The end? Mass suicide, or a better world?
In researching for and drafting this book, I spent a lot of time feeling deep despair. And this was at two levels, for myself, and for my species.
For myself, and for many people I talked to, the sheer scale of the momentum driving us towards large scale social dislocation and loss of life left us with a sense of personal helplessness – “What could we possibly do that might help change this?”.
And I think a clearer understanding of why so many social indicators are going in a negative direction in the Western world, including in particular youth employment (which is a certain sign of future social dislocation) and youth suicide (which is an ongoing major tragedy in New Zealand), led to a parallel question – “What does our current society offer the majority of its people?”.
The simple answer to this is, “wealth and power for the very few, reasonable comfort for the few more, and ongoing struggle for the many, despite the continuous propaganda that a good life is in reach for all”. At some level, most people see through the relentlessly positive messaging of advertising and the media, and know that it does NOT show them either their present or their future, unless they are very, very lucky.
Helplessness, and struggle. On a relentless downward path. So, we could choose to accept this, and put our efforts into finding what material pleasure and comfort we can while the march to species suicide continues.
Or we could get off the fence and push back against it, saying “we are not helpless”. To take Dylan Thomas’s wonderful lines completely out of context:
Do not go gentle into that good night; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Thomas knows that life must end, but insists that we should not wait passively for death, but live life to the fullest. Life must end, it is true – in the short term for any individual, in the long term for the species. But if we wait passively for the end of this life, it is going to come much sooner than it needs to – for increasing numbers of individuals, and for our species.
Statistics are increasingly being gathered about the millions of deaths which have already occurred through climate-change related events (famines, wars, weather events, forced migration). These statistics are only going to get worse in the short term.
We need to rage against the dying of the light, and “live life to the fullest”. Not by being 24-hour party people, but by fighting for the sort of life and society which we want for our family, our children, our friends, and our species.
Many of my generation (including myself) are likely to escape the full consequences of the juggernaut which we have been complicit in releasing over the last thirty years – it is our children, and their children in particular, who will bear the full brunt of a harsher, more violent, and more difficult world.
So my generation, more than anyone, needs to put its energies into pushing back against the juggernaut. The young will provide most of the energy – but we can provide knowledge, effort, and presence, as well as our own energy.
This book is not aimed only at my generation, but they are certainly a primary audience. It is aimed at all of us who are not active in resisting or working to replace the current system of exploitation and unequal participation – the people I call “fence-sitters”.
And I even have a slogan for us, with apologies to Messrs Marx and Engels:
Fellow fence-sitters of the affluent world, let’s jump! We have nothing to lose but our next HDTVs!
Or a better world?
We have to take action across a wide range of fronts.
The solutions will not be technological, despite the gung ho rhetoric of the technophiles. Yes, wisely directed technological improvements can continue to make useful changes.
But the real solutions are economic, social, and political. They are in how we produce and consume, how we act towards one another, and how power is managed.
And they need to be grounded in a view of the type of society we want.
Competing visions of a good society:
Is what we have now the best of all possible worlds, so are we in the business of MAXIMUM PRESERVATION?
My view is very clearly that we are NOT at the moment in, or on the way to, the best of all possible worlds. There is too much inequality, and too much suffering, for us to pretend we are IN the best of worlds.
A large proportion of today’s populist expression in the affluent world is appealing to a rose-tinted view of the world as it “should” be for certain segments of the population – primarily white, male and old. These movements, led majestically, albeit hypocritically, by Donald Trump, seek to “preserve” a society by protecting it from those baleful outside influences.
I strongly suspect that the vast majority of the world’s population (and, indeed, majorities in the affluent world) would NOT see preservation of either the status quo or a rose-tinted vision of a past, less threatened society, as the best option for their society or for humanity as a whole.
Or are we confident that (subject to a few changes that will ensure our survival as a species) we can build a BETTER SOCIETY BASED ON OUR CURRENT DIRECTION?
