Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.
With all the noise flooding our inundated bandwidth — from the protracted Brexit battle to impeachment in Washington, the trade war with China and the strikes in France — it is easy to miss the most significant signal of our historic moment: Children not yet compromised by the inertia of a moribund system are renouncing the future bequeathed to them.
We see this in Hong Kong, where kids barely into their teens won’t give up in their existential revolt against the accompli of their fate once thought signed, sealed and delivered between British colonialists and the Chinese Communist Party. The most famous renouncer in the present moment is Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist who doesn’t shrink from dressing down heads of state or private tycoons for their complacency as the world burns. Looking with a clear and innocent eye out onto the world, she just cannot process how we can go on with business as usual when, for example, California’s climate-induced wildfires in 2018 poured nine times more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than all of that green state’s mitigating measures managed to reduce in the same year.
That signal was sounded once again this week. Mary Robinson, a former president of Ireland, and Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, report in The WorldPost that, as climate negotiators convened in Madrid for COP25, “16 children sent letters to the governments of Norway and Canada with a simple but bold request: that these nations uphold their commitments to safeguard children by responding with urgency to the climate crisis, and that they be held accountable for running in the wrong direction, disregarding science and violating the right to life and health of children everywhere.”
“These children represent the United States, Sweden, the Marshall Islands, Brazil, Italy, Germany, Tunisia and other countries,” they note.
Robinson, also a former U.N. human rights commissioner, proposes a unique angle to bring forward the long-term urgency of climate action. She writes: “The United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child, which states that whenever adults make decisions, or do anything that affects children, they should always think about what is best for the child. Children have the right to voice their opinions and be taken seriously when decisions affecting their futures are being made.”
To even raise the necessity of invoking a right to the future for the upcoming generation and the unborn suggests that human history is approaching an axial moment, a decisive point of pivot, from one epoch to the next.
The last occurrence of this civilizational magnitude took place in the middle of the first millennium B.C.E. when all the great religions and ethical systems — Buddhism, Confucianism, the Hebrew prophets, the early Greek philosophers, Zoroastrianism in Persia — emerged more or less simultaneously in a de-synchronized and unconnected world. The German philosopher Karl Jaspers famously called this era “the Axial Age.”
One key characteristic of all these breakthroughs was the shift from oral to written culture, enabling both the interiority of reflection and transcendence — the capacity for individuals to distance themselves from their immediate experience and share universal meanings with others — based on stored memory in written language, the first cloud technology.
Another common background as well in each case was a loss of governing legitimacy through the breakdown of political systems and a sense of loss of cohesion in society. What had worked before had run out of steam; disillusion and dysfunction reigned. “Renouncers” such as the Hebrew prophets or Buddha from outside the system gained resonance with searing totalistic critiques that attracted adherents among the disaffected.
It would be the most fatal of ironies if our contemporary shift from a culture of the written word to one of post-literate images and artificial intelligence frustrates, rather than facilitates, the imperative of a new breakthrough. Just when we need to collectively leap ahead of the inertia and heed the warnings of the child renouncers, the discourse is dominated by a social immedium which erases the critical self-distance of standing outside one’s tribal silo that is the predicate of common global awareness.
The cost of failing to break through with a new paradigm of transcendent understanding equal to the challenge will be tallied in its consequences. As James Lovelock writes in his recent book, “Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence,” even if we manage to pass on our consciousness to intelligent machines that outlive us on this planet, electronic systems also cannot survive under a sustained high temperature of 122 degrees Fahrenheit.