ICYMI December 2022
Harris Craig posted on listserv
Wealthy countries can create prosperity while using less materials and energy if they abandon economic growth as an objective, argues a group of researchers in ecological economics.
They outline five key research challenges that will have to be met to re-focus economic activity around securing human needs and well-being.
“The question is no longer whether growth will run into limits,” they write, “but rather how we can enable societies to prosper without growth, to ensure a just and ecological future.”
As with many good articles before it:
- a) this paper is front- and back-end loaded with great suggestions about what should or could be done but virtually silent on how to get it done.
- b) the authors associate themselves with the ‘degrowth’ movement which has so-far eschewed consideration of the population question. This may be politically correct but is ecologically wrong.
A single example of point ‘a’. From the article:
“New forms of financing will be needed to fund public services without growth. Governments must stop subsidies for fossil-fuel extraction. They should tax ecologically damaging industries such as air travel and meat production. Wealth taxes can also be used to increase public resources and reduce inequality.”
How do we get governments to stop subsidies to unsustainable industries when politicians in many countries depend on affected corporations for their campaign funding and on those same corporations for jobs in their constituencies?
How should we go about adequate eco-taxation (e.g., carbon taxes) which would move society closer to efficient full-cost pricing when any discussion of raising taxes is immediately squelched (there are huge problems in just getting adequate carbon pricing); when people are already pressed to the wall because of inflation, scarcity and other factors that raise the cost of living (keep in mind, environmental taxes are intended to raise costs/prices, by internalizing here-to-fore external costs, in order to reduce consumption) and; when true social cost pricing would likely put many goods now considered essential (cell-phones, EVs and flat-screened TVs, for example) beyond the budgets of consumers who now take them for granted? Most people wouldn’t be able to fly at all when today the right to vacation in the sun is taken as a human right by many in rich northern countries!
And by the way, the production of crops is arguably more damaging than for example, free-range grass-fed meat production. Tonnes of pesticides and fertilizers are spread on our crops (we may be the only species in the universe that poisons its own food supplies); diesel powered irrigation is often necessary to grow those crops; more and more crop production to feed an ever-growing population is draining critical aquifers and lowering ground water tables everywhere, sometimes leading to forest die-back when ground-water levels fall below the root zone.
How does a government go about raising income and wealth taxes when the people most affected are those in positions of political and economic power and able to “push back” extremely effectively.
On that point, did you know that in the 1960s, the marginal income tax rate for wealthy Americans was 91%? This was, just, equitable and severely resented by the rich. Beginning with the Nixon presidency and every president since, the tax system has been regressively reformed to reduce the high-income marginal tax rate to as low as 35% (I think it’s now at about 37%). In short, wealthy individuals and corporate lobbyists, spurred on by such things as the Powell Memorandum (law2.wlu.edu/deptimages/Powell%20Archives/PowellMemorandumTypescript.pdf), have purposefully gradually changed political language around wealth and corporate values so that the rich pay less and less (not more and more) income and wealth taxes in the US and other jurisdictions.
So, to summarize: we often know what needs to be done but very few articles, including this latest one, detail exactly how we can overcome cultural inertia to actually implement policies that would make a real difference.
If we know the system is contradictory, do we know how it is contradictory or why? It would seem that understanding the contradiction of the system would be the first step of a definition of the problem if not of a solution.
Martin Calisto Friant
To answer the how question, I believe the article makes a good start in its sections on “Political feasibility and opposition” and “What’s next”, especially considering that it’s a short opinion piece. However, for much more in-depth debate about how to bring this about, I recommend a book, which was published this year titled: “Degrowth & Strategy: how to bring about social-ecological transformation”. It is openly available on this webpage: mayflybooks.org/degrowth-strategy/ (see especially chapters 4-6).
I also agree with Tom that we have to understand the deep contradictions at the root of the present system and its ongoing political, social and ecological crises. In that regard, David Harvey’s book titled “Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism” is highly valuable. There are series of excellent videos and conferences that resume his main points, such as www.youtube.com/watch?v=f9dLcGJ5NI0 , www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOP2V_np2c0 and www.youtube.com/watch?v=AULJlwoI3TI .
Joe Zammit Lucia
Is it reasonable to expect any system to be anything other than full of contradictions?
