No Escape: Albert Camus in the Anthropocene

Last year, in the early days of the pandemic, Albert Camus’ classic The Plague saw surging sales, followed by a spate of articles presenting his ideas and philosophy in light of the new situation, and their continuing relevance to this day. One reason for Camus’ lasting appeal – he deftly navigated the territories between doing “serious”, capital “P” philosophy and translating this philosophy into highly readable works replete with powerful imagery. His major contribution to the field was the concept of the absurd: the tension/frustration/unease stemming from the futile human desire for meaning in an indifferent universe. Or, in his words, “the wild longing for clarity” against “the unreasonable silence of the world”. But Camus was writing in a different time – does the ultimate message of his philosophy still make sense today?

We now live in the Anthropocene, a new geological age defined by the immeasurable impact (some) humans have had on the world, with the effect of an increasing rate of environmental catastrophes and a widespread push, particularly among communities at immediate risk, to fight for a sustainable future. To understand the importance of this new reality in relation to Camus’ philosophy, we have to revisit his conception of the world/universe, and his proposed response to the absurd condition. Camus argued that, faced with the absurd, people seek to escape through recourse to either “hope” or outright suicide. He defines hope as any belief or action built on a desire for a better future, for remaking the world, or for a life beyond this one. He goes on to lump communists and the religious together in this respect – in fact, he believed communism was essentially a secular religion. Camus rejected hope and suicide as adequate responses to the absurd. Instead, he urged people to give up trying to find meaning and questing for some unrealizable future, and to instead live for the present, without escape, in constant revolt against the potentially demoralizing absurdity of the world. Not only that, but we should actually find joy in revolt, in acknowledging and confronting the hopeless immutability of our fate. He illustrated this with his most memorable and recognizable image in The Myth of Sisyphus, where Sisyphus, condemned by the gods of Olympus, is forced to roll a boulder up a hill each day, and each time he reaches the top he must descend and do it all again. “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart,” he writes. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” As Ronald Aronson has it: “Camus’ philosophy, if it has a single message, is that we should learn to tolerate, indeed embrace the frustration and ambivalence that humans cannot escape.”

But is Camus’ world really recognizable? When we speak of the world, or even the universe, the only part that is of any instrumental significance to most of us is earth, or our immediate environment. Camus, working squarely within the Western philosophical tradition, presents a typically dualistic view of existence – humans are separate from the silent, indifferent world they occupy. Merely passengers grasping for meaning where there is none. Yet in this rapidly changing Anthropocene era, human and world are inextricably linked, eco-catastrophe driven by a human agency which, in the words of anthropologists Marc Brightman and Jerome Lewis, is “capitalist, industrial, and modern.” When considering this, Camus’ Manichaean worldview no longer makes sense. It jars with the lived experiences of people (usually those who have contributed least to the problem, Pacific Islanders, for example) suffering from the domino effects of climate change, feeling their world’s response in real time – change begetting change. The world is no longer silent.

For many, it never was. Camus’ modernist, dualistic, universalist conception of reality stands in total contrast with collectives and peoples working, living, and being outside of the Western tradition. Colombian theorist Arturo Escobar cites the Kogui, Arhuaco, Wiwa and Kankuamo – indigenous peoples of Colombia – who conceive of their existence only “in relation to their ancestors, their kin, their communities, the natural world.” There is “no separation of the human and the world they inhabit – life is thought of as a complex web of human and nonhuman.” Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, influential Chilean biologists/philosophers, also argued that our reality is built from our very participation in it (“we have only the world that we bring forth with others”). Escobar himself has done much to popularize the concept of the pluriverse, which – clear from the name – challenges the Western-modernist idea of universality we see in Camus, that “we live in a world that has room for only one world…one reality which is static and unchanging.” Instead, the pluriverse promotes “a world in which many worlds fit”, where there are many overlapping, interacting conceptions of being, existing, and doing. (While arguably Camus made a similar proposition when he claimed, “there is no truth but merely truths,” in this he rather anticipates post-modernism – a response to, rather than a break from, the modernist paradigm).

