“All forms of life modify their context” (White, 1967, p. 1203), so does the human being. The lower banks of the Nile, for example, have been a human artifact for at least six millennia. Terracing, irrigation, deforesting and damming have profoundly changed the natural ecologies (White, 1967). Over time the human has started to use more and more tools and technologies, changing their environment extensively. In the past decades, the cost of this technological progress has become clear: the climate is changing and threatening the long-term welfare and well-being of the human species. Moreover, the change is so dramatic that two eminent scientists, Crutzen and Stoermer (2000), have suggested that we might no longer be living in the geological epoch of the Holocene, but instead are entering a new age: the Anthropocene. The Age of Man is marked by the irreversible transformation of nature due to human influence. The influence is so immense that the way the planet works is changing. Humankind is promoted to be a global geological force in its own right (Arias-Maldonado, 2015, Chapter 5.1). The notion of the Anthropocene, whether it is true or not, ignites an important discussion about the role and the nature of the human being on the planet earth. As a descriptive notion, the Anthropocene hits some points: most current climate problems, like global warming, resource depletion and loss of biodiversity, are extremely likely to be caused by human activity (IPCC, 2014). However, isn’t placing the human as impact factor of geology confirming a way of being in the world that could possibly be different? Doesn’t it send a wrong message about solutions to the problem of climate change? On the one hand, placing the human in the center of the earth might give rise to some sense of responsibility to reverse the harm done. On the other hand, isn’t the fact that humanity thinks it is above nature what caused the problems in the first place?
In this essay, I would like to study the relationship between the human being and the world in light of the current climate problems. On the assumption that if the human species will keep on acting as it is doing now towards the natural world, the climate will irreversibly alter and affect human welfare and well-being in the near future, I am posing the following research question: ‘The Anthropocene places the human as the main impact factor and above the natural world, but is the human in its nature able to have a more acceptable relationship with the earth?’ Since the main problem in human’s impact on the climate lies in the creation and use of technology (IPCC, 2014), I will first analyze in how far technology is part of the nature of the human being. Using both Heidegger and Hegel, I will then argue that the relationship between human and world can change into a more sustainable and equal relationship.
The word ‘ecology’ first appeared in the English language around 1873 (White, 1967). The new concept crystallized as a result of the Scientific and Industrial Revolution when the merging of science and technology enabled the human to drastically change its way of living and influencing its environment. Only a century later, when Rachel Carson published her book ‘Silent Spring’ (1962), became the human impact on the environment publicly known as a problem (Griswold, 2012). Human activity is, since then, appointed to be the main cause of changes in the climate by the emission of greenhouse gasses and land use changes (Geerts, 2016). The problem lies, however, not in just human activity, but in human’s technological activity. Since the industrialization of food- and production processes and the widespread availability of technologies, the measurable amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere has risen drastically (IPCC, 2014). With ‘technology’ I refer not only to the tools and skills to create those tools, but to a whole societal system that is built with and around technologies. Only since the rise of this technological system did the human start to impact the climate extensively. Why isn’t then the geological era proposed to be the Technocene instead of the Anthropocene? The human has been using tools for centuries, but isn’t it specifically the technological tools that we use that cause the problem? By marking the new geological era around the human and not the actual cause: the use of technology, the notion of the Anthropocene is, therefore, assuming technology to be inherent to the human being.
Human nature & technology
The concept of the technological human being is not new. In his book, Der Mensch (1940), Arnold Gehlen sets out the human as a deprived animal who is forced to become a tool-making animal to fill his deficiencies in organs and instincts to be able to survive. Gehlen also pointed to the merging of science and technology for the development of the human being as a tool-making animal into a technological being. The difference, for Gehlen, is that technology is not only a tool and skill to create the tool, but a complete structure of society in which humans don’t use tools anymore to fill a lack or to survive, but create tools with which better tools can be created. Eventually, this development resulted in a technological structure which forces humans to create tools to solve problems that arise by the use of tools in the first place (Gehlen, 1983). The human impact on the climate is just another example of the same problem: the technologies are causing a new problem for which humans are inclined to immediately solve using technology again, clearly visible in the growth of the field of sustainable technological development (Kell, 2014). However, Gehlen argues, it means that technology has started to incite its own laws and has gotten out of human control. Technological supply has become the push behind technological development and not human demand (Gehlen, 1983).
Where Gehlen tries to warn humanity for the technological process that will get out of control, the more contemporary movement of transhumanism, on the other hand, promotes and embraces the technological process. Their starting point is similar to Gehlen: according to transhumanism, the nature of the human is clearly lacking, shown by diseases, suffering, wars, racism, and mistreatments, so why should the evolvement of the species stop here? The transhumanists acknowledge Gehlen’s fear that technological process could get out of control if handled without care, but contrary to Gehlen, they argue that not by fear but by embracing and safely guiding the technological process, the human can enhance itself in a valuable and humanly beneficial way (Bostrom, 2005). Within the transhumanistic movement, many different directions can be found, from which some also take the natural environment into consideration. David Pearce based his transhumanistic thought, the Hedonistic Imperative, on the ethics of hedonistic utilitarianism. In his program, he would like to eliminate suffering in both human and non-human animals and redesign all sentient beings to enable everybody to experience an unprecedented level of well-being (Bostrom, 2011). In Pearce’s Hedonistic Imperative an extreme version of will to mastery over nature can be found, even when he proposes it with the best intentions possible. Technology is in transhumanistic thought a saver of all human troubles, directing humanity to finally become a better being.