As Daniel Kahneman puts it, he doesn’t expect human behaviour to be in any way consistent. We all want many things that are mutually incompatible. That’s how human beings work and it’s a feature that can’t be intellectualised away.
In the end it boils down to priorities. The people on this list tend to put high priority on climate action – at least in words, discussion and public stance if not always, or maybe not even often, in our own personal behaviour. But that may not (in fact it does not) reflect the priorities of the broader population many of whom are much more worried about getting through the week than we are in our relatively privileged position. Others who are also privileged have other priorities too.
For half a century, a whole movement has tried its best to push climate action to the very top of people’s perceptions of priorities. It has failed. And carrying on with the same approach over and over is not going to lead anywhere.
The difficult job of politics is to try to find a way forward when more or less everyone wants something different and when priorities change month by month depending on current circumstances.
If we are to find a way forward, then we have to learn to live in that world and navigate our way through its messiness rather than fantasizing about consistency and pure logic. Continuing with the framing that climate is the world’s most existential threat and must therefore take priority over everything else puts us out of line with the diversity of opinion and the different priorities that are out there and have to be navigated. It therefore ends up leading to putative ‘solutions’ that are no solutions at all because they have no chance whatsoever of being implemented. And yet somehow it makes us feel better because we can pretend to know ‘the answer’ and can point the finger of blame to others for not doing what we say.
More productive would be to ask the question of how do we move forward on climate change in a situation where, when it boils down to concrete actions, it is a relatively low priority for most people out there. If we can swallow that bitter pill, we have a much greater chance of coming up with practicable ideas.
One should clarify what is being meant by “system” and “contradictory.” Given the focus on political and technological fixes, the system is the political economies of the many nations on the globe. Contradictory has Marxist implications, but I think the better way to think about it is that these systems are 1) not producing what they are, in principle, designed (or evolved) to do, and 2) producing massive unintended consequences. Both outcomes are the result of normal behaviors, a clue to where the “why” might lie. I posted a response to a similar thread just two years ago and repeat it below.
The Hidden Danger in Global-Warming Fixes
First, let me define what I mean by “fixes.” I mean technological or technocratic (institutional) means that are aimed primarily at addressing the symptoms or the proximate causes of some problematic situation. In the case of climate change, such fixes include reducing greenhouse gas emissions by replacing carbon-based energy systems with renewable sources. Carbon taxes also fit this label. Geo-engineering techniques to prevent warming by reflecting more solar influx are also under discussion these days.
The danger in focusing on such “solutions” is that insufficient attention will be paid to more deeply rooted causes. In systems-dynamics lingo, such defocusing is called shifting-the-burden. This occurs when little or no attention is given to finding and addressing root causes. Root causes are those aspects in complex systems that are often found buried deep in the hierarchy of determinative relationships. I believe that this is exactly what is happening today with virtually all discussions about climate change.
The argument that follows is not against applying fixes altogether, but only in conjunction with sufficiently large and comprehensive attacks on the root causes. If the root causes are left in place, the fixes will very likely fail sometime in the future. Fixes-that-fail is another systems dynamics archetype.
So how can we uncover the root causes of climate change? I think I already know the answer, but let me apply a powerful method, developed by Toyota and central to their production system (TPS). It is simple in structure: ask why five times in succession, and, by the time to get beyond two or three, you are likely to light on a root cause. So let’s begin by starting with this problem: The Planet is warming, which increase is changing climate and producing significant threats to human settlements and to natural systems.
Why #1 Why is the Earth heating up?
Answer #1 Because emissions of so-called greenhouse gases are trapping more and more of the incoming solar radiation, resulting in increasing global mean temperature and more variability in climatic behaviors. This is the level where the current focus is directed.
Why #2 Why are these gases causing a problem now when they have been getting into the atmosphere for a long time?
Answer #2 Because levels of human consumption and production have increased to the extent that more greenhouse gases are emitted than can be absorbed and removed, so that levels have been rising, essentially from the beginning of the industrial revolution in England in the 1800’s. This is where SCORAI is focused.
Why #3 Why has industrial production and consumption increased so much?
