The End(s) Of Life

The COP26 conference generated a predictable slew of media attention on the climate crisis, and what it means for the future, both medium and long term. Meanwhile, in the LRB, James Butler reviews Andreas Malm on the strange impasse of this time, the forces of inertia and irrationality in which national leaders pledge the urgency of radical action while simultaneously fighting to dilute it.

The future is scary. During a period of self-isolation a few weeks ago, I started reading a history book. The Ends Of Life by Keith Thomas examines attitudes on how to live well in early modern England. Chapter 4 traces the arguments made across English society regarding wealth and possessions from the 1500s onwards. In light of the present moment, the journey is somewhat depressing: Thomas lays out the gradual decline of spiritual scepticism about worldly possessions, and the increasing acceptance of arguments in favour of man’s natural inclination towards wealth accumulation.

His period runs into the 18th century, when England, through imperialism and its early iterations of capitalism, was exporting such ideas around the world, backed up with violence. And it’s not to pin the blame solely on England to say that here are laid out some of the ideological seeds of our climate crisis – the moral assertion that wealth accumulation through resource exploitation is inherently noble and good.

Today, these deeply embedded assumptions about how we should exploit the natural world rub up against the increasingly alarming signs of the precarious state of our planet’s living systems. As Butler outlines in his piece, such tensions breed cognitive dissonance and carefully cultivated denial, not to mention madness: climate hoax conspiracy theories are less common than ten years ago, but Muskian fantasies of colonising Mars – a planet missing a biosphere and less habitable than the bleakest climate scenario on earth – are just as barmy.

But looking backwards like this does at least remind us that none of our paradigms are eternal. How societies will respond to climate breakdown is a source of grave worry, and Butler concludes his long piece by suggesting that we now depend on politics which are normally considered Utopian. In which case, perhaps we should travel back to England of the early 1500s for a bit of perspective – and start reading Thomas More.

The Ends Of Life by Keith Thomas is available from Oxford University Press.

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