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TOWARD GLOBAL SOLIDARITY: A POLITICS OF IMPOSSIBILITY

14 Aug

[Prefatory Note: The post below is my stimulus essay for a Forum sponsored by Great Transition Initiative, a project of the Tellus Institute, dedicated to the exploration of humane and ecologically resonant adjustments to the challenges and threats posed by the onset of the Anthropocentric Age. The text of the full Forum can be found by clicking this link– https://greattransition.org/gti-forum/can-human-solidarity-globalize It contains many wise and illuminating responses to my reflections, including by leading thinkers of our time. The Forum closes with my effort to respond to the responses, but due to space limitations, in a very truncated manner. Also, the Forum format conveys some information about the underlying philosophy that guides this ambitious undertaking.]

Global Solidarity: Toward a Politics of Impossibility 

A Captive Imagination

As the COVID-19 pandemic slowly subsides, it is not clear what lessons will be drawn by political leaders and publics around the world. Entrenched power, wealth, and conventional wisdom have demonstrated the overwhelming resilience of the global order even while the virus continues to ravage many national societies. Despite some notable exceptions revealing extremes of solidarity or discrimination, efficient competence or irresponsible partisanship, this reversion to the status quo occurred at all levels of social organization from the village to the world, especially the sovereign state.

For the most part, rich and powerful governments used their leverage to corner the vaccine market, allowing a draconian market-driven logic to drive distribution that privileged intellectual property rights and technical knowhow, leading to grotesque disparities in vaccine access between the peoples of the North and those of the South. It has become a truism to observe that no country will be safe from the virus, or its variants, until the entire world is vaccinated. Never had the self-interest of the species so vividly and concretely coincided with an ethos of global solidarity. And yet such an ethos did not materialize. We must search for explanations and correctives.

A people-first approach to the global health emergency would have transcended statist and profit-making domains at all phases of COVID prevention and treatment, and situated them within a global commons framework. Such an approach might have dramatically heightened prospects for the social transformation at the heart of the Great Transition and would at least have restored some confidence that the human species, at least in an emergency, is capable of meeting the challenges of the Anthropocene. As the pandemic instead revealed the resounding strength of statist structures and private sector interests, it seems necessary to acknowledge this tragic interlude as but one more lost opportunity for the human species to awaken from its prolonged slumber before it is too late. 

To some extent, the failure has been masked by the newfound generosity of some countries as the sense of a world health emergency receded and virus supplies exceeded national demands in some countries. In a spirit of philanthropy rather than solidarity, shipments of the virus to countries in need were made, recipients often selected on the basis of pragmatic diplomatic advantage. Perhaps charity towards those less fortunate can be considered a weak form of solidarity, even if filtered by political leaders motivated by selfish national interests.

More than ever, we must face the question: can the peoples of Earth, doomed to share a ravaged planet, learn to live together in ways that encourage our species to flourish in an emergent future? The concept of a Great Transition invites us to reimagine such a future by exploring what might be possible, which requires an initial willingness of the imagination to let go of the trappings of the present without engaging in wishful thinking. Such a balancing act is not as straightforward as it sounds. What was science fiction a generation ago is increasingly entering the realm of the possible, and even the feasible in the near future. It is an opportune time to explore the seedlings of possibility sprouting around us, inscribing a more hopeful mapping of the human future in the prevailing collective consciousness.

On What is Possible

Some men see things as they are and say ‘why?’ I dream of things that never were

and ask ‘why not?’” —  George Bernard Shaw

We must start by rejecting conventional foreclosures of the imagination. We cannot accept that politics is “the art of the possible” if the “possible” remains circumscribed by the play of current forces of stasis, confining the idea of change to policy shifts at the margin or—at the most ambitious—elite-driven national revolutions. The structures of state and market remain essentially untouched and continue to run the show. As long as these constraints are not removed, the Great Transition will be stymied. The first challenge is to find effective ways to subvert and transform these primordial structures. Meeting this challenge starts with liberating the mind from ingrained conventions that solidify the ideological biases of modernity.

