What Happened in the Twentieth Century? - Peter Sloterdijk - ebook

What Happened in the Twentieth Century? ebook

Peter Sloterdijk

77,99 zł


When we look back from the vantage point of the 21st century and ask ourselves what the previous century was all about, what do we see? Our first inclination is to focus on historical events: the 20th century was the age of two devastating world wars, of totalitarian regimes and terrible atrocities like the Holocaust - "the age of extremes," to use Hobsbawm's famous phrase. But in this new book, the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk argues that we will never understand the 20th century if we focus on events and ideologies. Rather, in his view, the predominant motif of the 20th century is what Badiou called a passion for the real, which manifests itself as the will to actualize the truth directly in the here and now. Drawing on his Spheres trilogy, Sloterdijk interprets the actualization of the real in the 20th century as a passion for economic and technological "antigravitation". The rise of consumerism and the easing of the burdens of human life by the constant deployment of new technologies have killed off the kind of radicalism that was rooted in the belief that power would rise from a material base of production. If the 20th century can still inspire us today, it is because the fundamental shift that it brought about opened the way for a critique of extremist reason, a post-Marxist theory of enrichment and a general economy of energy resources based on excess and dissipation. While developing his highly original interpretation of the 20th century, Sloterdijk also addresses a series of related topics including the meaning of the Anthropocene, the domestication of humans and the significance of the sea. The volume also includes major new pieces on Derrida and on Heidegger's politics. This work, by one of the most original thinkers today will appeal to students and scholars across the humanities and social sciences, as well as anyone interested in philosophy and critical theory.

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1 The Anthropocene – A Stage in the Process on the Margins of the Earth’s History?

1.1 Weightless Humanity

1.2 Doctrines of Ages of the World

1.3 Modern Virtuous Circles

1.4 Crisis of Severe Externalization

1.5 Ignorance Management

1.6 “We are on a mission”

1.7 “The Power of the Body”

1.8 Politics for the Earth


2 From the Domestication of the Human Being to the Civilizing of Cultures: Answering the Question of Whether Humanity is Capable of Taming Itself

2.1 Pastoral Metaphysics: The Discovery of the Problem ofxs Domestication

2.2 Beyond Taming: From Pedagogy to the Discovery of Neoteny and Back Again

2.3 Naive Pacifism as the Refusal of Cooperation in Cultural Limit Situations

2.4 Maximal Stress Cooperation in Cultural Groups

2.5 The Culture of Taming the Wild Animal

2.6 The Disarming of the Population Bomb


3 The Ocean Experiment: From Nautical Globalization to a General Ecology

3.1 Globalization as a Maritime Experiment

3.2 The Experimental Spirit and the Externalization of Side Effects

3.3 Limits of Externalization, or a New Labor of the Argonauts


4 The Synchronized World: Philosophical Aspects of Globalization

5 What Happened in the 20th Century?: Toward a Critique of Extremist Reason

5.1 The Apocalypse of the Real: Toward a Logic of Extremism

5.2 Revaluation of all Values: The Principle of Abundance

5.3 Beyond Expensive and Free: In Favor of a New Alliance with the Worker of Nature


6 The Thinker in the Haunted Castle: On Derrida’s Interpretation of Dreams


7 Deep Observation: Toward a Philosophy of the Space Station


8 The Persistent Renaissance: The Italian Novella and News of Modernity


9 Heidegger’s Politics: Postponing the End of History

9.1 Boredom and the Authentic Collective

9.2 Dostoyevsky, Heidegger, and Kojève: Projecting the End of History

9.3 Affirmation of Danger: Back to History!


10 Odysseus the Sophist: On the Birth of Philosophy from the Spirit of Travel Stress

10.1 Polytropos – The Man of Twists and Turns

10.2 Polymētis – Someone Who is Never at a Loss

10.3 Polytlas Dios Odysseus – Odysseus, a Man Who Endured Much

10.4 Polymēchanos – The Versatile Teacher of How Not to Be Helpless


11 Almost Sacred Text: Essay on the Constitution

11.1 The Moment of the Constitution

11.2 The Generation of the Democratic Sublime


12 The Other Logos, or the Reason of Cunning: On the Intellectual History of the Indirect

12.1 The Normalization of the Logos

12.2 Divine Cunning, Philosophical Cunning

12.3 The Outwitting of Human Reason

12.4 Outwitting for the Sake of the Outwitted

12.5 Hegel: The Cunning of Reason

12.6 Schopenhauer: Cunning of the Will

12.7 Nature Outwitted: Mechanical Engineering

12.8 Our Outwitted Fellow Man


Editorial Note

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Table of Contents

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What Happened in the 20th Century?

Peter Sloterdijk

Translated by Christopher Turner


First published in German as Was geschah im 20. Jahrhundert? © Suhrkamp Verlag, Berlin, 2016

This English edition © Polity Press, 2018

The translation of this work was supported by a grant from the Goethe Institut

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Polity Press101 Station LandingSuite 300Medford, MA 02155, USA

All rights reserved. Except for the quotation of short passages for the purpose of criticism and review, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.

ISBN-13: 978-1-5095-1841-8

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Every effort has been made to trace all copyright holders, but if any have been inadvertently overlooked the publisher will be pleased to include any necessary credits in any subsequent reprint or edition.

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1.1 Weightless Humanity

In the year 2000, when the Dutch atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen suggested that we use the term “Anthropocene” – drawing on an analogous concept of the Italian geologist Stoppani (1824–91) from 1873 – to designate the present age from the perspective of natural history, it was assumed that this term would remain part of a hermetic discourse that is spoken behind the closed doors of institutes for gas analysis or geophysics.

Yet, through a strange series of accidents, the synthetic semantic virus must have succeeded in getting past the quite secure laboratory doors and spreading to the lifeworld in general. We thus get the impression that it easily reproduces itself in the context of the sophisticated feuilleton, the museum, macrosociology, new religious movements, and literature warning of ecological collapse.

