“Human activity is draining resources and destroying natural habitats.”
By Linn Smith
February 6, 2018—–Besides being a successful author, Jotstein Gaarder works to support both human rights and a sustainable environment. Gaarder clearly states our current world condition concerning the cause and effect of climate change in the following article, which is the foreword to his 20th addition of Sophie’s World. Sophie’s World is a novel he wrote in 1995 which became a best seller around the world.
This exerpt is from the article, “Sophie’s World in Danger: Living as though everything centres on our time is just as naïve as thinking the Earth is flat” from http://www.independent.co.uk:
“Two decades ago, a history of philosophy by an unknown Norwegian teacher became a most unlikely phenomenon. But how has time changed the writer? And how might he change his book now, if he could? Jostein Gaarder takes up his own story. However, by far the most important philosophical question of our time must be this: how are we going to save our civilization and the basis of our existence?
From time to time I am asked a question. If I had written Sophie’s World today, is there something important I would have added? Is there something I would have placed more emphasis on? The answer is a resounding yes! If I were to write a philosophical novel today, I would have focused a lot more on how we treat our planet.
It is strange to look back after only 20 years and realize that Sophie’s World doesn’t really address this question. The reason may be that over the course of these 20 years we have gained an entirely new awareness of climate change and the importance of biological diversity. An all-important principle in the study of ethics has been the golden rule, otherwise known as the reciprocity principle: do to others what you would like them to do to you. Over time, we have learnt to apply this rule more widely. In the Sixties and Seventies, people came to realize that the reciprocity principle must apply across national borders, both to the north and to the south.
But the golden rule can no longer just apply across space. We have begun to realize that the reciprocity principle applies across time, too: do to the next generation what you would like them to have done to you, had they lived on the planet before us.
It’s that simple. Love thy neighbor as thyself. Obviously, this rule must apply to the next generation and to everyone who lives on the planet after us. They are human beings, too. Therefore, we should not leave behind a planet which is less valuable than the one we have enjoyed. A planet with fewer fish in the sea. Less drinking water. Less food. Fewer rainforests. Fewer coral reefs. Fewer species of animals and plants… Less beauty. Less wonder. Less splendor and happiness.
The 20th century has taught us that people need conventions and obligations which go beyond national boundaries.
The question we are left with at the beginning of the 21st century is: for how long can we claim human rights without accepting they come with fundamental obligations. The time is ripe for a Universal Declaration of Human Obligations. It no longer makes sense to think about an individual’s rights and freedoms without also thinking about the responsibility of individuals and individual states – not least our responsibility to safeguard the rights of future generations.
At this very moment we are experiencing the consequences of man-made climate change. They are dramatic. However, opinion polls indicate that the people of this world are not particularly concerned. One day in the future, global-warming denial may be considered one of the greatest conspiracies of all time.
The era we live in is exceptional in every way. On one hand, we belong to a triumphant generation, which can explore the universe and map the human genome. On the other, we are the first generation seriously to lay waste to the environment. Human activity is draining resources and destroying natural habitats. We are changing our surroundings to such an extent that people think of our time as an entirely new geological era.
Huge volumes of carbon are contained in plants, animals, the sea, oil, coal and gas. The carbon is just itching to be oxidized and released into the air. The atmosphere on dead planets such as Venus and Mars is mostly CO2, and that would also be the case here if the Earth’s processes didn’t hold the carbon at bay. But from the end of the 18th century, fossil fuels have tempted us like the genie in Aladdin’s lamp. “Release us,” they whispered. And we gave into that temptation. Now we are trying to force the genie back inside the lamp.
If all the remaining oil, coal and gas on this planet is extracted and burnt, our civilization will not survive. But many people and many countries see this as their divine right. Why shouldn’t they use the fossil fuels on their land? Why shouldn’t countries with rainforests chop them down? What’s the difference? What difference will it make to CO2 levels or to biodiversity if one country stops while the rest carry on?