One of the most frightening aspects of our current situation is that most of the mainstream solutions being proposed are to do more of the same thing, faster and better. This will simply propel us over the cliff with more certainty and speed than even the more pessimistic of us think it will.
While the current language of politics suggests that neo-liberalism (raw capitalism, “red in tooth and claw”) is at least softening at the edges, there is little practical evidence of this. The growth imperative, expansion of trade, increasing corporate freedom of action, the assumption that market solutions are the best, all continue unabated – indeed, some of these are so fundamental to the dominant world view of the political classes that they are not even debated.
But even if raw capitalism could be reined in somewhat, the problem of its underlying premises – that people are basically selfish maximisers, and its operating rules – which inevitably transfer public wealth to private, and from the poor to the rich – would remain.
The “moderate” capitalist Keynes even acknowledged this. Maybe in a hundred years or so, when we were all wealthy we could release the inner altruist, he said (yes, really!). But:
“…Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight…”
The affluent world is now well over the hurdle of “economic necessity”, but there’s little evidence that this has led to more altruistic and egalitarian social structures. The current evidence is all strongly in the opposite direction.
Or are there better worlds which we might/should aspire to, which we need to take into account in addressing the problems we face today – are we in the business of building a BETTER SOCIETY BASED ON NEW DIRECTIONS?
We need a new place to stand. And that place has to reject many of the underlying values of our current system, and to operate by principles which, by and large, have been around for a long time, but are currently unfashionable.
This does not mean I think we can go “back to the future”. The old straw-horse of “socialism versus capitalism” is of no use to us. We need to build a future based on “both and”, on both the strengthened individualism that has emerged over the last century, and the collectivism that is truly at the heart of human progress. Thatcherism and Reaganism – the most visible elements of the neoliberal revolution – touched on something important to all of us, about personal autonomy.
The problem is that it has gone too far. It preached and encouraged extreme individualism (“There is no such thing as society”). Which, as we all know when we think about it, is utter nonsense. All humans exist, from cradle to grave, in a state of near total interdependency, with each other and with the planet. The neoliberal aim of persuading us all to maximise individual consumption is what creates the shambles we have now made of our common home.
We need to add back some of the collectivistic values that are essential to a functioning human society.
Human solidarity as the foundation
The deepest foundation of a civilised society is human solidarity. That is, solidarity about the fact that we are all human together. The acknowledgement of the humanity and essential equality of all of us, and the promise of mutual support in ensuring that all have a genuine chance to live their lives with dignity, and in peace.
Each of us has (or should have) the rights which are so well enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its codicils. But human solidarity means that each of us is also responsible for helping ensure that those rights are protected.
On the other hand, human solidarity does NOT involve all of us thinking, acting and looking the same. There is an important truth in Marx’s view that the operating logic of human society is conflict between mutually incompatible interests (eg workers versus capitalists) rather than cohesion. And there is little doubt today that, as in Marx’s day, the enemy of the rest of human society is the capitalist system and the class of people who operate it.
But Marx’s view is not the whole truth. The means societies use to manage conflict and division need not simply be “whoever is strongest wins”. The reconciliation of conflicting interests is the highest form of civilised governance – it is what we should strive towards, and there are many examples of attempts to do it in the world today, up to and including the work of the United Nations.
Nor is a single model of society for all nations or communities even remotely possible. Many aspects of society are grounded in local geography, history and culture, and so any expression of the need for universal human solidarity should accommodate these differences.
But there is no doubt that a world of multiple societies, and multiple interests within societies, cannot work effectively unless it has some common foundations, based on the concept of human solidarity.
Key steps towards a better society
Core human rights, such as those described in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, need to be available to and protected for every human being, by our mutual assumption of responsibility to make this happen.
Human solidarity is the foundation, but the superstructure of a better society is the attitudes and institutions which address the issues discussed in Parts Two and Three of this book. And the paragraphs below summarise the key steps we need to take which are expanded on in Part Four.
We need to relearn to work with Nature, rather than continue on our current extractivist path. The five key requirements of this partnership are stopping fossil fuel use, accelerating reforestation, abandoning industrial monoculture and monocropping, changing the balance in our sources of protein, and restoring the oceans.
