Wednesday, 27 August 2014

The Tyranny of Me

The world is moving so fast. Its pace is matched by its exponentially increasing size and complexity. All together it’s not an easy task to make sense of it all. A huge amount of observation, study and contemplation is needed to even get a little bit of understanding happening. I think I’m just beginning to understand the 1970s, and I wonder whether this 40 year lag between events and any substantial form of true awareness – about what the heck is really going on – is normal. If so, this would explain, to some extent, why the people who are protesting the state of the world, and who are wanting positive change, are having such a tough time of it. The current crop of change agents (the awkward but so far best attempt to describe themselves) have strong and honest gut feelings that the world is upside down, but without the luxury of 40 years of hindsight and consequent wisdom they struggle to explain, in any simple and convincing way, that the world is actually broken and that we are madly accelerating to an unimaginable, but certainly unpleasant, future.

Most of us, even with the “something’s not quite right” nausea kicking in, find that it’s much easier  to be pragmatic, to not ask too many questions, and to commit oneself to playing the game of life as hard and as clever as possible. The fear of drowning – in measurably rising waters – feeds our frantic struggles to stay afloat and dulls our curiosity to wonder “why is this so?” The frequent lament that it is the conservative controlled mainstream media that keeps us toiling in the dark, by selective editing and downright lies, is becoming a tired old excuse when deep down we know that the truth – when eloquently and sensitively articulated – will spread faster and permeate deeper than any sensationalised headline, titillating celebrity gossip, or cute internet meme that goes viral for a day or two.  At least that is my opinion. I propose that, as yet, no one or no group has been able to voice, in a universal and profound way, the what, why, who, when, where and how of the current state of human affairs. With the ever-increasing pace required by us all to maintain a foothold, even for basic needs like a roof over one’s head, it can seem unlikely that philosophers and artists of a new breed are waiting in the wings to appear and shake us all fully to our senses.

In 1970 I was nine years of age, that’s about when I consider myself as having some degree of consciousness, or some level of free will, or whatever you want to call it. I had already rejected God and religion as a source of knowledge or meaning, and was diving into “The Golden Book Junior Encyclopedia”. It was an American publication and I – for a while – could name the capital city of every state, and most of the state birds. Forty years later, with a somewhat bigger picture view of the world, I can see that the 70s was a time when humanity was really starting to pick itself up again after two world wars. It has been argued that these devastating events signalled the end of a long history of tyranny of one sort or another.  By tyranny I mean the acutely hierarchical societies which evolved from flawed human beliefs and ideologies built around concepts of religion, or bloodlines, or brute force, or survival of the fittest, or some nasty combination of two or more these crazy or corrupted ideas. The rise and fall and rise of hierarchical civilisations appears to have dominated the world for most, if not all, of recorded history.  One of the most obvious and abhorrent features of any tyranny is that primarily each and every individual’s status, role and destiny, is largely pre-determined at birth. Gender, race, nationality, religion, genes, and family history are some of the attributes one is born into and, these often permanently recorded labels are extremely hard, if not impossible, to change, lose or deny. Most civilisations have tales of heroes who rise above their lowly rank to conquer the oppression of the state, but for the masses these myths typically serve to instil a false sense of natural justice in obviously corrupt and dysfunctional societies.  It was about 500 years ago that some big thinkers started to get some well-ripened public attention and sympathy after the centuries aptly named the “dark ages”. Slowly but surely the enlightenment managed to wake up the Western world to the injustices that became inevitable when we structured society as a rigid pyramid of hierarchy, from an absolute authority on top of everything, all the way down to the very lowest class of human; secular humanism was born. Since then, tumultuous periods of high drama and massive change ensued. An optimistic view of the world today can quite confidently report that, by and large, many of the injustices of the past such as slavery, racism, sexism and poverty, if not totally eliminated, are well on the way to becoming history, once and for all. On closer examination though, it can equally be argued that the rise of secularism, the increasing freedom of the individual, and the equality of both wealth and opportunity for all peoples actually peaked in the 1970s. And the decline of these conditions has been steady ever since.

