I am noticing that there seems to be a gentle stream of ‘retreatism’ in some modes of thought. The idea seems to be that the ‘crowd’ is bad, that social life is somehow corrupting and, that faced with the world situation, and the Anthropocene in particular we have to move into our own, somehow special individuation.
To me this is a partial truth, and needs expansion. It may also be true that in specific times of life, when aging, or facing immanent death, or in the midst of illness, this may be the best thing for some of us to do. I just don’t think it is a good strategy for a general approach to deal with ecological crisis or political instability. That we recognise that humans affect the world, does not mean we can correct the effects by ‘going away’. All life forms affect the world. At the moment humans are perhaps affecting it disproportionately, and we may not be able to afford retreat from that recognition.
This mode of retreat seems to be based a non-ecological mode of thinking, and in a situation of, shall we say, degrading relationships, it seems to imply that individuals are disconnected, self tending units, and could lead to further degradation.
At the biological level we are colonies, or interactive ‘systems’, of multiple creatures. Much of our body weight, when we subtract the water, contains ‘foreign’ DNA. Even our cells may depend on what were originally external organisms (mitochondria have their own DNA). We are not a single biological being. At the psychological level, depth psychology appears to uncover that we have multiple psyches, and layers of psyche: ‘complexes’, personal unconsciousness, collective unconsciousness, archetypes, or whatever. If you are more into neurology then we have, at least, a hind brain, a mid brain and two hemispheres, all of which may function independently, and communicate with difficulty. Other researchers add neurological centres in the heart and the solar plexus. We are psychologically multiple interactive systems. We are not so much engaged in dialogues, but in ‘multi-logues’.
We are also social creatures. We think with borrowed, badly copied or modified thoughts. We feel with borrowed, emulated and modified feelings and desires. We think with others and in reaction to others. Without singular amounts of effort we cannot live alone, and when young we cannot live alone at all. We are interdependent with others as interactive systems. The boundaries are fuzzy, we blend into each other and are interpenetrated by each other. The same is true of our ecology, we modify it, it modifies us, and that is happening between billions of creatures simultaneously. It again is a set of interactive systems: that is the nature of being.
We are both collaborative and competitive, and are so at many levels, individually, group, nationally etc… Sometimes what we think is working together is working against each other.
Consequently, the individual and the collective do not seem to me to be separate, or even opposing, poles. Certainly, not in the sense that one is enlightened and that the other is ignorant. They work together, and against each other, always. We are always in multi-logues. The question is how to work together as productively as possible. What follows are some suggestions.
First point seems to me to recognise that we are massively unconscious. We do not perceive most of this working together or against each other; we cannot perceive all of it; we probably cannot understand all of it; and we cannot predict it – this is true of both our inner and outer lives (and these lives are not separate; the boundaries are continually fuzzy and porous).
Second point may be that given this unconsciousness, unpredictability and porous boundaries, full retreat is impossible – we are always in the systems whether we like it or not. What is needed is a set of day to day techniques to deal with events we are unconscious of. We may need to fully engage with our senses, fully engage with our symbolic capacities, fully engage with our ability to listen in the widest sense.
Third point. Because we cannot fully understand, we may need to suspend our sense that we do understand. We all think we understand. Often understanding involves blame, condemnation and scapegoating, which are processes which almost automatically stop our ability to listen and understand. (We may even condemn ‘thinking’, or ‘lack of spirituality’, or ‘spirituality’ itself, when humans automatically appear to think, or have some spiritual orientation towards the cosmos.) That is one reason why the techniques are so popular; they fill the gaps, stop us being puzzled and preserve our egos and their understandings. So it could be useful if we recognise that whatever we think is right, could be wrong, no matter how right it seems.
Fourth point. Premature and enforced understanding, automatically produces unintended consequences. It is the order that produces the disorder it fears. It makes things worse. It stops us listening to the world, it stops correction by reality. It nearly always produces action and may sometimes be necessary.
Fifth point. We need to correct our understanding. We do this not just in retreat, although retreat is valuable – everything needs rest – but we do it in interaction with the world. It is only interaction that can give correction or show us the consequences of that understanding (if we look/listen).
Sixth point. While our ego (consciousness) tends to seek repetition and fixed understanding, we can remember that we have multiple and unconscious modes of understanding and wisdom which may see things differently; that may add to our conscious understanding, even if our ego resists. Bad feelings can tell us that we are thinking ‘badly’ or incorrectly. Dreams can give us symbolic representations of reality which include events that our consciousness may not want to admit. The same is true of art and story. A sense of unease can be informative (perhaps it is our heart thinking?). If we really hold to the understanding that things/events/people/ecologies are interconnected and boundaries are fuzzy, and that our orders may not always be good, then maybe we can see more ‘data’ to help improve our understanding. All of these messages and data need evaluation through interaction with reality, but they can potentially add to understanding. We all have ‘inner wisdom’, but it is not just found in retreat, it is also found in an attentive and open daily life.