The proliferation of this concept can mainly be traced back to the fact that, under the guise of scientific neutrality, it conveys a message of almost unparalleled moral-political urgency, a message that can be explicitly formulated as follows: human beings have become responsible for the habitation and management of the Earth as a whole, since their presence upon it is no longer more or less seamlessly integrated with it.

The concept “Anthropocene,” ostensibly a geological term, implies a gesture that in a juridical context would be characterized as the designation of a responsible agency. With the attribution of responsibility, an address is provided to which possible accusations can be sent. This is precisely what we have to do today when we attribute the capacity for geo-historical offenses to “the human being” – without further specification.

When we speak of an “Anthropocene,” we only seem to be sitting in a geoscientific seminar. In reality, we are taking part in a court case – in a preliminary hearing before the main trial, to be more precise – in which, as a first step, the accused’s culpability is supposed to be settled.

This preliminary hearing is concerned with the question of whether it makes any sense at all to try the offender in question, given that the latter is not of age. This hearing would include the author Stanislaw Lem, among others, who seems to exonerate “the human being” by awarding him,1 in a tellurian context, the status of a quantité négligeable, or as Lem himself puts it:

… were all humanity taken and crowded together in one place, it would occupy three hundred billion liters, or a little less than a third of a cubic kilometer. It sounds like a lot. Yet the world’s oceans hold 1,285 million cubic kilometers of water, so if all humanity – those five billion bodies – were cast into the ocean, the water level would rise less than a hundredth of a millimeter. A single splash, and Earth would be forever unpopulated.2

In the case of quantitative relations such as these, it does not matter if we introduce present-day humanity, numbering seven billion, into the picture instead of a humanity totaling five billion (as assumed by Lem) or the eight or nine billion that will be reached after the year 2050. In terms of biomass, a randomly and rapidly ever-increasing humanity would remain infinitesimally small, if we could sink humanity toto genere into the ocean. But then, what is the point of putting on trial a species that pales in comparison to the material dimensions of the Gaia-system, the hydrosphere? Lem’s position, incidentally, is very close to certain classic disparagements of the human being – such as Schopenhauer’s contemptuous remark that the human race is like an ephemeral mold on the surface of the planet Earth.3

The prosecution will reply to these objections that the whole of humanity at its current stage of evolution simply cannot be defined merely in terms of biomass. If humanity is supposed to be put on trial, this is mainly because it epitomizes a meta-biological agency that is able to exert quite a bit more influence on the environment, by virtue of its capacity for action, than we would assume on the basis of its relative physical weightlessness.

Obviously, in this context, we immediately think of the technological revolutions of the modern age and their side effects, which not without reason are chalked up to collective humanity. In truth, “collective humanity” initially means European civilization and its technocratic elite. It was the latter that introduced a new agency into the game of global powers from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries onward with the use of coal, and later petroleum, in machines. In addition, the discovery and demonstration of the nature of electricity shortly before the year 1800, and the technical mastery of it in the nineteenth century, gave rise to a new universal in the discourse on energy. Without this new universal, the metabolic interaction of human beings with nature – to recall the Marxist definition of labor – would be inconceivable. The collective that is characterized these days by expressions such as “humanity” mainly consists of agents who within less than a century have acquired technologies developed in Europe. When Crutzen speaks of an “Anthropocene,” this is a gesture of Dutch courtesy – or avoidance of conflict. In fact, talk of a “Eurocene” or a technocene initiated by Europeans would be more fitting.

That human actors have an impact on nature in their turn is not really a new observation. Already in antiquity, deforestations were noted in Greece and Italy that were ascribed to the demand for timber in the shipbuilding industry. The emergence of cultivated landscapes, too, is inconceivable without taking the influence of agriculture, viticulture, and animal husbandry into consideration. The latter, in particular, continues to be an unsettling item on the bill that the ecosystem “Earth” will present to human beings. Only in more recent times has the connection between human pastoral power and political expansionism been emphasized.4 In macrohistorical terms, there is quite clearly a relatively recent (that is, spanning about 3,000 years) causal nexus between raising cattle and imperial politics: not a few historical empires – such as those of the Romans, the British, the Habsburgs, and the Americans – were ultimately based on the cultivation of herds of livestock that provided their herdsmen with a significant surplus of labor power, mobility, protein, and leather, not to mention the link between being assured of a certain caloric intake on a daily basis and political expansionism. In more recent times, we have also become aware that herds of cattle have a considerable impact on the environment, because of their metabolic functions.

At present, there are supposedly about 1.5 billion cattle on Earth – if we were to dump them all in the ocean the latter would rise about five times as much as it would if humanity itself were dumped there: even so, we would still be dealing with tenths of a millimeter and yet would have never left the realm of quasi-weightlessness.

Indirect anthropogenic environmental impact due to animal husbandry is nevertheless striking: every cow maintained by a human being produces a quantity of greenhouse gases in its thirty-year lifespan, owing to digestive flatulence, that would correspond to a trip of 90,000 kilometers with a mid-range engine.

In referring to how widespread the current exercise of human pastoral power has become, we leave the realm of negligible dimensions behind. As the producer of enormous indirect emissions, humanity in the industrial age might actually take on a geologically relevant role, despite its weightlessness, in terms of biomass. This would result in particular from its operation of enormous fleets of automobiles, airplanes, and ships that run on combustion engines, but it would have just as much to do with the heat balance in regions of the world where a pronounced winter gives rise to compensatory pyrotechnic and architectonic attempts at restoring balance. With these preliminary remarks out of the way, the case against the “Anthropocene” can be allowed to proceed to a full hearing.

1.2 Doctrines of Ages of the World

With the concept of the “Anthropocene,” contemporary geology once again adopts the nineteenth-century epistemological habit of historicizing anything and everything, and of organizing all historical fields into eons, ages, or epochs. The triumph of historicism is primarily fueled by the idea of evolution, which is taken to refer to all areas of reality, from minerals up to the large composite bodies that are known as human “societies.”

Marx and Engels, in harmony with the spirit of their age, could thus claim: “We know only one science, the science of history.”5 In their eyes, human history represented a special case of natural history, insofar as the human being per se is the “animal” that has to secure its own existence through production. Consequently, the history of the “relations of production” would be nothing more than the continuation of natural history in another register. Human metanaturalism would merely be natural history that was technologically alienated. What we call the human being’s inner “nature” would be what Spinoza called the impulse (conatus) to self-preservation at any price, which marks all life with the form of forward flight.

For a time, the Marxist image of the world popularized the saga of the “relations of production” – along with their great stages of the hunter-and-gatherer era through to slave-holding societies, feudalism, capitalism, and all the way to “communism.” This myth had the great merit of replacing ancient doctrines of the ages of the world or eons (which descend from the golden to the iron age), as well as the doctrine of world empire found in the Book of Daniel in the Bible, with a pragmatic theory of epochs. According to this theory, the ages of the world are distinguished from each other by the manner in which human beings organized their “metabolism with nature.”

The concept of the “Anthropocene” logically belongs to the group of pragmatic theories of the ages of the world. It posits a state of telluric metabolism in which the emissions caused by human beings have begun to influence the course of the Earth’s history. The concept of “emission” helps us to recognize that the kind of influence we are concerned with here has until now taken place in the mode of a “side effect” – otherwise, we would be talking about a “mission” or a “project.” The “e” in “emission” reveals the involuntary character of the anthropogenic impact on the exo-human dimension. Thus the concept of the “Anthropocene” includes nothing less than the task of testing out whether the agency of “humanity” is capable of transforming something ejected into a project, or of transforming an emission into a mission.

Anyone who speaks of an “Anthropocene” thus appeals to a still scarcely existent “critique of narrative reason.” Since effective histories can only be organized from their end points backwards, the anthropocenic standpoint amounts to a narrative with a stark moral choice. In the narrative culture of the West, this position was formerly reserved exclusively for apocalyptic literature. Apocalypticism is the attempt to evaluate the world from its end – it implies a cosmicmoral procedure of sorting, in which good is separated from evil. To separate good from evil simply means to extract what is worthy of survival from what is not worthy of survival: what one calls eternal life is an intensified metaphysical term for being allowed to carry on, whereas eternal damnation signifies that a specific modus vivendi has no future and is to be removed from the series of forms of existence worthy of being passed down.

Everything thus suggests conceiving of the “Anthropocene” as a term that is only meaningful within the framework of an apocalyptic logic. Apocalypticism signifies evidence from the end. Since, as a collective, we cannot be all the way at the end yet, but always have to somehow carry on for a while longer, human intelligence cannot definitively review its own history. It can only try different versions out in diverse forms of anticipation – a fact that is testified to by an illustrious series of simulations, sacred and profane, from the Egyptian Book of the Dead to the first report of the Club of Rome.

Current human involvement in natural history shows that Heidegger’s original insight of conceiving being as time was fundamentally correct. This intuition was admittedly missing an essential element: namely, that time first becomes noticeable, as time, when its uniform flow is disrupted.

This disruption, which the ancients were the first to perceive, was the delay – it constitutes one of the basic forms of tragedy. Even contemporary humanity is menaced by delays, particularly when it comes to taking measures regarding “environmental policy.” Yet time as such generally becomes noticeable for modern humans through accelerations. Accelerating as fast as possible on one’s trajectory is what drives apocalypse as a temporo-logical form. Heidegger derived the thought of “running ahead to one’s own death” from such acceleration – by accepting an existentialist abbreviation for anticipating the end.6 In his time, the authentic task of thought already consisted in investigating why modernity, for immanent reasons, is inclined to anticipate a total end. This required an examination of the motif of universal process-acceleration, which imposed the form of absolute progress on modernity’s modus vivendi.

1.3 Modern Virtuous Circles

Anyone who asks about what drives typical modern accelerations will be mindful of mechanisms of positive feedback, for which the American sociologist Robert K. Merton has suggested the term “Matthew effect,” following a well-known passage in the New Testament.7 The logic of the self-reinforcing sphere of activity that feeds back upon itself is perfectly and intuitively anticipated in the words of Jesus: “For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them” (MT 25.29).8 Effects such as these give typical instances of modernization the form of the circulus virtuosus, or virtuous circle. Although the modern era is also marked by the emergence of devastating circuli vitiosi, its trajectory as a whole to this point has still formed a nexus of virtuous circles, whose cumulative impact amounts to a new perception of time.

At this point, six such self-reinforcing circular processes ought to be mentioned, which are reciprocally interwoven in a variety of ways: the fine arts, banking, engineering, the state, scientific research, and law.

In fact, the fine arts in Europe have exhibited a historic, completely new organization since the fourteenth century. What we call the Renaissance was the result of a self-intensification of artistic skill in the workshops of northern Italy, Flanders, and Germany that lasted for centuries, until finally, thanks to continuous positive feedback – increased by rivalry and mutual observation – a peak of mastery was achieved in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that will never be surpassed – one merely has to mention names such as Titian, Caravaggio, or Rembrandt to indicate how artistic ability soared into the stratosphere. The virtuous circle in which art of the modern era, insofar as it was virtuosic, successfully advanced was played out in the studios of humble fourteenth-century masters. However, with the emergence of modern art and the transition to an era of global art, the world market’s standard of post-virtuosic productions has prevailed.

Analogous processes can be observed in the realm of positive feedback loops that is commonly referred to as the economy. Even here, a powerful circulus virtuosus was set in motion from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries on. This virtuous circle ensured that great fortunes were made and, from humble amounts of starting capital, developed into worldwide ventures, through the joining together of credit and talent – the latter term understood in its modern sense.