If we carefully consider our own lives, we are likely to appreciate how many epochal public happenings had been previously deemed “impossible,” or only seemed possible after the fact. A potent illustration of the tyranny of a status quo bias is Winston Churchill’s derisive attitude toward Gandhi during the early stages of the rise of Indian nationalism. Dismissive of any threat to Indian colonial rule, Churchill described Gandhi as a “malignant subversive fanatic” and “a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceregal palace.” The great British war leader displayed his attachment to a Western understanding of power that had little insight into historical circumstances vulnerable to anti-colonial nationalism.  

Similar patterns of the seemingly impossible happening are evident in contemporary history, such as the peaceful ending of the Cold War followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union; the American defeat in the Vietnam War despite overwhelming military superiority; China’s half-century rise from mass impoverishment and backwardness to prime geopolitical challenger, including threatening Western mastery of innovative technology such as AI, G5 connectivity, robotics, and genetic engineering; and the abandonment of apartheid by South Africa in the face of nonviolent resistance from within and anti-apartheid solidarity from without. 

What these examples demonstrate is that our understanding of the scope of the possible has been artificially circumscribed in ways that protect the interests of various elites in the maintenance of the status quo, making it seem reckless and futile to mount structural challenges however justified they may be morally or bio-politically. Such foreclosures of imagined futures have been key to the protection of institutions like slavery, discrimination, and warfare but often remain limited in scope to specific locales or policy areas. The uniqueness of the Anthropocene is to restrict the possible to unsustainable and dysfunctional structures and modes of behavior, while bringing to a head the question of finding more viable ways of organizing life on the planet and living together in a manner that protects future generations. 

Such foreclosures of the imagination inflict damage both by shortening our temporal vision and by constraining our understanding of useful knowledge. Despite what science and rationality tell us about the future, our leaders—and, indeed, most of us—give scant practical attention to what is needed to preserve and improve the life prospects for future generations. Given the scope and depth of the challenges, responsible anthropocentrism in the twenty-first century should incorporate a sense of urgency to temporal axes of concern. We now need a “politics of the impossible,” a necessary utopianism that stands as an avowal of the attainability of the Great Transition. We must begin by interrogating the semantics of the possible as a cultural, political, economic, and ideological construct binding humanity to a system that is increasingly bio-politically self-destructive for the species and its natural habitat.

Closely connected to this foreclosure of our temporal vision has been a scientifically conditioned epistemology asserting the limits of useful knowledge. Within the most influential epistemic communities, an Enlightenment ideology prevails that sets boundaries limiting productive intellectual inquiry. The positive legacies of the Enlightenment in grounding knowledge on scientifically verified evidence rather than cultural superstitions and religiously guided prejudice and dogma are real and important, but there have been costs as well. Notably, a bias against subjectivity discourages normative inquiry and advocacy, which is dismissed as “non-scientific.” The noted Confucian scholar Tu Wei-Ming has powerfully criticized the impact of what he calls “instrumental rationalism” on the capacity of Western civilization to embrace the value of empathy, which he views as integral to human dignity and humane governance. 

We need a moral epistemology to achieve responsible anthropocentrism, exploring right and wrong, and distinguishing between desirable and diminished futures, not as matters of opinion, but as the underpinnings of “normative knowledge.” Universities, split into specialized disciplines and privileging work within the Enlightenment paradigm, are largely oblivious to the need for a holistic understanding of the complexities and solidarities with which we must grapple in order for humanity to extricate itself from present structures that divide and fragment the human experience, strangling possibilities.

It may be helpful to distinguish “the feasible,” “the necessary,” and “the desirable” to further illuminate “the pursuit of the impossible.” In short, “the feasible” from the perspective of the status quo seems incapable, under the best of circumstances, of achieving “the necessary” and “the desirable.” We will need to pursue “the desirable” to mobilize the capabilities needed to engage effectively in realizing “the necessary.”  

If existing conditions continue, the bio-political destiny of the human species seems destined for dark times. In the past, before the Nuclear Age, we could ignore the future and address the material, security, and spiritual needs of bounded communities, and success or failure had no ramifications for larger systems. Now we must find ways to attend to the whole, or the parts will perish and likely destroy one another in the process. St. Francis found some fitting words for such an emancipatory path: “Start by doing what is necessary, then what is possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”

Traditional Worldviews

When seeking alternative worldviews not defined by states, empires, or markets, many have turned toward the pre-modern realities and cosmologies of native peoples. Recovering that pre-modern worldview might be instructive in certain respects, but it is not responsive to the practical contours of contemporary liberation. Retreat to the pre-modern past is not an option, except as a result of a planetary calamity.