Underlying in both Gehlen and the transhumanistic movement is the definition of the human in terms of progress. Both acknowledge that the human hasn’t always been technological, but is an evolving species. Whether they see technology as a danger threatening humanity or as a messiah relieving humanity, technology is seen by both as a current stage in human progress, but they don’t look to the next possible stages. If the human is progress, why should the technological being be the endpoint and why would a next human also be technological? It is, of course, hard to predict what the next stage would be, because the current way of thinking is already technologically shaped: technology is all humanity knows. Is the human then what it thinks it is?
According to Martin Heidegger, the human has indeed no essence, only existence: a way of being in the world and approaching the world. What he means is that the human both ‘is’ in the world and aware that it ‘is’ in the world. The human has the unique capacity that it can relate to the world and to itself from a, so to speak, outside perspective. The human, however, does not experience itself first and then the world, or vice versa, but has always been inseparable from the world. Heidegger calls this ‘In-der-Welt-sein’ or in phenomenological terms ‘intentionality’. During human history, the way of being in the world has changed. In the era of modern technology, which Heidegger calls the ‘technological era’, the human has wrongly separated itself from the world. By being technological, the human approaches the world and itself as raw material, ready for demand and manipulatable for its own ends (Heidegger, 1977). Historically speaking, the human has been gradually separating itself from the natural world. In pagan animism, for example, before cutting a tree, the spirit of the tree needed to be placated, while developments such as the rise of cities and the Christian tradition separated the human from nature and enabled them to exploit nature (Arias-Maldonado, 2015, Chapter 2.3; White, 1967). Since the Scientific and Industrial Revolution, the human ability and willingness to influence nature increased extensively by the growing availability of material and technical means (Arias-Maldonado, 2015, Chapter 3.1). Exactly this separation of human and nature is why the human has reached the current climate crisis: because it thought it could unconditionally change the natural environment, use the natural resources and exploit other non-human living beings. Heidegger argues, however, that it is difficult to find a way out of the technological mindset because seeing the mindset as a problem that needs solving is already a way of technological thinking (Heidegger, 1977).
However, if the human is in its nature able to change out of the technological way of approaching nature, but not by technology, how can the human progress into a more acceptable relationship with nature? Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel has found a structure that explains how progress works. In his Dialectic, he describes the process of development through internal oppositions. According to Hegel, development always requires a confrontation, because only by coming across contradictions is there a reason to change. An antithesis, a contradiction to the current way of being, is the beginning of what Hegel calls ‘self-consciousness’: the entity becomes aware of the world out there that responds to it and aware of itself as a non-isolated entity (Kamal, 1998). The notion of the Anthropocene can be understood as the beginning of ‘self-consciousness’ because it arose out of the realization that human activity is not only set in a world but actually extensively impacts the world. The human became aware of the world as another entity with which it is connected.
The first step of the process to change has, therefore, already been made, because, in the past decades, the cost of the technological system on the natural environment and the possible problems for humanity became clear. The climate problems are widely acknowledged, especially in the scientific community, and a major topic on most agendas nowadays (United Nations Sustainable Development, 2017). The immense amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere, caused by the food- and dairy industry and the extensive use of fossil fuels, are causing the world to warm up. As a result, the ice caps are melting, the sea levels rise and the weather is getting more extreme (IPCC, 2014). Islands are sinking and many big cities like Amsterdam are also threatened by the water. The whole system of transportation and industry is on the brink of falling by the depletion of resources and the extensive amount of deforestation is pulling the earth’s soil, atmosphere, and biodiversity out of balance (Mommes, 2016). The technological human has come across a major problem confronting it with its self-proclaimed independence. To put it in Hegelian terms, the technological human has found an antithesis to its thesis.
As a reaction, the human immediately subtracts in how it understands itself, technologically, trying to prove its independence from nature. It is willing to go to extreme measures, like geo-engineering. This new field is taking matters into their own hands by actively intervening in the climate using grand technological interventions, such as a stratospheric veil against the sun or changing the chemistry of the ocean to take up carbon. The potential effects on nature and humanity are unpredictable and the risks enormous (Hamilton, 2013). Technology, in this case, is no longer only a tool to fill in for a lacking human function leaving some traces on the environment, but actually fulfilling tasks of the natural system: it is an attempt to engineer the natural system and its climate into the technological human system, depriving it of its autonomy.
