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.