Instead of the realities of localism and tribal community, our way forward needs to engage globalism and human community, and to affirm that such strivings fall within the realm of possibility. We must reimagine a sense of our place in the cosmos so that it becomes our standpoint: a patriotism for humanity in which the whole becomes greater than the part, and the part is no longer the dominant organizing principle of life on the planet. Understanding the interplay of parts and wholes is a helpful place to begin this transformative journey. Parts are not only enclaves of space on world maps, but the separate identities of race, gender, class, belief, and habitat. An ethos of human solidarity would not eliminate differences but would complement them with a sense of commonality while sustaining their separate and distinctive identities. Such an ethos would generate new modes of being for addressing the challenges of transition.

For this to happen, a sense of global solidarity must take over the commanding heights of the imagination rather than continue to inhabit echo chambers hidden in underground hiding places far from the domains of policy formation.

Global Solidarity Must Increase as the Great Transition Unfolds

Without global solidarity, the structural features of the status quo will remain too deeply entrenched to allow a more cooperative, peaceful, just, and ecologically mindful world to emerge. Such a benevolent future is blocked by the prevailing consciousness in government and corporate board rooms, a paralyzing blend of ignorance, denial, incrementalism, and most of all, an unconscious respect for and deference to fragmenting boundaries that make global solidarity seem “impossible” to achieve. Assuming the paralysis has been overcome by an enhanced conception of the possible, then what?

Global solidarity would benefit humanity functionally, ethically, ecologically, and spiritually. Its functional role is most immediately obvious from a problem-solving perspective. Whether we consider vaccine diplomacy, climate change, or nuclear weapons, it becomes clear that only on the basis of human solidarity will we treat vaccines in the midst of epidemics or pandemics as part of the global commons rather than as a source of national diplomacy, international property rights, and pharmaceutical profits. With climate change, whether we will manage a displacement of national and financial interests on the basis of general global wellbeing depends on achieving an unprecedented level of global solidarity. Similarly, with nuclear weapons, will we find the courage to live without such weaponry within a security framing that represents the well-being of people rather than the shortsighted hegemony of a few governments and their self-regarding societal elites?

Higher measures of global solidarity would enhance the quality and nature of global governance. Even if the defining unit of solidarity remained the sovereign state rather than the human being, a sense of global citizenship could underpin a much more robust United Nations whose membership sought shared goals proclaimed by its Charter rather than the competition that has been its dominant experience, especially on issues of peace and security. The world economy would become much less tied to militarized forms of security, freeing resources for peace building processes. From a broadening sense of global identity we could also expect a much more effective approach to biodiversity, preserving, for example, the rainforests and polar regions as indispensable aspects of our common heritage. And as heightened empathy would accompany global solidarity, there would be a greater tendency to take human suffering seriously, including poverty, displacement, and the victimization that follows from natural disasters and political strife.

Perhaps the greatest benefits of global solidarity would be felt ethically and spiritually. We can presume that the collective self of a world exhibiting high levels of global solidarity would shift loyalties and identities. The enmities of difference (race, nation, religion, gender, class) would lose their primacy, replaced by a different calibration of “otherness”—perhaps with the cosmos regarded as the great other of the earth. It seems reasonable to anticipate the emergence of a less metaphysical religious consciousness inspired by the greater harmonies on earth and a growing experience of cosmic awe as knowledge of this larger realm spreads and is reinforced by mind-broadening experience such as space tourism. 

Do We Have the Time? 

An ethos of global solidarity led an idealistic group of jurists in 1976 to draft the Declaration of the Rights of People to be implemented by a Permanent Peoples Tribunal, and many inquiries have been carried out since to hold states and their leaders symbolically accountable for violations of international law. People throughout the world have organized many civic initiatives organized by in defense of nature and of peace. 

Recently, Bolivia and Ecuador enacted a text devoted to the Rights of Mother Nature. New Zealand passed a law recognizing that animals are sentient beings with a legal entitlement to decent treatment. A movement is underway to regard “wild rivers” as subjects of rights, prohibiting the construction of hydro-electric dams. Civil society groups in Europe and South America have formed the International Rights of Nature Tribunal to protect various natural habitats from predatory human behavior. 

