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Caught in our own snare

What should we respond to our children?
In this ecological martial art, two academics declare a settlement with their own generation on behalf of their grandchildren. The result is a bumpy but sincere book – which succeeds best when it calls for direct action and declares ecological state of emergency.


The Norwegian philosopher Vetlesen and the Danish sociologist Willig are based in this environmental pamphlet on their professional knowledge, but as much on their own everyday experience and numerous lectures for school students. The critical energy that finds its outlet What should we answer our children??, springs from an acknowledgment of responsibility. The authors are not old enough to pose as ignorant actors obtained by the circumstances and unforeseen events. Nor are the young people enough to blame the generation before themselves or regard society as the work of others. They are part of an implied generation that has known that things have been on the wrong track and that has not done enough – and thus becomes answerable, as the title suggests. 

Traps and decorientering

The book is based on an intricate metaphor, the cunning "bird basket": a method of catching ducks that was banned a hundred years ago – because the intoxication was too effective! The point is not only that the predation on nature is a sad result of man's enterprising but short-sighted intelligence. The point is rather that we as birds are trapped by hidden mechanisms and do not discover how wrong it has been until it is too late. Desorienteringone is deadly.

When Vetlesen and Willig argue with the present, they might get a little wild themselves. Everywhere they see drug addicts and false escape routes, and they give rise to the frustrations of the consumer society through a series of half-hearted sarcasm and a lurid irony: We flee from the seriousness into the bad. Social Media and emigrates from the problematic community of politics to the health studio's monomania body worship in front of the mirror. We are also lured into the trap of false leaders: Especially sheep consultants with their gospel of efficiency review in the first part of the book, along with contractor ideology, which advocates that everything and everyone is constantly reinvented. 

It seems paradoxical that the authors so often express opposition to change and innovation when at the same time advocating that society must change radically to meet the environmental challenges. When they see nothing but escape and false optimism in green consultancy, social networking campaigns and eco-friendly inventions, there is a danger that the child they will find answers to is thrown out with the bathwater. 

Reflection and repentance

The goal, however, is more than social reefs, since the authors are accused as much as prosecutors and admit that they themselves are in the scissors. They do not live on the outside of society in an independent position from which they can judge it, but rather on the inside – dependent on a society they realize is doomed. 

The desire to "say everything as it is" – what the Greeks called pharresia – flows through this despairing pamphlet. This means that the confusion and anguish must be included, as well as strong moral intuitions and concrete criticism. The dual position of accusing and accusing leads to inconvenient passages along the way, but is a good starting point for self-settlement on behalf of the Scandinavian society. The criticism touches us all, because the incorporated lifestyle we experience as natural, obviously helps to destroy nature. 

Vetlesen and Willig believe it must be possible to believe in a twelve-hour reflection.

The way the Norwegian self-glorification as an environmentally friendly nation is maintained along with an inviolable idyll is thoroughly enforced. An equally radical criticism is directed at the sick salmon industry, which entails overfishing of wild fish stocks to feed medicated and degenerated farmed fish. The fact that 80 percent of the Danish agricultural area is devoted to environmentally hostile meat production, based on pure concentration camps for pigs and cattle, leads the authors to the healthy conclusion that we must cut meat consumption radically, preferably completely – in line with salmon consumption and oil consumption. The problem is not just national economics: People feel such demands as an unreasonable threat to their own freedom. We are used to thinking that consumption is a "private matter" so the producers also see the resources they consume, like private property.

Ecological state of emergency

As the predatory operation has affected both the inner and outer nature, the countermeasures must become an ecological state of emergency that interferes with who we are. Freedom must be given a new definition and unfolded in an ecologically responsible way. The thinking habits need to be changed, and even the accustomed ways of feeling – the desire itself – must be processed so that we feel joy in organic life choices. 

Are such revolutionary changes to be believed? Both experience and environmental science give us reason for resignation. The authors mention the Norwegian psychologist Per Espen Stoknes, who talks about cognitive dissonance: Insight does not lead to action, because we are too good at acting towards better knowing. They also mention how Jørgen Randers – co-author of Limits to Growth- the report from the Roma club fifty years ago – has given up the belief that people will change course in time. However, Vetlesen and Willig believe that now as terrifying changes in nature are no longer scenarios of the future, but are taking place before our eyes, it must be possible to believe in a twelve-hour reflection. 

Action is a cure for doubt

The authors declare their belief in a passionate commitment driven by "love and anger". In spite of the heroism, they soon express an anxious doubt on the reader's behalf: "Aren't all these points self-righteous and high-pitched, things that everyone can say for themselves, and which is otherwise unrealistic?". The plump wording actually hits well, because the danger is that this is how we all think – literally "to the last". The only cure for this kind of cowardly ironization is action. The authors say that while working on the book, they cut meat consumption and minimized flights – and after all, it cost no tears, sweat or blood. As Per Espen Stoknes also pointed out: Only when you are able to act can you admit the situation. Principal actions are liberating and allow us to and can do much more.

In this way, our accomplices can take responsibility for the crisis. In fact, if we get out of the theoretical resignation and the practical lifestyle trap, we can answer the children: "The change is not only possible, but on the way." Despite numerous references to critical thinkers from Hegel and Fourier to Adorno, Baudrillard and Zizek, the book is obviously not intended as an academic analysis, but as a revolutionary appeal. The authors give us a number of striking quotes along the way, including this brilliant passage from Marx's third Feuerbach thesis: "The contractor himself must be brought up [...] self-change can only be perceived and understood as revolutionary practice."

Anders Dunk
Anders Dunker
Philosopher. Regular literary critic in Ny Tid. Translator.

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