Seventh point. Response to crisis should probably be an oscillatory process. We go ‘inside’ to our hidden wisdoms, we go ‘outside’ to the interacting or multi-loguing world, we go ‘inside’ again and so on. If we remain isolated or unthinking individuals then it is possible we will be worse than ignored, we will lose some of our internal power as it does not go into the world, we will become complicit in that loss.
This is not a protest against doing inner work, but saying that inner work is part of outer work, it is not separate. I am also not remotely against the idea of multi-logue, but admit it can be difficult and upsetting to our egos, and this can be good.
However, I am suggesting that when we recognise that oppression or destruction is likely to come, or is coming, then people may need to formally join together to protect themselves and protect others. The more understanding we have, gained from participation and challenge, then the less likely that this joining will be violent, condemnatory or exclusionary; the more likely we will be responding to reality rather than to our limited understandings of reality.
I keep reading things like: “In a showdown between political ideology and economic reality … you want to be betting on economic reality,” or other statements implying that capitalism and business will save us.
That makes it seem that people do think that pro-corporate organisations like the Republicans in the US, really do believe in ‘small government’ and ‘free markets’, rather than in using those words as slogans to support action in favour of established corporate power. Republicans have already changed ‘economic reality’ to reflect their position and probably will keep doing so. This is not about respecting reality, rationality or getting the best results for ‘working people’.
The new US government can, for example, encourage companies who provide grid power to charge more for connecting to places/homes with renewable power to prevent ‘freeloading’ on profits. They can tax renewable usage, or put import tariffs on essential materials or parts for renewables. They can decide renewables are dangerous to workers, hazardous to public health (wind farm syndrome, why not a solar power syndrome?), or bad for ‘baseload’, and slap difficult regulations on them. They can put taxes on the use of land for renewables. They can use infrastructure development to subsidise coal mines, fracking and gas leaks. They can use the same monies to build, or sudsidise, new coal power stations as vital to the economy. They can pretend that they already have clean coal, or give billions to research clean coal without checking that money gets spent on research (other than market research). They can remove all anti-pollution enforcement as that hinders the economy. They can decide that protestors against these moves, are more vulnerable to jail, or police beatings, or face increased and bankrupting fines; or they can legislate that protestors are terrorists. They can decide that protest should not occur on private property as that is trespassing, and that all space is private property. I’m sure they are more ingenious than me, so they can find even more reasons to hinder and halt renewables and their supporters.
If they can ignore the reality of climate change, they can skew the economy towards fossil fuels.
In terms of Ken Mcleod’s ‘fourfold’ the mythos of capitalist economics is misleading at best, and this produces misleading understanding and action and a restricted psyche.
Not only does our economics depend on the idea of individuals primarily competing with each other, it tends to make profit the only good, and usually the profit of those who are already profiting. It therefore tends to generate a plutocracy and a ‘selfish personality’ repressing human cooperativeness, or long term interest. It pretends that economic activity is not tied in with State activity and control of the State; however, in reality economics is always a political as well as a business struggle. Hence the likely possibility of Republicans acting against renewable energy, which largely involves newer companies, to support those who have already invested in their party and who already hold power in the State.
The ideology of the free market is not interested in recognizing power differentials in the market, or everyone’s survival and cannot be, because that would be to recognize that the ideology does not work in the way it claims to work – which is not to say that reasonably free markets cannot be useful, but that they get corrupted, and that they are not the only good.
If you want renewables you may need to organize, and think about new more constructive myths and economics.
Stephen Hawking has said we are destroying earth and need to leave. This is a real recognition of the Anthropocene. However:
1) It will cost a huge amount to find an inhabitable planet and get there and set up a colony. This is money which could be spent fixing the problems we have here – such as winding back coal burning and other forms of pollution, developing an asteroid defense programme, or getting rid of nuclear weapons.
2) We will probably never be able to transport a couple of billion people off this planet – so the process of leaving involves deciding who will survive, and enforcing that decision. Which elite will survive? Probably the elite that have stuffed the planet in the first place. Who will be left to die? Probably you.
3) As the saying has it: “Wherever you go, there you are”. If we don’t fix up our social systems, the tendency to favour the powerful who are benefitting from the emissions which cause climate change, alter our tendency to say it is everyone else’s fault, or that there is no problem in what is comfortable to us, then some humans will simply all die off in some distant place.
4) If we plan to leave, then our destruction of the earth will accelerate, because if it is going to get destroyed anyway, what is the point in leaving it intact? This will increase the emergency, and probably decrease the chance of making it into space successfully. It will probably mean even more people die earlier than they would have.