The earth, however, has endured a lot in the billions of years it exists already. It has lived through major climate changes, meteorite attacks and has known many different species. The human is just a minority in all of the planet’s history. The earth can handle this human-induced climate change as well (Vox, 2015). The planet is, therefore, a rival with stamina and the human could very well become the cause of its own extinction, either by not being able to handle the self-induced climate change or by an (unlucky) mistake in its attempt to take control with technological developments. Nick Bostrom studies the risks threatening human existence, which could happen in multiple ways: by complete annihilation of the human species or by evolving or transforming in a new form of life that is sufficiently different from the Homo Sapiens. The greatest risks for annihilation Bostrom describes come from biotechnology creating hazardous new viruses, nanotechnology providing destructive weapons and superintelligence determining the future of humanity. In the other direction, the human could become ‘posthuman’ through technological development. This development could go abruptly (e.g. the singularity hypothesis) or more gradually (Bostrom, 2009). In relation to climate change, I envision a more gradual change where humans are forced to adapt themselves to the changing climate, which could possibly resolve over time in a radically different human condition than the current one, for example with mind-uploading or moving to Mars. The human is forced to actually separate itself from its biological environment. The current way of acting towards nature is, therefore, bound to result in either a loss of autonomy of nature or humanity.
The synthesis: the interdependence between human and nature
Fortunately, however, according to Hegel’s Dialectic, humankind will realize that it needs to acknowledge nature as an equal that needs to be treated with respect because an antithesis will usually result in a synthesis in which dependency and independence are reconciled. This happens because Hegel argues, independence is relational: it is always ‘independent of something’. The absence of another entity, therefore, brings uncertainty about independence. Trying to master another entity will only bring an illusionary independency, because it is not reciprocal and still dependent on another both formally and materially. Ultimately, the mastering entity will realize that it can only be free and independent when it recognizes its dependency on the other and gives up its will to mastery and acknowledges the other as free as well (Kamal, 1998). In the past decades, the acknowledgment of human’s dependence on its environment has started to grow. The human condition, even as a technological being, is placed in a natural context. The technological system is not independent because it needs resources and space, which the natural system is able to self-regulate as long as it is autonomously able to thrive. Even future scenario’s in which the human will be freed from its natural body needs this biology to free itself from. The planet negates the human, as much as the human negates the planet.
But what does this mean for the problem of global climate change? It means that the solution doesn’t lie in taking control of the climate, placing the human as the center of the earth or developing more and better technologies, but as Heidegger would put it, the solution lies in changing the approach of humanity towards the world. It is in the relationship between human, technology, and world that progress can be made. It doesn’t mean that technology in its totality should be ended, but rather that it needs to be inhabited differently. According to Heidegger, humankind can alter the relationship between human, technology, and world by taking on an attitude of ‘Gelassenheit’, or releasement, towards technology. In this attitude, technology is no longer the fundamental way of encountering entities, but the attitude is sheltering the truth of Being in all beings. The human won’t approach the world around it as manipulatable, but as beings that are granted the gift of Being. This attitude can be attained in the arts, where it is still possible to see and appreciate the things as they are and come to be. Secondly, humankind can learn ‘Gelassenheit’ by synchronizing its life with the rhythms of nature (day and nights, the seasons, and so on). Humanity should neither use technology blindly nor curse and ban it, but, put in more contemporary words: humanity should create a more conscious relationship with technology and its approach to the world (Wheeler, 2011).
A possible way to create a more conscious relationship with technology and the world is by acting according to the virtue of simplicity as it is proposed by Cambrel & Cafaro (2009, p. 90): “Simplicity is a conscientious and restrained attitude towards material goods [that] typically includes decreased consumption and a more conscious consumption.” It is the mean between under- and overconsumption, careless and obsessive consumption, crude and luxurious consumption and wasteful and hyper-efficient consumption. More concrete, important changes that need to be made are consuming less in general and more organic, sustainable and local food and products, decreasing meat consumption, participating more in food production (gardening, keeping chickens or bees) and preparing and eating food with more awareness (Gambrel & Cafaro, 2009).
The virtue of simplicity is an individual way of creating a different relationship with technology and the world, but to change the attitude of humanity as a whole there is more action needed from governments and businesses. An important change can be made in for example education: let children practice gardening with a school garden for example. Children that grow up with a simpler lifestyle and more awareness for the environment, are also more likely to run businesses that are more intrinsically motivated to take care of the natural environment (instead of regulation- and monetary motivation).
Finally, in this essay, I can conclude the question if the human is in its nature able to have a more acceptable relationship with the earth, instead of the anthropocentric relationship proposed by the Anthropocene, with a positive answer. I, firstly, concluded that the human is in its nature able to change and that the current way of being, which is technological, has separated the human from the natural world. Secondly, I showed how the changing of the climate, which is threatening human space and way of living, can, however, be seen as an antithesis that will ignite a new change in the nature of the human that is in better harmony with the natural environment, through a more conscious use of technology and approach to nature.
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