Contact – Leone van Rijn

Hi Sabine,  

Finally, a first attempt to write something down on this topic, which has captured my attention for a while now.  

Let’s face it; our planet has a lot to cope with. The climate is changing, as it always has, but the human species have accelerated this process. It’s getting warmer, dryer, stormier, etc. It is losing its forests; its seas are polluted; and its surface is becoming ever more populated. And yet, people still seem to be indifferent — continuing to drive their SUV’s and eating steak for dinner five times a week. Thankfully, there’s another part of the population that does seem to care and tries to reverse the damage that has been done over the last decades. Technology appears to be an ally in this battle; think of solar panels and electric cars. When we view our collective history, and the way in which technology has always played a crucial role in human well-being, it seems pretty much to be the case. 

But is it? 

Can technology save our souls and our lovely planet? Or is technology going to replace us? In the development of AI, are we simply creating a future generation that will be more energy efficient and more rational, but less human? And will it be of any good to the planet and its inhabitants?  

These are some thoughts that I would like to share with you. 

I am still full of doubt, especially working within my field, which is fixated on technological progress, yet hardly maintains any contact to nature; let alone the actual problems we are facing at this very moment. 

These doubts also torment my mind in confrontation with specific areas that don’t seem to notice or care about what is happening in the world. For example, philosophy, or other academic fields that don’t have anything to do with the environment. It is here that we reach the psychological dilemma that most of us deal with — at least those who would like to do something against the destruction of our environment/planet. How can we make a positive contribution when we are educated or have interests in other fields, other subjects? And is it enough if we pay attention to what we eat, what we do, and make an occasional contribution to an organization that seems to have influence on this matter? 

Hopefully these questions won’t depress you, and will you be able to answer me shortly on a beautiful summer day. 

 

Léo 


Dear Leo,

Thank you for sending me your thoughts.

Yes, indeed: we cannot deny our planet is suffering from our behaviour. Today I read a quote, which made me nod: “I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that after thirty years of good science, we could address those problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy. And to deal with those, we need a spiritual and cultural transformation and us scientists don’t know how to do that.” – Gus Speth

I think we’d be tilting at windmills if we merely attempt to repair the damage we’ve done to our planet. We need to revaluate what is important, and what is not. In this respect, I’m not very optimistic about the contribution of technological advancement; efficiency and even more consumer goods? On the other hand, there are indeed developments in technology which enhance sustainability.

You ask me: “Can technology save our souls and our lovely planet…or is technology going to replace us?” Does it have to be black and white? My conviction is that we are indeed creating an evolution of technology. Biology will be replaced by technology to the extent that tech and humanity will merge. If you think this is a sci-fi scenario, think again. Google is developing computers that can ‘dream’ and ‘be creative’. But what does it mean to be creative? What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be ‘less human’?

I do think however, that our increasing detachment from nature and its spiritual richness won’t help in maintaining nature. Consequently, not only do I believe in consuming less, eating less meat and going by train will be the solution on it’s own…but additionally, I think we have to reconsider what it means to be human, what nature means to us and what is valuable.

It is crazy to think that ‘gold’ has a recognised value — you can buy anything you want when you have it — but a sacred forest in the Philipines can be bought (Such a strange phenomenon when you think of it: buying land!) for a few dollars (!!). Or what about the fashion industry? It constitutes billions and billions worth of waste production, inhumane circumstances and pollution. And still, we like to shop for the newest fashion trends as often as we can; whereas walking in nature and taking care of our environment is dismissed as something boring or exaggerating. How is this possible? And how to change this kind of mindset? And I’m full of contradictory behaviour and thoughts myself you know.

No, not depressed. I’m glad you are addressing these kinds of questions, and I feel privileged that you send them to me.

Love to read your thoughts.

 

Sabine 

 


Hi Sabine,

 

I am sorry for responding this late, and admittedly it is not even because I needed time to reflect upon our conversation 🙁

I must agree with you that there is a material fixation which stands in disregard of life itself. This is not only the case in the way we treat our environment, but also evident in the ways we treat ourselves. Appearance seems to be of greater importance than the human being underneath the clothing.

You are convinced that taking the train and eating little to no meat won’t solve our problems because our relationship with ourselves and our environment is inherently corrupted, but in my opinion these are signs that some humans do care and attempt to promote their sets of values. The major issue, in my view, is that we are running out of time to properly address this. To have a broad discussion in which we collectively reassess our values on a global scale. This is even worsened by the liberal democratic paradigm, which takes everybody’s opinion into account. Hence my question to you; is there, in your opinion, enough time to reset our values? Or should we consider other modes to address climate change and the ways in which we relate to our planet and its inhabitants?

Personally, I am afraid that we have no more time to re-examine ourselves and our behaviours, considering the scale of the environmental problems we face and the technological revolution that is taking place right here, right now.

With regards to AI, I cannot think of a more convenient time to review our values than now; we are creating a new species, and if we want a world that is still a bit human (humane? Of: and if we want to keep our humanity intact ever so slightly), it is imperative that we consider how to transmit certain values.

Maybe we should consider both issues separately, although our alienation from nature could be ascribed to the love story between the human species and technology. Yet, we could also claim that the ways in which things evolved—for better or for worse—are also part of nature, of our nature. AI offers us the possibility to move beyond our nature, beyond our greed and selfishness, and is perhaps the best cure for our planet.

 

(I am in doubt, again 🙂 )

 

Hope to hear from you soon.

 

Leo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SUMMER – millions of us are enjoying the heatwave outside. But in the sweltering hot weather lurks a climate change depression.

Philosopher Leone van Reijn shares her first thoughts with us on technology and climate change. A start of a long-term letter exchange.

Feeling the urge to ventilate? Feel free to send your opinion to viewpoint@futurebased.org.