The reality is that Nature doesn’t care what happens to humankind.’

In 2018, there will be yet another major UN climate conference in Katowice, Poland. But, despite all the previous conferences, treaties and agreements, emissions of the greenhouse gases CO2 and methane continue to rise. We asked Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677) why humankind seems unable to turn the tide of climate change.

By Michiel Zonneveld and Ruben Endendijk

Baruch Spinoza. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Can you explain why we humans treat the natural environment so badly?

“To be honest, I’m not happy with the question. It is based on the assumption that humankind and Nature are two separate entities. In reality, humans are only a minuscule part or manifestation of an infinite and self-actualising Nature. A Nature that is so all-encompassing and infinite that I write it with a capital N. The problem with you and most of your contemporaries is that you come no further than the Greek philosopher Protagoras who said that man is the measure of all things. I understand that there are even scientists and philosophers in your time who claim that we have arrived in the ‘Anthropocene’ epoch. They believe that the Holocene epoch is over and the we are now in a period in which the consequences of human activity are visible, where nature has in effect become culture.”

The term is used by scientists who wish to point out that we are being punished for the way we have treated Nature.

“You speak of the responsibility that humankind has for Nature as if it is comparable to that of a father for his son. And now your question sees Nature as punishing humans like a strict father. You are suffering from a tendency to personify Nature. In doing so, you reduce the whole universe to a mirror of the human race, to something that has feelings or goals to achieve, that can distinguish between good or bad. The reality is that Nature doesn’t care what happens to humankind. The idea that Nature punishes us is thus also a human fabrication, just as the illusion that it acts to the benefit of humankind.”

Yet there’s no denying that human activity is having a growing impact on nature and the climate. I’m sure you’ve heard about the melting ice caps and rising sea levels…?

“I’m not denying it. But what I want to make clear first of all is that there is no dualism between humans and Nature, simply because humankind is part of Nature. So, if temperatures are rising on Earth because of human activity, it is Nature having an impact on itself.”

Do you mean to say that we humans have no responsibility for our actions?

“Let me say above all that I consider the study of Nature humankind’s most important duty. Gathering knowledge about Nature brings us the greatest of joy. So I have no respect at all for those among your contemporaries who remain deaf and blind to the facts and continue to deny that human activity is causing the Earth to warm up. They are driven by imagination and inadequate ideas. As we go in search of adequate knowledge, we should also ask ourselves whether humankind is not itself imprisoned in an endless chain of cause and affect. As I once wrote, we are creatures without free will, driven about in many ways by external causes and, like waves on the sea, driven by contrary winds, we toss about, not knowing our outcome and fate.

So should we just accept the fact that our world is going to become uninhabitable?

Not at all, but we do have to think about the whole issue in a completely different way. Climate change is not a radical disruption of Nature but a variation in an endless continuum. But humankind does of course have a problem. Do you know my theory of the affects, or emotions? I distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ affects. The good ones are circumstances that strengthen our physical and mental capacities, while the bad ones weaken them. Climate change leads to an amalgamation of bad affects that make life in some parts of the world difficult or even impossible. Humans must go in search of ways to strengthen their mental and physical wellbeing. That can be achieved in very many different ways. Yes, by taking steps to stop global warming in the long run. But also by thinking about how we can make use of these climatic changes. A nostalgic yearning for an old world is untenable, new circumstances must be manipulated to achieve a good affective environment that stimulates our thinking and therefore our joy.”

(Ruben Endendijk looked at the world through Spinoza’s eyes. He is soon to be awarded his PhD at the University of Aberdeen for his research into the concept of mental health in Spinoza’s thought. rubenendendijk@gmail.com)