Within the wider orbit of UN activities, many quiet undertakings involving health, children, food, cultural heritage, and environment proceed in an atmosphere of global solidarity interrupted by only occasional intrusions from the more conflictual arenas of the Security Council and General Assembly. There are no vetoes, and partisanship is kept at a minimum.

Gestating within the cultural bosom of world civilizations and world religions have been subversive ideas of global solidarity. Philosophic and religious affirmations of unity in ideas of “cosmopolitanism” have garnered increasing numbers of adherents. Growing attachments to nature proclaimed in many forms gives rise to loyalties that find no place on world maps or national boundaries. Fears of future catastrophe by way of nuclear war and ecosystem collapse expand awareness that present arrangements are not sustainable, thereby making many persons receptive to creating other more inclusive forms of organizing life on the planet.

Transition is not off in the distance or only in dreamscapes or science fiction imaginaries; it is happening around us if we only learn to open our eyes and hearts to the possibilities now emerging. 

Concluding Remark

We cannot know the future, but we can know that the great enhancement of global solidarity would underpin the future we need and desire. Although this enhancement may currently seem “impossible,” we know that the impossible can happen when the historical moment is conducive. This century of interdependent risks and hopes has germinated the possibility of human solidarity globalizing. We know what is to be done, the value of struggling on behalf of our beliefs, and the urgency of the quest. This is the time to dedicate our hopes and indeed our lives to making the Great Transition happen, which is coincident with learning to live in accord with the ethical and ecological precepts of responsible anthropocentrism

Nuclear Violence is Why We Are Living in the Anthropocene Age

15 Feb

[Prefatory Note: The short essay below is my contribution to the latest thematic Forum of the Great Transition Initiative. It responds to a beautifully crafted paper by the Founder of GTI under the auspices of the Tellus Institute, Paul Raskin. Paul’s initial paper and a series of fascinating responses can be found at  https://greattransition.org/gti-forum/interrogating-the-anthropocene. GTI has developed a powerful and sophisticated global network for dialogue about achieving a visionary future despite the dark clouds that now fill the sky.]

GTI FORUM 
Violence: Another Existential Crisis 

Contribution to GTI Forum Interrogating the Anthropocene: Truth and Fallacy

Richard Falk February 2021 

As I grasp the essence of the consensus emerging from this discussion of Paul Raskin’s eloquent essay, it is an acceptance of the Anthropocene as a dire warning that the human species is headed for disaster, if not extinction, if its ecological footprint is not greatly reduced in the relatively near future. The GTI perspective adds the indispensable insight that social evolution has many pathways to the future that can be instructively framed as a dramatic narrative enacted as a struggle between forces sustaining the destructive perishing patterns of the currently dominant modernist variants of civilization and those intent on achieving a variety of alternative civilizational constellations that incorporate what Paul calls for at the end of his conjectures: “expanded identity, solidarity, and citizenship.” It is fair to assume that these enlargements move civilizational vectors toward greater appreciations of species destiny along with possibilities of nurturing satisfaction with the experience of human community on a global scale. Such futures imply living with a new contentment based on underlying commonalities while at the same time valuing gender, societal, ethnic, and generational differences and overcoming past abuses.

I regard the GTI community as an ideational vanguard that is carrying forward the work of restorative vision with respect to the organically connected ecological and societal challenges. The hopeful ontological premise is the existence of reservoirs of species potential to turn the negative impacts of human geological agency, which mostly explains the designation of our time as the Anthropocene, into positive forms of social behavior that incorporate ecological and humanistic ethics in ways capable of actualizing variants of the GTI project.

