We need to start seeding the next civilisation, because this one is finished
Summary: This civilisation (meaning: the vast majority now of human life on Earth) will be transformed:
It will either collapse utterly.
Or it (we) will manage to seed a future successor-civilisation, as this one collapses.
Or this civilisation will somehow manage to transform itself radically and rapidly, in an unprecedented manner, in time to avert collapse.
The 3rd option is by far the least likely, though the most desirable (because either of the other options will involve unprecedentedly vast suffering and death).
The 2nd option is possible, though still very difficult to achieve.
The 1st option is by far the most likely.
The chance of complete catastrophe is thus very high. But the logic of the Precautionary Principle applies: just as one must take every effort to avoid catastrophe even if the chances of it happening are low / non-calculable, so one must take every effort to avoid catastrophe even if the chances of it happening are very high, as they now are.
Any of these three options will involve a transformation of such extreme magnitude that what emerges will no longer in any meaningful sense be this civilisation: the change will be at minimum of the kind of extreme conceptual and existential magnitude that Thomas Kuhn calls ‘revolutionary’. Thus my conclusion: that, one way or another, this civilisation is finished. It may run in the air, suspended over the edge of a cliff, for a little longer. But it will either crash to complete grief, seed something radically different from itself from within its dying body, or somehow get back to safety on the cliff-edge. Managing to do that would involve some extraordinary change that means that what came back to safety would still no longer in any meaningful sense be this civilisation.
“There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries, who have the laws in their favour; and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.” – Machiavelli.
While doing some election-leafletting for the Green Party recently, going from door to door and seeing what was over and over again in the various front gardens (litter, discarded/broken toys, ‘hard standing’, multiple broken-down cars, brand new BMWs, 4x4s, nice flower-beds ‘tended’ by weed-killer, etc.), I found some words coming to me unbidden. And echoing through my head, over and over. The words were these: “This civilisation is probably finished.”
It is, I now believe, time for some plain-speaking. Those of us who have woken up to the reality of our extreme predicament need to speak out and speak up.
We need to stop pretending that there is a good chance of things getting better.
We need to do this somehow in a way that gets listened to, without our being dismissed as misanthropes. And without fomenting merely an empty cynicism that finds in our words only confirmation of its desire to not have to do or risk or feel anything.
The awful truth: This civilisation is probably finished. A throw-away society; hardly even a society at all: materialistic, atomised and atomising, tending strongly toward narcissism, often mutually indifferent, with extraordinarily little sense of the past and extraordinarily little care for the future… This civilisation is hurtling into toward a brick wall, and collapse. Those of us struggling to actually do the right thing, and sometimes even successfully bringing about genuine improvements, just cannot (it seems) outweigh the general trend.
Actually, so far in this piece I’ve been too optimistic-sounding… Having thought about this a great deal since I started writing this piece, I now realise that the title I have actually given this piece is more accurate.
This civilisation is finished.
Here’s why. What follows summarises the argument that I will make in the remainder of this piece:
By “this civilisation” I mean the vast majority now of human life on Earth. For we increasingly do live in one large world civilisation. Now, it would be defeatist to write as if that civilisation has already achieved some total global hegemony. Outposts of alternatives to this global civilisation still exist. They include obviously most of the remaining indigenous societies, as examined for instance in Diamond’s useful book ‘The world since yesterday’. They include those undestroyed fragments still remaining of (say) Helena Norberg-Hodge’s Ladakh. Like seed banks (see below), these badly need to be preserved and cherished. But our civilisation – the globally almost-wholly hegemonic civilisation – will be transformed:
It will either collapse utterly, having failed to learn in time from the indigenous etc. alternatives to it.
Or it (we) will manage to seed – to birth – a future successor-civilisation, as this one collapses.
Or this civilisation will somehow manage to transform itself radically and rapidly, in an unprecedented manner, in time to avert collapse.
The 3rd option is the least likely, though the most desirable (because either of the other options will involve unprecedentedly vast suffering and death).
The 2nd option is possible, though still very very difficult to achieve.
The 1st option is by far the most likely.
The chance of complete catastrophe is thus very high. But the general logic of the Precautionary Principle applies: just as one must take every effort to avoid catastrophe even if the chances of it happening are low / non-calculable, so one must take every effort to avoid catastrophe even if the chances of it happening are very high, as they now are.
Any of these three options will involve a transformation of such extreme magnitude that what emerges will no longer in any meaningful sense be this civilisation: the change will be at minimum of the kind of extreme conceptual and existential magnitude that Thomas Kuhn calls ‘revolutionary’. Thus the conclusion that I shall argue for in what follows: that, one way or another, this civilisation is finished. It may run in the air, suspended over the edge of a cliff, for a little longer. But it will either crash to complete grief, seed something radically different from itself from within its dying body, or somehow get back to safety on the cliff-edge. Managing to do that would involve some extraordinary change that means that what came back to safety would still no longer in any meaningful sense be this civilisation.