Answer #3 This answer has two parts. 1. Because population has been growing exponentially, rising from about 1.5 billion in the mid 1800’s to about 7.5 billion today and has been projected to reach 9 to 10 billion by 2100, both levels that far exceed the Earth’s capacity to support modern, developed human settlements. 2. Because people have become richer and demand more material goods.
At this point, the scheme has to bifurcate because the two parts have different root cause pathways, but, curiously end up at the same place.
Pathway 1: Excess Population
Why #4 Why has population growth exceeding the carrying capacity of the Planet?
Answer #4. Humans are animals, and are subject to the same natural laws that govern population dynamics of other species in ecological systems. The most basic law is that population levels beyond some sustainable limit are unstable and will crash at some time. For other than human species, populations are maintained at sustainable levels by predators, disease, and the availability of food. For humans, none of these three factors are relevant. Humans are at the very top of the predator chain and have no predators beside other humans acting in times of war and domestic violence. Diseases still do kill humans, but have largely been brought under control through medication and vaccination. The present pandemic is severe, but will not make a significant dent in global population levels—total global death are currently around 1,500,000 with a vaccine on the way. The major factor in allowing population to exceed some safe limit is the availability of food. Malthus’s dire prediction has been overturned by modern agricultural methods that permit sufficient food production to feed all the people on Earth. Distribution of this supply is uneven, however, so that poorer societies have shorter and less healthy lives.
Population growth is not uniform with higher rates correlated with poorer societies. Affluent societies approach or attain replacement level after some level of wealth has been reached. Population growth levels, as measured by the difference between birth and deaths per capita, in the poorest countries are around 4 times that of the United States. China and the United States are about the same. Most of the continued growth occurs in these poorer countries. About half the global population is at or less than replacement rate. Poorer countries still have very high rates relative to replacement, e.g., many African countries are a 5-6 times the replacement rate. The Chinese one-child policy was located at this level, but had its roots in the level that follows.
Why #5 Why are some countries far exceeding replacement rates?
Answer #5. The simplest answer to this question is poverty. The connection between population growth and wealth is quite strong and is being demonstrated in the two largest nations on the Planet. China has already attained replacement and India is approaching it. With a very short life span due to disease, war and famine, families in poor countries have more children, in part to maintain the species and in part to assure adequate labor for the survivors. Birth control is relatively unavailable and educational levels so low as to render it ineffective. International relief efforts mitigate these causes somewhat, especially in eradicating traditional sources of endemic diseases, but may have perverse effects by lengthening life span without reducing birth rates. Current aid programs are far too little to mitigate the maldistribution in affluence.
Why #6 Why are some societies so poor and others so rich? (Because the Earth System is so complex and interconnected, it has taken more than five “whys” to get to this point.)
Answer #6. Again the answer has multiple aspects but most can be traced to the dominance of the left-brain. The left-brain seeks to control the world and has been very successful in doing this, as evidenced by the rise of affluence globally. It is behind the growth of scientific and technological knowledge with which the productive structures of modern cultures are erected. It is also behind the colonial imperatives that impoverished much of those societies that remain very poor. Conversely, the role of the connected right-hemisphere has been reduced, dimming recognition of the connectedness of all humans as a species and our species interconnections to and dependence on the global eco-system.
We are one of a few so-called (by the sociobiologist E. O. Wilson) eu-social species, able to co-operate in manifold ways, mediated by our linguistic capabilities. It is likely that this characteristic of H. sapiens was instrumental in our development to become the dominant species on Earth. But the right hemisphere of the brain and our caring nature has shrunk to the point that cultural sub-species, defined by national boundaries, races, religions and other delimiting traits, cannot recognize that the ties that bind us together and to the earth are critical to our survival. (See Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary)
Climate change and global poverty in a world of vast riches is a classic case of the tragedy of the commons. The wealthy, left-brain societies see no end to the wealth that is available by exploiting the global commons, and have constructed political economies around continued growth as the keystone. The left-brain, in individuals and in a metaphoric collective sense applied to societies and institutions, cannot apprehend complexity and fails to account for the internal interconnectedness that is producing the very problems that are being faced. The modern left-brain tends to homogenize or commoditize people and ecosystems and fail to account for the variations that actually drive system behavior.
Pathway 2: Material Consumption
Why #4. Why do people in developed countries want evermore material goods?