There is also the baffling question of transcendence, which opens the portals of freedom and discovery by uniquely privileging and burdening the human species with freedom, and hence with responsibility to do the right thing. Individually and collectively, we can learn to see properly, and when we do, we have the freedom and responsibility to struggle for a better, and perhaps radically different, future. In this spirit, should the primary endeavor be to redesign capitalist dynamics to avoid destructive ecological effects and mitigate alienating and exploitative impacts on social relations, or should our ways of producing, consuming, and living be reframed to conform more closely to imaginaries of human flourishing? Due to the limited time to avoid irreversible or catastrophic damage, should GTI efforts prioritize “buying time” by settling for modest adjustments, assuming more fundamental change can emerge over longer periods? There exists a “Hegelian Trap” whereby an envisaged future gets confused with an attainable future. The teaching of the Anthropocene is that major ecological adjustments must be made soon—with the crucial sociological feedback being that the looming tragedy is not attributable to the human condition, but rather reflects a civilizational turn, sometimes associated with the turn from hunter-gathering civilizational ascendancy to agriculture and specialization, and reaching its climax by way of “modernity” as emanating from the Industrial Revolution.

Against this background, I find it useful to highlight the role of war, violence, and identity as carried to clarifying extremes by the United States. The US is the world’s leading source of arms sales, maintains black sites in foreign countries used to torture terrorist suspects, manages one of the largest per capita prison populations in the world, possesses the world’s only constitutionally grounded gun culture, and yet is less secure than ever before in its history. And to underscore this disturbing pattern, the most revered advocate of nonviolent struggle in the United States, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in 1968.

My sense of the socioeconomic side of predatory capitalism and ecological denialism is this pervasive delusion that weaponry and violence bring “security” to individuals, neighbors, and countries. Even the alarm bells set off by the use of atomic bombs in 1945 did not overcome the deeply entrenched roots of militarism at all levels of social interaction from gun culture to nuclear arsenals. With the passage of time, the possession of nuclear weapons was normalized for the states that prevailed in World War II, and global policy focused on keeping the weaponry away from other states by establishing an anti-proliferation regime, a system of nuclear apartheid that reflects the latest phase of geopolitical primacy as the fallacious basis of stability in world affairs. There are two points interwoven here: the pervasiveness of violence in human experience and the degree to which a nuclear war could parallel eco-catastrophe, threatening the Gaia Equilibrium that led stratigraphers to pronounce our geological age as the Anthropocene.

When we consider the sorts of human futures that would transcend the maladies of the present historical circumstances, we cannot get very far without a radical turn against individual and collective forms of violence and warfare. It is relevant to take note of the degree to which violence in every shape and form infuses even entertainment in many civilizational spaces, including even most indigenous communities. China is far from nonviolent, yet its remarkable surge, overcoming the extreme poverty of at least 300,000,000 million Chinese, as well as its expansionist vision of the vast Belt and Road Initiative seems a better platform from which to hope for benign civilizational transcendence.

As earlier observed, there are also obstacles associated with the civilizational modalities that presently control the basic categories of time and space. There is a mismatch between the time horizons of ecological, economic, and security challenges and electoral cycles of accountability. Political, corporate, and financial leaders are viewed by their short-term performance records, and thus tend to under-react to medium- and longer-term threats. In relation to space, the vast differences in wealth and capabilities among states and regions produces inequalities perceived as unjust, and need to be defended and justified by ideologies that fragment of human identity and community. In terms of world order, the whole is less than the sum of its parts, and until that ratio can be inverted, Paul Raskin’s imperative of expanded identity, solidarity, and citizenship will fall mostly on deaf ears. We live in a world in which the part is valued more than the whole, and such a political order might have persisted in a pre-Anthropocene worldview, but is now in deep jeopardy.

GTI FORUM 
Violence: Another Existential Crisis 

Contribution to GTI Forum Interrogating the Anthropocene: Truth and Fallacy

 

As I grasp the essence of the consensus emerging from this discussion of Paul Raskin’s eloquent essay, it is an acceptance of the Anthropocene as a dire warning that the human species is headed for disaster, if not extinction, if its ecological footprint is not greatly reduced in the relatively near future. The GTI perspective adds the indispensable insight that social evolution has many pathways to the future that can be instructively framed as a dramatic narrative enacted as a struggle between forces sustaining the destructive perishing patterns of the currently dominant modernist variants of civilization and those intent on achieving a variety of alternative civilizational constellations that incorporate what Paul calls for at the end of his conjectures: “expanded identity, solidarity, and citizenship.” It is fair to assume that these enlargements move civilizational vectors toward greater appreciations of species destiny along with possibilities of nurturing satisfaction with the experience of human community on a global scale. Such futures imply living with a new contentment based on underlying commonalities while at the same time valuing gender, societal, ethnic, and generational differences and overcoming past abuses.

