Corona – and? What does your everyday life look like? The highlight of the day is to go shopping for groceries? If you’re one of the privileged among us, the long walk in the park? Or going inline skating with your daughter? Even though everybody has to be most careful and keep the required distance, a lot of activities can still be integrated in our day-to-day life. But yes; the ‘adventures’ are modest compared to what we’re used to. It feels like living in a small village again. You even start almost daily to have a little chat with your neighbor.
A village life. A positive effect, as everybody may have heard in the meantime is that the climate seems to be quite happy about our decreased CO2-emissions. It’s already been for a long time my research focus: climate change/climate mitigation and I was asked to give an interview about the topic: ‘Corona and positive perspectives about it’ (podcast with Tagesschau-moderator Michail Paweletz: ’Der Corona-Virus und das menschliche Maß‘ in German). My initial thoughts connected this question with decreased emissions and the defiant thought: Yes, now – finally humankind has to act climate-friendly, now everybody understands. And this is needed to scale us humans down to a level that we really need for a recovering climate.
But it has to be imposed.
Thinking further ahead and with the inner calm this situation entails, I recognized an intriguing link to my main field of studies: philosophy.
Already some time ago there were philosophers who thought about the process of industrialization and technical innovations and how this is impacting us. Of course, these thinkers also considered the destruction of natural habitats and ecosystems and at the same time they discovered the foundation of our basic moral capacity.
The two philosophers who gave impressive ideas in this context are Hans Jonas and Niko Paech. Hans Jonas lived from 1902 till 1993 in Germany and also abroad, mainly in the US. During his philosophical creative phase, he focused on ethical questions concerning the relationship between humans and nature and our dealing with technical innovations. In his main work ‘Das Prinzip Verantwortung’ (‘The responsability principle‘) published in 1979, he declares an ecological imperative: “Handle so, dass die Wirkungen deiner Handlungen verträglich sind mit der Permanenz echten menschlichen Lebens auf Erden.“ (Jonas, H. (1979)).” (“Act in a way that the effects of action are suitable with a permanent human life on earth.”).
Hans Jonas states that today’s global problems are challenging as they do not correspond to our natural orality, they do not fit into the scope we are used to solve problems, respectively. Our former morality was related to a restricted environment within a limited radius – to direct interactions, to temporal and spatial nearby consequences to our fellow people. Nearly everybody could have the necessary knowledge to handle their actions this way. The industrial revolution with its scientific and technical inventions busted this scope, in a temporal as well as in a spatial dimension. We invented technical devices which exceed by far the possibilities we would have by using our manpower only. They enable us to get an enormous workload done in a very short time as e.g. in agriculture as well as in industrial processes. They enable us to travel so far , we would never be able to manage on our own.
At the same time, they obviously need much more energy than what we are allowed to use up as a single human being (how complicated and how much manpower would be needed to prepare a cup of coffee each time? You would need to ignite a fire, get water, prepare the coffee. Leave alone the production of coffee powder…?). This extensive energy use starts to have an impact, it fuels climate warming and commences to affect more and more people and natural habitats far away from its source = our actions. Consequently, an emission-intensive lifestyle of populations in the global north mainly harms people in the global south and upcoming generations. ‘Global north’ means people living in countries and regions which are politically and financially privileged in the global context whereas ‘global south’ means the exact opposite: people living in countries and regions which are politically and financially disadvantaged in the global context.
This development reaches a further scope; we know today that our energy consumption due to fossil fuels and the resulting creation of greenhouse gases as well as natural habitat destruction and the release of poisonous chemicals change nature as an overall system. The destruction of eco-systems as well as changes of original climate conditions have an impact on the fundamental conditions of everything which is alive.
But we as humans still don’t know how to handle this situation. We still didn’t discover any adequate action maxims to improve this situation. Contrarily, it is even worsened by the fact that we increasingly work in big collectives where the single person plays a role, but can’t see his/her own positive impact. The enormous energy consumption is caused e.g. by big companies. The single employee can develop a consciousness about it (this is already a big step), but nevertheless might not find a way to change the circumstances.
Do you notice anything? The changes that the industrial revolution and its ‘kids’ (our technical and scientific inventions) brought into our life are diametrically opposed to what Hans Jonas explained about our moral conditions. Because of a permanent entourage of energy-consuming life- and work-helpers with their side-effects of resource extraction and waste, our actions are far beyond affecting only our fellow people, but everything which is alive – how far away it may be. The direct spatial connection between actions and their effects does not exist anymore, neither does the temporal relation. The accumulation of our actions, be it by accumulating greenhouse gases in the atmosphere or non-decomposing waste, leads to changes of all ecosystems, also for upcoming generations.
