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Truth at the End of the World

In 2017, the entanglement of death and truth has gone well beyond war and politics. The rather less spectacular combination of climate change, economic growth and human over-population actually makes death among all species more imminent than ever, and questions the meaning of truth more than even Donald Trump could hope for.

The burgeoning growth of all things human poses dire imperatives that very few appear willing to confront. Even the realities of climate change – record high temperatures, melting ice caps, retreating glaciers, unpredictable extreme weather events, catastrophic fires, changing weather patterns, and so on – are generally comprehended in isolation from their basic causes. Climate change has become a specialist interest, the subject of weather reports, sustainability reports, well-disciplined university research groups, Green parties, think tanks, and the like. The focus that governments, corporations, universities and privately funded groups can bring to bear on this topic is so constrained by the need for continued funding, job security, and popular acclaim that radically unpopular ideas just will not surface. Politicians and the media are perhaps most at fault, but in all cases existential dependency on popularity, sales, and donations, makes it easy to forgive - and forget. We forgive those ‘in power’, or ‘in charge’, for being human and protecting their own interests – particularly when something as vague as global ecology is concerned. We forget about non-human matters when social justice issues dominate the agenda of politicians and media; preoccupied with human concerns, we forget that all life is interconnected.

Very few want to even think about the insanity of endless growth, over-consumption and over-population. Taking a cut in standards of living, or not being wasteful, or discouraging human reproduction, are simply not popular subjects. Any of these issues could take one out of the comfort zone of life in a wealthy country such as Australia. Taken together, these issues move counter to the direction of most peoples’ aspirations anywhere.

And perhaps that realisation would be the wisest point at which to become silent. If democratically elected governments, media that are still relatively free to speak the truth, and vast numbers of consumers refuse to even talk about the insanity of eating the Earth, over-cooking the goose, fouling the nest, and making too many babies, by what right could one protest? Not even ‘the right to life’ seems to cut it.

Perhaps there is one angle that will however appeal to the philosophically minded – the decline of truth as a politically meaningful concept.

For instance, even though media and politicians may appear publically concerned by the idea of a ‘post-truth’ world, their enduring commitment to growth and the routine consequences of human consumption normalise our ecological demise. It is still taken-for-granted that economic growth is the right of every successful economy; that increasing per capita consumption of energy is unavoidable and ultimately a question for markets; that the right to pollute is the sovereign right of any nation - or working within sovereign laws, the right of any corporation or business anywhere; and that the right to reproduce is the most basic of all human rights. Any, or all, of these matters taken-for-granted mean that ‘the truth’ of global decline cannot be embraced.

This latter possibility has very interesting implications. Forget Trump – he is just the icing on the post-truth cake. Global ecology is the main game, but the basics are so problematic that not even universities can deal with the unpopular politics of a rapidly declining situation. Most politicians avoid the subject – even Green parties are forced to embrace the pursuit of jobs and growth. Yet we have known about eating the Earth since the early seventies when the Club of Rome popularised the idea with their book, The Limits to Growth. All subsequent research is really footnotes. Since that revelation, ‘denialism’ has taken over all our major institutions; collectively we have spiralled into an absolutely crazy and terminal situation.

How can we possibly escape our ‘mutually assured destruction’? What was a concept related to nuclear holocaust has been reborn as an ecological prediction that daily becomes more likely. For all the work that currently goes into sustainability reports, atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and CH4 are rising daily - and historically speaking, at increasing rates. Perhaps CO2 concentrations 5000, 10,000 or 50 million years ago can be debated, but it seems unlikely that 2030 will be any less than 2C warmer (see, for example, the World Bank’s ‘Potsdam Report’ of 2013). Australian politicians may celebrate their elections won with promises of increasing economic growth made to legitimately anxious populations, but it is nonetheless true that growth cannot continue in its current forms.

So whither truth?

If the known facts cannot be put together and broadly discussed, and this is a globally suicidal act, can we really continue to assume that ‘truth’ can be politically effective, or ultimately, a tool for survival? Science may only be the first casualty; reasoned debate in any sphere of enquiry currently falls under the shadow of ‘climate denial’. Not recognising the ultimate causes of global ecological decline is altogether irrational.

These are some of the more profound questions and issues in a ‘post-truth’ world. But, of course, there is nothing fundamentally new about the questioning of truth and its political efficacy. Only the context has radically changed. Today everything is at stake. Rising temperatures alone could mean disaster. The consequences of global warming beyond 2C should be part of every high school syllabus – that generation will be first to form their careers in a much hotter world.

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