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What the f***k is an existential threat?

What the f***k is an existential threat?

I’m late on this but in the past two weeks it seems every second politician or pundit has been warning us about an “existential threat”. I only became aware of the use of this silly term because of a most excellent article by Bernard Keane.

A quick look at Google Trends shows that existential threat first gained currency in 2009 with The International Herald Tribune warning Pakistan faced an existential threat from militants, and that the term is being used more and more in 2014.  Our very own Australian Attorney General, George Brandis recently blustered that ISIL “represents or seeks to be an existential threat to us”.

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The following have been identified as existential threats:

  • Climate Change, globally.
  • Ukraine, because it could destroy NATO.
  • Climate Change in the Carribean.
  • China, to India.
  • Ebola.
  • Iran.
  • Khorasan.
  • Debt.
  • The Taliban.
  • The Air France Pilot Strike.
  • The Israeli Government.

When I first became aware of the term, like Bernard Keane, my thoughts went to Jean Paul Sarte, Camus and the Gauloises smoking crew who became known as Existentialists and were twentieth century rock-star philosophers and writers. It also reminded me of a time spent reading Nausea as part of a contemporary literature subject I was studying at Monash University. Good times. In Nausea the hero starts to suffer nausea from ordinary domestic objects as he confronts his aloneness and uselessness in the world.

Here’s a nice quote which is also a nice example of what Sarte thinks about Descarte:

“I am. I am, I exist, I think, therefore I am; I am because I think, why do I think? I don’t want to think any more, I am because I think that I don’t want to be, I think that I . . . because . . . ugh!”

So for Sarte existentialism is a theory of existence which believes that “existence precedes essence” and that (excuse the masculine) “Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.”. Existentialism was framed in the dust and blood of World War Two where war and death made it important to put the concepts of existence and authenticity under examination. In the simplest of terms, existentialism is a theory which says humans are responsible for their own actions, thoughts, values, and ideas – not God or other unitary concepts.

So what would be an existential threat for Sarte?

Being a fuckwit fundamentalist Christian or Muslim would fit the bill and perhaps it is here that Brandis is right about ISIS. However as a defender of heterosexual marriage and the Australian Christian Lobby it seems pretty fair to accuse Brandis of being a bit of an existential threat himself.

Would climate change be an existential threat for Sarte? No.

It’s pretty safe to assume that the politicians and pundits casually throwing around the term existential threat are not referring to Sarte the great student of Heidegger and the human condition, rather something that threatens our existence, human existence.

An existential threat is not a crisis of essence over existence, it is a nuclear bomb exploding in your backyard during the Australia Day BBQ, or the oceans slowly warming and suffocating the life from the earth.

It’s best to finish with Sarte writing in Nausea. It seems pretty pertinent to the fuckwits in Syria, Iraq, and the LNP/ALP.

“A madman’s ravings are absurd in relation to the situation in which he finds himself, but not in relation to his madness.”

Image credit: id-iom



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