Responsibility Against Nihilism

Calling for a new ethics

In the context of the nuclear age and growing ecological concerns, German-born philosopher Hans Jonas was one of the first to size up the measure of the ethical challenges posed by new features of modern technology. 

First, global environmental threats come with an “integrated view” of the globalized human world and the living Earth, which suggests a new sphere of true ethical significance. Second, they suggest long-term consequences, and impart asymmetrical responsibility for far distant generations. Jonas figured out that we have a new moral imperative commensurate with our power; a power that now affects people across the globe, human generations into the distant future, as well as a good part of the Biosphere. 

A tale of two clocks

After WWII, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists devised a “Doomsday Clock” as a metaphor for danger and a call to responsibility. Referring to the imagery of apocalypse and countdown, the Clock conveys man-made existential threats to humanity and the planet. Every year, it is decided where the minute hand on the Clock should rest: The closer it is to midnight, the closer the world is to doom. It has covered possible catastrophic disruptions from climate change since 2007, and its current time is two minutes to midnight.

A second clock is the physical “10,000 Year Clock”, a project led by the Long Now Foundation to foster long-term thinking and responsibility. It is a device of monumental scale yet to be built, which will become an icon for long-term thinking. It is designed to tick only once a year and run for ten millennia. Thus, it would measure out a future of civilization equal to its past, assuming that the journey is not over. “If a Clock can keep going for ten millennia,” asks the Long Now Foundation, “shouldn’t we make sure our civilization does as well?”

Further challenging the meaning of human action

And yet, the average global temperature by 2100 could rise by about 5°C (9°F); sea-level rise could amount to half a meter or so in each of the next centuries, up to six or seven meters; some disruption of thermohaline circulation could be triggered; huge reserves of methane hydrates could be gradually released, and other “run-away climate change” scenarios exist, with some scientists warning that the Earth will one day look like Venus if warming continues.

Here lies the metaphysical dimension of global environmental change: the stakes are now so high and potentially so critical in the long range that they engage our responsibility toward the future at a new level, creating a ‘karma vertigo’ for our civilization, in the words of Steward Brand, that is, the imposition of “crushing responsibility, paralyzing to contemplate.” 

As astronomer Carl Sagan famously wrote about the iconic “Pale Blue Dot” picture: “every human being who ever was, lived out their lives … on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam … ” 

As far as we know, the same holds for life in general. Yet “in the last analysis the view that counts is the one from earth, from within life,“ as expressed by Jonathan Schell in the context of the nuclear predicament.

It is the view not only of a static picture of the planet, but of the dynamic evolution of life on it. From this perspective, not only is it “the only world known so far to harbor life,” as stated by Sagan, but it also took a long journey to get there — from the Big Bang, to the birth of stars, the formation of the Earth, the evolution of life, the emergence of primates, the appearance of mankind, and eventually the rise of civilizations.

Even if our knowledge of life in extreme environments has made huge progress, some argue that few planets in other solar systems would offer the requisite long-term stability for a continued evolution of life, which the emergence of complex biology requires. So while “The Future does not need us,” as computer scientist Bill Joy once claimed, it might be that — as the single known intelligent species in the galaxy — our fate has contrariwise a “cosmic significance,” to quote English cosmologist Martin Rees

Significance and purpose

In the end, it does not matter that our abode is not at the center of our solar system, and our solar system not at the center of the Universe. Likewise, it does not matter that humankind shares a common ancestor with apes, or even with some primitive unicellular organism. It does not matter whether we are the result of a great cosmic scheme, of some mysterious impulse in matter, or the mere accidental consequence of a complex and chaotic suite of causes and effects, a pure blend of chance and necessity. Either way, we are a miracle. The living Earth is a miracle, and we — both as individuals and a species — are unique as well, because the same ability that gives us enormous power also gives us the capacity for change, through the ability to shape, and care for, the future.

The responsibility we have to preserve our home planet as well as the continuity of the Biosphere and in it, a certain idea of humanity, is now paramount. The ethics and metaphysics of global environmental change suggest that extreme prospects could indeed establish definitive proof of the death of meaning, but they could also trigger a kind of symbolic upsurge needed into the world. What might also be a simple evolutionary test would then, at least, safeguard a slight idea of meaning in the face of nihilism, and give and prove a genuine significance to our existences as individuals, as people, and as humankind. Whether or not there has been a purpose in the Universe, we have one now, which is to care for life, and to care for the future. Basically, this would give meaning to stardust.

- Bertrand Guillaume