The consumption of World

by Alessandro Bosi *

The consumption of World

In recent years, we have been becoming increasingly aware of how our actions, even the simplest, take place by stamping a durable, and sometimes irrevocable, change, for very long periods of time, on the World.

The seventeen Goals of the 2030 Agenda indicate what actions the World can and cannot sustain, both collective ones, carried out to guarantee the production of necessary and discretionary consumer goods, and private ones, exercised in our daily lives. The 2030 Agenda thereby informs us to what extent the World can support ourselves as humanity and as living beings.

Such a final dramatic confrontation with the consumption of World is unprecedented.

Today’s commitment to the World requires an idea of universalism that expands the boundaries of every universalism to which we have so far been accustomed. In post-medieval modernity, the World could be conceived as something extended but limited and defined within its boundaries as was the thinking thing, the human subject reflecting upon it. That dualism, in its abstract intellectualism, could seem objective and independent of the relationship that, we now discover, involves us personally in the changes of the world for which we bear responsibility.

The boundaries of the World, which we voraciously consume, both in the micro and macro dimensions, are not inert, without any portion of the World, to live in or leave behind, in the wake of its desertification, that does not react to our individual actions; nor can we believe that the larger and most distant dimension of the skies is alien to us or disinterested in our presence. In both cases, the World lets us know, writing it on our skin, what we owe it for how much and for how we consume it.

Throughout past centuries, the physical and spiritual spaces of our life were drawn and known while we contemplated the skies with a philosophical, if not poetic eye, but without any direct visual contact with unfathomable realms. We now have some knowledge and vivid perception of how the skies and the most remote places react to our ways of offending and hurting them; nor do they remain silent, in the distance separating them from us, but rather they send us their clear answers which cannot be ignored. It is no longer conceivable that our ways of being, thinking and acting, individually or collectively, should be enemies to the World. Its ways of reeling out, before our astonished senses, the timing of its reaction to our everyday actions, now force us to run for cover as do insects when they flee from our presence. As for us, we must shelter from the sun’s rays, air and polluted waters while, more and more often, a furious series of events sweeps away homes, hotels and urban agglomerations like so many twigs. Landslides render unstable both the World below and above our feet. Not only earthquakes and the most fearsome atmospheric events threaten our lives. Everywhere the fragility of the World seems to bend under the weight we have unwisely placed upon its shoulders.

From the World, which sets us a final and unavoidable appointment, we can in no way escape, nor can we take refuge elsewhere, as insects know how to do very well when they perceive us as a threat.

We have learnt in recent years that, beyond a certain point, there will no longer be any way for us to consume the World, nor will we be able to reverse the path along which we have traveled with confidence because what we have polluted, desertified and covered in cement will once again become fertile only beyond our time horizons. If we do not decide, using a deadly weapon, to reduce it to rubble as Samson did with the Philistines, the World, as far as it depends on our ordinary behavior, will continue to exist as the planet of the solar system, but it will no longer be our World if, having made it, as new King Midas, refractory to our ways of consuming it, we can no longer inhabit it.

Even the boundaries of the human subject have not remained unchanged, because our reading of what is happening challenges what we have been, and what we should be, to address the need. Will we be able to recompose within ourselves the waste that we have practiced and the thrift that imposes itself as a rule of future life to slow down the consumption of World? There are no individual actions or life projects, for us and for our loved ones, not even political designs, that can escape such a laceration. Because that is what we are talking about, a laceration in every single individual and in every form of social life. Suddenly, we can believe that what used to be, or we thought was, a right is now forbidden and, on this basis, we accuse anyone we judged prodigal in awarding rights of not knowing how to do their job, while now we complain about anyone’s sole intent to impose prohibitions on us. Here, the pandemic has cornered us. It forces us to accept our individual responsibility to decide. Can we believe that, following this storm and having celebrated its end, we will return to our old habits or will we be able to heed this warning by resolutely changing our ways of consuming the World? How many viruses lurk in the deepest of oceans and how many in the highest of skies? And with what speed, with what timing, will they decide to attack us? They, the tiniest of our enemies, put our vices and virtues to the test, and we already knew, before this experience, how many continue to undermine our lives by piling up problem after problem in the Country and in the World and even at our very front door. To what universalism will we turn to find the forces with which to tackle problems so much greater than the resources at our disposal? Those same resources we believed infinite, following the mantra that the more they grow, the more we will consume them.

That crooked wood of humanity

If it is true that the history of pandemics, wars, oppression and crime has accompanied us from our most distant origins, it is equally true that in every age and everywhere, in poverty and dereliction, we have found merciful hands extending the hand of help. This is the crooked wood of humanity (Immanuel Kant, Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View):  the opprobrious and the monstrous belong to it as does the sublime. That the one can live together with the other, that the one can be the reason for the other in the same individual, is confirmed by too many examples and also seems unconfutable. Not only: all this, which seems so contradictory, also characterizes any set of individuals. Neither the family nor the community are sufficient to exclude these ways of being among their members. The same can be said of movements, parties, nations and societies. And even a religion, a spirituality, a philosophy, no matter how much they preach the good, however understood, do not guarantee the behaviour of those who practice them. If that were not enough, all this also characterizes social formations and States. But equally, the solidarity that gives without being repaid, that sacrifices its life to save a life without asking whose and whether it is worth saving, is itself an act to which human history has vividly testified.