As our predicament grows ever graver, with so little time left within which we might conceivably be able to turn this supertanker around, the situation appears to accelerate away from us (https://thinkprogress.org/trump-budget-noaa-scary-885d90b4b7c3#.pgm332ask ). The very things we so badly need now – long-termism, a strong base in and connection with nature, a strong collective spirit, the ability to put the most destructive forces (limited liability corporations, the super-rich, long-distance international trade, flying) on a leash – are receding from us, as we retreat into the comfort of our screens. Our civilisation is virtually finished in both senses: it is at its very last gasp (and, worse still, it does not even understand this, as yet) … and it is being finished off, it seems, in part through a withdrawal from reality into the comfort of narcissistic online pleasures and online ‘tribes’, some of them viciously destructive and vindictive, and quite absurdly unmoored.
As the ‘white swan’ of climate catastrophe bears down on us, we do not pull together to stop it, we do not even stay stationary: we race toward it at roughly the speed of economic growth, or even faster (for the actions that the likes of May and Trump are taking may or may not ‘successfully’ (sic) grow the economy, but they will devastate many ecosystems: that, we know for sure: https://thinkprogress.org/trump-putin-and-exxonmobil-team-up-to-destroy-the-planet-fb88650acfa1#.vch2ghfo0 ).
And we comfort ourselves meanwhile with absurd delusions: of ‘green growth’, of ‘‘sustainable’ development’; or of flight to Mars or even other solar systems or galaxies. Technophilia and neo-‘Promethean’ nonsenses run rampant; humility, thoughtfulness, slowness are utterly alien to the ‘zeitgeist’.
This last is one of the most depressing aspects of the whole thing. Wonderful tendencies toward sense and sanity — such as the ‘Slow Food’ movement — are outweighed by the constant ‘speed-up’ of our culture as a whole, witnessed by a never-diminishing number of fast-food outlets and the like. Furthermore, virtually the whole of the political world including most intellectuals, most activists and most young people just are not on the right side of this issue.
We live in anti-scientific times. Because people aren’t persuaded by facts, aren’t living in any kind of harmony with the truth. They are persuaded, rather, by technologies. In both senses:
(1) People are persuaded by technologies in the sense of being more or less willingly manipulated by those technologies; the sinister way that Trump won election is merely the most vivid and worrying recent example of this: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/feb/26/robert-mercer-breitbart-war-on-media-steve-bannon-donald-trump-nigel-farage .
(2) People are persuaded by technologies in the sense of giving up all their rational faculties in favour of wild technophilic dreams. Like that of ‘space-colonies’ etc. .
The great challenge that faces us is the challenge of birthing some new kind of way of thinking, facing, accepting reality. And enjoying reality. Stuck in their screens, in their cells, while the world dies, most of us are increasingly missing the profound charm and beauty of life itself. And when we are presented with an emergency-scenario then, if we allow ourselves to believe it at all, we reach immediately for techno-fix that will allow us to continue to wallow in our machine-dreams. Meanwhile, a dictionary of scare-words is deployed to prevent thought that veers even slightly outside this madly technophilic ‘mainstream’: words like “apocalyptic”, “Luddite”, “alarmist”, “doom-monger”.
More technofixes just wind us even deeper within the cold, dead embrace of ‘progress’. We should instead stop and notice that when people say “You can’t stop progress”, they usually do it with a sad sigh. I.e. Tacitly admitting that things are actually getting worse. That that is what is called ‘progress’: things getting worse.
So we need a whole different way of thinking and being. Being ‘ethical consumers’, for instance, does not even begin to be a solution. For it still leaves us stuck exactly where advertisers and ‘producers’ want us (the scare quotes around the word ‘producers’, by the way, are necessary – for ‘producers’ don’t really produce anything; they simply harvest or harness or rip up the living ecosphere). They want us identifying first and foremost as beings whose destiny is, allegedly, to consume their (our) home. The ultimate consumer-product is the consumer themselves. The very idea of ourselves as consumers is the most brilliant, successful gambit, of the marketers.
But it’s more even than the consumer that is being produced. It is an entire disposition toward the world. A whole way of being in the world. Or rather, to be more precise, and to update Heidegger: a way of not being in the world.
Our being now is evermore not-being-in-the-world. And that is of course why life is getting worse: less meaningful, less wild, less connected, less present. We need, in the face of this, to affirm life, and to overcome the great temptation, that I explore further below, to withdraw completely (rather than just tactically or temporarily). We need to love life – knowing that, because of the self-undermining industrial-growth juggernaut, we don’t know how long we’ve got. That can of course make the sense of each moment more piquant.
