’, where he writes about ‘…the crisis, or…the transformation, of science as the basis of the modern conception of the world’:

‘The dizzying development of this science, with its unconditional faith in objective reality and its complete dependency on general and rationally knowable laws, led to the birth of modern technological civilization. It is the first civilization in the history of the human race that spans the entire globe and firmly binds together all human societies, submitting them to a common global destiny. It was this science that enabled man, for the first time, to see Earth from space with his own eyes; that is, to see it as another star in the sky.

‘At the same time, however, the relationship to the world that the modern science fostered and shaped now appears to have exhausted its potential. It is increasingly clear that, strangely, the relationship is missing something. It fails to connect with the most intrinsic nature of reality and with natural human experience. It is now more of a source of disintegration and doubt than a source of integration and meaning. It produces what amounts to a state of schizophrenia: Man as an observer is becoming completely alienated from himself as a being.

‘Classical modern science described only the surface of things, a single dimension of reality. And the more dogmatically science treated it as the only dimension, as the very essence of reality, the more misleading it became. Today, for instance, we may know immeasurably more about the universe than our ancestors did, and yet, it increasingly seems they knew something more essential about it than we do, something that escapes us. The same thing is true of nature and of ourselves. The more thoroughly all our organs and their functions, their internal structure, and the biochemical reactions that take place within them are described, the more we seem to fail to grasp the spirit, purpose, and meaning of the system that they create together and that we experience as our unique “self”.

‘And thus today we find ourselves in a paradoxical situation. We enjoy all the achievements of modern civilization that have made our physical existence on this earth easier so in many important ways. Yet we do not know exactly what to do with ourselves, where to turn. The world of our experiences seems chaotic, disconnected, confusing. There appear to be no integrating forces, no unified meaning, no true inner understanding of phenomena in our experience of the world. Experts can explain anything in the objective world to us, yet we understand our own lives less and less. In short, we live in the postmodern world, where everything is possible and almost nothing is certain.’

The most important part of this excerpt from Havel’s essay – which is worth reading in its entirety – is his claim, that there is something missing from our relationship with the world: ‘ It fails to connect with the most intrinsic nature of reality and with natural human experience’, despite our vaunted scientific knowledge and technological prowess. Furthermore, regardless of our putative superior knowledge compared to our (‘primitive’) ancestors, Havel tells us, they seem to have known something ‘more essential’ about the universe than we do. Why have we forgotten this ‘something’?

One of the reasons, I would suggest, is because we have become accustomed to living in a way that is largely removed from nature, and consequently people lack the indispensable holistic understanding of where we ‘fit in’, the way our ancestors did. It’s about time we re-learned that.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

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