I regard the GTI community as an ideational vanguard that is carrying forward the work of restorative vision with respect to the organically connected ecological and societal challenges. The hopeful ontological premise is the existence of reservoirs of species potential to turn the negative impacts of human geological agency, which mostly explains the designation of our time as the Anthropocene, into positive forms of social behavior that incorporate ecological and humanistic ethics in ways capable of actualizing variants of the GTI project.

There is also the baffling question of transcendence, which opens the portals of freedom and discovery by uniquely privileging and burdening the human species with freedom, and hence with responsibility to do the right thing. Individually and collectively, we can learn to see properly, and when we do, we have the freedom and responsibility to struggle for a better, and perhaps radically different, future. In this spirit, should the primary endeavor be to redesign capitalist dynamics to avoid destructive ecological effects and mitigate alienating and exploitative impacts on social relations, or should our ways of producing, consuming, and living be reframed to conform more closely to imaginaries of human flourishing? Due to the limited time to avoid irreversible or catastrophic damage, should GTI efforts prioritize “buying time” by settling for modest adjustments, assuming more fundamental change can emerge over longer periods? There exists a “Hegelian Trap” whereby an envisaged future gets confused with an attainable future. The teaching of the Anthropocene is that major ecological adjustments must be made soon—with the crucial sociological feedback being that the looming tragedy is not attributable to the human condition, but rather reflects a civilizational turn, sometimes associated with the turn from hunter-gathering civilizational ascendancy to agriculture and specialization, and reaching its climax by way of “modernity” as emanating from the Industrial Revolution.

Against this background, I find it useful to highlight the role of war, violence, and identity as carried to clarifying extremes by the United States. The US is the world’s leading source of arms sales, maintains black sites in foreign countries used to torture terrorist suspects, manages one of the largest per capita prison populations in the world, possesses the world’s only constitutionally grounded gun culture, and yet is less secure than ever before in its history. And to underscore this disturbing pattern, the most revered advocate of nonviolent struggle in the United States, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in 1968.

My sense of the socioeconomic side of predatory capitalism and ecological denialism is this pervasive delusion that weaponry and violence bring “security” to individuals, neighbors, and countries. Even the alarm bells set off by the use of atomic bombs in 1945 did not overcome the deeply entrenched roots of militarism at all levels of social interaction from gun culture to nuclear arsenals. With the passage of time, the possession of nuclear weapons was normalized for the states that prevailed in World War II, and global policy focused on keeping the weaponry away from other states by establishing an anti-proliferation regime, a system of nuclear apartheid that reflects the latest phase of geopolitical primacy as the fallacious basis of stability in world affairs. There are two points interwoven here: the pervasiveness of violence in human experience and the degree to which a nuclear war could parallel eco-catastrophe, threatening the Gaia Equilibrium that led stratigraphers to pronounce our geological age as the Anthropocene.

When we consider the sorts of human futures that would transcend the maladies of the present historical circumstances, we cannot get very far without a radical turn against individual and collective forms of violence and warfare. It is relevant to take note of the degree to which violence in every shape and form infuses even entertainment in many civilizational spaces, including even most indigenous communities. China is far from nonviolent, yet its remarkable surge, overcoming the extreme poverty of at least 300,000,000 million Chinese, as well as its expansionist vision of the vast Belt and Road Initiative seems a better platform from which to hope for benign civilizational transcendence.

As earlier observed, there are also obstacles associated with the civilizational modalities that presently control the basic categories of time and space. There is a mismatch between the time horizons of ecological, economic, and security challenges and electoral cycles of accountability. Political, corporate, and financial leaders are viewed by their short-term performance records, and thus tend to under-react to medium- and longer-term threats. In relation to space, the vast differences in wealth and capabilities among states and regions produces inequalities perceived as unjust, and need to be defended and justified by ideologies that fragment of human identity and community. In terms of world order, the whole is less than the sum of its parts, and until that ratio can be inverted, Paul Raskin’s imperative of expanded identity, solidarity, and citizenship will fall mostly on deaf ears. We live in a world in which the part is valued more than the whole, and such a political order might have persisted in a pre-Anthropocene worldview, but is now in deep jeopardy.