Answer#4 Because major political economical institutions reflect norms and beliefs based on the Smithian/Maslovian model of human nature that argues that people are insatiable need-satisfying creatures. This belief underlies neoclassical economics and drives economic policy in every industrialized and industrializing nation. Nobody is paying any attention to this level. Technology, policy, and cultural norms are continuing to strengthen the collective left-brain.
Why #5 Why are people needy?
Answer #5 Because the left-brain hemisphere has taken charge and runs modern, industrial consumption-based societies. Modern, industrialized societies are fundamental left-brained and ignore the systemic consequences of growth. The left-brain demands certainty and believes it can provide it by using technological and technocratic means to control and manipulate the social and natural worlds.
Why #6 Why has the left-brain taken over?
Answer #6. Because since the beginning of modernity, from the Enlightenment onward, literacy and science have built the power of the left-brain at the expense of the right. Awareness of and attention to the connection between people and the natural system have diminished as the right-brain’s role has been fading. The subjugation of the empathetic, caring aspect of human “nature” has paralleled the growth of the analytic, detached left brain.
This is where the chain of why’s ends and points to the place where permanent remedies for climate change and other system threats must start. The Earth System in which all the issues discussed here take place is complex with manifold interconnections between human institutions and the natural system. One reason that most analyses stop at the first or second question is that the dominant left brain deals very poorly with complexity and always wants to take things out of context so that it can work with a simple linear cause-effect way of solving problems.
Climate change cannot be effectively addressed without attending to both branches of this simple, but powerful, root-cause analysis. Ultimately, the solution rests in restoring the brain’s balance so that the connectedness of the right brain will not allow the left to ignore the roots of the matter. If and when the right-brain takes the reins, humans will spend more time nurturing relations with others and with the non-human world than looking for things to consume beyond what they need to exercise their caring half. Technology will and should play a role in holding off the tipping point when the instability grows beyond our capability to cope long enough to allow the cognitive shift to take place, but must not become the primary path to success.
The affluent world is clearly more responsible for the present threat level and has the means to reduce it, but any significant move will take a paradigmatic shift in mindset. We have known this ever since the publication of Our Common Future (the Brundtland Report), but have yet to take it seriously. The richer nations continue to grow, not yet sustainably by any measure, and have left the poorer ones to struggle with the insidious effects of wide-spread, systemic poverty on the Planet.
The complexity of the situation does not permit precise predictions so it is impossible to treat this as a simple, but complicated problem, addressable by the usual analytic frameworks. Yet that is what almost all conversation about climate change is based on. The right-brain is telling us to begin at the bottom level right now.
What do we mean by “normal behavior”? People responding normally to institutions, small and large. Even to the institutional structure of societies, in which other institutions are nested. Anthony Giddens’ structuration theory provides a useful frame in understanding what kind of rules and resources create what would be deemed “normal” behaviors: going shopping, watching certain kinds of sporting events, voting, for example (In the US). Only people behave. We may attribute some behavior to a reified entity, like a business, but it is only the people that actually behave/act. Companies may have been given a voice in the US, legally, but, in actuality, only people are acting. Their acts produce what may be seen as a company’s behavior. If you change the way the employees think about the world, the organization’s “behavior” will also change. Giddens argues persuasively (for me) that there is a dialectic relationship between individual and institutional behaviors.
I see you drawing these conclusions, although not in this language:
- The deepest source of our troubles is that we who are Modern Techno-Industrial (MTI) persons in MTI cultures have inherited and been formed by cultures which develop us as half-brained persons in half-brained cultures. For official purposes and in official places we are left-brained. On our own time and space we can be right-brained if we like that kind of thing. Do not bring a whole person, with a whole brain to work in any official sector of our MTI economies/societies.
- The price we who are MTI persons in MTI cultures must pay in order to become truly sustainable is that we must evolve into whole-brained persons who are consciously participating in the co-creation of cultures which both express and reinforce a whole-brained sense of reality and life.
At this point at least two questions arise:
- Is the work of becoming, evolving into, full-brained persons and cultures compatible with our MTI form of civilization and the MTI cultures which exemplify it? Can we who are MTI persons in MTI cultures become whole-brained as long as we continue to embrace and even reinforce our formation as MTI persons in MTI cultures?
