News & Views from 465 California Street

An Idea for a Better World

Clint Reilly

Even in today’s age of cutting-edge science and technology, it is important to remember that history can still be shaped by big ideas.

In the 18th century, a philosophy of knowledge emboldened the Founding Fathers to build our democracy – a system of government based on the meritocracy of ideas, rights of the individual and a free press. Capitalism itself is rooted in an innate belief in the power of individual initiative rather than the supremacy of group action – which inspired Marxism and Communism.

Philosophy can be mind numbingly boring. But it can help us more clearly see the path to a better world.

The mid-20th century German philosopher Martin Heidegger had a favorite term, “Dasein,” which cannot be translated precisely into a single English word. The rough meaning is “being-in-the-world,” Heidegger’s description of human existence.

Heidegger’s most important point was that it is impossible to separate a person from the earth. Without the “world,” a human being could not know, grow or even live. A person is like a tree planted in the earth; without the earth, the tree could not exist.

But there is a second implication to Heidegger’s “being-in-the-world” bumper sticker. To be in the world is also to be “in common with other beings.”

Whether we like it or not, we live in a natural state of dependence upon one another. Put another way, it is impossible to accurately define existence without affirming our dependence not only upon the earth, but also upon our fellow human beings.

Was the German philosopher, who lived through World War II without standing up to Nazism’s atrocities, a closet environmentalist and a globalist before his time? Why is this somewhat obvious definition of human existence important to our world today?

Many theories of human progress are rooted in a moral imperative. The Christian practice of charity is premised on the religious conviction that we are all God’s children and equal members of the human family. Therefore we are obligated to donate, assist and help others in need. Christians are also challenged to respect nature as God’s creation.

This implies that charity and environmentalism are a sacrifice rather than a reflection of our collective self-interest.

The truth is exactly the opposite.

Protecting the earth and uniting the planet is the only logical political agenda of Dasein.

In Jeffrey Sachs’ 2008 book “Common Wealth,” he argues that “the defining challenge of the 21st century will be to face the reality that humanity shares a common fate on a crowded planet.”

Sachs, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, cites four imperatives for world leaders to address:

1) Pressure on the earth’s ecosystems will produce climate change and species extinction. 2) Population growth will tax the earth. 3) The unequal distribution of wealth across the world is untenable. 4) Failed institutions impair vital global cooperation and problem solving.

Last week, Russia invaded Georgia, sparking fears of a reconstituted cold war. The assault belied the presumption that the world was moving beyond nationalism.

Fundamental conflicts between Islamic and Western cultures still dominate global politics.

Despite a growing consensus on the need for international efforts to curb emissions and develop clean energy, the earth still reels from pollution.

Poverty and sickness in sub-Saharan Africa contradict the image of a world that has conquered disease and hunger.

And thousands of nuclear bombs still have the unthinkable power to destroy the earth and the entire human race.

Those who thought that war and hunger would be easily conquered by science are slowly realizing that our toughest challenges are ahead. Perhaps we need to be reminded of Heidegger’s truth:

No “world,” no “being,” no “we,” no “I.”

Comments (9)

  • Clint

    This is a great piece. You are clearly widely read and learned in matters spiritual and political. What are your goals in running these pieces? What motivates you to place your material in the newspaper? In any event I look forward to learning more from your thought pieces.

    Posted by: Ed Taub | August 19th, 2008 at 2:13 pm

  • I just wanted to say how refreshing it is to read something thoughtful in the paper instead of the usual reactionary bloviation I’ve come to expect from the media.

    Heidegger is an ambitious topic, but you make the point well- it’s absurd to think that we can exist outside of our relationships to one another and the world. Our leaders would be well-served to recognize this and use it as a filter through which they run their proposed policies.

    Thank you,

    Raj Moorjani

    Posted by: Raj Moorjani, Milpitas | August 19th, 2008 at 2:50 pm

  • Everyone is different yet similar. All human beings share one or more commonalities, such as the need for air, water, food, shelter. Once basic needs are met, humans seek some wants…that is, i believe…

    To be happy. (We all need freedom to find our own definitions of happiness).

    Once humans achieve a certain level of personal happiness, i think most humans want to share their happiness and themselves (ie., life experience), with others. Share what they found with their fellow man/woman/human.

    Humans can also find happiness vicariously through others, i.e., such as a parent watching his/her child grow. A human being is truly happy, when they are fulfilled in all areas of their life. When there is no void in their life “unfilled” or unfulfilled.

    Does death give meaning to life? Or does death render life meaningless? That is the age-old question Existentialism poses.

