Different from the Present

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Art is thought from the future. Thought we cannot explicitly think at present. Thought we may not think or speak at all. If we want thought different from the present, then thought must veer toward art – Timothy Morton

Not tomorrow. Nor this year. But possibly by mid-century – certainly much sooner than most had expected – we will need to have adapted to climatic conditions of our own making that are inimical to human life on this planet. The alternative to acclimatisation will be extinction. Not the loss of all humanity necessarily, although current numbers might shrink dramatically, but rather the breakdown of our civilisation, and the freedoms we experience and accept as enduring in modern society.

Humans face a growing storm of problems. Most are well documented. Some are even now morphing into emergencies at an exponential rate. Without a significant adjustment to how billions of us conduct our lives, parts of the world – particularly low-lying coastal regions in the tropics – will become uninhabitable at some stage. Ironically, a net effect of human intrusion on the natural environment might also be greater biodiversity. Research seems to indicate warmer conditions may be spawning a mass speciation, as flora and fauna that prefer colder conditions edge closer towards extinction. Inexplicably, it seems, we are both creating and destroying with similar casual indifference.

Nature can take care of itself of course. Despite frantic cries from green campaigners and conservationists to the contrary, the physical world has no need of us. We are but one species among millions. As an autopoietically living system, Earth can well do without our protection. We would be far better off trying to save ourselves. Although preserving our environment in a state fit for human habitation is obviously vital, the fundamental crisis facing humanity – that of which we dare not speak – is principally metaphysical.

Human civilisation is at risk – not so much from external threats as our collective incapacity to keep pace with the conditions we ourselves have unleashed in the insatiable desire for more and more material wealth.

That desire has brought us to the edge of annihilation. Although we might not realise it, given the timidity of officialdom to speak the truth, we are facing the possibility of societal collapse. That has happened many times in the past. History shows us that no civilisation is immune from the structural failings that may herald its eventual decline.

Although we are far more informed, and better equipped today than at any other time in our history, to create a forward-looking, benevolent society, members of the human race are turning against each other with an air of grim certainty. Instead of seeing compassion and altruism as strengths, the opposite seems to be the case. And while global heating is a symptom of human overpopulation, continued population growth, and the cost of over-consumption by wealthy nations, the possibility of societal collapse is ushered in by a massive failure of leadership.

All around the world increasing numbers of ordinary men and women – bewildered, anxious and angry – are finding ways to uncouple from customary norms and established routines, only to re-engage in pandemics of community activism, fear-driven displays of fundamentalism or, in a despairing cry of apathy, withdrawing into personal seclusion, mental illness, and suicide.

Our faith in the inherent morality of the human story, it seems, has faltered. Apocalyptic movies instil in our minds an immunity to violence and ruin. Disrespect for others and the flouting of social norms is becoming widespread. Venerable institutions, including the system of law, have become tainted through the abuse of power or overwhelmed by the complex phenomenon we know as the human condition.

Meanwhile those to whom we might previously have looked for leadership are scared and silent. They appear clueless. Even if they had the courage to act they have no idea what to do. Dominated by technocrats, who suppose any problem can be solved, and an opposing ethos that refuses to see climate change or economic inequality as problems worth tackling, their collective imagination has been drained by a neoliberal mechanistic succubus that slams shut any future options outside of its own contracting ideological custody. Perhaps their dream is to sustain anthropocentric dominance. Yet almost everything they engineer these days is antithetical to human health and well-being. Meanwhile, the privilege of untold wealth these same leaders enjoy, and now take for granted, insulates them from notions of constraint and sufficiency.

And so we blindly persist on current trajectories. Choices made in the past and the present are not just hastening the collapse of our civilisation. Social, political and economic habits acquired over the past 150 years are also destroying nature, decimating other species, placing stress on our most life-sustaining systems, unduly exaggerating differences, and preserving inequality and injustice.

While no sector of society is totally immune from the impacts of climate change, there can be no doubt that the poorest nations are already feeling the effects of social collapse, brought on by drought, famine, conflict and mass migration. At the moment, our response seems to be a colossal shrug of indifference.

History reveals that disaster becomes almost inevitable when those in power push their society towards instability – by rigging the system in their favour, hoarding massive amounts of wealth, squandering resources, and treating others with disdain. Myriad decisions ago we embarked on such an indefensible course. Now we are having to grapple with its devastating effects in places like Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, and Afghanistan.

When any society or empire overstretches itself – financially, culturally and militarily – and this is accompanied by an increasing occurrence of sudden, asymmetric challenges to the established order, it is a sure sign that civilisation is vulnerable to breakdown. There is plenty of evidence to suggest we have already entered that danger zone.