- If the answer to A is “no”, then does this imply that the work of becoming sustainable is less about the kind of technical fixes now being pursued in order to improve and extend our MTI ways of being and living and far more about engaging in what for our species is an utterly new kind of work, namely, consciously and reflexively learning to understand and transcend our MTI formation as persons, groups and cultures as we seek to evolve into whole-brained persons, living in cultures which consciously express and reinforce a new form of civilization – one that is whole-brained?
As I read you, your answer to A is “no,” and to B is “yes.”
If this is the case, then I conclude that we are in both deeper and quite different trouble as MTI cultures than we now think we are. As I read the official elements of our MTI cultures, including much that is undertaken in the name of “sustainability”, we answer question A with “Yes”. Therefore, we do not ever raise question B.
If this is the case, then mostly we are spinning our wheels. We have activity, but little in the way of motion towards a truly sustainable world.
If the above is at all sound, then it seems to me that we should add “our MTI ways of knowing, seeing, thinking and being” to our lists of “existential threats” to the future of humanity and so much that we love.
Sadly, this item is not on any such list or on the agenda of any significant institution, at least not that I know of.
Nate Hagens talks of us being “energy blind.” It appears to me that we are also blind to the reality you have been trying to get us to see – that the roots of our troubles lie in the soil provided by our MTI form of civilization – the only form of civilization to date which lacks an integral sense of the human brain, human persons and life. Therefore, we do not see that the core work of the 21st Century is not to improve and extend our MTI cultures by making them to be sustainable. Rather, it is to transcend our formation and consciously participate in the co-creation of the next form of human civilization. In short, we need a major change of imagination and the focus of our work.
Is there any evidence that spirituality, Buddhist meditation, or right-brained-ness is associated with walking a little lighter on this planet? I personally and scientifically doubt it. It may have a small effect, but would not outstrip the effects of someone’s income (material means/capabilities). Such studies would not be that hard to do though. With all the work demonstrating that some of people’s attitudes and values can be reflected in brain scans, I think that someone should find, create, or identify some evidence out there.
John de Graaf
I suspect that the real antidote to consumerism is the re-enchantment of the natural world, the restoration among children especially of a sense of awe and wonder that immersion in nature and the world’s beauty can offer. Eugene McCarraher makes a strong case for this “Romantic” view in his huge assault of the religion of consumerism, THE ENCHANTMENTS OF MAMMON.
We’re seeing some of that re-enchantment in the Parks RX movement, which helps improve the health (and happiness) of many poor children. In some ways, consumerism is an effort to fill a soul empty of a sense of purpose, wonder, beauty or connection.
Our studies with the Happiness Initiative find, for example, that those living in place they consider somewhat beautiful or beautiful score TWO FULL POINTS OUT OF TEN higher in life satisfaction than those who consider their habitation ugly or somewhat ugly. This is a factor equal to social connection, and higher than health or wealth.
Natural beauty or fine architecture–instead of the cold towers we build for finance and industry–slows people down, attracts their attention, requires less need for products to counter boredom. People in cities with abundant trees, narrow winding streets, more parks and green space, varied architecture, etc. drive less, consume less.
White westerners really do not have any idea about the relationship between religion and degrowth. The only way to make some progress on it is to listen to indigenous, black and minorities.
Contrary to what many believe, meditation is a process of opening up to both what is going on inside us and outside us. So mediation doesn’t ‘shut out’ anything or turn inward at the expense of the outer. A person may then decide to let in what is useful and shut out or limit other things so they can engage in the world productively. Meditation is training for engaging in the world, not a goal in itself. An awareness of the raw experience of our existence with an understanding of what Thích Nhất Hạnh (the well-known Vietnamese monk) called ‘interbeing’ shows us that we are not separate from the natural world, or each other.
Buddhism — an incredibly diverse religious and intellectual tradition which can be generally understood as the pursuit of trying to understand the nature of reality — does indeed offer many helpful analytical frameworks. And some of the practices for training the mind (i.e., meditation) certainly could be helpful in addressing the root of so many of the manifest problems that concern us here on this listserv. (From my perspective, all religions, offer some useful framing, but it’s not always as explicit or obvious as it appears to many to be in Buddhism.)
