Archive for October 31st, 2012

Europe and the Fate of the Earth – Part 3 of 7

October 31, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)


[This is an extended version of my keynote address for the European Cultural Foundation’s ‘Imagining Europe’ event, which was held in Amsterdam between October 4 and 7 this year. The address was delivered on October 4 at the opening event. It will be posted here without footnotes, as a 7 part series. A fully annotated version will be posted later in the ‘Essays’ section of this site.]



From confluence to crossroads: we come now to a fork in the road that confronts not just Europe but our entire planet.

In some ways the dilemmas that face Europe today are unique. But there should be no doubt that in a broader sense the crisis that faces this continent is not Europe’s alone. The whole world is facing a crisis of multiple dimensions, in which economic breakdown, political paralysis, environmental degradation, and a broad cultural and imaginative failure are building up to a ‘catastrophic convergence.’

Even as I say this, I am acutely aware of the historical ironies that are implicit in using apocalyptic words like ‘crisis’ and ‘catastrophe’ in a place that is as prosperous and tranquil as Amsterdam; and indeed, at a moment when people around the world are living longer than ever before – and some would even say, better than ever before, at least in that they are able to buy more things and consume more than at any time in the past. It is strange most of all, to be using these words in an era of peace, in the heart of a continent which has so often been convulsed by war – it forces us to recall other critical moments in the not-too-distant past. What for example, was it like to be here in Amsterdam, in August 1914, when this continent was hurtling towards the killing fields of the First World War? What was it like to be here in May 1940, when Germany invaded Holland? To someone who had lived through those times, it might seem a gross exaggeration to use the word ‘crisis’ in relation to what we are faced with today.

But this is indeed what makes the present global crisis so unprecedented and so peculiarly confounding. Everything we have learnt from our forbears, everything in human history and pre-history – including, indeed, the instincts of our primate ancestors – teaches us to think of crisis in terms of conflict. But the crisis that we are faced with today is not, in the first instance, a situation of conflict between groups of human beings: this is exactly why it is so intractable –  because it has no precedent in history. There is nothing in our past, nothing in our collective memory that equips us to confront this crisis – or even to recognize it as such. This is a crisis that is cumulative and, in a sense, invisible: that is exactly what makes it so easy for people to turn away from it.

One universal aspect of the human experience is that we value the past and try to learn from it. But now we are at a moment in time when we have to unlearn much that we have learnt – a moment in which much of the wisdom of the past looks like folly, and what seems like success is revealed to be failure; a moment in which the remedies that were once seen as solutions are now identifiable as precisely the causes of the catastrophe that we are now confronted with.

What then is the nature of this crisis? Let me put it briefly: the resources of this planet, which we all inhabit, are dwindling very fast, while its atmosphere and climate are changing in ways that may bring an end to civilization as we know it. There is now an almost-universal consensus amongst scientists that human activity – that is to say, industrialization and what is often called ‘development’ – have contributed significantly to changes in the world’s climate. The record shrinkage in the Arctic ice cap this year is proof that the changes are happening much faster than was anticipated by even the gloomiest forecasts. Yet the political economy – and indeed culture – of our world is moving ever faster in a direction that is certain to lead to catastrophe.



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