Anyone who believes that humans are responsible for the state of the planet falls straight into the trap of personal responsibility: “What can I personally do to save the Earth?” It was thanks to the providential intervention of the Anglo-American armies that our democratic European culture managed to survive annihilation by the totalitarianisms of the twentieth century. It is for this very reason that our culture is constantly exposed to the risk of a return of antidemocratic threats. Whenever personal responsibilities are evoked, these threats need to be considered, and our education systems have the task of making the importance of this matter clear to all. We normally deal with the question of taking responsibility by using the faculty of logical-cognitive rationality, which is used by anyone who writes with the aim of arguing a point (in this case, me) and by anyone who reads in order to understand or refute this point (in this case, you). This faculty works well because it covers the entire range of choice: when we try to assume ecological responsibility, all that we can decide to do or not to do takes shape around the extremes of action and omission.
This is a very popular place to be and one that enjoys an excellent press. Concerns about the survival of our planet are no longer the preserve of academic disciplines (normally manned with guns by the guardians of university order and defended tooth and nail by the guard dogs of professional bodies). This is true to the extent that no one can even dare say anything on the matter without referring to sustainability, a word so irrefutable as to have become virtually meaningless. The art world is no exception to the rule, for its rituals are increasingly tied to notions of environmentalism. This means that little of interest can be added to the question, so long as it is properly framed. If, on the other hand, we suspect that the frame might be defective, then a different viewpoint might be put forward.
As we were saying, when we make a decision, we are forced to waver between acting and refusing to act. This conceptual toing and froing is brought about by the limits of our rationality, which are investigated with the most extreme care by psychologists and economists – two categories of professionals who tend not to give too much credit to artists (unless, of course, there’s an invitation to a vernissage). So, as we prepare to make our choice, we find we have to decide while lacking a lot of key information. We decide continuously, always believing that our intervention, or absence, is the most suitable approach in the situation we are in when deciding. And that brings us to the crux of the matter.
When we are about to take a decision, we rationally try to consider, as far as we can, the entire range of effects that our action (or failure to act) will have on ourselves, on our surroundings, on those around us, and even on our entire planet, on the earth’s atmosphere and, ultimately, on the whole universe. Science has become highly sophisticated in predicting these effects, so it is now much easier for anyone to make assessments based on the direct and indirect consequences of the choices we make with clarity and responsibility. But what about the unintended consequences?
When I think about my own personal responsibility towards the planet, I am mainly interested in the undesired effects of my action. I am interested in the harm I am going to cause, just as I am attempting to do good. Before engaging in any public discourse about saving the planet and about how we can live sustainably, we should all sit down and watch Hiroshima mon amour, the film scripted by Marguerite Duras and directed by Alain Resnais. Because, as Arthur Koestler pointed out, the most important date in the history of humanity is 6 August 1945. “The reason is simple. From the dawn of consciousness until 6 August 1945, man had to live with the prospect of his death as an individual; since the day when the first atomic bomb outshone the sun over Hiroshima, mankind as a whole has had to live with the prospect of its extinction as a species.”
It is hard to talk about the temperature of the planet without talking about this. And it is hard to talk about this without the help of Duras-Resnais, because “you didn’t see anything in Hiroshima”. We could not see anything in Hiroshima, for the flash of the bomb blinded our ability to recognise the power of the unintended consequences of our choices.
A few years after Hiroshima, Elizabeth Anscombe filtered that flash, and she was able to see. She implored us to be more careful. His daughter remembers it like this: “It was in 1956, when Oxford University decided to award an honorary degree to the former US President Harry Truman. The very man who boasted that he had ordered the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki […] My mother was able to object to the award. Her objection was more than just a protest for she was a member of the committee that was to approve the honour: she thus found herself in the same position as a member of Parliament who opposes the approval of a new law […] My mother’s speech was totally useless.”
Ascertaining whether Harry Truman is a hero or a criminal, whether he deserves an honorary degree or a civil trial, is a highly complex matter. To deal with this complexity, we need to cast aside the conceptual framework to which we implicitly refer when we ask ourselves the question: “What can I personally do to save the Earth?” Answers that merely point to good intentions have become inadmissible. We need to change the frame, rather than dwell on the painting. If we intend to deal with something as big as “the planet”, which is so much greater than us, we must be prepared to accept the principle of the universal unintentionality of evil. Evil generally comes about unintentionally, and we must recognise this fact. This does not mean that evil is not often brought about on purpose, but time is short and we cannot spend time countering such aberrations. What we need to concentrate on right now is the extensive intertwining of good and evil that every decision leads to, with no exceptions. It is hard to untangle such a complex matter, but this does not make it any less essential.
When it comes to deciding what to give up in order to make life on this planet more balanced and pleasant, we may find that the familiarity that certain artists have with the unintended consequences of their decisions will give art an advantage over economics. Bear in mind that you didn’t see anything in Hiroshima, and yet you’re beginning to sense something.