But I think there is a host of reasons why this theme doesn’t get recognized or discussed more. Religion (no matter how “secularly” presented) is a complicated subject with an even more complicated relationship to scientific inquiry and public discourse, we don’t have a common basis of understanding without which it’s more difficult to engage in meaningful conversation, it’s not clear to many what we would do with the insights once acknowledged, the approach that such frameworks and forms of practice suggest may seem too individual and slow to matter relative to the scale of the problems we’re often talking about, the subject makes many people uncomfortable… to name just a few. This is not to say that it could not be a fruitful part of the conversation, just that there are obstacles.
Spirituality (broadly defined as a fundamental dimension of human life related to meaning and purpose) is pretty blatantly absent in the usual ways of teaching, studying, experiencing, and acting in socio-environmental phenomena, and that its absence is a detriment, especially at a time when new values/culture/story/and so on are being called for.
My current focus on spiritually stems from study of Marx’s critique of capitalism. Marx was openly and deeply influenced in his early work by Ludwig Feuerbach’s critique of Christianity. Looking closely at the foundation of his critique of capital in the Grundrisse, it appears to me that the influence persisted, perhaps unconsciously. Likewise, the middle class political economy Marx criticized inherited some of the larger defects of religion without its saving graces. Erich Fromm, I believe, tried to call attention to the latter in the hopes of invigorating a spiritually aware secularism. Although he doesn’t mention Fromm in his book, This Life: secular faith and spiritual freedom, Martin Hägglund continues what Fromm started in a very compelling way.
I argue that what is wrong with capitalism is very similar to what was wrong with religion in the early 19th century. Religion subordinated the pursuit of spirituality to fear and trembling before the supernatural. Capital subordinates the material production of necessities to the production of superfluous goods and surplus value.
Science works by intentionally snatching pieces of reality out of the context in which they appear, both in time and space. It also fails to attach any meaning to what it reveals and leaves that to the humans who would apply its knowledge.
It is very important to keep clear the distinction between spirituality and religion. Religion is an institution, like any other, and is constituted by its structure of rules and resources. Spirituality refers to personal experiences that transcend normal ones. Explanations, if any can be found, must rely on faith since they cannot be reasonably argued. Transcendent experiences arise when one is connected to the immediate world and the constant chatter about what to do right now is quiescent. For the curious, it raises questions about the cosmos outside of the realm of science, questions dealing with meaning about life and its place in the cosmos. For the uncurious, it is a call to religion where an explanation might be provided.
For the curious, there is a way to explore the sense that there is more to know about the world than science can provide, called pragmatism. It involves careful observations of the context-rich world and a cognitive process, named abduction by Peirce. He wrote, “[a]abduction is the process of forming explanatory hypotheses. It is the only logical operation which introduces any new idea.” Pragmatism reveals “beliefs” or “truths” about the real world that science cannot because science is always just looking at a piece of it. Whereas science has a standard of “truthfulness,” pragmatism does not. The proof is only in the pudding. The correctness of what emerges from pragmatic inquiry can be known only by observing the results of applying any new understanding.
Others and I have been arguing that the mess we are in is the result of our normal behaviors within the institutions of modern societies, including the belief that science will give us the facts on which we can solve all our problems and design these institutions to get us what we want. Treatments like wicked problems, Ackoff’s messes, systems dynamics archetypes, at least, relate to this explanation of the mess we are in. So does the divided-brain-model, in spades. That’s why I invoke it. Spirituality (not religion), and pragmatism are cognitive processes that are “run” by the right-hemisphere, and rely on its being connected, via the senses, to the immediate world. Normal science is the epitome of left-hemisphere re-cognition, using facts (beliefs, etc) to control behavior, but so is all routine or habitual behavior. All three of these categories constitute the normality that has generated the unintended consequences that all of us on this listserver care about.
Einstein said it in several different ways. One is about doing things over and over again (normality) and expecting them to turn out differently is insanity. Another is the impossibility of solving our problems with the same things that created them. Science will not discover or eliminate the root causes of our messes. It can help, perhaps, in giving us time to discover a better path forward. We have a better shot at identifying the path through practices like pragmatic inquiry and meditation, both of which quiet the left-hemisphere, and connect us to the real world. There is no way we are going to think our way out of this mess, but we can try to find it, otherwise. And that will take a lot of time and there is no certainty that we will find the “right” way. Pragmatic inquiry can never do more than offer possibilities. Certainty belongs only to the theories held in the left-hemisphere.
