The horrors of America's downward spiral are lessons for a global Enlightenment, and if we are unwilling to heed past experiences, we will invite even more catastrophic news. Seen in a Kantian light-its triple beam of humanism, autonomy, and sustainability-the events of the past five years have been a perfectly rational recipe for disaster.
It is worth recalling the steps of America's willful decline. In 2000, the first executive order of the new rulers was a fundamentalist population policy, cutting funds for developmental aid organizations working for reproductive rights and birth control. The next surprise was the U.S. fight against the International Criminal Court, created to prosecute crimes against humanity. The third slip of that year was the American boycott of the Kyoto Protocol on carbon emissions. Why would Americans declare war on the world's climate? Are they not on the same planet? For the first time in history, U.S. diplomats suffered unanimous catcalls and sneers on the world stage.
Bigger news followed in 2001: the horror of 9-11; the executive flights of the Bin Ladens from Tampa International Airport to the Middle East; the federal attempts to classify data on the terrorist attacks. In 2002, the Patriot Act stifled domestic opposition; Colin Powell attempted to deceive the United Nations; and the concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay expanded in violation of the Geneva Convention. In 2003, America made pre-emptive assault its new policy doctrine and secured the assets of Iraq. In 2004, statistical discrepancies of another election were ignored, while U.S. torturers made global headlines. Critique was now heard from unlikely quarters-the International Red Cross, the Pope in Rome, and amnesty international in London.
Meanwhile, climate change was becoming evident. Glaciers started melting on four continents; polar sea ice began to shrink; and freak weather events -storms, droughts, floods, and heat waves-were wreaking havoc in Europe and Asia. The U.S. rulers reacted by twisting science, censoring EPA reports, and dismantling environmental laws on the federal level. Projects for mass transit systems, wetland restoration, levee strengthening, and renewable energy sources were cut or shelved. Instead, tax breaks promoted gas-guzzling vehicles; new laws raised emission caps on toxins; companies were invited to drill on formerly protected land; federal forests were opened to industrial use. Ensuring that nobody complained, previously autonomous media were embedded as wholly owned subsidiaries of corporate conglomerates; Greenpeace was prosecuted as a terrorist outfit; and flag orders were issued for Florida schools.
In 2005, the wind sown by the neocons was reaped in the hurricane at the Gulf coast. Federal monies set aside for levee strengthening and bayou restoration had been diverted for the military campaigns in the oil-rich territories abroad. Instead of respecting standard information-such as National Geographic's 2004-prediction of the hurricane-the U.S. rulers chose to pursue their own goals and exhorted the suffering populations to read the Bible and pray for survivors. Thus the chicken came home to roost, killing the car-less poor, while the mobile rich could flee.
The developed nations in the world are doing their best to react to climate change, by transforming their societies into sustainable orders, and by reducing their addiction to fossil fuels. But since 2000, America has been doing the opposite, betting the family farm on the oil game-at the expense of scientific information, human rights, and environmental rationality. The victims of the neocon gamble are the dead in New Orleans. Other victims in America were good old ideas: humanism, in policy; autonomy, in the media; and sustainable development, in energy goals. East Asia and Europe may aspire to the rational humanity explored by Confucius and Kant, but America lives today on the darker, angrier, and willful planet of Thomas Hobbes and Ayn Rand.
If America's cultural decline continues, Philosophy, as an academic core discipline, will fade out in the United States. Philosophy is the intellectual canary in the social coal mine-its free inquiry into humanity and natural patterns is possible only where intellectual liberty persists. In summer 2005, Florida's rulers tried to end academic freedom for the first time (state bill H-837), and as administrators are warning their faculties, such state-level attempts at bringing universities in line are expected to continue. The intended prosecution of professors who rile religious and corporate interests will affect Philosophy more than other fields, since its job is the free-spirited analysis of our place in the world, and thus to question bias and taboos with logic and evidence.
Should America's new rulers succeed in controlling the academy, U.S. philosophers would join the fate of their counterparts in other failed nation-states, such as East Germany. There, communism had turned Philosophy departments into surveillance offices ensuring political correctness on campus. Needless to say, East German philosophy did not produce any good results, and the professors who had made vigilante career in patrolling the boundaries of the mind faded into ignominy and disrepute after Germany's pacifist revolution and reunification in 1989.
Philosophy faces a crisis. But any crisis is an opportunity for turning things around and for advancing truth, reason, and humanity. And doing so is easier now than at any other time, for we can reflect now on a greater wealth of empirical data than anytime before in the past. While the political and ecological news are ranging from the dismal to the disastrous, advances in the hard sciences are inspiring and exhilarating. It is no exaggeration to say that science, as such, is acquiring a uniform global shape, and that nature, as such, is finally coming into definitive view. Academic censors in the U.S. would merely lend workers in Europe and Asia a competitive edge; and if suppressed at home, stem cell research, evolutionary biology, environmental science, and climate studies would merely keep soaring elsewhere. The progress of reason is unstoppable.
The marvelous fact of twenty-first century science is its interdisciplinary convergence. Physics has made strides in unifying quantum theory, general relativity, and thermodynamics, thereby strengthening its ties to chemistry, and in turning cosmology from a hope into a science. Chemistry has shown the unification of entropic and evolutionary traits of material organization, thereby harmonizing itself with biology, and in revolutionizing our understanding of material grids. Climate studies marry chaos- and complexity theory to meteorology and paleontology, and chart the musical beats of the biosphere. It appears we are at the cusp of a unified model of reality.
The results will be revolutionary, to say the least. For the first time in human civilization, we can now pursue questions of origin and design in a rigorous, rational, and empirical form. While older intellectual workers scoffed at questions about the creation of matter, mind, or nature, younger researchers enjoy the luxury of being able to investigate these questions systematically. The Great Integration of Information, it appears, is globally just around the corner.
As such developments are ever more visible in worldwide publications they also give us a new philosophical assignment. The rift between analytic rigor and postmodern deconstruction can be healed in a critical return to our older wisdom. Scientists, from S. Hawking in Physics to E. O. Wilson in Biology, ask philosophers to join them in the quest for nature's pattern and point. And both Hawking and Wilson remind us that Philosophy's heyday was the Age of Enlightenment, while the developments after Kant, in their view, had been somewhat of a comedown.
The new Philosophy assignment is thus a rather old one, dating from three centuries ago. Thinkers need to return to this early modern task, to work on the systematic frames of meaning. The path of discovery runs between the extremes of dumb dogmatism and shallow skepticism. The critical key for doing this work is to remember that Western Enlightenment resulted from the first era of globalization-had it not been for the secular influence of China's culture on the European lands ravaged by the Christian terror of the Thirty Years War, the pioneers of the Enlightenment, such as Leibniz, Wolff, Voltaire, and Kant, would have been all but impossible.
There are multiple ways of returning to this assignment, and give-and-take pluralism is indeed the point. But two items merit anyone's consideration, especially in schools at the Gulf. First, Philosophy can rise to the occasion if it is humble enough to look outside, to the data of other disciplines, and to integrate this empirical rainbow into rational frames. Second, we can frame the data by focusing on the deeper meaning of climate change that escapes America's politicians. To avoid more Katrinas and Darwin Awards in this willfully ignorant society, philosophers must once again teach, just like shamans and metaphysicians had done earlier, to think like clouds-to map out viable stances in nature's dance. It's time to do work. There will be bad weather, and the clock's ticking. History will tell if neocons - too greedy, selfish, and mean - can wise up.
Martin Schönfeld teaches at the University of South Florida in philosophy and environmental science. You can find more information at the USF site www.cas.usf.edu/philosophy/index.html.