It is frequently argued that Australia’s CO2 emissions are tiny, and that there is no point in the Australian federal government acting. This is especially the case if the US, under President Trump pretends there is no problem, as their emissions are huge.
Unfortunately the Australian Government is already acting.
By not attempting to ameliorate climate change it is showing that it does not care about climate change, and that it will not object to other bigger polluters continuing to pollute. So it helps make CO2 production normal and produces more climate change.
By encouraging coal mining in Australia our governments (of all persuasions) clearly demonstrate that they care more for the profit of some companies, than they care about the land, people’s health or maintaining a climate balance. By taking this choice, they ally with the commercial and political forces which produce climate change. Saying that stopping mining might cost us money and jobs is irrelevant – virtue can be difficult, and there appear to be more jobs in renewables anyway.
By encouraging Australia to continue to have one of the highest CO2 emissions per head in the world, they are implying that a prosperous life style depends upon destroying climate stability and that destroying that stability should be encouraged.
They are also encouraging short term visions over long term visions, and short term profit over long term expense, which is probably not good for anyone in general.
By being half hearted or indifferent to climate change they provide an exemplar and excuse for other’s behaviour (‘If wealthy countries in the West can’t be bothered, then why should we?’). If they acted to cut emissions and support renewables (or support thorium research, if you prefer) then they would be providing an exemplar of behaviour which also might influence other governments and corporate behaviour.
So let us be clear the government is acting. Just not the way we might think is sensible.
As for things like ocean fertilization or carbon capture and storage, they are likely to help prolong our use of fossil fuels. They are also likely to have weird and unintended effects. They may not even work other than in theory, or only work for a short time. We may need to deploy such methods, but the proper research will take longer than we might have to prevent climate turmoil (transformation is unlikely to be linear or smooth) and we have to move to 100% renewables or non-fossil fuels eventually. Why not start now, and help everyone achieve this, as well as make money for our scientists and companies out of the IP?
Ecology and Disorder
When a complex system such as an ecology, or an economy (and both are linked) is disrupted, so that it begins to move outside of an equilibrium, the results are unpredictable.
The behavior of the system is fundamentally uncertain, and cannot be dealt with by ideas of risk, which suggest numeric and often constant probabilities for events. In these kinds of disrupted systems both events and probabilities are unknown.
We can, however, assume trends. Weather events will almost certainly become more uncertain and more extreme. The anthropologist Hans Baer, has suggested using the term ‘Climate Turmoil’ rather than ‘climate change’ for the simple reason that it is more accurate of what we can expect. Climate change suggests a smooth linear change, not the tumultuous, disorderly change which is likely, and which we need to prepare for and lessen.
Unfortunately, it would appear that socially, we are resistant to accepting fundamental uncertainty. We try and trap reality in our visions of order, and that leads to further chaos. Businesses and governments like to pretend that they can predict the future, so that they can keep their power relations intact and their success coming. Scientists sometimes do the same when they predict that particular places will have particular weather patterns in 20 years.
But unfortunately it is what we have been doing to produce what we have defined as ‘success’ that seems to have caused the problem. Burning coal, for example, has been one factor responsible for the success and dominance of Western civilization and its modes of organisation. It now threatens that civilization’s success. In reality, burning coal threatens nearly everyone on the planet.
We need to radically accept disorder and uncertainty as part of life, and act as if fundamental change is both happening and is being produced by what has produced success in the past. That way we can try something new, and hope to conserve some of what we have.
A Long-Term View of the Trajectory of the World-System
Immanuel Wallerstein, Binghamton University
Globalization is a misleading concept, since what is described as globalization has been happening for 500 years. Rather what is new is that we are entering an `age of transition’. We can usefully analyze the current world situation using two time frames: 1945 to the present and circa 1450 to the present.
The period since 1945 has been one long Kondratieff cycle, with an A-phase that ran through 1967-76 and a B-phase ever since. The economic and political developments of the last 50 years are easy to place within this framework. The period from 1450 to the present is the long history of the capitalist world-economy, with its secular trends all reaching critical points. This article analyzes the long-term rise in real wage levels, in costs of material inputs of production and of levels of taxation, the combination of which has been creating constraints on the possibilities of capital accumulation. The long history of the antisystemic movements and their structural failures has led to a serious decline in the legitimacy of state structures which is threatening to subvert the political pillars of the existing world-system.
For all these reasons, the modern world-system is in structural crisis and has entered into a period of chaotic behavior which will cause a systemic bifurcation and a transition to a new structure whose nature is as yet undetermined and, in principle, impossible to predetermine, but one that is open to human intervention and creativity.
Immanuel Wallerstein is an American sociologist, historical social scientist, and world-systems analyst, arguably best known for his development of the general approach in sociology which led to the emergence of his World Systems Theory