Michael Ignatieff: Rob has spo­ken about some of the issues that face Nexus. And you would­n’t be here if you did­n’t believe in its mis­sion, but I hope you will say to oth­er peo­ple what I feel about it, which is this is the only con­fer­ence or gath­er­ing I ever go to where on the same plat­form you can find an admi­ral, and an opera singer. That’s gonna hap­pen lat­er today. It’s tru­ly amaz­ing the range of human inge­nu­ity and tal­ent that gets brought togeth­er at Nexus. That’s the first won­der­ful and unique thing about this organization. 

But the oth­er thing is you. The sec­ond thing that makes Nexus unique has always been the audi­ence. Because this is not a gath­er­ing of spe­cial­ists or a lit­tle elite con­clave. It’s always been a gath­er­ing for the cit­i­zens of a great city. And it’s the only con­fer­ence of its kind that I know that reach­es out in this way to the cit­i­zens of a great city. So I just, you know, speak­ing per­son­al­ly, on behalf of Susannah my wife who’s also here, I do hope that the Netherlands finds a way to keep this won­der­ful and quite unique exper­i­ment going in the future. 

Okay, let’s do some work togeth­er. I’m stand­ing on the set of a Wagner pro­duc­tion, so we bet­ter begin with Wagner. The Ring could be inter­pret­ed as a myth­ic geneal­o­gy of human emo­tion. It describes the bat­tle between the impuls­es of love and the dri­ve for pow­er played out inside our own souls way back to our archa­ic begin­nings. Our fate, Wagner tells us, is trag­ic. We should choose love, but we always choose pow­er. And in the dri­ve for dom­i­na­tion we use technology—techne—to con­trol nature and oth­er human beings. And rea­son, dri­ven on by acquis­i­tive lust, gives us god-like pow­ers. But in gain­ing the ring, we doom our­selves to Götterdämmerung. We aban­don the gods, and they aban­doned us, and in the twi­light we are left strug­gling often in vain to use these god-like pow­ers with wis­dom and fore­sight. And the wise use of pow­er, Wagner tells us, can only come when we love our fel­low crea­tures and respect the only plan­et we know as our com­mon home. 

Now, this sum­ma­ry might not sat­is­fy the true Wagnerians in the audi­ence. And it won’t work as a sum­ma­ry of one of Western art’s most pro­found and trou­bling mas­ter­pieces. But it does tease out a theme that I want to con­cen­trate on for the rest of this lec­ture: Wagner’s atten­tion to man’s alien­at­ing and alien­at­ed rela­tion to nature, and the price we pay when dom­i­na­tion, the dri­ve for the ring, caus­es us to lose our love of the nat­ur­al world and see it only as a resource to be plundered. 

And this estab­lish­es the theme of my lec­ture, which is the impact of the envi­ron­men­tal cri­sis on our under­stand­ing of his­to­ry. In the last twen­ty years or so we all seem to have real­ized that mankind has entered a new epoch, the Anthropocene, in which the chief forces shap­ing nature are the work of our own species. Now some date the dawn of the Anthropocene to the begin­ning of the Industrial Revolution, and some trace it back to 1945 and Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But what­ev­er the dat­ing, we know we’re liv­ing in a new epoch in which human beings must assume respon­si­bil­i­ty for nat­ur­al phe­nom­e­na (the weath­er, sea lev­els, air qual­i­ty, soil fer­til­i­ty) that we once attrib­uted to God or to fate. 

In this lec­ture I want to think through just a few of the polit­i­cal con­se­quences of what it means to live in the Anthropocene, this new age in which for the first time human beings like us hold the future of our whole species in our hands. Wagner’s Götterdämmerung reminds us that while the con­cept of the Anthropocene is new, the gen­er­al idea that man’s god-like pow­ers now endan­ger our very sur­vival is a very well-established theme way back in the 19th cen­tu­ry. This pes­simism even then expressed itself in warn­ings of envi­ron­men­tal neme­sis. You should recall that when Götterdämmerung final­ly occurs in the final act of The Ring, the Rhine ris­es its banks and floods the world. Nature takes its revenge on human pre­sump­tion and folly. 

From its first per­for­mance, Wagner’s audi­ence has under­stood the Götterdämmerung as a fable about eco­log­i­cal destruc­tion and cap­i­tal­ist greed. And this theme has sur­faced in inter­pre­ta­tions of The Ring ever since. 

This emerg­ing nar­ra­tive of cat­a­stro­phe is putting enor­mous pres­sure on all our polit­i­cal beliefs. Now there’s still some con­ser­v­a­tive par­ties, some US Republicans for exam­ple, who deny the basic facts, but we can be pret­ty sure I think that any pol­i­tics that denies the facts does­n’t have much of a future. And then there are pop­ulists on the right—Salvini, Orbán, Wilders—take your pick—who change the sub­ject, who tell you the thing to fear is not cli­mate change but immi­grants and for­eign­ers. But pol­i­tics that changes the sub­ject does­n’t have much of a future, either. It’s only the Greens, surg­ing in Western Europe, espe­cial­ly here in the Netherlands, that have iden­ti­fied cli­mate change as the cen­tral polit­i­cal issue of our time. But it’s impor­tant to notice that they still don’t com­mand sup­port for more than a quar­ter of the electorate—many of whom I hope and sup­pose may be in the room this morn­ing. I think the rea­son that Green sup­port has stalled at about 25% of the elec­torate is that the Green agen­da asks for more change than most elec­tors are as yet ready to make. The times may be rev­o­lu­tion­ary but peo­ple are not yet ready for a rev­o­lu­tion­ary politics. 

