In the early hours of Saturday, April 14, 2018, charred remains of prominent New York lawyer, David S. Buckel, were found in Prospect Park. According to the note he left behind, Buckel committed an act of self-immolation to draw attention to the devastating effects of burning fossil fuels on human health and on the planet as a whole. “Pollution ravages our planet, oozing inhabitability via air, soil, water and weather,” he wrote. “Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result — my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.” In the microcosm of his own mortality and on a sped-up timescale, Buckel recreated the macrocosmic consequences of continued reliance on coal, oil, and natural gas for energy production. We are, he implied, collectively burning ourselves to death, and dragging numerous other species (as well as the very conditions for liveability) along.
Beyond a strong emotional reaction to such an extreme act of protest (which the protestor himself inserts in a long tradition of self-immolations, for instance, by Tibetan monks), the event ought to serve as a call to thinking. More precisely, it should impel us to rethink the meaning of “natural environment” and of life, whether human or not, at an age when these are not only polluted but have been transformed into the by-products of the centuries-long blaze of energy derived from fossil fuels.
Every day, fresh results of scientific studies, media reports, and visceral experiences of the rapidly deteriorating state of the environment hit us with growing and disconcerting force. Drinking water is replete with microplastics, and, by 2050, the total mass of synthetic, human-made materials in the oceans will surpass that of the fish. Megalopolises on different continents languish under a stew of airborne toxins during the intensifying and protracted periods of extreme smog. Annually, forest fires consume large swathes of wooded land, due to a combination of rising global temperatures, droughts, monoculture plantations, and dearth of investments into (and unwillingness to rely on local knowledges for) fire prevention. Topsoil degradation, threatening the health and fertility of the earth, entails acidification, sharp increases in salinity, and toxicity, coupled with diminishing nutrient capacity and oxygen availability to plant roots.
Preoccupying as these raw empirical trends are in themselves, they are also indicative of a subtler alteration in the delicate conditions that have been sustaining life on the planet. Water, air, earth and even fire (the four classical “elements” that, though they admit further additions, are common to the philosophical and mythic traditions around the globe) no longer correspond to our mental representations of what they are. The image of water that automatically forms in the mind of a person hearing the word rarely includes plastic debris, mercury and lead, coliform bacteria and petroleum hydrocarbons. Thinking of air, we do not usually associate it with sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter from forest fires or fossil fuel powered factories. Whereas some of the elemental changes are visible (for example, those manifest in photochemical smog), a vast majority elude our senses and the cognitive apparatus.
We are yet to catch up with the strange reality the unintended consequences of our technologies and economies have spawned. Drawing near the current condition of water and the other elements in thinking would satisfy infinitely more than the demand for accuracy, producing an adequate representation of the mutated object and a mental adjustment on the part of the subject. With such a sobering adjustment, we would also do justice to the rapidly vanishing, if not already vanished, world.
Philosophy begins in wonder, but it may end in dread. When profound enough, both of these affective states shake whomever is in them to the core. Contrary to the complacent perspective on the world according to prefabricated structures of understanding, philosophy at its most radical is an encounter with existence, which comes to pass as if one has not experienced that which is so encountered before. It is this feature that immunizes philosophers (I mean philosophy not as a profession but as a vocation, a calling, a dedication, a way of life, as it were) to a kind of jadedness, the inconspicuous familiarity of one’s surroundings, seemingly undeserving of as little as a side glance. And it is this quality that imbues the philosophical attitude with a child’s joy and curiosity or, conversely, with fear and caution in the face of the unknown. Among possible reactions to the latest mutations in the environmental elements and conditions, a benumbed “business-as-usual” approach is not a viable option. Philosophy’s flair for arranging an unparalleled rendezvous with the world is especially indispensable today, because we are confronted with the world molded by the effects of industrial activity for the first time in the twenty-first century.
If we take at face value the embeddedness of our lives and bodies in the environmental context, with which we are mutually constituted, then the technogenic mutation of air, water, and the earth bears directly on our existence. Our diets, sensory possibilities, and prevalent diseases (cancer, diabetes, and so forth) are under such a powerful sway of these elements that they implicate corporeality, the physical or physiological fact of embodiment, in its entirety. Further, if we subscribe to the view of the mind integrated into, rather than split from, the body, then whatever the latter undergoes has a profound influence on our ways of thinking. Ideas boil down to sound bites arranged in free association chains; the flood of information submerges perception and cognition alike. These, too, are the effects of environmental devastation.
Global devastation seems to be more abstract than a palpable, albeit more limited, act of destruction — above all, of a dramatic self-destruction. It is tempting to gear efforts toward individual suicide prevention, while conveniently overlooking the fact that humanity is head over heels in a drive toward a collective, intergenerational suicide. This psychologizing of the problem, which is thus depoliticized, is precisely what has happened. David Buckel’s death will not have been in vain if it triggers political action against the ongoing use of fossil fuels as much as a sustained reflection on what has been inflicted upon the outside world, our bodies, and our minds before their total destruction. In other words, a reflection on the different ways in which we are burning ourselves to death.