Governments held captive by big business and their lobbyists no longer serve the interests of the broader community. Tensions between short-term profitability and long-term social value amplify risk. In civic life bullying is rife. Inequality has taken hold, even in ostensibly affluent countries. Communities are fractured by fear. And on top of all that we are witnessing the failure of many natural ecosystems.

Those attributes that define all that is virtuous about humanity – including social tolerance, individual freedoms, and democracy – are in decline. As cherished values and moral purpose decay, and everyday reality becomes defined by an insane scramble over limited resources together with a rejection of anyone outside of our immediate group, the frantic assurances of more and more growth are all that is left.

And so, the most our leaders can offer is more of the same. More rent-seeking policies. More mining of fossil fuels. More economic growth. More wealth extraction. More surveillance. More propaganda. More military expansionism. And the increasingly hollow promise of more jobs. The meme of more has become a social craving. In each case the chorus for more is built on deceptions. But even if it were not, what kind of sterile vision is exposed by a society totally obsessed by money and materiality to the exclusion of all else?

What concerns me most is the inability of governments and their economic advisers to wrap their heads around the fact that we are much more than just workers, consumers and owners of capital. The need for cultural interaction, art, kinship, health, education, happiness, well-being, and contact with nature eludes them.

We have been indoctrinated into believing that economic growth and full time employment are the cardinal ingredients assuring progress – the magic spell that makes all the bad stuff vanish. But growth has failed us spectacularly – damaging us emotionally and trashing any sense of a deeper communion. We are enchanted by the Midas touch – turning all that we see and feel into money. But it is a curse. For many it has become the sole motive for their existence – displacing and extinguishing intimacy, compassion, nature, spirituality, love and beauty. It is the dark soul of the Western mindset, augmented to an absurd degree.

Among this plethora of indicators of societal collapse, two factors are of particular significance. They are ecological stress and economic inequality.

  1. Ecological stress is a widely understood and recognised path to potential disaster – particularly in terms of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, that then lead to global warming and the depletion of natural resources. Science tells us that four out of the past five mass extinctions were at least partially caused by changes to the climate. Social consequences inevitably follow.
  1. While the fallout from socio-economic inequality is less appreciated, most probably because we have tolerated financial stratification as an inevitable consequence of the capitalist system for far too long, it is now clear that the future of civilisation rests on our ability to deal with this problem too.

Here we run into a huge problem. Apart from various continuing attempts to tweak and shape social processes – from communism to capitalism and everything in between – in order to achieve different economic outcomes, structural change from outside and beyond current constraints is not on even the most radical of social reform agendas. Naturally this should concern us. But a far more grave matter is the connectedness between these two factors. They are entangled. As such they should be treated as two elements of the same system. We have not properly identified, understood, or thought to transcend this problem.

Possibly the popular illusion that we are separate from, and superior to, that which sustains us (the biosphere) inhibits any desire or capacity to figure out why this particular entanglement is a concern. Or perhaps the Western ontological inclination to objectify everything – including nature – simply means we routinely reach for design and control mechanisms even when the scale and fluidity of the context defies their utility.

We can only conclude that the resolve needed to tackle the source of this interconnectedness exceeds our current political and cognitive capacity, while the tools needed to design a more viable world-system – one where immoral consequences of any kind are considered universally unacceptable – though available, are challenging to apply.

In other words, perhaps this problem has just become too big – at least without an additional existential emergency to spark change at a more profound level of evolutionary consciousness, and subsequent engagement.

The fate of our civilisation can never be confirmed by such assertions of course. But if we can reduce inequality, starvation and conflict, curb population growth in ways that are culturally acceptable, prevent further pollution, start deploying the next generation of smart materials, maintain essential ecosystem services, radically scale back the use of fossil fuels, reduce the rate at which we deplete natural resources, restore biodiversity, implement more inclusive forms of governance to re-establish trust – and find acceptable ways to pay for the increasing complications in our society – we can likely stabilise onto a much more viable path.

