II. Existentialism, an oxymoron?
Like sustainable development, existentialism is notoriously difficult to define. Solomon (2000) describes existentialism as a “philosophy of life, a philosophy about who we are.” This vague description reflects the diversity within existential thought. The term is typically associated with the theories of Søren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900), Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976), Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980), and Albert Camus (1913 – 1960). While each of these philosophers is unique, and most would oppose being labeled an “existentialist,” they are all identified as such due to their distinct ways of approaching existential issues (Crowell, 2010). An existential issue, or the “existential position,” is a crisis of existence–as a product of the consciousness of ‘being’ – in which one must choose the nature of one’s existence without guidance from an external source (Agarwal & Malloy, 2000: 146). Crisis comes from the concern of Dasein; it is a critique of the present and the reflectance on how existence could and should be different (see Critchley, 1997; Solomon, 2000). Thus, existentialism rejects Panglossian’s¹ “best of all possible worlds‟ mentality with a “demand that things be otherwise” (Critchley, 1997). This is accompanied with a strong emphasis on individual freedom as well as the need for humans to be moral beings and actively be conscious about human-environmental relations.
The basic definition of sustainable development provided by the Brundtland commission, with its emphasis on meeting basic inter and intra-generational needs, implies that global conditions are not at their best, and things should be different. However, this places the individual in an existential position because, despite the concern to act in response to a global environmental crisis, sustainable development does not provide clear definitions of the extent of the crisis neither does it propose objective solutions (Bebbington, 2001, Crowell, 2010). As a philosophy for the individual, existentialism is concerned with how one can most authentically make choices when faced with such a crisis; thus, it can be thought of as a “theory of choice” of how individuals want to structure their lives in a world that is increasingly shaped by principles of individualism, marketism and capitalism (Kaldermis, 2010; Agarwal & Malloy, 2000; Petrella 2000).
The existentialist approach strives for “authenticity‟ by recognizing that “thinking about human existence requires new categories not found in the conceptual repertoire of ancient or modern thought” (Crowell, 2010). Thus, existentialism can be understood as a “sensibility‟ of thought centered around reflecting on “who we are in a very new and bold way‟ in order to address the existential position (Solomon, 2000). In view of this observation, certain themes emerge: including issues of uncertainty, understanding the role of passion in relation to rationality, and the significance of human freedom in terms of choice and responsibility, as these aspects are cardinal in contemporary sustainability debates (Solomon, 2000). Thus, before the relationship between SD and these existential themes can be further examined, it is necessary to understand the broader historical context from which these ideas are placed and the fundamentally unique ontologies from which they are grounded.
¹A term coined by Stephen Jay Gould (1941 – 2002) and Richard Lewontin ( 1929 – ) to refer to the notion that everything has specifically adapted to suit specific purposes.