    For me, i think purpose is what gives meaning to life. We are all matter and energy. Just like water. We are after all, made up predominantly of water. Like water, we possess the ability to create, change, and affect our surroundings and not only our course, but of history. But the unique trait all humans possess is the ability to impact one another’s lives. Hopefully, positively…for the better.

    I remember once watching Lord of the Rings, when the sage Gandalf said to Frodo, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

    With all that said, i really don’t know what the meaning of life is for me. But as one of my R.N. friends so wisely taught and told me, “it’s to keep going.” :)

    Posted by: Don Nguyen | August 19th, 2008 at 9:43 pm

  • Another wonderful column, Clint. To raise an issue seldom considered in the secular media or in political speech, I wonder to what extent the sinful nature of man plays in these seemingly irremediable problems. The Enlightenment taught us to believe in the perfectibility of man, but countless millions of lives have been extinguished on such altars as scientific socialism and other workarounds to the fatal flaw.

    Posted by: Jerry Carroll | August 20th, 2008 at 5:11 am

  • Clint
    What a great column! I hope a lot of people read and reflect upon your insights, especially those who are in positions of leadership locally, nationally, and globally. I was reminded of the story about the Indian children/students who were given a math problem at the chalk board and told by the teacher that the first one finished with the correct answer should put down the chalk, turn around and would receive a prize. The teacher was perplexed as several of the students completed the problem correctly but didn’t turn around until all the students completed the problem…and then they all turned around at the same time together….and there really isn’t any progress worth its salt until more and more of the human family is able to turn around together at the same time with their basic inalienable human rights in place.
    Keep writing and challenging us to reflect and act on what is important.
    Steve Dells

    Posted by: Steve Dells | August 20th, 2008 at 1:46 pm

  • I consume therefore I am. Maybe we should Think first.

    Posted by: Bob Snider | August 20th, 2008 at 2:00 pm

  • Ah yes Clint, you have hit upon what I believe to be an important issue of our modern times…community. We have lost community with many of the social and technological changes that have taken place over the last 50 years. We are recalibrating which gives me hope. The trick is to work toward creating communities that foster the sense of “we” rather than exclude those with whom we don’t agree.

    Posted by: Melinda Maginn | August 21st, 2008 at 12:43 pm

  • I enjoyed reading this piece because I think it points to a conflict that is inherent in today’s discussion of the environment and the emerging green “economy”.

    I was raised as “Secular Humanist” yet attended a Jesuit University and studied world religions, political systems and philosohpy. After working for many years in different industries, I have found that I depend less on the idealism on my college days and approach issues more as a pragmatist.

    Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. I agree with Marx’s statement that “Religion is the Opiate of the People” when it applies to extremism. By the same token I think that the “Existentialism” that
    emerged as a movement in twentieth-century literature and philosophy, most notably by Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, represents the other extreme. Individualism as they saw it endorses self-centered behavior.

    The conflict between “Capitalists” and “Enviromentalists” illustrates the dangers of these extremes. Yet we are finally seeing a recognition that we do not live in a world with limitless resources. A futurist that spoke at the Banker’s Club two years ago pointed out that “Water” , not “Oil” ,would be the most important resource of the next century. His reasoning, quite simply, was that “water sustains life”.

    Event the Pope has declared it a sin to pollute the environment. The Vatican unveiled a list of seven ‘new sins‘ in March 2008. – “You offend God not only by stealing, blaspheming or coveting your neighbor’s wife,
    but also by ruining the environment . . . .”

    Bishop Gianfranco Girotti,
    Head of the Apostolic Penitentiary

    Now is the time for people who traditionally find theseselves at opposite end of the fence to work together towards the “Greatest Good for the Greatest Number”.

    Posted by: T.B. | August 21st, 2008 at 7:22 pm

  • I have much admiration your standings but dissagree with the fatalist prediction of the disemination of land and people. I back This with the fact it has been engaged scince the industrial revolution and apart of
    The process of appropriation, in lieu of dissolusions inherit nature of post bicameral era humanity . (that is if you believe Jules Jaynes devised evolution of conciousness)
    I am of the belief the embrace of destructive progress is pro-active deafeatism is the highest order of human need. (just look at Jesus love of humanity at the cost of his own death)
    In addition to this the evolutionary technology now allows the neccesary mediums to transcend existensialism basic conciousness and geographic boundaries. Now humanity moves into a world of voices in our heads and manifesting new destinies or appearances. (i.e mobile phones -plastic surgery)
    Yes the future is not happy but this is constant with the active human neccessity to trancend matter and invoke concious realisation passed concepts never feasible by science, i.e death or the paradox of nothing.
    Keep up the commentary as it works on a positive level or a proof that darkness is another shade of something else.

    Posted by: saxxon blue | September 22nd, 2008 at 6:46 pm

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