In terms of the latter point, speed of response will be critical. An example of how remediation costs increase with additional complexity amply illustrates the imperative for immediate action. Climate change is extending tropical conditions around the Equator by around 85 kilometres every year. By examining how this is impacting tourism, mining and farming, we can estimate that the size of investment needed to fund sustainable infrastructure in the tropics – including clean energy, telecommunications, water and sanitation – from now until 2030 is in the vicinity of US$2.3 trillion every year. Each year we fail to invest means remediation costs escalate disproportionately, while social conditions deteriorate still further…

So where to from here? There are at least two fundamentals needed to avoid catastrophe, and to achieve stabilisation. They are unfamiliar, indeed unprecedented factors in the modern era, and will probably be much harder to realise than any of humanity’s previous achievements:

  1. The coordinated channelling of scientific and technological knowledge into mission-critical systems and operations. This would be akin to putting the entire global scientific research community onto a war footing – with funding provided by every nation on Earth, each according to its means. The aim would be to create a rallying point for the world’s best scientific minds and technology entrepreneurs to cooperate on the development of the essential products and services humanity needs to survive.
  1. The establishment of an International Council, in the form of a network of autonomous hubs, charged with the high-level design and implementation of the socio-political and economic structural changes necessary to secure the future of human civilisation. Given the present architecture of nation states allows sovereignty to be used as an excuse for opting out of Earth-scale projects, such a body would need to be granted legal and fiduciary responsibilities to act on behalf of humanity.

An example of the kind of program that might be undertaken by such an International Council would be the rapid phasing out of fossil fuel emissions to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The research undertaken by Paul Hawken’s Project Drawdown has proven this can be achieved with existing technologies, in addition to simple agricultural measures such as planting trees and improving soil fertility. The Council’s role would be to coordinate the massive global effort to achieve this in the shortest possible timeframe – possibly facilitated by re-deploying a proportion of each nation’s military personnel in multi-cultural contingents around the world.

Accomplishing just these two tasks is not that simple. It requires us to continue patching up the present while lifting our eyes to horizons well beyond the next election cycle or five-year plan. It requires us to cooperate on creating and realising an inclusive blueprint for surviving the 21st century. While we are about it we should also try to work out how a global society such as ours can function beyond the parochial limits of the state, with less likelihood of conflict, and greater benefits for all inhabitants.

Until we deliberate on these factors we cannot possibly know how to implement them. But until they are implemented, it is likely our struggles will continue. Indeed, a further worsening of our collective plight can be expected. Organisations from the UN and the Pentagon, to Oxfam and Amnesty International, for example, are already aware of what this means. Yet even they remain unprepared for the disruptions ahead.

Those in the know are expecting already impoverished nations to become totally dysfunctional, aggravated by internecine conflicts and natural disasters like floods and droughts. Waves of migrants and climate refugees are already knocking on the doors of neighbouring states. We can expect this to increase. There is already evidence that social and political instability, along with intergroup violence, is becoming more prevalent across Europe – precisely what has been predicted by social science research on the effects of extreme inequality and resource scarcity. Meanwhile human rights are being jettisoned as a culture of impunity takes hold.

To date, unable to cope with such pressures, responses to this problem have been predictable and short-sighted. They range from strengthened security measures at national checkpoints – including physical barriers and the use of border-patrolling drones – to the imposition of visa restrictions and total bans on immigration. None of these measures will work in the long-term without a further fracturing of society occurring.

It is a well-known psychological fact that the more fearful or anxious people become the more likely they are to embrace the identity of a specific group – often one based on class, religion, nationality, or ethnicity – while accusing outsiders for any adverse circumstances in which they find themselves. Seen in this light, the reflex responses to mass migration like those presently being applied, however necessary they might seem to some state administrators, merely fuel frustration and resentment within host communities, as well as in those who seek sanctuary.

If this pattern continues – and it shows no sign of stopping at this stage – a tipping point will be reached. Eventually all evidence-based truths will be ignored. We can expect fear to escalate. Suspicion and denial will precipitate a form of mean-hearted madness. Very rapidly a world battered by global heating could become one in which societal collapse will be almost impossible to prevent. If hundreds of millions were to perish, from disease, starvation, and sheer exhaustion, it is likely that those living in less vulnerable areas would not raise a finger to prevent their destruction. Unless we can find ways to resist the instinct, when threatened by such daunting and overpowering pressures, to become less obliging, less charitable and far less open to reason.

Considering current circumstances, I believe the evolution of an altogether different world-system is an imperative. It could well be the defining mission for this generation. To that end, for many years, I have advocated the renewal of our prevalent worldview. I think it might be the wisest, least expensive and most benign, way to avoid the many dystopian conditions I have described here, and in previous essays.

But what should that worldview look like? What should it encompass? What new metaphors and vocabulary should we use to bring it into being? For example, China is in the midst of an epochal transformation with massive geopolitical implications. Are the intrinsic values of Asian, specifically Sinocentric societies, any improvement over the West’s failing credo? I seriously doubt it. In any case, even partial agreement to codes of practice usually accepted as being riddled with corruption would simply amount to a catastrophic failure of human imagination. So, to what should we aspire that might compel universal attraction?