For no polit­i­cal move­ment does cli­mate change pose a more dif­fi­cult chal­lenge than lib­er­al­ism, the polit­i­cal force that I’ve been asso­ci­at­ed in my life­time. By lib­er­al­ism, by the way, I mean a cen­trist, grad­u­al­ist pol­i­tics of all stripes. Liberalism can come in small‑c con­ser­v­a­tive, social demo­c­ra­t­ic forms, it can come in some green forms. So when I talk about lib­er­al­ism I don’t get hung up on par­ty polit­i­cal labels. 

Liberal con­vic­tions seem out of step with a fash­ion­able apoc­a­lyp­tic mood that warns us that we’re all head­ed for Götterdämmerung. Our insti­tu­tions are in cri­sis, elites have failed, cap­i­tal­ism has failed. Und so weit­er, und so weit­er, und so weit­er. So cli­mate puts the his­tor­i­cal sto­ry of progress on tri­al and it puts lib­er­al pol­i­tics in the dock. And in the face of the great fear of cli­mate cat­a­stro­phe, lib­er­al pol­i­tics may be swept aside. 

Climate change, if suf­fi­cient­ly fright­en­ing, could cause us to vote our­selves into an author­i­tar­i­an state. So cli­mate emer­gency will test the via­bil­i­ty of lib­er­al demo­c­ra­t­ic soci­eties more than pop­ulism ever will. But that’s not real­ly the core chal­lenge. The core chal­lenge runs deeper. 

There’s a deep­er cri­sis in the lib­er­al con­fi­dence in the very sto­ries we tell about our past. In this sto­ry, we tell the sto­ry that it was techne—technology—that lift­ed the bur­den of labor off the backs of men and women. It was med­ical sci­ence that enabled women to face child­birth with­out ter­ror. It was sci­ence that gave us the prospect that every­one could be born, grow up, and live a nor­mal life. That freed mil­lions and then bil­lions from star­va­tion and hunger. This is the Enlightenment sto­ry, the won­der­ful sto­ry that we inher­it from Bacon, from Newton, from Adam Smith onwards. The empow­er­ing rela­tion­ship between knowl­edge and free­dom. And this is what lib­er­at­ed mankind from servi­tude, hunger, dis­ease, and pre­ma­ture death. And frankly it’s the only good sto­ry left. It’s the one that made us feel that all the sense­less bru­tal­i­ty of cap­i­tal­ist moder­ni­ty served a high­er pur­pose, even if we could not see it or even enjoy it ourselves. 

I want to make the point that we’ve made more progress in under­stand­ing the sci­ence of cli­mate with­in the last eighty years than in the entire his­to­ry of human­i­ty. And that’s some­thing. We have a wide­ly dif­fused and gen­er­al­ized aware­ness, spread­ing way beyond nar­row sci­en­tif­ic cir­cles, of some­thing called an ecos­phere. Of inter­ac­tions and cor­re­la­tions between envi­ron­men­tal phe­nom­e­non on sea, land, and air that we nev­er sus­pect­ed before. We’ve made strik­ing progress in align­ing mar­ket incen­tives and reg­u­la­tion so that for the first time, renew­able ener­gy now com­petes with fos­sil fuels and nuclear. 

But despite this intel­lec­tu­al and tech­ni­cal rev­o­lu­tion, it’s com­mon these days to read arti­cles in which our species is described as a virus, as an infes­ta­tion, or even as the chief ser­i­al killer on the plan­et. Thanks to these metaphors, we wor­ry aloud whether we actu­al­ly deserve to sur­vive at all. Instead of feel­ing empow­ered by what we have come to know, the more we know the worse we feel. 

So we’ve met the ene­my, as the great American car­toon­ist Pogo used to say, and he is us, or she is us. So what do we do about us? Being human demands of all of us a dual act of recog­ni­tion. Taking respon­si­bil­i­ty for what is worst in our his­to­ry as a species, while keep­ing faith with our cun­ning, our resilience, our stag­ger­ing resourcefulness. 

We should admit that the sto­ries in which we attempt to give shape to time, and Götterdämmerung is mere­ly one of them, are fables at once deceiv­ing and self-deceiving. But the past itself…the phys­i­cal remains, the old stones, the pic­tures gleam­ing from the walls, the hal­berds tak­ing the light in Rembrandt’s Night Watch, the light on the pearl ear­ring, the bent lin­tels over which we step, the immense secre­tion of the human presence—its tenac­i­ty, inge­nu­ity, bril­liance, and vision. This is inspir­ing. Because it reminds us once again what human beings for­ti­fied by faith in them­selves and in pur­pos­es larg­er than them­selves can accom­plish. This is the faith we need to save our plan­et. Thank you.

Further Reference

Nexus Conference 2019