Taking Things Too Far
I am often branded a Cassandra. Yet reflecting on things that cause us angst and pain is a burden I did not request. Lighten up. Look around you, my detractors complain. We are the only species to have created such a marvel as our current civilisation. And when admiring Frank Gehry’s Neuer Zollhof in Dusseldorf, listening to the intricacies of Liza Lim’s instrumental piece How Forests Think, driving a nippy hydrogen car from Riversimple, or grappling with Stephen Hawking’s explanation of black holes, who could possibly disagree?
But not all our handiwork is so beneficial or refreshing. Our intentions are not always that admirable. I do not believe I am taking things too far by suggesting that the harm we inflict on each other and the desecration we have wreaked on the planet are also a part of the truth. It gives me no joy whatsoever in censuring the various incongruities which animate the illusion that we humans are wise and smart enough to survive our own success. But propagandising the chronicles of human ingenuity as proof of an exceptional power that will surely come to our rescue in more troubling times is to bask in hubris, and to deny the fact that nature actually calls the shots.
The experience of living in a world that is increasingly toxic to humans jars with our romantic notions of nature as mostly bountiful and benign and, of course, the biblical doctrine that nature exists solely for human benefit. Any scenario where we are not at the centre of everything is deeply disturbing, so ingrained are our myths of human supremacy.
Believing ourselves to be invincible we persist in denying any vulnerabilities. Should the unthinkable occur we systematically scour information to justify current habits, cast doubt on our culpability, or offer the tiniest sign of alternative, less destructive, scenarios. And all the while we cling to a fantasy of transitioning to a state where nature once again functions as ‘mother earth’ and humans live alongside one another in relative peace.
Unfortunately, the toxicity of which I write is not metaphorical. It is a harsh emergent reality of our own making and, if we are not careful, a curse on future generations.
In terms of a taxonomy of existential issues requiring profound reflection and reinvention, the core challenge facing humanity is not climate change. Nor is it destitution, corruption, terrorism, or even the threat of nuclear warfare. These are just clues to a far more insidious underlying problem.
That problem is an ongoing erosion of the moral code in our shared worldview and the small nucleus of beliefs that are bonded into this failing episteme — together with the tensions arising from the lack of a new, more appropriate, morality to replace the old.
If I am correct then a genuine moral awakening to what it means to be human in the Anthropocene age is needed — along with a concerted effort to ditch the grand ideological dualism of past political models, where those who deviate, even minimally, from the acknowledged doctrine are too hastily labelled crazy or wicked.
Over the past 150 years, vast amounts of cheap energy have been generated from coal, oil and gas. This low-cost energy powered a rapid rise in resource extraction, manufacturing and transportation. Concurrently the use of chemically synthesised fertilisers gave rise to industrial-scale agriculture.
Citizens of rich nations found they could gorge themselves on an unremitting cornucopia of material goods — accelerating a dramatic expansion in human activity. Growth became synonymous with progress. Today the manic desire for more and more possessions, along with unrestricted access to the latest gadgets, is regarded not as a morbid obsession, but as both desirable and a prerogative.
Alas, burgeoning consumption, coupled with an exponential increase in population numbers, have had unfortunate consequences — resulting in environmental pollution, a loss of natural habitat and biodiversity, and a dramatic increase in the numbers of people suffering from anxiety and depression. Paradoxically it has also resulted in more people living on the edge of poverty than officialdom is prepared to admit.
Unlimited economic growth also heralded a catastrophic evolutionary problem: ecological overshoot. Societal demands are exceeding the planet’s capacity to replenish its own resources. Each year, humans consume the natural stocks of the planet at about 160% of their sustainable yield. By overshooting the long-term carrying capacity of Earth, the ecosystems we depend on for survival are in jeopardy.
An inability, or reluctance, to appreciate existential issues like climate change in context may be our downfall. Specifically, if we continue to (i) perceive and frame dilemmas from within the constraints of archaic conventions, (ii) contrive deceptive narratives, (iii) neglect to examine causal connections within a system under duress, and (iv) succumb to flawed assumptions and default heuristics that lead to incorrect conclusions, we will always struggle to break free from the status quo.
1. Framing is critical. It establishes the boundaries and conditions distinguishing what is relevant or not in a specific situation. For example, if climate breakdown continues to be framed as a discrete problem, for which there is a technological solution, all economists and policy makers need trouble themselves with is the prospect of shifting investments, setting engineering tasks, and managing the ensuing industrial-economic transformation to ensure that new jobs in green industries compensate for jobs lost in coal mines. They will not need to develop a capacity to think and design systemically. Nor will they need to understand the Earth system and how human systems fit into it.