Our economic systems need to be re-engineered on the basis of thrift rather than consumption, supported by a new financial system, which will probably need to start from the introduction of local or community currencies, to support local activity and build local resilience.
To underpin these changes, we need better ways of thinking. We need broad and deep education in systems thinking, and we need to make more and better use of the precautionary principle, complemented by what I call the “precautionary imperative”.
Political power needs to be redistributed by replacing the form of democracy with the substance – with what I call “real democracy”. Financial power needs to be redistributed by a major and ongoing process of restitution and redistribution. And coercive power needs to be redistributed by deweaponisation.
And we need to train ourselves to make a habit out of celebrating diversity. This can be hard, but diversity is a foundation of resilience, indeed it is a foundation of life, and we need it to build a civilised society.
The good news is that both the material technologies and also the social and governance structures needed to enable us to do all this already exist, in one form or another, and in one place or another. What’s stopping us is the commitment of the wealthy and powerful to maintaining the current system of theft from Nature and from the rest of us.
What resources are available to us?
For a start, all the material technologies we need to change our current direction are already available, and more and better technologies are being continually developed. Renewable sources of energy, sustainable agricultural practices, cheap and plentiful communication and information systems, new forms of funding for investment, cooperative and not-for-profit corporations, whole-of-life production and disposal systems, affordable and effective housing…the list goes on…but they are all here now.
What is stopping our accelerated use of them is the ongoing use of dinosaur technologies such as fossil fuels, industrial agriculture, and neoclassical economic thinking, mediated through a world financial system which is broken, all of which serves the wishes of the wealthy at the expense of the rest of the world, but keeps enough of us in the affluent world comfortable enough to help them keep the wheels of their extraction machine turning.
Now that was a long sentence.
To summarise it, there is nothing stopping us from changing but our fear of own temporary discomfort.
The second piece of good news is that we have an abundance of non-destructive energy and of human ingenuity available to help us build a more sustainable and, indeed, a regenerative society.
Direct solar power is to all intents and purposes infinite, wind power is more or less infinitely renewable, and water power, when properly extracted, is both renewable and can be very low cost. There are costs of transition, but all countries need to make major commitments to investment in renewable energy.
And the costs of this are coming down fast. Costs of wind and solar power have more or less halved over the last 6-7 years[i], and, led particularly by China and Germany, investment in renewables research and scaled up production is massively increasing.
Humans are very ingenious at material technologies. If we could turn some of this ingenuity to non-material technologies, such as social systems, and avoided the traps of linear thinking and arrogance which have beset us, who knows what sorts of new systems and societies we might create. As long as we have the humility to learn from the people who have been creating and maintaining them already.
Third, and possibly the best news of all, is that we probably have a significant majority, if not a vast majority, of support for making the necessary changes.
I firmly believe that most people in this world would settle for a peaceful life somewhat above subsistence level, with mutual support to ensure that each had a fair opportunity to fulfil whatever potential they had. Some will always be over-aggressive, some will always be over-greedy, some will always seek power over others, and some will never see the good in others, or the common causes that they share. But most are capable of reining in their worst impulses themselves, or will respond to social pressure to do so.
The system we now have will never get us to that peaceful world. It is accentuating and increasing difference, concentrating wealth and power, and degrading our environment. Some people have understood this for a long time, some have learned it recently, and some have yet to learn it. But once they do understand it, there is no going back to acceptance of the status quo, unless they feel helpless to do anything about it.
And my message in Part Five is that individually we are NOT helpless. That, while the big battalions seem to hold all the power, it has been proven time and time again throughout history that the will of the people can prevail, and that mass and other citizen actions can bring down even the most powerful. Whether by taking away some of the supports of power, or by democratic process, or by revolution, it can be done.
The final piece of good news is that a lot of people are already doing a lot about the issues. There are many progressive groups doing what they can to push back against the many wrong-doings of the current system. You may not agree with all that all the groups are doing, but you will almost certainly agree with at least some of what some groups are doing.
