Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Conditio Humana

Beyond measuring relative scholarly achievement, a citation index may give you a glimpse at where your ideas have travelled once they went into print. The other day I found a paper by an Armin Grunwald, based at a research centre in Karlsruhe, citing my 2005 article in Futures. Armin opens his paper with a simple yet profound observation:

“Scientific and technological progress broadens humanity’s options and decreases its dependency on the given. With the increase in contingency in the conditio humana associated with it, however, not only new freedom of choice, but also problems of orientation arise.”

In a way, almost everything I have published has been about “unpacking” this observation and drawing out its implications in terms of democratic theory, international relations and, not the least, our obligations to future generations. Some may hold this “bold strokes approach” to be unscientific. While I may partially agree to that, I also hold it to be indispensible, for if not the scientific community, who exactly would critically debate the big-picture questions of humanity?

Working with these issues on a day like this is not particularly easy. Though we always should be cautious about exaggerating the importance of our own time, it looks as if this autumn has put a lot of old constants in sudden danger. And while the 68-generation of reformed communists may be certain that the “markets will rebound”, The Economist points out that even as the immediate financial calamity may have been averted , the “world economy is still cooking up something very nasty”.

As the shockwave is rapidly engulfing “the real economy”, we may be about to witness a rather formative juncture, determining among other things to what extent we will have the resources to tackle global climate change. Either, the crisis will spark a hitherto unseen commitment to international solidarity, a renunciation of many nationalist pretensions as the world realizes its profound interdependence, ultimately leading in the direction of a single global currency. Or, the disintegrative forces will win the day, as national governments yield to the growing nostalgia for self-sufficiency and romanticized green ideas about the “local”. It is always safe to say that the real result will end up somewhere in between. But if not the planned meeting in Washington D.C. in November will be the watershed, I am willing to put those famous €0,02 on that first year of the incoming administration will play a certain role in the history books of the future.



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