Admittedly, the self-reinforcing dynamic of the economic management of art would have come to a standstill in this part of the world, as it did in classical China, when the latter reached the stage of a developed manufacturing economy, were it not associated with an additional dimension of self-reinforcing processes urging it on, as the seventeenth century ended and the eighteenth century began. We are used to giving roughly approximate names to this sphere, such as engineering, and whoever cannot be bothered to think about such matters can simply say “technology.” The close alliance of the second with the third virtuous circle, that is, of an interest-driven economy with innovative engineering, leads to the dynamic monstrosity that is still unfortunately called “capitalism” due to a dullness of mind that has been common since the nineteenth century, although it should have been called “creditism” or “inventionism” all along, if we were concerned with its true name. In 1912, in a statement that sounds harmless but is in fact ominously unfathomable, Schumpeter speaks of this monstrosity that begets itself when he notes that “Every process of development creates the prerequisites for the following [process of development].”9

This statement can just as well refer to the following self-reinforcing circle, which has been developed by the modern state. Since its labored beginnings in the age of the Wars of Religion, the modern administrative social-welfare state that is financed with taxes has given rise to a particular kind of Matthew effect, by generating new spheres of activity over which it may exercise authority, additional zones to be regulated, and more in-depth mandates for its interventions. Here one should recall Wagner’s law, which is also known as the “law of increasing state spending” or the “law of increasing state activity” – two discoveries, incidentally, that were judged favorably by their author, Adolph Wagner (1835–1917), the doughty development-optimist who held a professorship in Berlin. Wagner, the prototype of the subsequently much-maligned “academic socialists’’ [Kathedersozialisten],10 possessed the gift of seeing the autogenic expansion of state activities still entirely within the framework of the fulfillment of communal needs, while today we are rather inclined to regard the complex of statism, fiscalism, and interventionism from a skeptical perspective and increasingly suspect it of being the absurd theater of a large, counterproductive institution that serves its own interests.

In addition, the self-reinforcing circle of the contemporary cognition industry deserves special mention. These days, every European schoolchild knows that the modern age is an age of research – this has been the case ever since Bacon wrote his Novum Organon and called upon the goddess of experience to increase humanity’s stock of “no-nonsense” knowledge and verified information,11 and ever since Leibniz wanted to found academies so that research would find a home of its own, solely devoted to the search for new truths. For the world in which we live, there is really no characteristic feature more pronounced than the fact that we have become a place to which recently attained knowledge may migrate. This has to be expressed in such unfamiliar terms, strange as it may sound, because research in the modern style does not at all mean the idyllic propagation of bits of knowledge to be stored in separate compartments for the delight of contemplative minds. Research signifies per se the generation of new knowledge through knowledge. Furthermore, knowledge typical of the modern era, which revolves around cognitive circuli virtuosi in order to continuously proliferate, is for the most part practical knowledge – thus it is truth in search of application. It waits for the next opportunity to insinuate itself into the life of modern populations. We exist in a kind of reality that is characterized by the continual, barely controlled immigration of epistemological and technological aliens, and can only hope that our new neighbors in this cognitive environment will eventually prove to be civilizable ones.

We now come to the last circulus virtuosus on this list, though it is not the least in terms of its impact: the legal system in its current systematic form. Only in a modern Europe that was agitated, which was already caught up in all manner of self-reinforcing games, could the apparently trivial but in reality quite daring idea arise that humans have inalienable rights by nature – indeed, that life itself is nothing more than the triumphant validation of rights by their holders. To be sure, from time immemorial human beings have sought protection in local constructions of justice – but only in Europe, in the motherland of the Matthew effect, could a circle develop that emerged from the meta-right as such, the “right to have rights,”12 to use one of Hannah Arendt’s formulations. She succinctly lays bare the expansion of the realm of rights. Only in a civilization in which the right to have rights has become an internalized disposition and an institution sustained by state agencies could the spiral of continually expanded juridification begin to develop, something that has become quite typical of the European social dynamic in recent centuries. This expansion of the space in which rights are claimed admittedly casts an increasingly problematic shadow. A national and supranational regulatory law-monster that is virtually unparalleled in history has been created by the reciprocal interaction of the limitless propagation of rights with gargantuan statist systems of self-reinforcement.

Every mechanism that has been cited to this point has contributed to the temporal dimension’s increasing prominence by challenging anticipatory intelligence to go ahead all the way to the end, not only for individual, mortal existence, but for the entire ensemble of relations that we call “modern society.”

1.4 Crisis of Severe Externalization

The formulation of the concept “Anthropocene” thus inevitably conforms to apocalyptic logic: it indicates that the cosmic insouciance that was the basis for historical forms of human being-in-the-world has come to an end. In conventional terms, we could describe “the human place in the cosmos” – to recall Scheler’s treatise – as a kind of scenery-ontology [Kulissen-Ontologie]: on this view, the human being, as dramatic animal, performs before the massif of a nature that can never be anything other than a placid background for human operations. Such scenic ontological thought remained predominant for quite a while, even after the beginning of the industrial revolution, although nature-as-background is nowadays construed as an integral storehouse of resources and as a universal landfill.

