No Escape, No Excuses

No Escape, No Excuses

The previous column noted the increased complexity, multiculturalism, and contingency of the anthropogenic Earth, and the insufficiency of common coping mechanisms, especially ideologies and fundamentalisms of various kinds, in such an environment. More strongly, although over-simplistic and obsolete belief systems are a comfort given the threats and potential catastrophes that we are constantly browbeaten with in our 24/7 media environment, they are not just inadequate but unethical. But this realization begs the obvious question: What possible personal stance can ethically, rationally and responsibly be adopted under such circumstances?

This is not a trivial question precisely because the complexity of the systems involved necessarily means that any understanding at the level of the individual will be partial and incomplete, especially regarding future states. Nonetheless, this complexity arises precisely because of the previous choices of our species, and the myriad ways in which the human will to power has expressed itself over time to create the anthropogenic Earth, and thus it is particularly ironic and inappropriate that we use it as an excuse to deny individual responsibility. Indeed, it is here we may seek the beginning of a grounding of individual ethical responsibility in the Anthropocene.

In particular, consider Sartre's challenge to responsibility, developed as he faced the stresses of conflict and imprisonment during World War II. It can be neatly captured in two famous phrases: "man is condemned to be free," and "no excuses." The first expresses a basic existentialist position that to be conscious is to be free, and that, even if we don't recognize or accept our freedom, we are nonetheless responsible for it, and our choices. We all live in a world of patterns and contingent constraints that we by and large don't challenge, but for Sartre it is a category mistake as well as an ethical lapse to conclude that such habitual patterns in some way undercut our responsibility. And from the latter observation arises Sartre's dictum: no excuses. The enemy controls your country, and you as an individual have no power? No excuse. You are a coward, and thus not able to respond by joining the underground? No excuse. Similarly today: the world is too complex and I don’t understand it? No excuse. Nothing I think or do will affect these large, coupled systems? No excuse.

Obviously, what we might call the ethical demand for authenticity does not require stupidity. That one indeed lives in a world where the behavior of systems beyond oneself limits the effectiveness of one’s actions is apparent. But we all know people who consistently challenge the dogma and belief structures that lie around them in an on-going effort to validate their choices, or re-evaluate them if conditions change - and we all know people who simply accept what others say, without expending the energy or running the risks, physical and existential, of challenging existing patterns of belief and behavior. Realistically, almost everyone lies somewhere on such a spectrum, and there is probably some sort of "existential authenticity bell curve" that can be derived, with some people sometimes questioning some things, albeit halfheartedly.

Given the anthropogenic earth, however, and the accelerating rate of change, these two axioms can be read to demand that each of us has a responsibility to consistently and deeply question the status quo, and our possible complicity in increasingly dysfunctional and unethical mental models and structures. This is especially important because, over time, it is a characteristic of the anthropogenic world that its path shifts to reflect in many ways the human cultures, religions, and beliefs that increasingly affect its many parts, and thus we are not only responsible for our perception of what is, but the role that our perception and consequent actions play in embedding our culture and mental models in the world itself. Consistent questioning of authority of all kinds, from corporate to political to environmental and human rights interests, with special attention paid to that which we are inclined to believe, becomes intellectually and ethically necessary. Moreover, the responsibility cannot be regarded as simply a one-time requirement, but rather as ongoing, because as the world changes so must our perceptions and reactions. Indeed, the contingent nature of our assessments and mental models will be accentuated in such a rapidly evolving world, and concomitantly the responsibility on us to reevaluate them grows more, not less, pressing. Just as Socrates noted that the unexamined life was not worth living, so we must conclude that the unquestioned world is not worthy of a sentient being.

Brad Allenby is professor of civil and environmental engineering at Arizona State University, a fellow at the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business, and previously was AT&T's vice president of environment, health, and safety.