Consequently whole-system interventions based upon moral arguments — like energy drawdown, population stabilisation, and environment protection, for example — will remain in the “too hard” basket and the errors of the past will be repeated with impunity.
2. Deceptive narratives can act as a protective filter. But such fictions also prevent us from seeing a side of reality that could lead to more effective and enduring solutions. For example, Western nations routinely default to a cynical position vis-à-vis China — belittling the extraordinary accomplishments of the PRC and downplaying the likelihood of continued success based upon our own democratic path to salvation. The truth is that no single political system in a pluralist society is a panacea. But we prefer not to believe that, insisting instead that democracy is more virtuous than other systems and must be exported to every country in order to rid the planet of evil.
International aid is another topic plagued by deceit. And so we still access ambiguous data in arguing the importance of providing financial aid to underdeveloped countries. By reciting this story we are absolved from guilt without changing the end game. Poor countries remain poor. Astoundingly, flows of capital from poor to rich nations far exceed the amount of aid these countries receive. So, until we allow the economies of these countries to benefit from the advantages that developed nations take for granted, we simply delay solving the problem of poverty.
Yet another example is the rebranding of business to sustain the impression of benevolent impact and social relevance. Ventures classified within the conscious capitalism movement, and entrepreneurial start-ups in Silicon Valley, both play to the need we all have for hope in the conventional paradigm. But I fail to see how a cadre of rent-extracting enterprises, with business models firmly entrenched in feudal ethics, can revitalise global capitalism or establish a new ethos that would constrain the greed of predatory capitalists, many of whom also happen to be the major investors in such firms.
3. The causal relationships in any dynamically complex system shape the outputs from that system. If different outputs are intended, for whatever reason, some kind of intervention is required. Deciding what intervention is most suitable in any situation can only be discovered from a thorough grasp of the critical factors influencing these relationships. So, for example, the links between population and economic growth, industrial production, climate breakdown, resource depletion, and pollution, must be investigated in aggregate in order to be confident about enacting beneficial second-order change.
In terms of climate breakdown, we need to find and understand the systemic links between it and other worsening ecological factors — overpopulation, species extinctions, water and air pollution, and loss of topsoil and fresh water. Examining these dilemmas separately invariably leads to mistakes and confusion.
4. Heuristics are the short cuts used by the brain to cut through complexity. Because these strategies are derived from previous experiences they can be immensely useful — but also highly risky and hardly ever optimal. For example, the phenomenon of group think, where people believe others based upon sheer numbers rather than any inherent logic, often lead to the adoption of inadequate conclusions. The danger is that people will change beliefs they are almost positive are true, simply because others around them do not share those beliefs. Another risky heuristic is confirmation bias — the tendency to search for and interpret data in ways that confirm personal prejudices and pre-existing theories.
Falling into the trap of using any of these habits will invariably lead to premature judgements while truncating our ability to imagine alternatives outside and beyond the prevailing paradigm. Instead of reinventing systems so that they work for all of humanity — either from first principles, or through the systematic elimination of design flaws that prevent true efficacy — we will perpetuate unwanted, and potentially catastrophic, outcomes. And all the while we will suffer from the delusion that we are on the right track and that things are getting better.
The prevailing moral code in our current worldview has evolved from a few self-reinforcing source models — particularly an Occidental cosmology embracing Cartesian rationalism, scientific realism, and the various neo-liberal exchange mechanisms within free-market capitalism. The resulting archetype has shaped a suite of implicit, self-reinforcing convictions. Particularly emphasising three tenets:
· The privileged individual is the source of a society’s economic vigour and productive capacity.
· Competition is not only necessary within the context of scarcity, but imparts a robustness that is critical for both individual and collective advancement.
· The objectification of every aspect of conscious reality uniquely allows humans to exercise control of any context, including other individuals, while denying subjective feelings and experiences.
This code can appear to be harsh and cold-hearted — lacking spiritual substance, empathy for others, and any sense of altruism — a human experiment manifesting as some godless myopic schema rather than any genuine attempt to evolve a benevolent and sophisticated society.
