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Enlightenment ideology and the climate crisis

Dark clouds ahead for the nation - ANIL NETTO/ALIRAN

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Much has been said about the causes of the environmental crisis that is plaguing the world.

Extreme weather events linked to global warming have alarmed the international community. Floods have swamped parts of Europe and China. A combination of extreme winter temperatures and hurricanes has hit the US. The climate crisis has also hurt vulnerable poor countries in the South.

The solution is not just to slash carbon emissions around the world. We must also reflect and expose the ideology that underpins the climate crisis of today.

An article by Jordan Hillebert from the University of Notre Dame, “The gift of creaturely dependence” caught my eye. In it, the writer connects the enlightenment ideology to the current climate crisis.

He writes on the Enlightenment period in Europe and the US, where revolt and resentment broke out against creaturely dependents. This period regarded the ability to think for oneself – without lazily or fearfully submitting to the guidance of others – as crucial.

For example, American enlightenment thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) extolled self-reliance as the highest ideal, the most godlike of all human traits. “Trust thyself,” Emerson insists, “every heart vibrates to that iron string.”

One must abide by one’s own convictions without regard for communal expectations or social conventions, for society conspires against the creative self-expression of its individual members.

This resentment is taken to its extreme in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), for whom the will to power is an all-consuming “good”. For Nietzsche, the individual is a law unto him or herself, answerable to no higher standard and accountable to no one else. Human existence is, for Nietzsche, “the endless drive of self-assertion in pursuit of ever greater power and efficiency.”

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The writings of Ayn Rand (1905-1982) have been championed by several prominent Anglo-American economists and politicians on the right as offering the most convincing “moral argument” for laissez-faire capitalism, which believes in the subjugation of nature and abhors creaturely dependence. 

The resentment of dependence leads to the exploitation of the natural world.

Many today are impatient with the limits we encounter in the natural world such as the duration between harvests, the carrying capacity of the land, and the slow growth to maturation of livestock.

So we resort to every political, economic and technological means available to reduce our dependence on nature’s limits.

Advances in biotechnology, which includes the use of growth hormones and genetic modification, have enabled a swifter transition from calf to beef.

Global trade and the growing hegemony of supra-national corporations allow for greater consumption of goods – without the constraints of local seasons and climate.

Neoliberal economic ideology, religiously adopted by the US and the EU, is rooted in the individualism of the enlightenment ideology, where nature is seen as a mere instrument of exploitation.

When a creature tries to be the creator, the consequences are disastrous.

To be a creature is to belong within the network of interdependent relations, which, in theological understanding, is created and sustained by God.

So it is crucial for us to relook at the thinking behind the climate crisis. We need to rediscover the essence of divinely ordained creation, with its limits and interdependency.

Human flourishing is bound up with the flourishing of the created order.

To rebel against our creatureliness, to seek to place ourselves over and above the created order is to alienate ourselves from our Creator and the network of creaturely relations through which we are formed and to which we are responsible.

It is time to expose the historical Enlightenment ideology, promoted by the US and Europe, which resent the gift of creaturely dependence. This negation of our dependence is the primary cause of the climate crisis.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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Paul Lim
Paul Lim
28 Aug 2023 12.27am

Thanks for your enlightening Analysis. Natuere is hiring back. But I am more concerned with what are Malaysians are doing and what this Unity government is doing. I don’t see any environmental movement in Malaysia but everyone just occupiez with the racial politics of the country. The writer should contribute to get an environnental movement going.

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