The possibility that resources might be exhausted is only entertained later on: in 1912, the German chemist Wilhelm Ostwald (1853–1932) was the first to explicitly conceptualize the finiteness of terrestrial resources, in his text Der energetische Imperativ [The Energetic Imperative]. In this work, he was already critical of industry and the state: because no infinite superstructure can be erected upon a finite base, humanity is immediately called upon to adopt an alternative ethos in its use of nature. In brief, the energetic imperative is: “Do not waste energy, use it!” Because wars represent the worst form of the waste of energy, they should immediately vanish from humanity’s behavioral repertoire – an argument that, two years prior to the outbreak of the First World War, was not entirely beside the point. The “analytic of finitude,” which a little later on was translated by Heidegger from the sphere of the natural sciences into an existential dimension, begins with Ostwald’s text. Even Max Weber’s most famous statement, found at the end of his essay The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism from 1920, contains a covert reply to the Ostwaldian ethics of frugality for finite creatures in a finite world: Weber claims that the current economic system holds the human being spellbound within an “iron cage” and “with irresistible force determines the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism … Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt.”13 Werner Sombart recalled a more dramatic version of the same thought: in conversation with him, Weber sometimes remarked that capitalism would not come to an end until “the last ton of iron and the last ton of coal had been smelted.”14 The equation of capitalism with old-fashioned heavy industry reveals the extent to which this remark is dated (and not only because of the internal dialogue with Ostwald), although new agents could already be recognized around 1920 as they emerged onto the social-industrial stage, at least in outline: petroleum, chemistry, financial capital, solar power, and telecommunications are not mentioned. Talk of the “last ton” clearly indicates the apocalyptic logic of Weberian reasoning: thanks to his rapid fast-forward to the system’s death, the melancholy sociologist attains a synoptic view of “capitalism” as worldwide fatality.

The supplanting of traditional scenery-ontology by an ecological logic reaches far back into the nineteenth century. In their text The German Ideology from 1845–7, Marx and Engels had already succintly postulated a shared history of nature and man, though natural history was subsequently left aside, since they wished to limit themselves to studying the historical formations of “relations of production.” This omission characterized an age in which the difference between intended products and unintended side effects had not yet become critical, something that only became typical in the late twentieth century. Furthermore, in their cheerful productivity, Marx and his successors were relying on a basic fundamental assumption of scenery-ontology, according to which nature, reinterpreted as resource, was supposed to perpetually reabsorb industrial production’s externalized effects, more or less unnoticeably. The assumption of an infinitely indulgent external nature extended the lifespan of human beings’ cosmic recklessness after the industrial revolution, so that it lasted longer than it would have, given the environmental problems that were just emerging. With the end of carelessness, even scenery-ontology and the fundamental age-old distinction of foreground and background reach the limits of their plausibility.

1.5 Ignorance Management

When Buckminster Fuller’s famous Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth originally appeared in 1968, he boldly assumed, indeed in a utopian manner, that the time had come for social systems to transfer expert control from politicians and financiers to designers, engineers, and artists. This assumption was based on a diagnosis that the members of the first group – like all “specialists” – only ever view reality through a small aperture, which does not allow them to see more than one section. However, due to their professions, members of the latter group develop holistic viewpoints and concern themselves with the entire panorama of reality.

It was as though the Romantic motto “Power to the imagination!”15 had crossed the Atlantic Ocean and had been decoded on the other side as the slogan “Power to design!” The audacity of Buckminster Fuller’s publication, which soon became a “countercultural” bible, and later a bible for those seeking “alternatives,” was not displayed by his contempt for the seemingly great and powerful of the world, whom he believes are “now only ghostly prerogatives.”16 It consisted in the truly prodigious redefinition of our home planet: from this critical moment on, the good old-fashioned Earth may no longer be envisaged in terms of natural dimensions, but is rather to be conceived of as a colossal work of art. It was no longer a foundation but instead a construct; it was no longer a basis but instead a vessel.

It is a testimony to the prodigiousness as well as the irresistibility of Buckminster Fuller’s metaphor that in less than half a century it has seeped into our collective consciousness. At the same time, it is indicative of the acute peril on board the spaceship Earth that it brooks no escape into poetic flights of fancy for lack of more precise concepts, as evidenced by the numerous, though admittedly unsuccessful, “summits on climate change.” Metaphor here represents the higher form of the concept. Its truth is revealed in the pertinence of its implications for the real situation. If the Earth is a spaceship, then its crew must in fact have a vital interest in the maintenance of livable relations within the interior of the vessel. In this regard, astronautical engineers speak of the life support system (LSS) that controls the biosphere-mimetic constants on board space stations. The first criterion of the new art of piloting that is to be posited for the integral spaceship is thus atmospheric management. We should bear in mind that, in this vehicle, no oxygen masks will fall from the cabin ceiling in the “unlikely event” of the loss of cabin pressurization. It would also be absurd to claim that floor path illumination would guide us to the emergency exits – spaceship Earth does not have any exits, neither for emergencies nor for normal situations. And with regard to floor path illumination, what else is it other than mild hypnosis for passengers suffering from aerophobia? The anxiety of the passengers on board the spaceship Earth must be genuinely alleviated. Treating them requires revolutionary cognitive and technical procedures.

Buckminster Fuller has clearly identified the most important condition for the human stay on board the spaceship Earth: the passengers have not been provided with an operating manual, presumably because they are supposed to get to the bottom of things on their own. In fact, as far as we know, the Earth has been inhabited by human beings and their ancestors for almost two million years, without their “even knowing that they were on board a ship.”17 In other words: in the past, human beings were quite ignorant as they navigated, since the system was designed to bear a high degree of human disorientation. Yet to the extent that the passengers begin to get to the bottom of the situation and seize power over their environment by means of technology, the system’s original indulgence of ignorance plummets until it reaches the point where certain kinds of ignorant behavior are no longer acceptable for the passengers’ stay on board. Human being-in-the-world, of which twentieth-century philosophy spoke, is thus revealed as being-on-board a cosmic vessel that is susceptible to failure. Some time ago, I suggested the concept of “monogeism” to characterize the human being’s appropriate cognitive relation to this vessel – a term that designates the minimum, as it were, of a non-ignorant contemporary relation to the paramount importance of the Earth. It likewise forms the axiom for a political ontology of nature.

