The monk and the philosopher in the Anthropocene

In CoPhi today, our attention turns to the dichotomy noted last time between eastern and western approaches to philosophy. That split is well exemplified by The Monk and the Philosopher, the monk being Matthieu Ricard (“the happiest man in the world“), the philosopher his father Jean-Francois Revel. If anyone is in a position to bridge the difference it must be Ricard, who walked away from a promising scientific career in molecular biology to go and study Buddhism with the Dalai Lama in Tibet.

In  Environmental Ethics, we wrap up our consideration of Erle Ellis’s Anthropocene: A Very Short Introduction.

Some worry that recognizing the Anthropocene might be to issue a blank “anything goes” check, while others – and I’m with them – think that failing to do so is to deny the reality of climate change. Others still think it all a distractive labeling debate, a re-arranging of deck chairs as the ship slowly (or not so slowly) sinks.

In any event, it seems undeniable that humans have become a force of nature, geophysical agents at whose hands society and nature have merged. Our story is Big History, and so far it’s the story of wealthy nations (the USA, with China lately playing catch-up but still lagging far behind, per capita) and individuals emitting carbon pollutants at a rate wildly out of proportion with their numbers. Our story has largely been that of capitalism ascendant, remunerating short-term, self-interested thinking and in the process transforming the Earth by producing massive social inequalities.

So what we may really need, at this stage, is no single account but “many different Anthropocene narratives, to engage with the broadest range of human needs.” Hence, the rationale for our course project of crowd-sourcing a variety of “cli-fi” narratives to furnish alternative visions of our future. “The visions we offer our children shape the future,” said Carl Sagan. Our vision quest is no idle daydream, it’s the preparation our survival demands.

Donna Haraway, inspired by sci-fi writer H.P. Lovecraft, has offered her imaginative vision of an alternative story, that of the Chthulucene. Her message: individuality is an illusion, all of life is connected, is “kin.”

“The Anthropocene demands action,”beginning with an act of acknowledgement that we face serious challenges of our own design, that will require some serious noospheric thought to overcome.

Are we the Promethean technology masters who must and will save ourselves, or are we hubristic Icarus, about to get singed by our own overconfidence? Too soon to say, but “the prospect of a better planetary future” is not beyond the pale. After all, we’ve banned DDT, protected endangered wildlife, created parks and preserves, invested in carbon-neutral energy systems, developed solar technology and electric cars, issued LEED certification… But past is prologue. We’re now called to think large and long. Can we do it? Set the clock, for 10,000 years. There’s no time like the Long Now.



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