© Claudia Herzog

Note: Lukas Bärfuss wrote this text in early March 2022.

We do not know what’s happening to us. The war in Ukraine makes tomorrow, the next hour, the next minutes unpredictable: the closer the war’s epicenter, the greater the unpredictability. In these days, unpredictability is greatest in Kyiv, in Mariupol, in Kharkiv. The next moment can bring death or rescue, bombing or escape, a hand that kills, another that pulls the nearly lost from the flames.
Everything has changed.
What seemed insane only yesterday is completely rational today. Planning for the possibility of nuclear war is no longer a question of madness, now it is a question of responsibility.
Everything changes, first our comprehension of things and concepts, the important and the less important. Even the title of an event series stands in a new light.

Until recently, we saw in The Nature of Humanity primarily nature and the questions and duties it asks of us as human beings. Now what catches the eye is humanity, its innermost essence, its potential, the metaphysical and irrational dimensions of its existence. Is humanity evil? And was it always? And will a part of it always be evil? Does it have a quality we can rely on? Or is everything about it inconstant and dependent on circumstances?

How can we reject these questions when we are confronted morning, noon and night with blood lust, with rage for destruction, the unbending will for war, belief in bombs, in terror? We see all too clearly what humans are capable of. Cities reduced to rubble, millions fleeing, the reign of death, human life treated as worthless.

Everything changes and everything stays the same.
Every war devalues. It pulps ideas, crushes hopes, incinerates dreams. It destroys business plans, foreign policy doctrines, economic outlooks, scientific analyses, pamphlets for the public. The certainties of one’s own history are undermined. Everything is conditional, everything must be accounted for. Language, the elite, the language of this elite, the models, the analyses and predictions, established knowledge and instinctive assumptions: all these were ineffectual, were useless against this war. No accords, no evaluations, no plans or analyses were able to prevent it. Why is this? What did we not consider? What were our blind spots? Or is it just that evil gained a position of power? But this is simply to concentrate on exoneration. Mistakes become excuses.

Evil appears as a person who has somehow come into his palace. Evil, too, must be materialized. It requires an environment, conditions and processes. Without power, evil is simply a possibility. Who, then, has assisted evil in its realization? Who became its accomplice? Did we? Who is this »we«? Who had the influence, who the responsibility, who could have done something? Who is guilty of negligence? Where were wrong decisions made? In the family? In schools, in businesses, in politics? Where?
Will we dare ask these questions and draw conclusions from them?


The beliefs held by Western societies turn out to be fundamental delusions. Economic cooperation does not necessarily lead to integration, and integration does not necessarily lead to peace. What is successful here causes damage elsewhere. The principle of the European Coal and Steel Community brought peace and prosperity to Germany and France. The means of production were to be so closely integrated that neither party could separate them later along territorial borders. Individual interests align with common interests: this principle stands at the beginning of European unification. Internally successful, it made visible on its margins the contradictions that had been out in the open for years: in Greece, in Turkey, in the Mediterranean, in Great Britain, in the Balkans, in Russia. From these contradictions arose social, economic, cultural and finally, in Ukraine, military conflicts.
There are a great number of historical parallels to these fundamental delusions. Each one is dreadful.
We do not know what’s happening to us. We don’t know what tomorrow, the next hour, will bring. Yet, at the same time, we understand exactly what our future will look like. The window is closing. There is little time left to avert catastrophe. We all know what must be done. The goal of every political measure must be to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and to do it right now and at a scale that requires our economy, our society to forge a new – the next – industrial revolution. Where is the energy for less energy?


We also know that the next generations will be busy with this problem, and we also know that this problem can only be solved on a global level. But how can a global solution be found in a world divided into strategic hemispheres? In a world that has not abandoned war as a means of enforcing its political interests? Are we thinking of carbon neutral armaments? Of tanks running on renewable energy? Weapons are becoming more modern but war remains what it always has been: bloody, hopeless, paid for most dearly by the poorest, by those who could not flee – not from conscription, not from the bombs.

Do we need new beliefs, do we need a new fallacy? Our illusions, our stories determine history. Humanity’s projections, fears and desires guide its actions. We believe what suits us, what doesn’t shake our conviction, our idea of how the world must be. In the last four or five generations, the world was primarily meant to be profitable and predictable. We have gathered information. We have turned human life into a data set. We compare these data sets and compile rankings and ratings that we apply globally. We measure, we enter figures into a spreadsheet, they appear in columns and rows, both of which require the creation of a category. Without categories, no prices, no values, no wealth and no status. But the categories like the viewpoint, the columns like the rows, the X and Y axes: they are all models but none are the world.

