Essays

RETURNING TO THE REAL WORLD

INTRODUCTION: THE CRISIS

In September 2014 a report by WWF and the Zoological Society of London announced that wildlife populations across numerous species have declined by 50% in the last forty years.

The principal causes are exploitation, environmental degradation and habitat loss, all the result of human activity. This astonishing news received modest media coverage for a few days and then vanished from sight, having failed to arouse significant interest.

The report’s fate in the public domain says much about what really matters to us in the ‘Information Age’, the era of the global civilisation. Humans have been altering the face of the planet for millennia and we consider this to be entirely normal. Extinctions of megafauna resulted from the spread of our human ancestors around the world, but the current rate at which we are destroying plant and animal life and natural habitats is without precedent. Our forbears, acting in isolated small groups, may not have been aware of the consequences of their day-to-day actions; we, however, cannot claim ignorance. One might expect this to give rise to reflection, if not outrage, but in fact there is scarcely any debate. For the most part we accept these changes as inevitable.

In recent decades growing concern about the impact of human activity on the planet has focused on climate change. The headline issue has been increasing carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere since the start of the industrial era. The steady accumulation of data has led to a broad scientific consensus about its causation and the probable effects, notwithstanding the efforts of a dissenting minority, largely neoliberal in politics and funded by big business.

Nonetheless, the various attempts to reach international agreement to reduce carbon emissions have failed completely, and there is little prospect of success in the future. No country is genuinely willing to stop economic growth, while some appear to have cut emissions only by shifting industrial production to other countries and importing their products. The fact that the major effects of climate change will be felt in the future, most likely by other people and in other places, reinforces the belief it is someone else’s problem.

The war of words about climate change has tended to obscure other, and arguably more pressing, ecological issues. These include: desertification; water depletion; pollution of the land, seas and air; radioactive waste; dwindling fish populations; soil erosion; and declining soil quality. All this is happening simultaneously and across all regions of the world, affecting not only our wellbeing but perhaps even our survival. All of the Earth’s life support systems are under stress and all the trends are adverse.

In spite of all this evidence we continue to treat the Earth as though she could meet our demands and cope with our wastes without limit or consequence. Localised pressures and losses are noticed and sometimes challenged, but the forces driving such destruction – population growth, more intensive agriculture, industrialisation, global trade – are too powerful to be halted. Almost no-one sees or understands the whole picture. To the extent that these issues are raised in public, they are seldom considered symptoms of the same underlying problem.

For the first time in human history most people live in cities, and the conditions of life for many are barely tolerable. Millions experience poverty, overcrowding, noise, pollution and misery. In spite of this, economic pressures continue to drive vast numbers into urban areas and industrialised work. People in rich countries rarely see any of this or consider the injustice, even though their prosperity derives from the labouring poor.

Meanwhile we remain transfixed by the economy and what it can and cannot deliver. The capitalist system has been astonishingly productive and effective in spreading a middle class lifestyle, part of a widely accepted story of Progress. The ending of the Cold War marked the start of an era of triumphant neoliberalism, no longer facing any major ideological challenge. Governments around the world enacted largely the same agenda of private enterprise, minimal regulation and free trade. Some countries experienced stellar economic growth during those years, and while this was so, few observers questioned its effects.

The economic turbulence starting in 2007-08 was met initially with shock and disbelief, then frantic efforts by governments to avert a worldwide depression. Inflated by the debt that fuelled the boom, many financial institutions failed and needed to be bailed out by the state. For a while this crisis appeared to undermine faith in capitalism and opened up the possibility of new social and economic arrangements, but bizarrely the outcome has been exactly the opposite. The unspoken consensus across most of the political spectrum is that economic recovery is absolutely necessary and must come first. Concerns about social justice and the environment are still quietly sidelined. It says much about our culture that even the greatest financial crisis in seventy years has failed to change our priorities and direction of travel.

Never have we been so well informed about the state of the world, and yet we persist in living in denial. Why is this? The problem lies in the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what really matters. Passed down through the generations and reinforced through social, religious and political institutions, these stories sketch out our map of reality.

What we take to be normal is in fact a relatively recent development. Our human ancestors lived on this planet for about 2.5 million years, and homo sapiens for the last 200,000 years. Civilisation is only 10,000 years old, and our current way of life began with the industrial era about 200 years ago. We can scarcely imagine there is anything wrong with cities, supermarkets, motor cars and smartphones, or with a continually rising human population and standard of living. On the contrary, we believe, and are repeatedly told, these indicate our success as a species. Our collective stories embody what Daniel Quinn calls the ‘Great Forgetting’; contemporary culture has almost no awareness of how the human species lived in relationship to the planet for almost all of its existence, or how our current ideas and practices are seriously deluded.

The power of these stories derives from the way they operate through us unconsciously, and unless we become aware of them and their consequences, we will continue on this journey toward catastrophe. This paper argues that we need to wake up to reality and find a radically different way to live.

Part One describes the many ways in which the Crisis appears. The principal metaphor is the ‘Machine-world’, which is contrasted with both the natural world and the culture of traditional societies. Part Two then considers how the Machine-world affects us psychologically, in terms of our wellbeing and our ability to understand what is happening. Part Three suggests how we might face the reality of our situation and find ways to heal the damage to ourselves, our communities and the living planet.

This paper is not a summary of evidence for the Crisis, which is readily available in print and online, and neither is it a systematic survey of the academic literature. It attempts to identify major characteristics generally overlooked by both popular and scientific accounts, focusing on the lived experience of being in the modern world. Along the way it touches on history, politics, economics, psychology and religion, but does not weigh competing arguments. Neither does it aim to satisfy current standards of scientific or philosophical rigour. Such systems of thought, which all too easily distance us from the real world and our own feelings and intuitions, are themselves a major part of the problem. Although we should not casually discard the accumulated wisdom and practice of civilisation, we need to return to our own personal experience to understand what is going on. We should be wary of seeking validation for them in the very ideas that have led to the Crisis.

The paper reflects the author’s own experience and beliefs, interests and biases. No single worldview could possibly present universal truths, and this paper is no exception. The argument is more descriptive than explanatory, and the reader is invited to read with the heart as well as the mind. The author’s photographs are included to engage feeling and imagination.

The emphasis is on developing self-awareness and taking action in our own lives rather than trying to change society. Unless we first transform ourselves through deeper understanding we will merely replicate the system that already exists, with the same inevitable outcomes. Real alternatives can only arise from people prepared to face the truth about their lives. The processes of healing the damage to ourselves, our communities and the world are all interlinked.

The aim here is to provoke reflection and debate by challenging some of our basic assumptions and rationalisations about the way things are. The question for each of us is:

Am I living by what I know to be true from my own life experience, or am I merely following ideas and rules given by others?

We can sleep-walk through life and ignore what we see, hear and sense every day. It is often easier to go along with the consensus view, even when we know it to be false, than to stand up for what we know to be true and real. In our actions we might have only a small impact on the world, but at least we might discover renewed purpose, meaning and dignity.


If you would like to read more, download the pdf: Real world