Untimely Meditations

Philosophy goes against the grain of political immediacy to insist on inconvenient truths.

Ibrahim Rayintakath for Noema Magazine

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

Just as European elections gave fresh voice to fervent nationalism and a nascent greenlash, the Berggruen Institute was convening thinkers from around the world at Casa dei Tre Oci in Venice to discuss the universality of our common humanity and the planetary imperative of binding association in the face of climate change.

These might seem untimely meditations, to borrow a phrase from Nietzsche, at odds with the present temper of restive constituencies. While the very real concerns which animate popular emotions at the polls cannot and should not be dismissed or diminished, the dissonant role of philosophy is to go against the grain of political immediacy to insist on inconvenient truths. Sooner or later, those truths must unavoidably be recognized because reality demands no less. The conundrum is how to get there from here.

The Condition of Planetarity

The Venice meetings focused on the new condition of planetarity grounded in an awareness that we humans are not the center of it all, but only one part of the Earth’s self-regulating ecosystem of multiple intelligences that strive interdependently toward sustainable equilibrium. The climate crisis is a window into that broader condition which repositions the place of humans in the natural order.

As I have outlined in previous essays, this disclosure of a non-human centric logos is one consequence of the advent of artificial intelligence that, through planetary-scale computation, vastly expands the heretofore limited scope of human understanding of whole Earth systems. We are only aware of climate change in the first place in this way. As Benjamin Bratton has grasped: “Only when intelligence becomes artificial and can be scaled into massive, distributed systems beyond the narrow confines of biological organisms, can we have a knowledge of the planetary systems in which we live.”

This emergent exoskeleton of sensors, satellites, clouds and networks that span the Earth constitutes the rudiments of a common cognizant sphere that will synchronize human temporality going forward.

The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk has lucidly articulated the tension between historical attachments of tribal belonging and “becoming universal” through a planetary perspective:

“From a macro-historical viewpoint, all cultures must tackle two general realities. On the one hand, the fact that the Earth has been recognized as a finite, planetary ecosystem that must be managed through a world-wide environmental policy, and on the other hand, the realization that the transition from passéism to futurism has become more or less unavoidable everywhere.

This implies that many cultures must understand that, while looking back at a mainly separate past, they will experience a primarily common future. This leads to the emergence of a global situationism — that inherent traits do not exist but are shaped by our environment — which places the single Earth in the forefront as a common site for all cultures.

Local narratives are being increasingly forced to coordinate the time horizons of their rooted history (idiochronic) with the virtual synchronic horizon of a common world time.”

In a related vein, the Cameroonian-born philosopher Achille Mbembe posits that the new planetary awareness also compresses geo-biochemical, historical and experiential time into a condition of simultaneous unfolding. “We are in an epoch when time is no longer differentially distributed along human and non-human scales,” he has said. “There’s no longer a social history separate from natural history. That is over. Human history and Earth history are now indivisible.”

“Planetary realism” is the practical manifestation of these new understandings. It departs from the old “realist,” or realpolitik, school of foreign policy that regards nation-states as the principal actors on the world stage engaged in an endless struggle against others in pursuit of securing their own interests.

Though nationalist sentiment may be roaring back in political life, reality these days dictates another kind of realism when it comes to the convergence of critical common challenges that are beyond the scope of remedy by any one nation or bloc of nations. As the Earth’s biosphere cascades toward unlivable conditions, or as contagion spreads among humans from the microbial universe in which we all dwell, it is now incontestably evident that the security of each depends inextricably on the other.

The Politics of Planetary Realism

Conceptual demolition of the outmoded paradigm of nation-state realism, however, does not erase its still firmly rooted expression in present practice. Building the centripetal momentum toward binding planetary association against the weighty centrifugal pull of tribal identity is an endeavor as fraught as it is necessary.

While technology and advancing science may foster a universal understanding of the planetary condition, politics and culture have a different logic rooted in emotion and ways of life cultivated among one’s own kind. Far from moving ahead in lock step, when they meet, they clash.

Indeed, the great paradox today is that the planetary imperative of mitigating climate change has become the province of renewed nationalism. Industrial policies designed to make the green energy transition are competing to protect and promote national self-interest instead of joining together at the level of all humanity. What we see instead is the battle of subsidies between the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act and the European Green New Deal, with both raising stiff tariff barriers to blunt China’s concerted conquest of core green technologies from storage batteries to electric vehicles, solar cells and their supply chains.

In short, rather than uniting as a threatened species to meet a challenge that knows no boundaries, competition has sidelined collaboration within the West while global warming has been weaponized in the new Cold War with China.