This is no accident. The social theory of individualism, which favours freedom of action for individuals over collective dictate, and promotes free enterprise and the pursuit of profit above all else, reflects a profoundly ingrained, scarcely conscious, self-censorship that has intensified over the past 50 years or so — in alignment with the ascendancy of neoliberal political and economic dogma — a dogma that has been constantly reified by the logical positivist mantras of an uninhibited technocratic elite.
These tenets are especially problematic in the friction they inadvertently generate: celebrating the individual on the one hand, while dehumanising any form of communicative inquiry, fostering the outrageous notion that individuals can be owned, bought and sold, and treating human beings as interchangeable instruments of labour but little else.
The illusion of control, too, is an alarming aberration. Somewhat sobering is the fact that Friedrich Hayek — the father of neoliberal economics — while accepting the Nobel prize for economics, made an astonishing admission. Not only were economists unsure about their predictions, he noted, but the tendency to present their findings with the certainty of the language of science was misleading and might have deplorable long-term effects. In this regard, at least Hayek was correct.
But this moral code — if indeed there was any justification for claiming morality to be present — is also moribund. Over centuries we have unrelentingly exploited our home and each other. Now, we have reached a point where a privileged few own most of the wealth created by billions, we value only that which can be monetised, the planet is not playing by our rules, and those in whom we blindly place our trust are still frantically replicating the mistakes of the past.
We have gone beyond the limits to growth, so famously predicted in 1972 by the Club of Rome, in an utterly irresponsible manner — as have the limits to advancement of any kind. Indeed, the same head-long stumble in politics, economics, governance, and environmental stewardship, are all cul-de-sacs.
Despite an exponential increase in, and easy access to, available information, collective wisdom seems to be waning — arguably to be found only in a few dwindling artefacts and the fading memories of indigenous elders. Conflict has become ingrained. Anxiety and depression are forcing thousands into premature lethargy or suicide. Millions more are cut off from what it once meant to be alive and human.
We have reached a crossroads — but there are few safe paths. The future story of Homo sapiens will require us to frame the human condition in ways that appeal to our most innate moral sentiments if we are to avoid the likelihood of collapse. In that regard, moving to a different set of values will be paramount.
Our civilisation is addicted to growth, competition, capital and control. The combined effect of all four are having terrifying consequences for our continued security and peace of mind. We need to change our shared and individual behaviours — to give up that which we have been told generates prosperity: power and dominion over nature and each other.
We cannot abandon this moral struggle, although many would have us do so, purely on the grounds that humans desire a vision of the future that is positive and uplifting — one that does not require any sacrifice, and that can be guaranteed not to take us back to the dark ages.
Meanwhile the establishment, true to their old code, claim that only a combination of technology and austerity offer any hope to the world. But even if the moral argument fails to get traction, it is unlikely technical solutions alone can work, so far have we departed from our core principles.
As for the climate, a massive investment in next-generation fast-spectrum nuclear power and solar radiation climate engineering projects are now being planned. Portrayed as our last hope it is, in fact, the most desperate speculation.
Acknowledgement and acceptance of the conditions we ourselves have created exposes the fragile nonsense upon which many of our most recent shared understandings are based. If we can confront the most perilous of these fallacies we may, in time, be able to appreciate what it really means to be human, independent of growth, and competition, and conflict. We might even learn to transcend our irresponsible inclination to characterise everything that is not human as an object to be managed or manipulated.
A new meta-narrative of hope must be capable of interrupting and dislodging the central organising principles of industrial society, which are also its Achilles heel: the tenacious pursuit of economic growth at all costs, powered by an incendiary mix of avarice and fear, within an assumed context of scarcity, and performed in fierce competition with one another.
New stories emphasising the need for transparent cooperation should also inspire informed action across all levels in society. In a globally-connected world we are not powerless. There is no need to wait for a galvanising sea-change from incumbent leaders or their governments. By and large the impulse for conscious change derives from community unrest and activism. So, we can start, as many already have, by adjusting our personal choices and pursuits. By working together locally it is possible to cause ripples of transformation that eventually have regional and potentially global repercussions.
Even if these efforts cannot prevent the collapse of an industrial society that has become bloated by overindulgence and greed, they can at least seed a regenerative human culture worthy of our most aspirational moral principles, while informing an altogether distinctive, more abundant, destiny.
With thanks to my colleague Dr Michael McAllum, Chief Steward of The Academy at the Centre for the Future, for his counsel as how best to express the more confronting ideas and opinions contained here, and to my dear friend Liza Lim whose astonishing music inhabits the silent interstices of my writing.