The world is rich and is neither peaceful nor secure. From a financial perspective, peace and security are a deficiency: the employees grow accustomed to procedures, but the company, if it wants to survive the market, must constantly transform itself.
Our society, Western liberal democracy, is vulnerable because it has not resolved an internal contradiction.
It depends on tyrants, autocrats and dictators. Our democratic society is susceptible to blackmail through its hunger for energy, through its insatiable appetite for oil, gas and coal.
Western democracies are addicted societies. They cannot do without certain materials. At the most they can replace them, find substitutes, and even then only with patience and pain.

The materials needed by our Western democracies are used according to formulas and rules that today appear esoteric. The salvific words of macroeconomics are competition, growth and market dynamics. There is a correlation between war and the economy. There is a correlation between the oil that heats our living rooms and the oil that creates and powers weapons systems.

Ideas of how we can escape from the death trap that modern society has led us into do, indeed, exist, but so do okapis and »lefty« snails; they’re just very rare. Even the thought that someone might have a utopia seems utopian. Draft versions are useless. The world has been constructed; the best we can do is to develop it. For that, we need technological progress. It is the ultimate in visionary power. The solution must and will be instrumental, greater efficiency, lower costs, higher productivity. For the rest, for the piston jams, for the porous elements of the system, we use an old method: patchwork repairs.

What importance we gave to profit, how negligible joy was for us! Who dared insist on it? Who dares even now to base arguments on the fullness of one’s living environment, on the brevity of a life span? Who attempts to found a political system on the good moments in human life? Who understands happiness as a social value? Who understands how precious, how rare, how fleeting it is? Who insists that we must anticipate cutbacks and power’s mockery and scorn? Power demands performance indicators and there is no place for joy in this scheme, nor for hate, nor dreams, neither good dreams nor nightmares.

What was calculable was considered realistic, was seen as reality, but equivalences are mirages, symbols at best, and they have a tendency to become fetishes. They depict what they can capture and thereby shut out much of what is most essential. Equivalences create absences. They return as ghosts in the comprehensible. Human consciousness and its capabilities, both good and bad, do not fit in a formula, in an evaluation, in numbers. Human beings cannot be understood through bookkeeping or accounting or through their instruments and processes. All those who believe that controlling can improve operations through controls are dangerous fantasists.


Contradictions create tension. When the tension becomes too great, every system collapses. A system can become permanent when it thinks beyond its own borders, when it incorporates its negation into its perspective, when it remains open to criticism and takes this criticism as a foundation of its decisions.

Many of our societal institutions pursue a different objective. They do not want to acknowledge contradictions; they want to cover them up. And when that does not work, then they try to make them at least bearable. Should economic logic barely manage to save us from all contradictions, it will bring an immediate transition into the militaristic. But perhaps both systems of logic have the same origin in one logical system – that of war. We destroy cities and states; we destroy the climate; we destroy natural resources. We are waging war on ourselves.

To eradicate knowledge about its own deficits, limits and blind spots from an arbitrary consciousness entails considerable effort. Humans have several strategies for denial and self-deception. The preconditions are an instinct for disruptions, for foul odours when something has rot. Humans recognize the limits of their own world, its inconsistencies and paradoxes; they understand the finite nature of their existence and they ask about the first and the last things.

People always fight the last war, according to the English adage. Does this mean that people measure current conflicts against historical ones, those in which they gained experience? That would be an erroneous conclusion, but at the same time would demonstrate the possibility of drawing conclusions from history, despite having perhaps learned nothing from it. Yet if this adage means we are blind to the current situation and the future, then it would be impossible to believe in politics at all and only in chance, fate or providence, in other words, in factors beyond human interference.

We do not know what’s happening to us. And we know exactly what’s happening to us. Both sentences are true. They do not express a contradiction; they express a context. Humanity can only be represented within this context. And literature is nothing other, attempts nothing other, than to do precisely this. Whenever anyone has written, they have thought about their own insufficiency, about the boundlessness of thought in the boundedness of their own existence.
In art, someone said, nothing is true without its opposite. What could be a better definition for the greatness and dreadfulness, for the power and helplessness, for the nature of humanity?

Translated from German by Tess Lewis

LUKAS BÄRFUSS, born in Thun (Switzerland), playwright, novelist, essayist, awarded with numerous prizes, including the Georg Büchner Prize 2019, is the curator and host of the musical literature and dialogue series The Nature of Humankind, which we will continue in this festival edition on the topics of nature and propaganda, nature and democracy, and nature and consciousness. It poses the questions of the double readability of ist title: »What is the nature of Humankind?« and »With which concept of nature does one actually operate in contemporary discussions?«