Viewed from today’s perspective, the history of planetary thought turns out to be a final cognitive and pragmatic experiment, during which the truth of the global situation must be brought to light. Anyone on board the spaceship with the courage to use his or her own mind must sooner or later account for the fact that we must teach ourselves how to travel in space. The true conception of the conditio humana is thus: life-and-death autodidacticism. An autodidact is someone who must learn crucial lessons without a teacher. I would like to add that merely falling back on religious traditions in these matters will not help us, because the so-called world religions are without exception bound to a pre-astronautical understanding of the world – even Jesus, with his ascent to heaven, was unable to contribute anything worth mentioning to the operating manual of spaceship Earth.

There is a claim about the relation of being and knowing that is associated with these reflections: traditional knowledge essentially stood at a slight distance behind reality – indeed, we could say that it arrived late, on principle. In light of this and in regard to future problems, the question arises as to whether knowing will always come too late, due to its habitual tardiness. Fortunately, we are in the position to be able to answer this question in the negative. There is a kind of prognostic intelligence that proves itself precisely in the gap between “late” and “too late.” I hope to forcefully articulate this intelligence here today. While most human learning to this point has followed the rule according to which we only “learn from our mistakes,” prognostic intelligence must wish to learn before the mistake has happened – a novelty in the history of didactics. In order to achieve a deeper understanding of such learning processes, a critique of prophetic reason is necessary. Such a critique must not let itself be daunted by the basal paradox of doomsday prophetism: that, were it successful, it would seem ex post like an unnecessary alarm, since what the prophet warned us of will not come to pass, precisely because of his intervention. Outlines of such a critique were presented by Jean-Pierre Dupuy in his 2004 study Pour un catastrophisme éclairé. According to Dupuy, only experienced apocalypticists can engage in a sensible politics for the future, because they are brave enough to consider even the worst as a real possibility.

To figure things out today means, above all, to understand that the last century’s kinetic expressionism must be radically modified if we remain unable to dispense with it. By kinetic expressionism, I mean modernity’s mode of existence, which was primarily made possible by the ready availability of fossil fuel. Since these materials have become virtually ubiquitous around us we have lived life as if Prometheus had stolen fire a second time. The significance of this becomes clear when we acknowledge that this second fire has long powered not merely our engines, but also blazes in our existential motivations, in our vital conceptions of freedom. We can no longer imagine a freedom that does not always also include the freedom to rev our engines and accelerate, the freedom to move to the most distant destinations, the freedom to exaggerate, the freedom to waste, indeed, lastly, even the freedom to detonate explosives and destroy ourselves. We hear the voice of kinetic expressionism when the young Goethe writes in a Sturm und Drang letter to Lavater: “I am now entirely embarked upon the wave of the world, completely resolved to discover, to battle, to founder, or to spring into the air with all of my cargo.” We hear it when Nietzsche explains in Ecce Homo: “I am not a man, I am dynamite.”18 And, in practical terms, we see it at work when, during the final stage of his circumnavigation of the Earth, after running out of coal during the Atlantic passage (from New York back to England), Phileas Fogg, the hero of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, begins to rip the wooden frame of his own ship apart in order to feed the combustion chambers of its steam engines. With the ship of Phileas Fogg burning itself to fuel itself, Jules Verne discovered nothing less than a universal metaphor for the industrial age: it evokes the fatal selfreferentiality of a serpent swallowing its own tail – we have to go back to the early Romantic poet Novalis and his insightful vision of the “self-grinding mill” to find a comparably potent image for the description of the current modus vivendi. Yet kinetic expressionism already characterizes the gesture with which Queen Elizabeth I of England, in the famous engraving from the sixteenth century, lays her sovereign hand on the globe, as if to show that a new era had now begun in which the rulers of the world were no longer content with their own lands but wanted to extend their power to the ends of the Earth. The principle of growth, essential to modern life, turns out to be nothing but kinetic expressionism in action.

1.6 “We are on a mission”

“We are on a mission. Our vocation is the education of the Earth.”19 Novalis

Modern expressionism rests on an assumption that was so self-evident to human beings of earlier times that it almost never had to be explicitly formulated. For our predecessors, nature presented an infinitely superior, and hence an immeasurably resilient, outside realm that absorbed all human discharges and ignored every act of exploitation. This idea of spontaneous nature determined humanity’s history until just recently, and even today we have numerous contemporaries who cannot and do not wish to understand that we will need to fundamentally change our thinking on this point. The expressionistic character of lifestyles in today’s affluent civilizations has nevertheless made clear that nature’s indifference to human activities was an illusion suited to the age of ignorance. There are limits to expression, limits to emission, limits to the indulgence of ignorance – and because there are such limits, even if we do not know exactly where to draw the line, the seemingly immemorial idea of nature as a kind of externality that absorbs everything begins to falter. We suddenly feel it necessary to entertain an idea that appears contrary to nature, namely that the terrestrial sphere as a whole has been transformed by human praxis into a single great interior. Buckminster Fuller wanted designers to take responsibility for this harrowing turning point, and demanded a “comprehensive” and “anticipatory” mode of thought from them. Such thought is supposed to make “world-planning” in the “human being’s total communication system” on spaceship Earth possible.

Forty years after the publication of Buckminster Fuller’s manifesto, it turns out that it was not so much designers who were concerned with implementing the new idea of the world as a macrointerior, but rather meteorologists. It is evident to us that not design but meteorology has come to power. It has prevailed politically and scientifically, since for the moment it provides the most suggestive model of the global interior: it is concerned with the dynamic continuum of the terrestrial sphere of enclosed gases, which from the time of the ancient Greek natural philosophers has been called the atmosphere – literally, vapor-orb. Conversations about the weather have ceased to be harmless ever since climate scientists established that the atmosphere retains things in its memory-banks, as it were: the atmosphere never entirely forgot the chimney smoke of the early industrial revolution, and it will not ignore anything released into it by the coal-fired power stations of developed countries, the district heating power plants of mega-cities, the airplanes, the ships, the automobiles of the affluent, and the countless open fires of the poor on every continent, although normally half of such emissions is absorbed by the oceans and biosphere. To be sure, other remnants of dubious human behavior are preserved by the Earth: even now we still find horseshoes in the north-German mud that provide evidence of the Roman cavalry’s passage. The German soil is neither heated nor cooled by the presence of these Roman horseshoes. In contrast, the Earth’s atmosphere is a delicate disposal site: it shows a tendency to respond to past and present emissions by warming up. If meteorologists are speaking the truth, we should expect climate change in many parts of the world to result in situations that are not conducive to human existence as we have known it.