Over the past few centuries, most people here in Norway have been lifted out of poverty. The same is true in many regions of the world. We should not forget that. But this prosperity has come at a high price, a debt we are only now beginning to pay off. Before the Industrial Revolution, the atmosphere contained 275 CO2 parts per million. At the moment of writing, that figure is 400 ppm and it is still rising. Devastating climate change is unavoidable at this rate. Sooner or later we must attempt to return to pre-industrial CO2 levels.
According to Dr James Hansen, considered by many to be one of the world’s leading climate researchers, we must – initially at least – get this level down to 350 ppm. Only then can we feel reasonably secure that we will escape the worst catastrophes for this planet and for our civilization. But the figure is not going down. It is going up.
If we are to save biodiversity, we need to revolutionize our thinking. Living as though everything centers on our time is just as naive as thinking the Earth is flat. Our time is no more significant than future times. It is only natural that our time is the most significant to us. But we cannot live as though our time is also the most important one for those who come after us. We must respect future times as we respect our own time.
In relationships between individuals and between nations, we have emerged from our “natural state”, characterized by the survival of the fittest. But when it comes to the relationship between generations, unbridled lawlessness still reigns.
Everyone has the right to practice their beliefs, and everyone has the right to hope that our planet can be saved. But that does not guarantee that there will be a new heaven and a new earth awaiting us. It is unlikely that supernatural forces will bring about a Judgement Day. But it is inevitable that we will be judged by our descendants.
Climate change comes down to greed. The destruction of biodiversity comes down to greed. But greed does not trouble the greedy. History is our witness.
The ethical question is not difficult to answer – what is difficult is living by the answer. But if we forget our descendants, they will never be able to forget us. The question of how widely we should apply the reciprocity principle comes down to identity. What is a human being? Who am I? If I were merely myself – that is, the body sitting here writing – I would be a creature without hope. But my identity goes deeper than my own body and my own short time on Earth. I am a part of – and I take part in – something which is bigger and greater than myself. Humans tend to have a local and short-term sense of who they are. We used to have to scan our surroundings, wary of dangers and prey. That gives us a natural tendency to defend ourselves and protect our own. But we do not have the same natural tendency to protect our descendants, not to mention species other than our own.
Favoring our own genes lies deep within our nature. But we don’t have the same instinct to protect our genes four or eight generations down the line. That is something we must learn – just as we had to learn to respect human rights. Ever since our species emerged in Africa, we have fought a determined battle to prevent our branch of the evolutionary tree from being cut off. That battle has been successful, for we are still here. But we have become so prosperous that we are threatening the basis of our own survival. We have become so prosperous that we are threatening the basis of every species’ survival.
As clever, vain and inventive as we are, it is easy to forget that we are simply primates. But are we really so clever if we put our cleverness and inventiveness ahead of our responsibility for the future of the planet?
No longer can we think only about one another. The planet we live on is an essential part of our identity. Even if our species is destined to die out, we still carry an important responsibility for this unique planet and for the nature we leave behind. Modern humans think we are almost entirely shaped by our cultural and social history, by the civilization which produced us. But we are also shaped by our planet’s biological history. There is a genetic heritage as well as a cultural one. We are primates. We are vertebrates.
It took billions of years to create us. Billions of years to create a human being! But are we going to survive the next millennium?
What is time? First we have the horizon of the individual, then of the family, of culture and of literary culture, but there is also geological time – we come from tetrapods that crawled out of the sea 350 million years ago – and finally, there is cosmic time. Our universe is almost 13.7 billion years old.
But in reality, these periods of time are not as distant from one another as they may seem. We have reason to feel at home in the universe. The planet we live on is precisely one third of the age of the universe, and the class of animals to which we belong, the vertebrates, has existed for a mere 10 per cent of the time our solar system and life on Earth have existed. The universe is no more infinite than that. Or conversely: our roots and our kinship are intricately and deeply woven into the universal soil.
Human beings may be the only living creatures in the entire universe who have a universal consciousness. We have a staggering sense of the immense and mysterious cosmos we are part of. Therefore, not only do we have a global responsibility to save our planet. We have a cosmic responsibility.”
This is the foreword to the 20th anniversary edition of ‘Sophie’s World’ (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, £8.99) published 8th October 2015. Translation © Paul Russell Garrett 2015 is published 8th October 2015.
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