Modernity, with its belief in science and extreme levels of literacy, has resulted in a highly left-hemisphere dominated culture, that reflects the way the individual brain has developed. Our species is, appropriately, named Homo sapiens or Home economicus. At times over our history on Earth, the balance of the hemispheres was the opposite. We might have been called Home curitans, caring humans, because our behaviors would accounted for the “needs” of the actual world of living and inanimate things, not some replica stored in our brains. Indigenous cultures still demonstrate more of such behaviors than our modern, so called civilized, cultures. What I have been arguing is that such caring behaviors, rather that the routines and habits based on the left-brain’s instrumental view of the planet, would, possibly, avoid creating such dreadful unintended consequences. I do not see another such possibility at this moment. Just as humans have changed the Planet, as we are now close to designating a new geologic period, the Anthropocene, we can create a new species by deliberately re-designing our dominant self (ontological design) and our institutions to energize that caring self. Just imagine what the world might be like if humans cared for one another and the Planet, rather than acting as if these were merely objects to be used somehow.
ps. Yes, capitalism is certainly at issue, but simply as a set of beliefs and norms, that has produced the unintended consequences underlying all the messes we face. Something new is necessary, but we cannot think of what it is because that is how we got into this mess. Critical thinking about capitalism or any other ism might help us get started, but that is as far as it will take us. We have to try out new ways of being together.
The point is to learn to stand apart from our formation as MTI persons in MTI cultures enough to realize that all homo sapiens live within a reality that is ambiguous enough to be experienced in profoundly different ways; that the MTI way of experiencing and responding to reality is only one of the ways our species has developed over our 300,000 year journey; that our MTI ways of knowing and responding to reality are only that – one of the ways of experiencing and interpreting the universe as homo sapiens; that the question of the “fitness” of our whole MTI form of civilization now needs to be on the table in any conversation having to do with the sustainability of human cultures; that at this level there is no way of testing the adequacy of a given way of experiencing, being present in and responding to reality other than by its truly long-term (tens of thousands of years) sustainability and the degree to which its societies, communities and persons thrive. Sadly, these measures are themselves somewhat ambiguous and beyond the ken of a single, or even a few, generations. Tragically, the evidence is piling us that today MTI cultures are neither sustainable nor fit for human thriving.
At this level of the “game” (Wittgenstein’s use of the term) it turns out that the quality of our knowing is directly related to the quality of the culture that has formed us and our qualities as persons. In short, knowing reliably at this level is a deeply personal and communal activity. In this work, the impersonal “objective” stance of MTI science does not work.
The deepest existential threat to life on this planet may well be the core character of the MTI way of presenting ourselves to, experiencing, understanding, knowing and responding to reality. I note that this threat is not yet on any of the growing number of lists of “existential threats/risks to humanity.” In short, we who are MTI persons and cultures still appear to be fully confident that it is safe and sane to use and trust our MTI ways of grasping and responding to reality as we seek to increase the sustainability of our cultures and the degree to which they enable us to thrive. Sadly, we do not yet know we have bet our lives and our grandchildren’s future on a perspective we have yet to understand, let alone test for adequacy.
We are trying to be heard to say that Einstein’s quip about not being able to deal with troubling conditions with the same level of thinking which created them fully applies to our MTI form of civilization. If at all the case, then much of what is today a multi-billion dollar sustainability industry needs to be re-imagined, re-formulated and re-cast as a journey that is personal-to-civilizational in depth and scope. The longer we remain faithful to our formation as MTI persons and cultures, the more we put our future, and that of much that we love, at risk. We have no long-term future as MTI persons, institution, economies and cultures. For good and ill, MTI cultures entail the “cannibalization” of the planet and living things, including humans. No matter how you try to square this circle, the result is the same. Ecological overshoot is a feature, not a bug. No amount of “sustainability” work will save MTI cultures as MTI cultures. MTI cultures are already into a longish disintegration and collapse. (Collapse, a la Joe Tainter, is caused by the inability to maintain the levels of complexity previously achieved.)
In my mind, the next question is this: Within what frames of reference do we process and respond to the above insights about the time-limited nature of MTI cultures?
