The importance of authenticity

In his final column Anthony Hatzimoysis looks at the existentialist idea of living in 'bad faith'

As a final instalment to our brief tour on existentialist terrain, I would like to consider a phenomenon that has been closely associated with existentialist thinking: the phenomenon of living in ‘bad faith’. It is commonly thought that being in ‘bad faith’ is simply the practice of lying to oneself: one knows the truth about oneself, but instead of stating it, opts for deceiving (not others, but) oneself.

Thinking of ‘bad faith’ as ‘self-deception’ is a good way to approach the phenomenon, but it might make us miss what is distinctive about the existentialist view of human beings.

According to existentialism, each person is characterised by both ‘facticity’ and ‘transcendence’. The former includes all those aspects of someone’s being which are given for him, and that cannot strictly speaking be altered at will – his physiology, his past, his biological ties, his society, his place of birth, etc.

Transcendence refers to all the mental, emotional, practical, ethical or political activities through which, at each one moment, a person moves beyond – and in that sense, ‘transcends’ – his facticity, steering his way in the midst of all the conditions, the expectations, or the opportunities that each situation sets to a person.

Bad faith arises when one attempts to present oneself as being wholly facticity, or wholly transcendence. In the former case, a person chooses to resign in thinking that everything about his life is fixed and unalterable, and that he is true to himself only if he acts in terms set by his past, or by ‘the others’, or by ‘the society at large’.

In the latter case, when someone takes himself to be wholly transcendence, he believes that everything in his life is up to him, that nothing is fixed, that even his history, his past behaviour, or the details of his social condition are not real, but are entirely a matter of how he fancies to think about them. Both attitudes are mistaken – and yet they are so attractive because they can be the only way out of taking responsibility for our choices.

What would be a genuine alternative to living in bad faith? Existentialists have proposed different answers to that question, but they all seem to converge on the importance of being authentic. Authenticity, here, is not a matter of being true to ‘human essence’ – recall that no such ‘essence’ exists apart from how each being lives out his or her existence.

Authenticity is more a matter of being ‘the author’ of your own life, while avoiding the twin errors of (i) thinking that you are nothing but an ‘actor’ in some cosmic play over which you have no say, or of (ii) thinking that you can ‘rewrite’ and ‘make up’ everything irrespective of the needs and values that inform the human experience of reality.

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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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