Just a quick post, I thought, celebrating both the arrival of the cruellest season and Google’s recognition of the present blog as an authority on melancholiacs struggling with Spring. (1)
But current world affairs & disasters do call for some serious brooding, beyond the breeding of lilacs out of the dead land (2).
“What did the ancient Greeks ever do for us?”
In fact, I never much liked to engage in the usual left-right debates about the sustainability of our economic growth model. While personally inclined to a sober life style (3) and preferring contemplative pleasures above tangible goods & action, I did always concede that a solid basis of material wealth was needed to allow societies to produce cultural riches beyond the fulfilment of basic needs.
And being well versed in doctrines of economic rationality, I came to think of my own aversion of materialist greed as a mere aberration of a naive heart. Just as irrational as my longing for disinterested reflection and aesthetic delights. After all, was it not enlightened self-interest coupled with rational scientific thinking that built our world of abundance, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of misery? Scientists , engineers and business men: they set free humanity by understanding and exploiting the laws of nature.
“What did the ancient Greeks ever do for us?” “Those contemplating medieval monks”? “And all those serious philosophers, writers and painters of chimeras? “ “What useful things did they make, to feed, cloth, warm, shelter or transport us?” (4)
Well you see, quite relevant questions indeed! And all I had to answer was that a life without reflection or beauty would not seem worth living to me... Pretty unconvincing... (5). So I confess I conceded defeat: “they” won. (6)
But it did always remain something of a puzzle to me that ‘useless’ reflective & aesthetic qualities, having no apparent survival value at all, could have inspired so many people throughout the ages.
But what will we leave to future generations?Having surrendered to scientific and economic rationality, I also thought I was just being naive again when wondering how on earth we were ever going to sustain this unrelenting growth in production and consumption. Weren’t we being a tad wasteful? How about billions of people wanting to eat meat, own televisions, drive cars, take planes, etc. How would there ever be enough resources?
But then, the pessimism of the Club of Rome had proven to be wrong too. Thanks to ever advancing science, human ingenuity , entrepreneurship and the geniuses of finance, the infallible free markets would make sure that processes would get ever more resource-efficient and that new solutions would be found.
The past decade we have been witnessing a series of crises that throw serious doubt on the infallibility of free markets and on the human capacity to master ever more complex systems.
We have had the Great Financial Crisis (of which we are still experiencing its aftershocks): with its mixture of irresponsible greed and hubris (the geniuses of finance seem really to have thought their quantitative models had everything under control). We are experiencing uncontrollable changes in climate linked to our own behaviour. We have watched engineers struggle for months to stop a massive oil spill and to regain control of their deepwater drilling contraptions. We are all now following with horror the unfolding nuclear crisis in Japan ...
Why are humans intellectually so badly equipped to understand that statistically improbable events do can materialise (and thus may not be discarded if they have more than banal consequences). Why are our celebrated free markets so bad at pricing “externalities” (7) and long term risks?
Do I have answers? No. But this morning, looking lovingly at some art reproductions in a book about 15th century paintings, I all of a sudden anxiously wondered: what will we leave for future generations? Our kind of art does not strive for permanence anymore, our aim is no longer to bring objects in the world that may rejoice future generations. (8) We don’t build or paint or sing for eternity .... (9)
From cathedrals to nuclear sarcophagi ...
We are just using up all the resources of our planet to fulfil our present needs and follies. We are taking risks that contaminate parts of our planet for thousands of years to come, or that may irreversibly alter (for the worst) climatic conditions.
We no longer build cathedrals, to be admired throughout the ages. But what we do build, as long lasting memorials for future generations: giant steel & concrete sarcophagi to contain our radioactive debris.
Nods & Nuances in the Notes
(1) I happened to type ‘melancholiac’ and ‘Spring’ in the Google-box, and lo & behold: Frivolous Fragments turned up first !! Of course, the word ‘melancholiac’ is not in common use (Google even forces ignorant searchers to look first at ‘melancholic Spring’ results ). But still!
(2) Just like catholic church services recycle the same old bible texts (granted, with some evangelist variations) at the yearly recurring feasts, a secular melancholiac may very well, year after year, at the arrival of Spring, recite the first stanza’s of the Waste Land.
(3) I have never even owned a car, which, just as my daily cycling-commuter habits, is considered as somewhat odd by colleagues and acquaintances
(4) Heidegger (as quoted in Arendt’s Life of the Mind): “Thinking does not bring knowledge as do the sciences. Thinking does not produce usable practical wisdom. Thinking does not solve the riddles of the universe. Thinking does not endow us directly with the power to act”. (Brooding blogs don’t either)
(5) Of course, the Greeks, for instance, gave us principles of reasoning, mathematics, architecture, medicine... Their concepts are still alive in western languages, etc. Etc And those medieval monks saved western civilisation. But for the sake of this blog’s fake rhetoric method, I, for now surrender to the usual disparaging clichés
(6) “They won” – as The Economist wrote : “ The West’s long run as top dog may be ending. But the values that made it great, consumerism included, have been sold on to the rest of the world” – so depressing ... Couldn’t the rest of the world have chosen some of our “useless” reflective & aesthetic values ? Why did they all have to copy with such gusto our greedy consumerism that devours everything, and builds nothing of permanence? Does shopping & consuming perhaps correspond with a primary genetic need to hunt & gather & wallow ?
(7) Externalities : for instance side effects of pollution, the degradation of both natural and urban environment
(8) “A thing of beauty is a joy forever ....”
(9) Ok, ok – I am exaggerating. Future generations will undoubtedly be very grateful for the immense stock of scientific knowledge and technological know how we will be transmitting. And for our huge digital networks & our savvy applicatons. And perhaps, indeed, scientific advances will manage just in time to solve our resources problem (or maybe we will find yet another planet to plunder)