I have just read “Man’s search for meaning“. It is about survival in the concentration camps during WW2, about how mankind deals with extreme situations and the intrinsic wish for survival. It is how meaning in life brings meaning to life.
This book is difficult to digest and speaks of atrocities that someone, who has not lived through the same, most likely can never fully grasp or comprehend. One passage drew my attention, where Viktor E. Frankl writes about how the prisoners dealt with the insufficiently small food rations: “There were two schools of thought. One was in favor of eating up the ration immediately. This had the twofold advantage of satisfying the worst hunger pangs for a very short time at least once a day and of safeguarding against possible theft or loss of the ration. The second group, which held with dividing the ration up, used different arguments.” This reminds me of why I support Bjørn Lomborg‘s insistence on reducing hunger and poverty now, rather than looking into, or working on, reducing the impacts of future climate change. But it also gives rise to some difficult questions:

If our current actions are to significantly change the environment of planet earth, and if mankind cannot fully adapt to this, then should the suffering of some of the current generation outweigh the potential suffering of many future generations? In a previous post I had written that some economic models (like Nordhaus’ RICE model) try to predict consumption for the next 100 years and come to the conclusion that it will increase across all continents. But there are clearly going to be significant local climatic changes whose impacts, which are driven by our current climate-changing actions, may outweigh even current suffering. Furthermore, those integrated assessment models only take consumption into account. While consumption increases happiness, it is certainly only one of the many aspects that does so.

Or should we not only focus on mankind but also take a holistic approach, with our welfare calculations taking animals and ecosystems into account – not because they provide services to mankind, but because they have rights of their own? If we were to do this, then we would have to seriously reconsider our lifestyles and consumption habits, our values and social norms.

In my opinion, it is important that people like Bjørn Lomborg emphasize the focus on the basic needs of the current generation. But it is also negligence if one ignores the needs of the future. I believe the most important aspect to know is that we actually do have the ability NOW to do both: we can easily minimize current suffering of the world’s starving poor, but we can at the same time also shape our values and lifestyles directed towards a holistic approach that incorporates all life on planet earth – not because this provides a benefit to mankind, but simply because of the intrinsic value that life holds by itself. While technical change certainly aids in decoupling economic growth from the environment, it is cultural change towards a holistic world view that may solve a good amount of our troubles at the same time. And this cultural change may just bring back the meaning in life that is needed to bring back meaning to life.