We appear to be so thoroughly caught up in the ideology of ’progress’ that even many of us who are highly intelligent don’t quite notice that life is on balance getting worse. I stress: on balance. We shouldn’t forget – that, mainly (frankly) because of the sterling efforts of people like us – some things have (of course) got better, and some things continue to get better. Think of the unacceptability today in large chunks of the world of anti-gay prejudice, or of anti-Semitism, for instance. This is an achievement that has been won… as we overcrowd ourselves and ‘develop’ ourselves to death.
Somehow folk can’t figure out that this paradigm is over (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbQHe3d9_lQ ):
On the Right, venerable traditions of true conservatism (conservation, caution, looking to preserve the last for the future) have almost entirely collapsed in favour of an embrace of neoliberalism and libertarianism, profoundly destructive faiths.
On the ‘Left’, there is either a sell-out embrace of the same gods (of neoliberalism and growthism), and/or an endless journey into liberal-individualist identity-consumerism.
The latter is a particularly worrying trend. Consider these famous words, from the founding statement of the Combahee River Collective. This was the first ever coining of the term ‘identity politics’. In it, the seeds of our contemporary disaster of divisive identity politics are already clear:
“We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.”
This thought may have been fine, even perhaps entirely necessary, for that group of black women at that time trying, understandably and rightly, to make feminism more representative. But it is a dangerous idea in terms of blocking projects of assembling majorities for socio-political transformation; and it is a cataclysmic idea for animal rights, for environmentalism, and for activism on behalf of future people. For the latter movements are by definition concerned with working to end ‘somebody else’s’ oppression.
This danger and this cataclysm are now writ large, in this age of narcissism of ours: in our politics and in the world slipping away from our grasp. One now encounters regularly an obsession, obsessively policed, with being ‘obliged’ to focus on ‘your own’ oppression (unless you are unlucky enough to be a well-off straight white male, etc., in which case, so long as that remains your ‘chosen’ identity, there is virtually ‘nothing you can do’) – and being prohibited from discussing / remedying anyone else’s oppression.
Meanwhile, most animals that enter into our orbit suffer an eternal Treblinka, and the living Earth itself and all its countless future humans are on the verge on being rendered more or less extinct. But still, the insistence escalates: concentrate only on ‘your own’ identity: do not seek to end anyone else’s oppression.
The narcissism of extreme identity politics involves a systematic retreat into the present, and into the self. It motivates idiocies such as people saying thing like “We don’t know what future generations will need, and it is presumptuous to speak for them. Therefore we should focus on the present. We should focus on liberating ourselves.” (Perhaps this point also helps to explain the incredible level of coldness among ‘progressives’ to great international causes like the Arab Spring, in recent years. ‘Solidarity’ as a value and virtue seems to have disappeared.)
So much for identity politics. As I already hinted above we see everywhere, including on the ‘Left’, additionally a complementary, vast, pseudo-religious idolatry of technology, a faith in machines to free us from work and even to send us to new ‘space-colonies’. This pseudo-Promethean human-centredness (aka self-centredness) involves a vast industry of denial, whether that be the ‘full-on’ honestly-dishonest climate-denial which still, pathetically, exists and indeed flourishes, or the ‘softer’ denial of most of our lives and of our professed hopes for ‘progress’, today. A kinder, gentler stamping of our footprint into the very faces of our descendants… (To vary Orwell: you want to know what the future looks like? Picture a massively oversized human footprint stamping on all of nature and on our very children, forever. Except: that “forever” may not last long, because the stamper will end up stamping himself out, too…)
Most people, even most of the ‘right-on’, are stuck deep into ways of thinking, into assumptions and habits, into dependence on technologies and practices, that commit us to mutual self-destruction. How many ‘environmentalists’ are (going to be) willing to give up their cheap flights? How many of the rich will embrace voluntary simplicity? How many of the poor will forebear to seek to ‘rise up’ to join the rich? How many of us are willing truly to throw our lives into the common cause of stopping the juggernaut? How many of us are even willing to put our money (I mean: thousands upon thousands of pounds, not just the odd tenner) into this struggle for life’s survival? How many of us are actually wiling to say ‘Enough!’ to the growth of the juggernaut, symbolised effectively by the road-building that virtually all Parties and Governments endlessly undertake?
Very few, it would seem. I salute the exceptions to the rule. But our ‘rulers’, sadly, exhibit the rule, not the exception. Our ruling ideas, as well as our ruling class, are just not up to the task which now imposes itself on us. Denial in effect saturates our civilisation.
The situation is directly akin to the explored in Kazuo Ishiguro’s superb, haunting sci-fi work, ‘Never let me go’, which imagines our health being dependent on the sacrifice of that of others. Will we actually be wiling to do the right thing? or are we too selfish? Here is what Miss Emily says, close to the close of that devastating work: “There was no way to reverse the process. How can you ask a world that has come to regard cancer as curable, how can you ask such a world to put away that cure, to go back to the dark days? There was no going back.” The analogue is precise: How can you ask a world that has come to regard many diseases as curable given high-tech interventions, how can you ask such