Against the din of wars, moved by ardent passions, as in the lazy repetitive daily life of selfish and suspicious acts, we have witnessed and continue to witness the disinterested behaviour of those who show us an exemplary way of being human. Although every day there are too many crimes and acts of brutality to tolerate, acts of generosity and love outnumber them by far. Could we have become seven, eight billion people in this World if war, which we assume here to be the supreme evil of mankind, had prevailed, whatever that means, over peace to the point of actually reducing it, as commonly told, to nothing more than a pause between two wars? What if the meanings and values of war had spread in individual and public feeling to the point of stifling any yearning for peace? Is not peace, on the other hand, the condition of a generative love of life that deserves to be lived? Is this not how it has firmly established itself in that part of Europe where political bargaining has silenced the sound of arms since the Second World War?

How can we explain the distortion of the wood that we are if, in spite of these current times in which we reveal ourselves so surprisingly different from how we were originally, that distortion persists as in a cast wherein we trace our unalterable physiognomy?

If we compare the changes that have occurred in the history of other living beings and in our own, we are amazed to what extent we surpass the former in our attitude to change. Biology teaches us that we are not so different from how we were in our earliest origins; but as we live our present lives individually and collectively, an abyss separates us from what we once were and even the distance from how we were a century or two ago seems formidable. Instead, other living beings…

Yet, it is there to be seen the distortion of wood that binds us to what we have always been: with all that we have managed to achieve, we have not been able to straighten the wood that we are.

After all, Kant had made it clear in 1784 that crooked wood does not straighten. And he explained it, right in the middle of the Enlightenment – only a few months after dedicating to that period the famous essayWhat is Enlightenment? – starting, not by chance, from reason, which he assumes to be our distinctive trait, distinguishing us from other living beings. In individual life and in the evolution of their species, other living beings fulfill their purpose inscribed – according to Kant – in the teleological design of nature. Reason suggests different trajectories to humans, exposing them to the condition of growing a little here and a little there, and therefore crooked.

In the third thesis of his Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View, we read: “Nature has willed that man should, by himself, produce everything that goes beyond the mechanical ordering of his animal existence, and that he should partake of no other happiness or perfection than that which he himself, independently of instinct, has created by his own reason”.

The consequence of this freedom (or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say the consequence that derives from the condition of being free because endowed with reason) is the “unsocial sociability” of humans, which we read about in the commentary on the fourth thesis. This is how humans correspond to “their propensity to enter into society, bound together with a mutual opposition which constantly threatens to break up the society”.

Until here, Kant is practicing a mediation between the tradition attributed to Aristotle, according to which man is naturally social, and the supporters of the instinctual nature of man, Hobbes and Rousseau. But it is the strictly political consequences drawn by Kant which are useful for our reflection.

Aware of their unsociability, men feel the need for an authority deemed morally superior to protect them. But to do so they have no choice but to rely on a man, or on an organized set of men who, however, also have the limits of being human. “The difficulty which the mere thought of this problem puts before our eyes is this” Kant writes in the sixth thesis, “Man is an animal which…requires a master…who will break his will and force him to obey a will that is universally valid”. At the same time, “this problem is also the most difficult and, the last to be solved by mankind”. Commenting on the sixth thesis, Kant writes that “indeed, its complete solution is impossible, for from such crooked wood as man is made of, nothing perfectly straight can be built”. Nevertheless, nature requires “that there be a correct conception of a possible constitution, great experience gained in many paths of life, and – far beyond these – a good will ready to accept such a constitution”.

That humanity is a crooked wood stemming from the unsocial sociability of humans is clear to all. This distortion, rather than through reason, determined to rebel against unsociability, may have originated with the first glimmer of emotion for some tragic event that was chiseled onto the muzzle of an individual, transforming it into a human face.

Long before reason guided the steps of upright man, the whirlwind of feelings may have marked his distinction from other living beings with the evolution from an expressionless muzzle to a face moved by crying and laughter. The human unsocial sociability would therefore not depend on our exclusive ownership of reason, but could have originated from the whirlwind of feelings, in weeping out of despair, in laughter out of joy, in sarcasm out of arrogance, but also, and perhaps above all, in hesitation out of fear and in haughtiness out of presumption. Therefore, from emotion could stem the feelings etched on our body, on the face that we have conceived as the effigy of who we authentically are. All this happened long before the word appeared as the sound of reason, like its music, thanks to which it changed form according to the times, places and sociality in which it found expression. The human unsocial sociability flourishes in the whirlwind of feelings that animates opposing impulses towards constructiveness and destructiveness. Between these poles, agitated by emotion, solidarity has always been present, not a dragonfly gliding over the pond, but a presence engaged in the contest of opposites to whom it holds out succour. Present in the mythopoetic tales of the most diverse traditions, solidarity, from a private fact, ends up obtaining the recognition of populations and their institutions. This is how social solidarity was born.

The feelings of solidarity that in private solidarity nourish goal-oriented actions, in social solidarity are expressed through laws and statutes.

* Extract from the book of the Third Sector Forum – Parma, History and identity of the Third Sector. Its presence in Parma Province, curated by Alessandro Bosi, published by the Cultural Association “Luigi Battei”