Most MTI scientists say, in effect, that “the best of our MTI science has led us to these insights, so it must be reasonable to continue to use the best MTI science to plumb the depths of the messes we are in and find a way through them. Let’s get on with it.” The sustainability industry makes sense in this light.
The architype of what I am saying is actually very familiar in human history. Both mothers and prophets say, “If you continue to be who you have become, things will not end well for you.” Note that they are not merely saying, “if you continue to behave the way you are now behaving, things will end badly.” They see a deeper root of your troubles. It is in the way your character is now formed. This does not mean that there is no way out. It does mean that there is no way out “if you maintain your present character (and all that that entails,).” The italics are critical. In short, the way out entails learning to see what you have become, owning up to it, regretting it and engaging in a re-formation of your deepest character. The Greek word for this is ‘metanoia’.
This is what I am saying to us as MTI persons in MTI cultures. “We have no future as MTI persons in MTI cultures. However, we know that new forms of human civilization can emerge in human history, because at least three forms have emerged: the small group Indigenous (hunter gatherer) form, the settled agriculture-based form and the MTI form. Therefore, in principle, it may be possible for those of us who are MTI persons in MTI cultures to put our body, heart, mind and spirits to the co-creation of the next form of human civilization. But if we do, we must come to terms with what we have become.” If the price we must pay for a future in which life thrives is to engage in personal-to-civilizational transcendence (P2CT) then so be it.
So the question I wrestle with becomes, “How do we learn to work with, support, assist the new work of enabling persons and institutions in MTI cultures to see the need to cooperate with their own evolution as they willingly outgrow their MTI selves at every scale from the personal to civilizational?”
And to do this knowing that to undertake such work we cannot simply rely on even the best of our MTI ways of knowing. Rather, we must develop our personal and community capacity for reflexivity and even meta-reflexivity which enables us to see and wrestle with the deep unconscious patterns which define the MTI form of civilization. Without this new capacity, we will likely do something we who are MTI are really good at – inventing a “new” innovation which we declare to be a new paradigm, when in fact all we have done is repaint the barn and call it a new building.
At the least, I am asking, “How much of our efforts at becoming sustainable are trying to hold on to, rescue, redeem our MTI ways of being and living and how much is clear eyed about the need and the possibility of transcending who we now are and what we have now become?”
Should we form small working groups or discussion groups to explore these issues in more depth?
-a discussion/ working group on spirituality, sufficiency and consumption/ consumerism
-a discussion group on capitalism, degrowth, sufficiency and consumption/ consumerism
The KAN SSCP has a working group on Political Economy of SCP; they published a paper: Manu V. Mathai; Cindy Isenhour; Dimitris Stevis; Philip Vergragt; Magnus Bengtsson; Sylvia Lorek; Lars Fogh Mortensen; Luca Coscieme; David Scott; Ambreen Waheed; Eva Alfredsson. 2021. The Political Economy of (Un)Sustainable Production and Consumption: A Multidisciplinary Synthesis for Research and Action. Resources, Conservation and Recycling 2021 (Vol 167) doi.org/10.1016/j.resconrec.2020.105265
The group could present itself on the listserv, Newsletter, and website; could have 1-2 monthly on-line meetings, and could discuss their own agendas.
If one is to accept the rhetoric that the climate crisis and impending environmental collapse require a “whole of society response” then it is clear that a plurality of opinions, theories and practices will need to be considered and certain points of unity (be it in thought, action, policy etc) established that allow us to, indeed, work as a whole of society. In essence, to move from othering one another to building bonds of belonging will be key in mobilizing increasing numbers to exert less pressure on the planet.
At the same time, to reduce the concepts of religion and spirituality to the practice of meditation or the relative “sustainability” of one movement as compared to another is simply that, reductive. There are those who contend that religion is a system or source of knowledge complementary to scientific inquiry. Where science develops the capabilities to observe, measure and rigorously test ideas, religion can provide the moral and spiritual frameworks that guide or influence behavior. And while we have excelled in attaching value to things like fossil fuels, labor and so on we seem to have struggled to understand the worth of values such as sacrifice and justice as well as how to inculcate such values in people.
I support the suggestion to form a discussion/working group on spirituality, sufficiency and consumption/consumerism and would be happy to act as a convenor/focal point for such a group.