The 1970s can also be viewed as the decade when our understanding of ourselves, as a species interdependently connected with the finite earth and its other inhabitants, blossomed. In the 1960s the public was exposed to both photographs of earth from space and a series of environmental catastrophes.  The evidence of our place in the universe and our impact on the environment was so compelling and irrefutable that it was taught in public schools.  I myself, with a youthful and innocent trust in the public education system and the popular notion of Australia being pretty damn lucky, eagerly looked forward to the modern life on offer, and consequently dived right in to participate in just about anything and everything on offer. The promise of science and technology to give us unprecedented comforts and increased leisure time in this life, without having to wait for some post-death paradise, was a pretty easy sell. The optimism of the era was reflected in a confidence and belief in ourselves that we had the capacity as intelligent and industrious beings to find new and better ways to eke out a harmonious existence on this, our only planet.

The vision of the future on offer back in my high school days has spectacularly failed to materialise. On two measures alone – the distribution of wealth and the health of the environment – we have collectively failed. Sure, there are good news stories – on the material or money side of things we hear tales of rags to riches, the triumphs of modern medical science and the adventures of ordinary people creating and ticking off bucket lists. On the environmental front, small wins against big corporations, advances in solar technology, and successful breeding programs in zoos, are examples posted occasionally on the telly or in the daily rag. This is mainly a sedative for a public waking up to alarm clocks and commuting to “jobs”. Any serious analysis clearly shows that the exceptions are not the rule. The so-called winners love the world, thank God, and preach that anyone with hard work and determination can achieve their wildest dreams. Excuse me while I just step outside to vomit. The celebrities of the modern world have come up with all sorts of mythologies to justify the human race to succeed at all costs. They aren’t often asked, but when they are they invariably invoke some flawed logic or metaphysics to ignore the widespread atrocities still being committed by the successful upon the earth and its inhabitants. And worse than that, they encourage the rest of us to follow in their footsteps.

What has gone wrong? With the eradication of the old-style tyrannies, has a more subtle but equally devastating hierarchical tyranny risen up to coerce us all into a diabolical trajectory toward self-extinction? (If you think I am being a bit dramatic here, pull out your Year 11 Biology prac book and look over the bacteria population experiment in a petri dish of nutrient agar). Has all serious collective dialogue about the human condition died, just as God died with Nietzsche? Has this vacuum left only the possibility of an individualistic free for all? Have the historical failures of large collective efforts permanently replaced the notion of “we” with “me”? Have we taken the notion of liberty, enshrined in the classic enlightenment documents, too far? Has the power and experience of working together for the common good devolved into a world of over seven billion emperors and empires of the self? The distrust and disdain for our most basic collective power base – democratically elected governments – as demonstrated by the popular and brag-worthy pastime of beating the taxman, is symptomatic of a world of individuals out there acting purely for themselves. How ironic that a species that evolved successfully largely due to social cooperation has culturally evolved into a society of “every man for himself”, or “dog eat dog” if you prefer, that is destined to annihilate itself. The modern affliction of ignorance of our own humanness is not the basis upon which some vision of a successful life ought to be built.

If my personal 40-year lag in getting some sort of handle on what the world is really like is the norm, then maybe our species with its current breakneck rate of acceleration is doomed. Humans are adaptable and we will no doubt cling to survival for as long as possible. Psychologically, we are good at washing our brains so that we don’t go stark raving mad at the horror of it all. Drugs, religion, sex, celebrity, fashion, technology, and the relentless pursuit of money, are some of the major distractions that keep us half asleep at the wheel while stomping down firmly on the gas. The latest panacea being touted as the most likely salvation for naughty humanity is for the internet (along with burgeoning catalogue of sleek and shiny devices) to hook us all up to some utopian world of social media. Is the World-Wide Web really liberating us from mindless participation in a global economy that benefits the very few and is fuelled by the destruction of the earth’s life support systems? Or will it be 40 years before we can really understand how the advent of the internet did not, as predicted, save the world, but was just another distraction that further divided us, rather than uniting us as a force to conquer the latest tyranny – the tyranny that we haven’t even got a name for yet?

PS: I am working a bit more conscientiously on understanding the 80s and 90s in an attempt to reduce my 40-year hindsight time lag. Join me if you so desire!

