The Faustian Bargain and Climate Change

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Ever since I first became interested in climate change 20 years ago, there was something nagging in the back of my mind. I’d heard this story before and I couldn’t pin it down; I just couldn’t. And then one night I was trying to get to sleep, but my brain was racing too fast, and it suddenly came to me. It was Faust. Both Doctor Faustus in Christopher Marlowe’s version, and Faust in Goethe’s version could be metaphors for climate change.

In Marlowe’s version, Doctor Faustus strikes a deal with the devil that if he can have 24 years living in luxuriousness, the devil can then have his soul. He prepares himself for this by denying that hell exists, and at the end, he’s carried off.

Faust is humankind – always striving, curious, restless, never satisfied, wanting to discover more, to explore more, to consume more, create more, destroy more. He is all of us. And, indeed, Marlowe intended that he is all of us.

The years in which he can live in all voluptuousness are the years of extraordinary freedom that we have been granted by fossil fuels; to do things which previous generations have only dreamt of doing; to have magical powers very similar to Faust’s powers.

Now in Goethe’s version, Faust strikes his bargain with the devil, but it’s a slightly different bargain. He says, “You can have my soul after 24 years, but on one condition: only if I become complacent and smug, and stop striving and stop questioning.”

So he begins by living in all voluptuousness, getting everything he wants, the wine, the women, the amazing food and the power to astonish people. He enjoys all that for a few years, and he thinks, “I’m wasting these extraordinary diabolical powers that I have been granted. I ought use them for the good of human kind. I want to create better conditions for people to live in.” And he strives to use these powers – fossil fuels, in my reading – to create a world that didn’t require diabolical powers, in which everybody could be comfortable without having to call on the devil.

(George Monbiot)

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