The mind works in strange yet predictable ways. A few weeks ago, I was walking home during a wind storm when I heard a tremendous crash directly behind me. I whirled around and saw that a large snag had fallen across the road just feet from where I was standing. Had I been a few seconds slower, I would have been killed on the spot.
The first thought that came to mind, aside from “Hurray, I’m alive,” was that someone must be watching over me. As I started to analyze the situation, however, I recalled that two girls, aged five and eight, were killed several years ago by a falling tree in one of Canada’s national parks. Why did those young children perish while I suffered not a scratch?
The philosophical implications of such incidents did not go unnoticed by great existentialist thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, who were not afraid to stare unflinchingly into the dark abyss of the human condition. Sartre maintained that “man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count on no one but himself; that he is alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than the one he sets himself, with no other destiny than the one he forges for himself on this earth.”
Sartre’s atheistic philosophy confronts death and man’s aloneness without offering any hope of divine intervention or an afterlife. He was not afraid to move out of the comfort zone, and that is probably why he came under attack by the clergy. In response, Sartre argued that existentialism is not a philosophy of pessimism and despair, but rather one of optimism born of positive action.
Today, more than ever, we need—if not Sartre’s atheism—at least his courage, intellectual rigour, and his focus on personal responsibility. Just months ago, the World Wildlife Fund released a report stating that the world has lost 52 percent of its vertebrate species in the past 40 years. This was followed by yet another report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warning that all hell is about to break loose unless humans find a way to reduce greenhouse gases.
The two reports have gone relatively unnoticed by media outlets. There has been extended coverage of the sexual proclivities of a well-known radio host, but nary a whisper about the precipitous decline of the living planet and the dire consequences for human civilization. What does this say about modern society and our prospects for the future?
Much of the underlying apathy stems from illusions that are rooted in fear—fear of dying, fear of abandonment, and worst of all, fear of personal extinction. There are also illusions that arise from a disconnection with the natural world and an ignorance of science, and illusions that are the result of egocentrism, or the idea that humans enjoy special status in the grand scheme of things.
Regardless of their origin, romantic illusions play a significant role in the decline of world ecosystems. They produce a fog of inertia, and impede the full realization that this Earth—which may well be unique in the universe—is our past, our present, and our future. Here are a few popular fantasies:
- There can be unlimited growth on a finite planet.
- Food comes from the grocery store.
- Technology will save us.
- Humans are not really animals.
- Humans are special and do not share the same destiny as other living things.
- There is an omnipotent and compassionate deity who takes an interest in human affairs.
Like an open flame that attracts the moth, illusions draw us ever nearer to our demise. They are deceptive and extremely dangerous because they give us a false sense of security; they lull us into a state of complacency where we don’t have to care or worry, where personal action is not required, and where everything always turns out alright in the end. The big question is whether we will recognize the tricks played by our minds, and awaken from our slumber in time to deal with the enormous challenges that lie before us. The responsibility is all ours, or as they say at my alma mater, “tuum est”.