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.