Sustainable Earth: A New Destination for Western Culture?
A two-part blog post that explores how our modernist culture got us into the mess we’re in, and a small suggestion of how to proceed to an Earth that can sustain the possibility for human and all other life to flourish for generations to come.
Read Part 2 here.
Part 1: From Pre-Modern Land to Modernist Globe
Back in Time Before Modernism: The Land
Imagine you are back in the middle of the middle ages... before the Renaissance (1400s), before the Christian reformation (1500s), before the age of enlightenment (1600-1799)... before the ideas of modernism were imagined into existence.
Before modernism, wherever you were living, Europe, Asia, Africa, Americas, human prosperity depended on the land - crops for food, plants for medicines, animals for food and raw materials (wool, leather), woodlands for fuel and construction materials, rivers and the sea for fish, and so on. Humanity had to live with an understanding of its total and immediate inter-dependence with the land. For communities who farmed, crop failure literally meant starvation. For hunter-gatherers failure of a plant required as food for a hunted animal meant fewer animals to hunt.
And the Spirit (for monotheists) and the Spirits (for polytheists) were everywhere. They were immediately connected to everything in and on the land: rocks, trees, woods, mountains, streams, rivers, oceans - and to everyday events - storms, rain, snow, wind, birth, death, and everything in between. Humanity was connected to nature and each other practically and spiritually. In many respects, much of humanity was living in balance with nature. It would not be too much of a stretch to say that, to a great degree, this human life was sustainable. That is, if these behaviours and worldviews remained they could have done so for a very long time.
But, this is not some romantic past that the majority of humanity who have lost these sustainable ways would wish to return to. Back then, life was hard; life expectancy compared to today was short; pain, death and loss were everyday experiences. Further, just feeding our current and expected population prevents us from returning in practice.
To help us, let's give this cultural and practical environment, this world-view, this way of knowing the systems in the world and spiritual plane, this way of being, a label. Let's call this 'place' that humanity the world over found itself "Land". And recall, back in the middle ages there was no sense that humanity was on some journey away from this ‘place’. The Land was all that there was, and all that anyone could imagine would and could ever be.
The Modernist Journey Away from the Land – Benefits and Harms
So what happened?
The processes of Western modernization gathered strength through the renaissance, reformation, and enlightenment caused Westerners to leave this 'place'. The new big idea was that humanity was destined to progress to higher and higher levels of 'perfection'. Humanity could know everything about everything and apply this knowledge to 'perfect' itself. In the eyes of Western Modernists, that old place, the Land, was clearly less than perfect in nearly every way, and so needed to be condemned to history as a failure, with no redeeming features. It suffered that ultimate modernist damnation: the Land and its Spirituality was simply old-fashioned. It was to be discarded as simply an early highly imperfect stage of progress.
If the most powerful idea of modernism was that all humanity was ultimately destined to go on an inevitable journey towards 'perfection', what was the ultimate destination? The modernist's answer was that the journey was to a single 'perfect' global humanity, living in a single homogenous 'perfect' culture, in the 'perfect' global village. Most recently we've called this journey 'globalism', or the process of globalization.
And let’s be clear, very large swathes of humanity have benefited enormously. The ideas of modernism were not some "bad" thing that now needs to be replaced wholesale so we can once again be sustainable. Perhaps the key statistic to demonstrate the benefits of modernity is life expectancy. For centuries the average life expectancy of a human was around 30 years. And this didn't start to change until modernism had really gotten hold of the Western imagination. By 1950 it was up around 40 years. And by 2017 it was 72 years. A remarkable achievement.
And the averages mask massive inequalities. Terrible injustices were and still are systematically committed. These were and are driven by systematic processes such as forced colonization, that in turn were driven by belief in the modernist ideas of 'perfection' and globalization.
Modernism… the Greatest Conceit of Western Culture
Let's unpack those quotes around 'perfection'. The modernist idea was that humanity could 'perfect' itself. But, isn't this the very definition of a conceit – excessive pride in oneself? Or the definition of hubris – an excessive level of confidence? I believe so.
What are the major conceits of modernism? (1) progress towards the destination of the homogeneous 'perfect' global village is inevitable and cannot be halted or changed, (2) it is possible to know everything about everything and that will enable humanity to be 'perfect', (3) those who consider themselves more 'perfect' (aka 'civilized') are superior to those perceived to be less 'perfect' because they have supposedly made less "progress" and knew "less", (4) that capitalism, as it is now practiced, is the only possible economic system (5) there was nothing of value in 'older' ways of knowing, the 'older' ways of being.
And let's be really clear: modernism is 'just' a set of ideas. A very powerful set of ideas yes, but also a set of interlinked conceits. Modernism is not real in any sense of that word. You can’t actually be modern. There is no such thing as 'progress', it’s a fiction, albeit a powerful one. The ideas of modernism are 'just' in some human’s hearts and minds. It is 'just' a world-view, a way of knowing and being in the world. It is 'just' the basis for the ever-increasingly dominant human culture.
Again, to help us, let's also give this cultural and practical environment a label. Let's call this 'place' that modernist humanity the world over is aiming for the "Globe". Today, for much of humanity, the 'perfect' Globe is all that many can imagine would and could ever be. It is all that is worth trying to attain.
Trouble in the Modernist Paradise
Today the modernist conceit is slowly being called-out. It is becoming clear that the modernist emperor doesn’t have any clothes. From one perspective this is evidenced by a large range of philosophical intellectuals trying to claim that modernism is over, indeed that it must be over in order for humanity to survive. These intellectuals are using labels like post-modern, ecologically modern, or reflexively modern. From another perspective, social scientists are highlighting the current inequities systemic in our culture, education, the criminal justice system, opportunities for advancement, material well-being, and more. And lastly, from the perspective of the natural sciences' nearly universal findings. Our current journey to the ‘perfect’ Globe is literally reducing the natural environment’s ability to provide humans with what is necessary for our well-being, and the well-being of future generations. Things like a stable climate, soil that can grow our food, clean water to drink, and so on.
Yes, we could continue to try to aim for the Globe and our 'perfect' selves. We could try to use our undoubted capabilities for innovation to solve any problem 'just-in-time' to avoid mass human suffering. Even when those problems are the results of our own past actions to reach the 'perfect' Globe. But, given the scale and interconnectedness of our self-inflicted problems, this bet seems increasingly risky. The likelihood of mass human suffering is becoming more likely. For example, is it really possible that we're going to mitigate and adapt to climate change by innovating from the same modernist culture and worldview that created the climate crises in the first place?
In Part II we’ll explore a key idea that could provide a foundation for a new human journey to a new destination: Earth
Read Part 2 here.
Credits and Sources
With full credit to the Land and Globe ideas of one of the pre-eminent philosophers of science Bruno Latour, author of “We Have Never Been Modern”
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