Sisyphus and climate activism: the surprising truth

In December, the scientist who — probably more than any other individual — brought ocean acidification to the attention of the world, Ken Caldeira, gave a named lecture to the huge science conference known as the AGU (officially, the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union). He spoke on the legacy of Carl Sagan, and as transcribed today on his blog, pointed out that during his life Sagan did look at the central question posed by climate change: how long can we expect to enjoy the benefits of this lovely planet? Are we doomed to fatally foul our planetary nest?

Despite his influence and his learning, Caldeira speaks in an unpretentious, calm, and informal manner. He wondered out loud:

How hard is it to destroy modern civilization? — This shows up in the global change discussion a lot. There’s a lot of people who think that global warming is an existential threat to modern civilization. And other people think we’re going to just muddle through. And it’s going to be a cost on society. It will be an existential for some people who lose their livelihood or lose their lives, but as a civilization it’s a challenge but not an existential threat. I tend to be on that side of things.

This was interesting, but not very motivating to me, well versed in climate issues, but weary of their overwhelming heaviness. But in answer to a question, speaking of Carl Sagan, Caldiera quoted a thought from the French existentialist Camus (writing in “The Myth of Sisyphus”) that put this struggle in a more helpful context. He pointed out that to Camus, Sisyphus embodied the absurdity of human life on earth, but also the commitment of humans to the struggle. In the essay Camus focused on that moment after Sisyphus has rolled and pushed and sweated the stone to the summit, only to watch as it again tumbles down the mountain.

It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me [Camus writes]…. I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step towards the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks towards the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock. […]

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. The universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Caldeira rephrases this message for our time this way:

…we are heavily culturally influenced. Camus, who Sagan was reading, had written about imagining Sisyphus as happy pushing that stone up the hill. And that you wonder about the people who built the Nortre Dame cathedral as a multi-generational project that was aspirational towards some idea of permanence. Are these are sort of serfs working on this thing and just because they need to get money for food or did this gave people meaning to people to lug these stones and build Notre Dame. We can get collective me out of a project that would be positive for all of humanity and that in a way this sort of economics and even evolutionary theory emphasizing self-interest and narrow personal gain ….

I think a lot of us are motivated by approval of our peers, by wanting a feeling of meaning in our lives and so on. And not everything we do is narrowly self-interested. And maybe if in our culture we tried to emphasize more doing things for the public good that maybe more people would start doing things for the public good.

In its think-y way, this example inspires. Of course the struggle seems overwhelming, exhausting, and futile, But seen in a social context, the struggle is what gives our lives meaning. This painting from Sandro Chia, in the Museum of Modern Art, expresses this idea memorably I think:

It’s Sisyphus’s work and he’s accepted it: in Camus’s words, describing his heroism: “His rock is his thing.”

We all have our own rocks. Perhaps today climate stabilizing is our culture’s rock.

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