Much depends on the world-system we expect should evolve from that shared worldview. If we want to avoid the excesses and subsequent descent of the current system – restoring the fundamental unity of our species, while transcending purely anthropomorphic constructs – several design constraints must be reconceptualised, along with the content of story.

We are motivated and guided by stories. Far more than facts, stories persuade us to change our ways. These days, stories about our identity and purpose are formed and framed within a predominantly Western dialectic and episteme. As a consequence, most of our stories are depleted, conformist myths, just when we need them to be imaginative, transdisciplinary, inclusive and diverse.

The need for new and different stories is a gross understatement. We need stories that rattle our complacency. Stories that can be expressed in a language capable of giving utterance to what is presently ignored or concealed. Stories that expand conventional dialogue beyond trite dualisms and slogans. Stories that engender unity and that quieten division. Stories that take the requirements of future generations into account and are sensitive to other species. Stories inspiring the eradication of structural injustices and inequalities that are deliberately sustained within the current world-system.

A new theoretical framework is also needed. One conceptualised outside of existing socio-economic models, and beyond current abstractions and experiences. One that opens up new meanings within the vast chronicles of human heritage and indigenous wisdom. And one that liberates a new praxis by challenging what it really means to be a human in the 21st century. This is the domain of the meta-narrative – the suite of overarching seminal myths expressing what we believe to be the truth about ourselves.

Each of us has our own individual weltanschauung – or cultural mindset – as do entire groups of individuals, communities and societies. This episteme is the wellspring of our most basic beliefs. Both mirror and filter, it allows us to sense, decode, and react to the world-system of which we are a part. Unconsciously this framework determines what actions are appropriate in any given situation, allowing us to project those theories and abstractions back into the real world as practical responses.

It also happens to be a prison of our own invention, restricting what we are able to see and interpret as real, by blocking out noise and what we might regard as distractions, but also denying us the capability to see and accept other phenomena that then remain invisible, and therefore unreal, or unknown. In effect its echo-chamber-like traits, amplify and reify what we currently know to be the truth. Doubt is a stranger in this environment. All that we choose to do – or not – as well as the tools we habitually use to solve problems, emanate from, and are shaped by, this weltanschauung.

Each civilisation has its own unique weltanschauung too. Over the past century and a half, mostly through the cultural colonisation of the world by Western powers, this worldview has shifted ever closer to an Occidental epistemic orthodoxy. It has become a simulacrum of that particular mindset. Despite the similarity, people from different cultural groups continue to interpret the worldview through the filters of their own episteme. Spellbound in their diverse states of mind, the slightest interpretive differences result in the kind of visceral tension we experience when someone disagrees with us, or when one group takes issue with another. When this occurs, we are inclined to emphasise disparities, which are then used to bolster our confidence that our own image of reality is the truth, while other points of view are plainly wrong.

The dominant constructs of the Western worldview seemed to make sense a century or more ago. But today the unrestrained tendency towards a Western cosmological monoculture – a compelling synthesis of Cartesian logic and scientific realism stirred in a cauldron of capitalist tenets – provides a limited, some might say barren, picture of humanity. Its dogmatic quality precludes wisdom from other great civilisation epistemes, from the Sinic, Indic, Amerindian, Ubuntu, Persian and Aboriginal traditions – from being incorporated within a richer model. And so we are held back from conceiving genuinely inclusive civilisation alternatives.

This does not alter the fact that a new shared worldview is desperately needed. Hopefully this next worldview will reflect different affiliations, different priorities, and different memes. For example, if we are to shift our relationships with each other and with the Earth to become more mutually beneficial, which we surely must, then we need to come to terms with the fact that humans are an intrinsic part of nature – not separate from it in ways that gives us licence to destroy and vandalise its gifts. The illusion of separation is so prominent in the current worldview that it accounts for much of the disregard we display towards other life.

But, like all other species with whom we share our home, we are subject to its universal laws. We cannot control nature, neither can we conquer it. To believe that we can, or might be able to with one small scientific step, a key invention, or just a little more knowledge, is a delusion born out of archaic scriptures and superstitions that were proven long ago to be spurious.

Perhaps a viable alternative is to shift our thinking away from the deep green philosophy of environmental design, where we grandly presume to install ourselves as Earth’s stewards, and focus, instead, on stewarding our own societies and impulses more effectively. This in no way removes our obligation to improve our custodianship of the natural world. But it is far less presumptuous. This perspective, too, challenges the smug notion that we are architects of our own destiny, and that we can design ourselves out of any predicament in which we find ourselves, while knowing that to try is the only viable option.

