Twenty-five years ago, existentialism was a hot piece of intellectual property.
A literate public was buying up such books as William Barrett’s Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy and Viktor Frankl’s From Death Camp to Existentialism (later republished under the title Man’s Search for Meaning).
American psychologists were being introduced to the movement by a brilliant anthology entitled Existence: A New Dimension in Psychiatry and Psychology, edited by Rollo May and others. The 1958 International Congress of Psychotherapy chose existential psychology as its theme.
And the twentieth-century existentialists themselves were all still alive: Heidegger, Sartre, Camus, Martin Buber, Gabriel Marcel and Paul Tillich.
Today all six men are dead and, from all appearances, so is the movement for which they were known.
But that’s a shame. Especially if you care about climate change and peak oil.
Do it yourself
Here’s why we need existentialism so much today: It encourages people to listen to their own conscience and to take action themselves. It’s against cynicism and quietism.
A central proposition of existentialism is that the most important consideration for individuals is that they are individuals — independently acting and responsible, conscious beings — rather than an amalgamation of the labels, roles, stereotypes, definitions, or other preconceived categories into which they might fit.
The actual life of individuals is what constitutes their true essence. Thus, human beings, through their own consciousness, create their own values. People are defined by how they act and are, thus, responsible for their actions.
Freedom, from an existential perspective, cannot be separated from responsibility.
Existentialism teaches that we alone are responsible for our choices and the consequences of those choices.
A society of non-actors
Unfortunately, since post-WWII, Americans have chosen the easy path of ignoring their moral, civic and political responsibilities. Instead Americans have shopped till they dropped, texted, tweeted, recreated and worked grueling hours to keep food on the table. They’ve abdicated the role of citizen in favor of that of consumer.
The subliminal idea behind all this has been that the government will take care of things. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency is tasked, after all, with keeping an eye on environmental concerns, right? Well…
In the early days, the EPA did make some inroads into environmental protection. However, soon thereafter industry became aggressive in pushing to change how the EPA operated in order to ensure that it took into consideration economic issues. Then, in the 1980’s, the EPA underwent scandal, deregulation and budget reduction. And frankly, it’s never gotten back up on its feet.
So, nobody’s really watching the environmental shop. That makes the U.S. federal government ill equipped to fight climate change.
Meanwhile, the citizenry is mimicking a full-court press in blue light specials and watching late night TV. And, even when a legitimate environmental concern threatens their own community, most people are too busy to respond.
I mean, the government will take care of it, right?
Nanny state will hobble citizens
This lack of awareness flatlines when it comes to developing political will to fight climate change and deal with other crucial issues. When citizens pull back and fail to act as stewards of their bio-regions, governments fill the power vacuum and ramp up their nanny-state functions.
The more muscle that a nanny state builds, the less autonomy is extended to local communities. A nanny state ostensibly seeks to protect people from themselves. But, this is done through burdensome regulations that complicate normal life. And, invariably, a nanny state always evolves into a bloated and meddlesome entity that, eventually, citizens resent.
This is not a sustainable solution to climate change and other environmental problems. The answer lies in people taking a long, hard look at their responsibilities to the bioregions where they live.
Once those responsibilities are clearly identified, the next step is taking appropriate individual action (ie, not waiting for “somebody else” to do it).
Each of us can inventory our particular skill sets and participate from our strong suits. In this way, a resilient response to climate needs can be met in effective, and personal, ways.
— Sherry Ackerman, Transition Voice