The new element of a greenlash, registered in the recent European elections, portends social resistance that is more about resentment of self-righteous Tesla-driving elites and the unequally borne costs of the energy transition than climate denial. The Diet-Coke imaginary of environmentalists — who sold climate policies as achievable without undue burdens on economies built around fossil fuels for more than a century — has been put to rest. As the heavy lift of the transition bites ever more deeply into the daily bread, we are learning the hard lesson that the future has a scarce constituency in consumer democracies as well as growth-oriented autocracies.

In this sense, “planetary realism” takes on a double meaning. It entails both a recognition of the interdependence of the planetary condition as well as a realistic grasp of what it will take to navigate through what remains a world of nations.

Immigration And Belonging

The nationalist resurgence in Europe, as elsewhere, is largely driven by the issues of immigration and asylum. Though not discussed at our Venice conclave on universality, here, too, historically grounded identities are reacting to an unprecedented challenge.

The more prosperous nations of the North are being confronted as never before by greater flows of people from elsewhere who have been left behind in a world tied together unevenly by the spread of global capitalism across borders. Increasingly, refugees from localized climate calamity are joining the migratory routes.

As long as the nation-state remains the locus of democratic legitimacy, open societies on the receiving end of that inflow require clearly defined and defended borders in order to maintain the social contract with its citizens who confer that legitimacy.

While societies and cultures are not closed systems, the capacities of national jurisdictions with large welfare states are bound by fiscal realities. For that reason, they are obliged by their citizens to control immigration based on criteria that ensure newcomers will not only abide by established norms but positively contribute to its economy and tax base and not be a drain on resources, as has been the recent experience from the Texas borderlands to New York City to the Scandinavian social democracies.

Beyond such strictures, one cannot ignore the other, sometimes ineffable, dimension of the broad unease with uncontrolled borders even among the most liberal and universally minded. As the great pluralist philosopher Isaiah Berlin argued in a conversation some years ago: “Just as people need to eat and drink, to have security and freedom of movement, so too they need to belong to a group. Deprived of this, they feel cut off, lonely, diminished … unhappy. To be human means to feel at home somewhere, with your own kind.”

While embracing the values of openness, diversity, tolerance and compassion for the dispossessed, we should not blithely ascribe racist or xenophobic motives to a defense of the very sense of belonging that Berlin identified as a core human trait. Avoiding a turn from legitimate anxiety to ugly nativism entails recognizing that trait and balancing the universalist humanitarian impulse with the constraints of host nations. Bad faith results from good intentions if the wherewithal to fulfill moral claims is lacking.

Becoming Universal

In the Venice discussions, several participants argued that “negotiation” is the governing mechanism of “becoming universal,” by which the interests and concerns of diverse constituencies can be aligned with natural systems at the point where they converge to the rough benefit of all, despite necessary tradeoffs.

Or rather, as Woodrow Wilson conceived it in his political philosophy, governance is an ongoing negotiation with the reality it faces. It is “a living thing. It falls, not under the [mechanical] theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life. It is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton. It is modified by its environment, necessitated by its tasks, shaped to its functions by the sheer pressure of life. No living organism can have its organs offset against each other” and still survive, no less thrive. They must work together, or each will fail.

For the 28th president of the United States, who also served as president of Princeton University, the aim of governance is to achieve “an amicable community of purpose” by arranging the constituent aspects in harmony and proportion with each other. “Cooperation is indispensable, warfare fatal. … There can be no successful government without the intimate, instinctive coordination of the organs of life and action.”

In other words, under the condition of interdependence, where everything affects everything else, the health of an organism is determined through the appropriate articulation of the interacting parts with the whole.

Lamentably, the League of Nations established in the wake of one world war with Wilson’s perspective in mind yielded to another in short order. While he was awarded a Nobel Prize for his vision, the United States itself never joined up to what it saw as an imposition from the outside on its national sovereignty.

Wilson, perhaps, failed to fully grasp the wisdom of his own insight into how governing systems evolve as living organisms. The universal alignment he hoped for could not emerge from some heroic foundational event with pinstriped diplomats putting pen to paper at a palace in Paris, but only through a practical process of responding, one tangible step at a time, to pressing challenges that all of humanity faces.

A planetary community of fate, or what BI Europe Director Lorenzo Marsili calls “concrete universals,” can only be forged through the shared experience of volitional mobilization by diverse actors to meet a summons that demands a common response. Only what arises organically in this way can be integral and, one day, make what now may be untimely meditations timely.