I remain an optimist, though the world we are bequeathing to future generations seems darker, more cynical, and far more uncertain than the one in which I grew up, even though at that time the dread of nuclear war hung like a shroud over a population where recession was the rule, unemployment levels were high, discrimination on the basis of gender, class, race and sexual preference was entrenched, and almost everyone was materially worse off.

Although memory frequently massages disturbing experiences into reassuring lullabies, certain differences between these two eras are stark. When I was a child, optimism was in the air we breathed. Less affluence meant that we held hope for a brighter future. For those of us who enjoy abundant material wealth these days, the access to luxury goods and a continuous stream of new-fangled gadgets, have numbed our ability to envisage anything better. Hope has been snuffed out, and optimism reduced to a mere flicker, in other parts of the world.

I cannot help but feel we have betrayed our children and their successors in pursuing a path of economic rationalism: a treachery defined by successive cycles of populism and austerity that is irretrievably eroding trust in our institutions, community mores, political process, socio-economic models, civic contribution, leaders, information – and each other.

Whatever happens to the human species over coming centuries is probably immaterial in the grand evolution of the universe. But what does matter is the determination to manage human affairs more consciously and with greater wisdom and compassion. Old patterns of predatory colonialism no longer serve our purpose as they are incapable of ushering in improvements that will benefit the entire human family. Consequently, they have no place in the future. None at all.

Carbon-driven capitalism is a blight on society – dynamic certainly, yet inadequate in terms of social inclusion, financial stability, and sustained ecological wellbeing. Given current volatility measured against future aspirations, the most desirable economic model is one that inhabits a space between ecological security and social justice. Unlike current models, which create a rift between the ownership of assets and wage labour, it must service the needs of humanity as a whole more equitably. In order to do that it must shift from the deeply flawed caricature of human society as a purely utilitarian framework of self-interested individuals, focused only on endless growth, into one that appreciates and liberates all aspects of what it means to grow and thrive as a community in communion with one another.

Those realities must be reflected in any new worldview. Surely it is possible for us all to agree to live within our means, in a spirit of abundance, while avoiding the chronic deprivation that is part of the current system? At a minimum, given human ingenuity, we should be able to design a global economy where every citizen is assured of adequate food, water, housing, sanitation, healthcare, energy, education, political freedom and justice – all without causing undue stress on the natural environment.

Within such an ecologically-sensitive economy, inequalities in wealth and income would be minimised while the wealth arising from nature would be shared. Money, markets, taxation and public investment would be designed to conserve and regenerate resources rather than squander them.

The story of life on this planet is one of diversification and renewal. Our world is dynamic and in a constant state of flux. Yet our default psychosis is to oppose reality by keeping things untouched and as unchanged as we possibly can.

Rather than looking to the future we focus on conserving the present – even yearning to return to what we have convinced ourselves were far more kindly times. This is why the logic we use to justify the setting of emissions targets, formulate social policies and sustainability goals, address the problem of refugees and unemployment, or design smart cities, for example, do not make sense in any context other than the flawed, backward-glancing, Western episteme.

There is no such thing as an ideal state of being. Nor is it at all obvious that past states were objectively preferable to states that are presently forming. Yet almost all modern political and economic efforts aimed at bringing about whole system change, or solving global problems, attempt to objectify and redesign parts of the world-system in ways that are ad hoc, highly reductionist, and limited by the very beliefs we have identified as holding us back. The task confronting us will remain beyond our capacity, even to see least of all resolve, as long as those pillars of Western cosmology and logic remain intact.

If the new context for a genuinely universal worldview is a post-normal emergent integralism, then we have no option other than to change our habits, by changing our minds.

Improving discrete components in the world-system, for example, will never make the whole stronger. It can have the opposite effect. Merely reconfiguring parts of the same paradigm, all the while believing we are giving birth to the new, is both futile and delusional. Given that world-system actualities depend on how we collectively interpret the overarching worldview, it makes much more sense to focus our energy on the vitality and viability of relationships within that worldview, rather than obsessive tweaking of obsolete architectures in the world-system.

By populating a post-capitalist weltanschauung with post-normal beliefs – that can then be interpreted differently as the new world-system evolves – we automatically shift our focus away from fine-tuning obsolete constructs, to the evolution of human consciousness. To our amazement, we will discover that the task of shaping a post-capitalist society is a joyful and cooperative venture, overflowing with abundance, empathy, and mutual respect.

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