And they are doing it because they believe in a better world than the one we currently inhabit, not just for themselves, but for all of us. From the gentle persuasion of “Forest and Bird” societies, through progressive think tanks and networks, to more strident activism at group and mass levels by groups such as 350.org and Greenpeace, their common purpose is a better world for all.
My personal vision: a learning and regenerative society
I believe that we have the capacity to build, not just a sustainable society (which manages itself within its limits), but a truly regenerative one (which expands our boundaries wherever limits are not absolute). And a regenerative society can only exist if it is based on the principles of learning.
The essence of a learning and regenerative society is to continuously challenge and reframe how we see the world, so we are alive to, and engaged with, the infinite number of possibilities in it.
We can’t be doing this all the time of course. First, it would be exhausting. And second, we need stable places to start from if we are going to deal effectively with the infinite kaleidoscope of the real world.
The learning society sees learning as an ongoing activity, not a store of knowledge. It supports learning through both formal and informal means.
It does not see learning as “getting new technical knowledge to prepare yourself for frequent job changes, because we’ll pull the rug out from under you”. This is how the capitalist system has hijacked the idea of the learning society.
The learning society knows that mistakes will be made, and plans its actions so that those mistakes are reversible, or at least their effects can be minimised. It is comfortable with the fact that we don’t know everything, and cannot predict outcomes in complex situations, so it designs its social and economic programmes themselves as learning processes. It locks in as few things as possible irreversibly, and those that must be locked in are only locked in after deep and careful consideration, and universal consultation.
The learning society is deeply democratic, because those in power also have to learn to learn (one very useful definition of power is “not having to learn”). And it is deeply egalitarian, because one of its foundations is that all must be given the opportunity to learn, at all times.
It is regenerative, because that is what learning allows to happen. It adds new understanding, and creates new possibilities. And only a few – mostly academics – will be content with just learning. Most people will act on their new understanding, and create new things which refresh or replace the old. This is regeneration.
Many of us in the affluent world have been trapped in a series of ruts and habitual behaviours. The rat race of wage slavery, the mindless tedium of much television, the triviality of many other social media, the unthinking acceptance of the utterances of power, the pursuit of material wealth beyond what we actually need – these are all symptoms of mindlessness, of allowing ourselves to be just replaceable cogs in the machine.
We need to break out of this, not just for our own personal benefit, but also because the machine is taking us at ever-increasing speed towards a precipice which threatens our very existence.
The learning and regenerative society is what we can create by breaking out.
And this book takes you through the causes of our current predicament to a series of high-level suggestions about the economic, social and political solutions which can lead to such a society.
This book’s structure
Following the Introduction, the book is in five Parts. Many might find the first three Parts deeply depressing. But I believe they are essential to laying the groundwork for the final two Parts, which lay out the new ground on which we might stand, and how we might get there.
Part One (“Where are we now?”) summarises the current state of our world, noting the deeply disturbing states and trends in each sphere of human endeavour and in the biosphere (the environment which sustains and protects us).
Part Two (“How we got to where we are now – the immediate causes of our predicament”) looks at the immediate causes of this situation, focussing particularly on the Western “enlightenment”, and the rise of capitalism and the United States.
Part Three (“How we got to where we are now – the underlying causes of our predicament”) looks at five underlying causes of our current situation, the problems of greed, power, consent, misguided ingenuity, and “otherness”.
Part Four (“A new place to stand”) describes what I see as a suitable and stable place for us in the affluent world to stand, based on the analysis presented in Parts Two and Three.
And Part Five (“How we might get there”) discusses some techniques and strategies which might be useful in helping us get towards this new place. It includes references to some of those who are already actively engaged in the struggle for a better world.
Each Part is prefaced by a more detailed description of its contents.
And that’s it, in a nutshell. I hope you enjoy the rest of the book, and find some useful facts, ideas or suggestions in it.
[i] See for example “5 Climate And Clean Energy Charts From 2015 You Need To See”, ClimateProgress, 17 Dec 2015