Who am I?

Anthony Hatzimoysis explains why existentialism is still a highly influential philosophical movement

Existentialism is a rare philosophical breed: a theory that prioritises not lofty abstraction but responsible action. Arguably the most influential philosophical movement of the past century, existentialism is currently re-gaining the attention of people who take seriously the complexity of human life in its personal, cultural, and political context.

What makes the existentialist mode of thinking so attractive is that it respects two important needs of human beings: first, the need to understand our own experience of the world; secondly, the need to act in a way that best reflects our genuine beliefs and desires. Both of these issues require careful analysis, which can proceed only by steering clear off the various stereotypes attached to existentialist thinkers. It might thus be helpful to state not only what existentialism is, but also - and, perhaps, most importantly - what existentialism is not.

At a very basic level of discussion, existentialism asserts that existence is irreducible to thought: the world is not the creation of a web of ideas, and depends for its existence on no design, human or divine. As such, all entities are ‘contingent,’ since they form part of a reality which exists without necessity or reason, and ‘gratuitous,’ as they lack justification, and serve no purpose: they simply are. Among the many naturally existing entities, there is one type of entity that has the distinctive capacity of not only being aware of the rest of the world, but of being aware of its own awareness.

A human being is characterised by the fact that he is conscious of his conscious engagement with reality. That self-conscious dimension creates a distance from his own self, that is necessary for setting and answering questions about the meaning of one’s engagement with the world. Sometimes, existentialists put this point by saying that a human being is a being for whom his very being (his existing, his thinking, his feeling, or his acting) is in question.

At other times, a similar point is made by claiming that, in contradistinction to other entities, what oneself is, is always an issue for oneself. All other natural things are what they are by realising a pre-determined, pre-existing, pre-conceived type of being – a pine chair is a pine chair because it came to be as a thing of a particular material, shape and form, that would function precisely as a sitting device. Ordinary things obey the law of identity: every thing is identical to itself. Not so for human beings.

According to existentialism, my awareness of myself - the fact that I am conscious of my (past) history, my (present) concrete situation, and my (future-directed) intentions - means that no attempt to fix my being along some one characteristic can ever succeed. I am always more than what a theoretical account attributes to me, not because there are no ‘facts’ about my self – of course there are various physiological, economic, social and other facts about me – but because how I relate to that fact about me is, in an important sense, up to me.

The situation in which I find myself, however hospitable or adverse might be, cannot impose a character on me; rather it is the way I stand towards the situation, the specific patterns of understanding, feeling and responding towards it that makes me the person I am.

Therefore, the question of ‘who I am’ is not answered by pointing to some fixed, a-historical, abstract ‘essence’, but by interpreting adequately the ways in which I experience and interact with the world.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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