So, the modernist view of the world and reality is problematic – based on a universalism which is by no means universal. But what about Camus’ contention that we should live firmly in the present, noting our limits, and foregoing consolation in the form of hoping/searching for a different (better) world? It could be crudely argued that most environmentalism is essentially a form of Camusean hope – you act, change your lifestyle, with a view to the future, generally with a belief that there eventually might be a payoff, perhaps not even in your own lifetime. But the more pressing question is what does it actually mean to live in the present for different people around the world? In a responsive, motional world, can we excuse joyously accepting the supposed limits of our existence when in other parts of the world people’s homes burn or sink beneath rising seas? And for people on the frontline of capital-driven environmental catastrophe, are their acts of resistance in the here and now not given meaning solely in relation to their past (history, culture, sense of place) and their future (the continuation of it in the face of destruction, the protection of ancestral homes, the preservation of communities and lifeways)? Last year provides a sobering example. In 2020, 227 people were murdered for defending their homes and the planet against the destruction wreaked by exploitative industries (particularly logging). This is the highest number recorded for the second year in a row. Over one third of these attacks targeted indigenous people. These people see their sense of place and relationship to the world as immediate and obvious, and so act fiercely as protectors of life, tragically losing their own in the process. In the Anthropocene, therefore, our present cannot exist detached from our past and worrying potential futures. What, in fact, can be more “present” than to place ourselves in conscious relation to our past and future, and to act accordingly? The exhortation to live joyfully in the now is related to the idea of humans as observers of a “static and unchanging” world. The Sisyphean revolt, the tension, is merely a hyper-conscious observation which finds joy in the objective futility of human action rather than seeking to escape it through hope in change.

Yet we have seen how this conception of the world and our place in it is not tenable in the Anthropocene. In Pluriversal Politics, Escobar cites cyberneticist Heinz von Foerster, who writes, “ a popular device for avoiding responsibility.” Escobar argues that we should move away from a conception of the world as something ready-made that we have to make do with as best we can, towards a view of the world as something we make and re-make – that “we bring forth with others." In some ways, Camus prefigured the current dominant worldview in the West – what Mark Fisher called capitalist realism. This is the idea that, for many of us, it has become impossible to really imagine a post-capitalist world. Capitalist realism is the continuation of a worldview which obscures the link between human agency and constructed reality. Even when faced with life-threatening environmental destruction, vast global inequality, and pandemics, most of us somehow find these things easier to digest as Realistic than the possibility of something different. Perhaps many are partly sated by what Matt Huber terms “lifestyle environmentalism”– the individualistic idea that through “better” personal consumption we can save the world. The implication being we are absolved of the need to pursue systemic change – our money (capital) is the answer. This view encourages externalising responsibility for catastrophe to those not “consuming ethically.” Regardless, switch the world/universe out from Camus and replace it with Capital, and we see a force which is truly indifferent to life and seemingly immovable. Yet where Camus once criticised the hopeful, in capitalist realism hopelessness is the default mode, and it’s not a joyful Sisyphean hopelessness.

It is precisely in Sisyphus, however, that we see Camus also provided a possible response to capitalist realism. “Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition.” In the absurd condition of capitalist realism, escape, newly iterated through the inertia of despair and hedonic disengagement, remains the primary response. Camus’ philosophy has the ultimate value that it urges us to refuse escape – to know, like Sisyphus, “the whole extent of [our] wretched condition.” Rejecting escape and living in a relationally meaningful present is the first step to participation in the world, and participation prefigures change. In the face of a capitalist megastructure which shows no sign of disintegrating, and which is destroying our world, this is an important message for many of us who have succumbed to despair or inaction. Especially us “urban-moderns” who are not (yet) as galvanised by the Anthropocene reality as indigenous and peasant-led collectives around the world. Ultimately, the real act of blind hope, or even suicide, is to think that things can go on as they are, without any radical change. In the Anthropocene, to face the absurd still means revolt, not against despair over “the unreasonable silence of the world,” but against the despondency of capitalist realism, and the destruction it condones. We make our worlds – sustainable futures belong to those who realise this, and who live accordingly.

Adam Cogan is an anthropologist who has carried out fieldwork in South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo.