There are circumstances in which hope seems to stop and we are trapped in an immobility where "everything that lives is under condemnation." That was the harsh warning that Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno wrote more than half a century ago in the last lines of their "Dialectic of Enlightenment" (1). In the context of the Second World War and the revelation of the Holocaust, the two philosophers warned that humanity that embraced science and reason, contrary to its aspirations, was heading towards barbarism and destruction.
The central aspects of this question persist today and deserve to be analyzed at the end of 2018. We are witnessing a social and environmental crisis on a full scale, from the planetary to the continental reaching each country. Poverty is back in every corner, and it is clearly seen in the big cities (2). We are traversed by a cultural fracture that means that those who live on one side many times cannot understand the Spanish of those who are on the other side. We eat food laden with chemicals, we drink often polluted water, and we breathe toxic air.
We are immersed in a sea of impacts, some small other nouns, but almost all of them persistent and repeated. The situation is so dramatic that it would appear that those who are today the youngest could lose years of life expectancy due to contamination (3). Latin American ecological wealth vanishes before our eyes; an average loss of 89% is estimated in the populations of key species in Latin America in the last five decades, which is the worst record for the entire planet (4).
In peasant and indigenous communities, these deteriorations are particularly painful, since they are located in the center of the articulation between society and nature, and suffer simultaneously from all these problems.
None of these issues are unknown. Everything has been analyzed, measured, experienced, accounted for, and described. We know. It is explained in Spanish, English and many other languages; in thousands of articles, books and videos. New reports are added every week that reconfirm the seriousness of the social and environmental situation. But all that accumulation of scientific information and the alerts of citizen organizations that specialize in these issues, are still insufficient or incapable of a substantive change in the paths of our civilization. Hope is difficult to sustain under these circumstances.
The freezing of hope, in Horkheimer and Adorno's analysis, was framed in stupidity. Let us remember that this word alludes, in Spanish, to a “remarkable clumsiness” in understanding things, and this is precisely what happens. Despite having all the evidence at hand about the very severe consequences of what is happening, governments, companies and a good part of society do not seem to understand it, as if they do not understand what surrounds them, and they persist in maintaining styles of life that they reproduce over and over again the deterioration.
This component of stupidity can no longer be denied thanks to the ravings we observe with Donald Trump in the United States, saying among other things that climate change does not exist or that it is an invention of the Chinese. That is even more evident in the sayings of Jair Bolsonaro and members of his team in Brazil. But to be honest, we already had other examples of these clumsiness in practically all countries, where it is always possible to find unhappy statements from presidents, ministers, businessmen or academics that expose their ignorance about environmental problems or the social crisis. In them stupidity is mixed with ignorance, but it is not uncommon for the lie that seeks some advantage to be disguised as nonsense. One way or another, stupidity is no longer hidden.
We navigate in the strange condition where millions are entertained in seeing who is more stupid, if the Trumps or the Bolsonaros in each of our countries. Meanwhile the crisis is advancing, without pause.
We denounce or celebrate the stupid but with this we are immobilized and to some extent we also play the role of the fool. No matter how nonsense videos are posted on Facebook or forwarded to WhatsApp friends, none of this ensures that it solves the problems nor is it serving to avoid voting in the next election for another fool.
Under that immobility, social and environmental problems continue to accumulate. Unlike economic evaluations, the start of next year does not imply restarting the indicators or accounting from scratch, but, for example, this year's deforestation adds to that of past years, educational delays add to each other , and in this way, each social or environmental impact is based on the previous ones.
As there are so many and their accumulation is already close to two centuries, the current scientific discussion now points to the possibility of an ecological collapse on a planetary scale in the near future (5). Horkheimer and Adorno say that so much stupidity ends up condemning everything that is alive.
It is evident that the neighbor on the corner does not have to be an expert in social policies, nor does the neighbor on the next block have to be an expert in biodiversity conservation. All of them in one way or another hope, and in many cases trust, that there is political leadership to address these issues. In this ideal scheme are politicians, such as legislators or ministers, who must promote changes in policies and management, articulate with the knowledge of academics and act on the business world. We must accept that this framework does not work for many different factors, while acknowledging that there is a policy debacle in several countries (although of different kinds, possibly the most extreme cases at the end of 2018 are found especially in Nicaragua and Venezuela).
The clumsiness in understanding the socio-environmental problem plagues not only professional politicians but also a good part of the business community and even academia. We are facing a systemic stupidity, since being so widespread ends up dragging almost everyone. Even those who appear as intelligent and sagacious can end up in political conflicts that lead to foolish resolutions in government management, as warned by Rick Lewis, editor of the magazine “Philosophy Now” (6). Even where fools really prevail, they will be harnessed to draw attention to themselves, while the non-foolish control economics and politics hidden in the shadows.
Stupidity contributed to the turn that turned reason into an anti-reason, to continue with the reasoning of Horkheimer and Adorno, and that in their time they described as a struggle on high for fascist power while the rest had to adapt at any cost to injustice to survive. It can be argued that this diagnosis of the philosopher couple was adequate for a world immersed in a world war, but it would not be entirely applicable today. But it is worth asking if that is really very different from what is happening in this young 21st century.
The immobility of current systemic stupidity also fits in with another of the meanings of the word "stupid", a little older, and that invokes being stunned, paralyzed. 2018 closes in a general daze across multiple fields and issues; the last of them occurred with the government summit on climate change, where no concrete and effective agreement was reached, and instead all kinds of nonsense were repeated.
Without a doubt, there are many resistance and conflicts, and they have enormous importance in safeguarding communities or natures. They are also examples of possible alternatives. But despite them, this year as in previous years, the situation has worsened a little more. Circumstances are added in which a return is no longer possible, such as the murder of young people in popular neighborhoods, the mercury accumulated in the bodies of Amazonian children, or the extinction of a species in a tropical jungle. There is no possible repair, compensation or remediation for death, and whether it is that of nature or that of humans, they cannot be separated from each other. When Nature dies, part of our essence as humans also dies. We are so stunned or dumb that we don't even realize it. It is time to react.
- Dialectic of Illuminism, M. Horkheimer and T.W. Adorno, South American, Buenos Aires, (1944) 1987.
- Poverty in absolute number of Latin Americans has been growing from a recent low in 2014, with 168 million people, to 187 million in 2017; as a percentage of the population it went from 28.5% to 30.7% in the same period; Social Panorama of Latin America 2017, ECLAC, Santiago.
- Air pollution reduces global life expectancy by nearly two years, 20 November 2018, Phys.org, https://phys.org/news/2018-11-air-pollution-global-life-years.html
- Calculated for 1040 populations of 689 species (mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish); it is the worst indicator in the whole world; Living planet report 2018: aiming higher, Zoological Society London and WWF, Gland.
- For example Trajectories of the Earth system in the Anthropocene, W. Steffen et al., Proceedings National Academy Sciences 115 (33): 8252-8259.
- The world’s biggest problem is stupidity, R. Lewis, Telegraph, December 15, 2011, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/8958079/The-worlds-biggest-problem-is-stupidity.html
Published on December 26, 2018 on the portal http://www.ambiental.net