Meteorologists have thus taken on the role of reformers. They call on human beings in industrial nations as well as developing ones to change their lifestyles: they demand nothing less than the decarbonization of civilization in the middle term and a broad renunciation of the enormous conveniences of a fossil-fuel based modus vivendi.

These beliefs represent a turning point so fundamental that we are justified in employing grand analogies: the change in thinking that is required of twenty-first-century human beings runs deeper than the sixteenth-century Reformations, in which the rules that governed transactions between Earth and heaven were revised. It immediately brings to mind the voice of John the Baptist, who called for total change. The voice from the desert then called for nothing less than a metanoia, which was intended to replace the trivial egotistical ethos of everyday life with the heart’s own moral state of exception – this call was supposed to trigger the permanent revolution that we call Christianity. Finally, the demand to rethink things today even recalls Plato’s subtle remark in his dialogue The Sophist, according to which the quarrel between the friends of the ideas (commonly known as idealists) and the admirers of perceptible bodies (commonly known as materialists) over the meaning of being amounts to a kind of gigantomachy – a battle that will last as long as there are human beings around to vote for one side or the other, due the contentiousness of the issue itself.

The current battle over the climate no longer aims at the “world domination” that commentators of the imperialist age were fond of talking about. On the contrary, it is concerned with the possibility of keeping the civilizing process open and ensuring its progress. Following the mutual discovery of cultures through long-distance commerce between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries, this process led to a provisional synthesis of global agency through trade and diplomacy. It is expected to soon develop into the positive collaboration of cultures within common institutions capable of action – although we leave aside the question of whether “humanity” is even able to constitute a coherent “we” or a volonté general.

Only two things are certain at the moment: first, that the meteorological reformation that has just begun opens up the prospect of an age of major conflicts; second, that the twenty-first century will go down in history as a carnival of redemptive vanities, at the end of which human beings will long for redemption from redemption and salvation from saviors. At the same time, it heralds an era of hypocrisy and the double standard. Nevertheless, beyond vanity, panic, and hypocritical rhetoric, this age will continually confront the question of whether to set up something like a stabilizing regime on board the spaceship Earth. It should be borne in mind that, from the outset, we must have modest expectations regarding the concept of stabilization. Cultural evolution knows no stable equilibrium. At best, it can segue from one livable state of disequilibrium to the next.

The contours of the coming gigantomachy can already be recognized today. The idealistic party is here expressed by the advocates of a new modesty. They confront their materialist adversaries with the demand that all forms of kinetic expressionism have to be reduced to an eco-political minimum. If we have understood that this expressionism is identical to the modus vivendi of affluent cultures on the planet, that indeed it permeates the totality of our “metabolism of nature,” our production, our consumption, our housing, our business, our arts and communications, and that in each of these domains we still have every indication that there will be no disruption in growth and improvement, then one thing immediately becomes clear: the ethics of the future, hostile to expression and emission, aims precisely at the reversal of civilization’s direction to this point. It demands reduction where increase was previously on the agenda, it demands minimization where maximization used to hold sway, it wants restraint where explosions were formerly permitted, it prescribes thrift where profligacy was once considered to be particularly appealing, and it calls for self-circumspection where self-liberation was until now celebrated. If we think these reversals through to their end, then over the course of the meteorological reformation we arrive at a kind of ecological Calvinism. This position is based on the principle that humanity has only one Earth at its disposal. Hence it may not demand from its basis more than the latter has to give – on penalty of self-destruction. Globalization paradoxically works against its own fundamental tendency: by carrying out expansions across the board, it enforces restrictions across the board. In wishing to make affluence a general condition, globalization discovers that ultimately it is only the opposite of affluence – frugality for all – that is practicable on a global scale.

With that said, the giants who will join battle in the impending twenty-first century emerge. We are witnessing the struggle between expansionism and minimalism. We are supposed to choose between an ethics of fireworks and an ethics of asceticism. We will feel the contending alternatives reflected in our attitude toward life and note how we alternate between states of manic profligacy and depressive thrift. Nietzsche sometimes remarked about the Earth that, to an outside intelligence, it must seem like an “ascetic star” on which an elite of depressive spiritualists driven by ressentiment call the shots. The twentieth century has seen the affluent part of the Earth enjoy a hedonistic interlude that might be over before the twenty-first century has ended.

Should the heralded reformation lead to a meteorological socialism, the Earth would soon appear, from an outsider’s perspective, to be a frugal star: every single human being on it would be entitled to a small emission-credit, which is due him or her as shareholder in the atmosphere and the other elements.20 Since Nietzsche was at the same time an expert in questions of gigantomachies and contention between the gods, he knows that neutrality is impossible in conflicts of this magnitude and writes about this in the Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music: “It is the enchantment of these struggles that whoever sees them must also struggle with them himself.”21 In wealthy nations, each citizen will not only stage the gigantomachy in their own breast, but will also publicly declare which side they have taken with their own decisions on what to consume.

