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'Humans are not prepared to protect nature'

Neil King | Gabriel Borrud
June 23, 2020

Why do we find it so hard to change our behavior? German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk explains how this is connected to the climate crisis.

Philosoph Peter Sloterdijk
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Peter Sloterdijk describes change as the modern name for something that classical philosophy called becoming, because everything that is, is not given in stable, everlasting forms but has to become what it is. He says modernity is all about interfering with this process of becoming, and putting it or pushing it into a direction that fits better with human purposes.

DW: So we are always changing then?

Peter Sloterdijk: Yes. Nature as such is a self-changing entity. And all we can do is — as it were — keep riding on the wave of change.

As we look to the future and that wave gets bigger and bigger with regard to the danger of climate change, there are some big changes that we have to make as a species. And it seems at the moment we're not able to make them. Why?

Human beings are not prepared to protect nature in any sense. Because in all our history as a species, our deepest conviction always was that we are the ones who have to be protected by the powers of nature. And we are not really prepared for this inversion. Just as a baby cannot carry his or her mother, human beings are not prepared — or not able — to carry nature. They must learn to deal with this immensity. This is a huge challenge because there is no longer the classical excuse that we are too little or too small in order to deal with such immensities.

Mexiko Ölpest Wildlife - Pelikan
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/C. Riedel
Forest fires
Not prepared, or not willing to protect nature?Image: picture-alliance/AP/F. Chaniago

Is it a narcissism that is preventing it? What is the problem?

I sense the problem is one of scale. We are almost physiologically unable to add up the results of our own behavior — to cosmic consequences. We are deeply convinced that all we do could and should be forgiven. From an ecological point of view, we are living in a period of time of lost innocence.

Read more: Am I a narcissist?

Have I understood you correctly that on a planetary scale, we're all looking for a sense of forgiveness? That we want to purge ourselves of what we've done?

And there will be lots of sins to be forgiven. And the more we understand that the higher the likelihood that one day we will develop patterns of behavior to cope with the new situation.

One of the questions we've been thinking about in this interview series is the idea of comparing the two crises. Our response to the pandemic was immediate, almost unbelievably fast and unified. And then our response to the climate crisis seems to be stymied or stalled. Is there any way to look at these two forms of crisis in a similar light?

What our response to the coronavirus is proving is that the globalization through media is an almost accomplished project. The world as a whole is more or less synchronized and pulls together into one hothouse for contagious news. The infection by information is as strong, even stronger, than the infection by the virus. And so we have two pandemics at the same time: one, a pandemic of fear, and the other of real contagion.

Two Indian newspapers with headlines
Coronavirus has dominated headlines for monthsImage: DW/P. M. Tiwari

You say that modernity has stopped us from becoming who we are. Can we change who we are?

Yeah. So I do not think that we can change our DNA simply by changing our thoughts. But we can change the grammar of our behavior. And that is what the 21st century will teach to the global community…

What does that mean to change the grammar of our being?

Not of our being, but behavior. The grammar of our behavior.

What is that?

Everything we do adheres to a structure — similar to a language. And acting is something that is ruled by hidden structures, such as every sentence we produce is ruled by grammar and lexicon. And I think that we are still uneasy on the level of lexical change. So we are now learning new terms, a new vocabulary, but, by and by, we shall also learn a new grammar.

Read more: Disinformation and propaganda during the coronavirus pandemic

So we're in the process of putting the building blocks of language together. Do you think we'll be able to speak before the destruction written on the wall comes true?

What I have found especially impressive in the behavior of the masses during this crisis is the incredible docility with which vast parts of the population in the West — as in the East — were ready to obey the new rules of precaution and distance. These are already new elements of a different social grammar.

Read more: Rutger Bregman: 'The virus is contagious, and so is our behavior'

But that can also be quite scary, right? That we in a matter of weeks were able to give up very basic freedoms…

Oh yes. At the same time, it shows that we must not underestimate the plasticity of the human element. But who knows how long this patient behavior will last. I think we should continue our reflections in one year or so. I would be surprised if you are not a little bit more intelligent.

Streams of red and white lights created by cars in motion illuminate a dark high
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Probst
Aerial shot of people social distancing during a protest on a highway
According to Sloterdijk, we are already witnessing elements of a new social grammarImage: Getty Images/E. Acayan

Thinking about the human element, has our response to the coronavirus — something none of us has really encountered before — changed your outlook on humanity in any way?

Yes and no. Certainly, I'm as surprised as many contemporaries are. But at the same time, it also confirms something I have been developing for decades on a theoretical level. What I mean is that it confirms my assumption that the human race has reached a situation of synchronicity on the basis of a stream of information. We really are globally connected and are living more and more in the same time dimension. There's something like the eternal presence of globalization, and this has been an important feature of this crisis. Everything happens more or less at the same time. And the only differences we see are delays between different foci of events. But, on the whole, there is one big chain of events and connectedness.

Read more: 'The time has come for humanity to go through its next evolution'

On a personal level, Peter, can you remember the last time you felt a change within yourself?

Yeah, I experienced a deep change in my existential mood at the age of about 33. I went to India and spent approximately four months there. That was a disruptive event in my own life. But the most similar event and the most comparable to now, even if it sounds quite unlikely, were those sublime days when the Berlin Wall fell down. For a span of time of approximately two months, I was not able to hear or see anything else but news from the political front.

And this was the sublime — as it were — music of reunification. And when that was over, I understood that it was over only when I was able to watch an ordinary movie for the first time afterwards. And right now I am still waiting for the moment when I will be able to listen to the music and to watch movies as I could before.

Peter Sloterdijk is one of Germany's most influential thinkers. Over the course of his career, he has published dozens of books that run the gamut of philosophical inquiry. Now retired from university instruction, he regularly contributes to public debate through interviews published in leading periodicals around Europe, among them Germany's Die Zeit, Spain's El Pais, and France's Le Point.