Sunday, 3 August 2014

The Human Race - An Open Letter to the Inhabitants of 2084

Dear future generations: Please accept our apologies. We were rolling drunk on petroleum.
-          Kurt Vonnegut

Seventy years down the track I imagine you might be pretty pissed off with us. Especially since historical records will show that we were well aware that the party we were having on fossils fuels was destroying the planet upon which you are now trying to have a good life. The question “what were they thinking?” must be on your mind, just as it is on our minds as we look back at many of the actions of our ancestors. Here and now  in 2014 we are confused and anxious about the sorry state that we have found ourselves in, and which we are passing on to you.  Why do we, with all the accumulated knowledge and experience of human history, continue to proceed with increasing pace and effort toward certain collapse? Perhaps Mr Vonnegut’s retort about being drunk is the best answer we have for you.
A relatively small number of humans, those who have taken on Socrates’ advice to contemplate life, have realised that collapse is inevitable, that it is now, in 2014, highly likely that it is too late to stop. On a planet of seven billion-plus humans, though, the few that refuse to ignore the looming precipice are just a drop in the acidifying ocean. The many, many, many others are out there in the world competing, faster and harder than ever, against themselves and everyone else for the largest slice possible of an illusionary pie. The minority calling out “STOP!” are at times ridiculed, attacked and ostracised, but mostly, and worst of all, they are just ignored. They are ignored not only by the powerful and wealthy, but also by good and humble people who for no fault of their own have found themselves in debt to a landlord or a bank.  They prioritise making the next payment needed to keep a roof over their heads, and who can blame them for that.
All of us, no matter who we, are have been enculturated by the world we live in. In a large and complex global civilisation individuals have become specialists, sometimes to the point that we can’t actually explain to others what we do, or why we do it. Our scope of activity, thought and even language is so specific that big picture stuff like the interdependence of everything or the limits to growth on a finite planet are simply off the mind’s agenda. The analogy that we have each become a small cog in a giant machine that marches forever forward is well known and accepted by many as “that’s just the way it is”.  This position has become so entrenched that the very idea, the crazy notion that humans are capable of large scale collective efforts to utilise technology and energy sources for their own existence, is currently up for debate.  Many who foresee and speak out about inevitable collapse propose that civilisation is impossible. So to you there in the future I am telling you, even though I have confessed to our large scale ignorance, what we are beginning to think is that if you too, after we have failed, embark upon anything resembling civilisation, you will be destined for yet another rise and fall. That proposition is an unsettling thought. Isn’t the whole reason we wake up in the morning and participate in life with each other, because we innately want to be civilised? Is there any credibility to the argument that the highest level of complexity for human living arrangements is agrarian anarchy? Are cities even possible? The argument itself is a distraction. Those who view civilisation as an abomination never to be repeated are guilty of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  The boom and bust history of civilisation is difficult to ignore, but does that mean being a hunter-gatherer, or perhaps a Luddite, are the only possibilities? On the other side of the fence, the advocates of perpetual economic growth and technical advancement are similarly guilty of throwing out the baby. They will deny that the simpler, smaller scale, closer to nature societies that existed in the past have any benefits over the industrialised urban set-up we currently find ourselves in.  This, unfortunately, is the popular belief – that every human society of the past, and the contemporary societies that resemble them, are primitive, backward and to be avoided at all costs.
The polarity of opinion about big, fast and high tech versus small, slow and low tech is evidence of how confused we actually are with regard to how we can live sustainably on this planet. Deriving our values from our culture-specific beliefs and social context renders us cultural relativists, and we are unable to agree upon our parameters. The acceptance of a position that you can have no position is effectively chopping off any and every leg we ever stood upon. Sure it chopped off the heads of some tyrants as well, but has relativism undermined our ability to gain at least some foothold on reality? It appears so, and by and large we live in a world where there is no truth, no right or no wrong and therefore no collective unified direction that is so desperately needed for the sustainability of life as we know it. Consequently, cultural relativism gives permission for the world to just keep on ploughing ahead regardless, because nobody can legitimately judge any actions as absolutely right or wrong, whether they be harmful or not.