1.7 “The Power of the Body”

“For no one has thus far determined the power of the body.”22 Spinoza

At this point in our reflections, it seems as though ecological puritanism might be the only reasonable morality on board the spaceship Earth. We can make of this what we will, but it is clear that during the twentieth century a new form of the absolute imperative has emerged: “You must change your life!” – this principle is authoritative for many contemporary ethical institutions. We realize that we are obligated to cultivate a modus vivendi that corresponds to the ecological-cosmopolitan insights of our civilization. This imperative becomes so noticeable that we could liken it to what in earlier times was achieved and is still being achieved by Buddhist, Stoic, Christian, Islamic, and Humanist ethics, respectively, with their significance for both individuals and communities. Because the new imperative, like every great ethical phenomenon, appeals to everyone, we should expect a rampant wave of ethical enthusiasm around the world. In this enthusiasm, the current will to live is combined with the current sense for what is good and proper into a powerful élan that will perhaps shake the world – both within and outside of traditional religions. It is just as realistic to expect a complementary wave of resignation, defeatism, and a cynical “devil-may-care” attitude.

At first sight, it thus seems as if the current imperative could only result in an ethics of global moderation. Perhaps the only question that remains open is whether the turn toward modesty will happen as a result of a voluntary reduction by populations in emissionintensive cultures, or whether the governments of affluent nations – for want of global governance to this point, the only macrosystems capable of action – will find themselves sooner or later compelled to proclaim a kind of ecological martial law in their respective territories, under which what cannot be achieved on a voluntary basis will be imposed instead.

If we reconsider matters, it becomes clear that the demands for a global ethics of moderation or even the hopes for a climactic socialism are illusory. Not only is all of expressionistic civilization’s momentum against them, they also contradict our knowledge of what drives higher cultures. In other words, these driving forces are inconceivable if we do not grasp the connection between striving for self-preservation and the will to self-advancement. The link between self-preservation and self-advancement includes the preliminary decision in favor of a culture in which abundance, waste, and luxury have achieved civil rights. In his reflections on the establishment of an ideal polity, Plato soon had to drop the hypothesis of a frugal polis: the wisest of the Greeks had no answer when Glaucon objected to the description of a meal in the frugal city by bluntly asking: “If you were founding a city of pigs, Socrates, isn’t that just what you would provide to fatten them?”23 Socrates has to concede this objection and permit the construction of an opulent city. Similarly, in all of our prognoses and projects for the world of tomorrow, we are today compelled to proceed from the fact that human beings in rich nations consider their affluence and its technological premises to be the irrevocable spoils of conquest. They remain convinced that it is evolution’s job to make their material affluence and expressive privileges into global phenomena via continuous growth. They will refuse to put up with a future that is founded on negative growth and restraint.

In contrast, the proponents of the new modesty object that sooner or later those who are affluent today will have to accept the ecological facts. To the extent that large numbers of new producers and consumers join the club of profligates, the limits of emission and of expression become increasingly dramatic and become conspicuous even more quickly. The principle that forms the basis of all arguments for limiting growth here comes into play: there is only one unique Earth, and yet the rich nations of the world today live as if one and a half or two more Earths were there to be exploited. If their lifestyle were to be extended to everyone who inhabits the planet, humanity would need no less than four Earths at its disposal. Since, however, the Earth represents a single monad that cannot be multiplied, we must accept the priority of limits over the impulse to transgress those limits.

At first, this argument seems undeniable. As long as the Earth and its biosphere are conceived of as an irreplaceable singularity, the exploitative behavior of modern expressive and comfortable civilization must seem like unpardonable irrationality. The way human beings have treated the planet is then comparable to a disaster film in which rival mafia groups engage in a firefight with high-caliber weaponry on board a plane at 12,000 meters.

At the same time, it is legitimate to ask whether the right consequences have been drawn from the monadological interpretation of the Earth. Do we understand our situation correctly if we conceive of the planet and its biosphere as a singularity that cannot be multiplied and as something that is ultimately fixed? We should remember that it is no longer merely a matter of the primal cosmological datum, Earth, and the primal evolutionary phenomenon, life. The technosphere, which for its part is animated and moderated by a noosphere, has been added to our basic parameters in the course of social evolution. In view of both of these parameters for growth, we are justified in applying Spinoza’s statement that no one has thus far determined the power of the body (that is, the human body) to the Earth: no one has thus far determined the power of the Earth as terrestrial body. We do not yet know what developments will be possible if the geosphere and biosphere are further developed by an intelligent technosphere and noosphere. It is not impossible a priori that such further developments will lead to effects that amount to a multiplication of the Earth.

Technology has not yet spoken its final word. If it has mostly been considered in terms of environmental degradation and biogenerativity, this shows that in some respects it is only just beginning. A while ago, I suggested distinguishing between heterotechnics and homeotechnics24 – with the first based on violating and outwitting nature, and the second based on imitating nature and pursuing natural principles of production in artificial contexts. A completely different image of the interplay between environment and technology emerges with the conversion of the technosphere to a homeotechnological and biomimetic standard. We would learn what the Earth, as terrestrial body, is capable of the moment human beings reorganize their handling of it from exploitation to coproduction. If we follow the path of sheer exploitation, the Earth will forever remain a finite monad. If we follow the path of co-production between nature and technology, a hybrid planet could result on which more would be possible than conservative geologists believe.

Around the world, creative thinkers in the environmental movement have put forth similar ideas. They have reckoned that a doubling of affluence could be achieved by halving our consumption of resources. Along similar lines, an offhand remark by Buckminster Fuller suggests a link between the miraculous multiplication of bread loaves and the metaphysically interpreted history of technology: “By virtue of … leverage principles … it is literally possible to do more with less…. Possibly it was this intellectual augmentation … that Christ was trying to teach in the obscurely told story of the loaves and the fishes.”25 The conclusion to his Operating Manual thus includes an appeal to the ethos of creativity:

So, planners, architects, and engineers, take the initiative. Go to work, and above all cooperate and don’t hold back on one another or try to gain at the expense of another. Any success in such lopsidedness will be increasingly short-lived. These are the synergetic rules that evolution is employing and trying to make clear to us. They are not man-made laws. They are the infinitely accommodative laws of the intellectual integrity governing universe.26