Climate Change and Existentialism

J.P. Sartre: philospher of collective action

At its core, climate change is essentially a collective action problem. The political scientist Stephen Walt has a very fine blog post which lays out why collective action on this issue is so difficult:

In addition to the scientific uncertainties (not about the fact of climate change, but about the impact of different policy responses), dealing with man-made climate change is a classic collective action problem. All countries would like to avoid the consequences of atmospheric warming, but they would also like someone else to pay the costs of addressing it. Furthermore, the worst negative consequences won’t be evenly distributed and won’t occur for several decades, which means that today’s leaders would have to impose costs on their citizens now in order to leave future generations better off. That’s do-able, but hardly a tempting prospect for most politicians. In addition, there is still no consensus on the best way to proceed: some states favor “cap and trade” systems while other prefer a straightforward “carbon tax.” Finally, the main polluters are in very different economic circumstances; the developed world created the problem but now wants to get rising powers like China and India to undertake potentially costly measures that could slow their own growth. Needless to say, that’s not very attractive to Beijing or New Delhi. Toss in the reality that any agreement would be unwieldy, expensive, and rife with verification problems, and you have an issue that makes reforming health care here in the United States look absurdly simple by comparison.

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The Uses of Nostalgia


Robert Crumb’s nostalgia for that old time music.


Nostalgia is a suspect emotion, both psychologically and politically. Emotionally, nostalgia carries connotations of escapism, ignoring present realities while longing for a mythical past. Politically, nostalgia has often been used by conservative and Fascist leaders who have deployed images of the good old days in order to thwart social progress.


I’m uncomfortable with this view of nostalgia as a purely regressive phenomenon because some of my favorite contemporary artists often do work that consciously tries to evoke melancholy at the passing of time. I’m thinking here of the films of the Coen brothers, the music of Bob Dylan, and especially the comics of Robert Crumb, Seth, and Chris Ware (among many others). All of these artists are nostalgia-obsessed but none of them fit the stereotype of complacency and escapism that fit the nostalgia stereotype: these artists are all astringent and challenging. As an example think of Crumb’s use of blackface racial images: stylistically he is working in a nostalgic mode, but the end of effect of these drawings is to remind us of an uncomfortable past (which lingers into the present).

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