All the accumulated knowledge and wisdom gained by our species – and even a small application of common sense – is screaming at us to stop what we are doing. Regardless, the rags to riches narrative prevails. It has become both the motivator and sedative that keeps ordinary people slaving away as the ship is sinking. The lure of fortune and fame is so loudly and widely broadcast that voices of reason are barely audible. The so-called success stories of the human race, the ones that have outcompeted the mob, as devious and as aggressive they may be, have centre stage and do not tolerate dissent or scrutiny. They have seized their oversized slice of pie and will protect it to the bitter end. They know that the best strategy for maintaining their position up high on the heap is to keep perpetuating the lie that the world is your oyster and that anyone and everyone can achieve wealth and status beyond their wildest dreams – they just have to want it bad enough and keep  their noses to the grindstone. It reminds me of a scene in the children’s fantasy Peter Pan, the boy who can fly and who never grows up, where the fairy Tinkerbell is wished back into existence by a chorus of children chanting repeatedly “I do believe in fairies, I do believe in fairies”. This genre of narrative – call it rags to riches, call it fantasy, or entertainment, even call it propaganda – has been so well enculturated into the modern psyche that even as we begin the plunge over the cliff we still can’t seem to accept that the whole thing is a big lie. The ones who do dare to call it what it is are the only true humanitarians because they know, and commit to, the reality that the wellbeing of each and every individual depends upon the wellbeing of all of life. A world of winners and losers can only be a world where everything will be lost.
The increasing awareness of the power of story is accredited to people like Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, George Lucas, Steve Jobs, Joseph Goebbels, BeyoncĂ©, and Mum and Dad.  The current analysis of, and dialogue about, the human story has been taking place in the ivory towers of academia, in chambers of governments, in  boardrooms of corporations, at global environmental summits, in media newsrooms, in lounge rooms awash with reality TV, and  in churches and temples. In terms of stopping the exponential rush to oblivion, all this human-induced hot air has, to date, been ineffectual. The inability to stop or even slow the trajectory to collapse is proof that the current debate, nicely contained within the parameters of our predominant stories, is pointless.  Something is fundamentally wrong.
I ascertain that what is wrong is that the character Homo sapiens, be it hero or villain, has been cast as a flawed, imperfect, sinful, greedy, corruptible, violent, competitive, and deceitful animal. The inevitable demise of our civilisation and the extinction of our species is written not in our genes but in the portrayal of who we are in the narratives that we create. The power of the word has so entrenched this belief in our consciousness that we see ourselves as a project that must be continually worked upon to lift ourselves up from some despicable, frightening and unacceptable condition that we are born into. How else can we justify the atrocities we perpetrate upon ourselves our fellow humans and every other feature of the planet we are stuck on? The myths, the stories, the narratives, the heroes’ journeys, the spiritual revelations, the moral codes and practices, the political ideologies and governmental policies that contain any trace of the germ of innate human deficiency will infect individuals and civilisations with self-loathing and dysfunctionality. A sentient species that believes it is flawed will, in effect, cause its own extinction.
Putting the stories and the Hobbesian philosophies aside, we actually do find that we are social beings that survive and flourish because of cooperation not competition, kindness not violence, generosity not greed. We have evolved on this planet into exactly who we are, and our present day existence is all the evidence we need that, biologically, we are built just fine as we are. It is the story, not us, that is flawed. The continual race to get ahead is the direct consequence of a lie about our true nature that somewhere, somehow, crept into our neural software and, through culture, has replicated itself to become the dominant belief that underpins all the destructive thoughts, feelings and actions that threaten our very existence. We know we are heading along this trajectory, and the map, story, software code, narrative, dogma or whatever you want call it, is false and must be eliminated.  Some of us back here in 2014 are trying to unschool our brains that have been saturated by the dominant stories built on the belief that humans are flawed. We are doing it first and foremost for ourselves. At first we see the insanity of fighting for that meagre slice of pie, and then we try to stop punishing ourselves for participating in the whole sorry affair.  We are trying hard to see and accept ourselves as legitimate and as beautiful as everything else on this planet.
The sunrise and the tree,
The mountain and me,
Each as it is, as it can be no other way.
-          Thomas Blackmore
When we start telling ourselves that we are not some broken, degenerate piece of organic matter that needs to be whipped into shape, then, and only then, we will truly be able to exist in a sustainable and peaceful manner upon the planet.  While ever we ignore the ineluctability of our appearance on this planet we will not only be selling ourselves short, but will only be able to write the stories of our inevitable demise and disappearance.
Getting drunk and wrecking the joint, whether on fossil fuels or ethanol, is the certain outcome when humans have such a low opinion of themselves. If in 2084 you are starting again after this latest collapse of civilisation, can I suggest that as you begin to write a new narrative for humanity can you cast human beings as gregarious, generous, empathetic lovers of nature?  Because that is what we truly are.