We managed to break all preconditions of our human moral capacity; the direct relation to our fellow men, direct actions and to keep our actions in spatial and temporal manageable sizes. Organic waste which decomposes within our lifetime in contrast to plastic waste, which lasts decades are illustrative examples.
We overcharged our moral capacity. It’s not surprising that many people feel petrified in face of the climate catastrophe, they don’t know how to escape a system which e.g. demands high mobility with (of course) a high energy consumption without questioning it. Maybe without travelling the workplace wouldn’t even be reachable. The most important goods are shrink-wrapped in plastic, etc.
What we as humans need for an efficient climate protection, but as well to get the possibility again to act responsibly and to escape from the excessive demands we built up, is a lifestyle which becomes normal through the Corona virus – the human scale.
Here I would like to present the second philosopher who is essential in this context: Niko Paech, the most important representative of the degrowth movement in Germany. Niko Paech (*1960) is an economist and teaches at the university of Siegen ‘Plural economic perspectives’ (‘Plurale Ökonomik’). His degrowth theory looks deeper into a transformation of our economy that overcomes the growth paradigm and that is able to be long term sustainable within the ecological boundaries of our earth. The representatives of this alternative economic theory established ‘the human scale’. Especially in the context of ecological catastrophes, they clarify how we can go back to a lifestyle which corresponds to our human power, e.g. by using goods collaboratively and by repairing broken devices as well as by other principles to transform our economy. His writings are very precious sources of knowledge in this field. Paech also investigates the phenomenon of ‘energy slaves’, activities which result in exploding energy consumption through each of these actions (Paech, N. (2012) p. 40f in German). These can be simple actions like reading or moving from one place to another. This economist also fights for re-localizing our areas of activity. As mentioned before, this entails the principles of sharing and repairing and the re-localized production of as many goods and as much food as possible.
This idea could lead to a new upcoming subsistence production where people start again to grow their own fruits and vegetables. So-called CSA’s (collaborative solidary agriculture) duplicate in a manifold manner. In Germany there was only one of these initiatives between 1988 – 2003, in 2018 we can already count 200 (Helfrich/Bollier, 2019). For anyone who is not familiar with the concept of these projects: they are community organized agricultural holdings. The important point is that the members give a certain sum of money in advance and by doing so they pre-finance the farm. In return they get parts of the harvest (boxes with fruits and vegetables) throughout the year. The whole venture is organized in collaboration and the members come over to help/garden/harvest a couple of times during the year.
The easiest way to re-localize our food production would be if the old-fashioned, decentralized farms had a comeback. All this would lead to a more local/regional lifestyle, production and consumption again. We would be much more aware of the of our actions and we would want to be responsible for them again. These are obvious hints that many people really want to know where their food is grown, how this effects our environment and that they do not want to incur external costs anymore by accepting long transportation distances. Just the sheer fact that more and more people join e.g. CSA’s and help them grow is enough of a proof.
With this argumentation I don’t want to plead for a further lock-down and that people vegetate isolated at home. God help – no! I would like to promote a re-localization of our life as mentioned above. As the mobility is still very restricted, we are looking for small and slow solutions for everything which has to be done daily. As cultural events are frozen, we are taking the long observed book we tried to read within the last half year and take a comfortable seat on our own couch. The well-being of the neighbor starts to be important, neighborhood help starts to be self-evident and simultaneously it creates a feeling of security and comfort. Families get closer together and they can spend time and meals together again (even though it might not be easy all the time). Life starts to be slower – if you don’t have to travel to work every day, you might have time to go for a walk. And very simple: there is no after-work drink, but the family dinner. We can take time for activities which are valuable for us´, like riding the bike to the next organic shop instead of rushing to the closest conventional supermarket after work.
All this may sound idealized, but the close interconnection between a human-compatible morality and a climate-compatible human behavior only shows our intimate relationship to nature which is kind of obvious regarding our corporeality/us being a part of nature. We are not algorithm-calculating helping tools (note: ‘helping tools’ as means to an end), but vital ends in ourselves. Due to our corporeality we want to and have to relate to our close environment, our fellow people and nature around us.