I frequently look around at my culture and wonder how have we gotten to this point of insanity. We are on the brink of collapse as a civilization, if not as a species, and yet there is so little surface evidence of this. When I dig, there is lots of evidence. Two recent emails posts illustrate this, one negative, one positive:
- If We Release a Small Fraction of Arctic Carbon, ‘We’re Fucked’: Climatologist. This is the statement of Dr. Jason Box, arguably the world’s leading glaciologist, in discussing the occurrence of vast methane plumes now being released from the arctic seafloor.
- A Young Climate Activist Reflects on Lessons Learned. The article details the remarkable (and difficult) struggles of a major activist figure, a woman who succeeded in making Harvard University divest from fossil fuel companies.
As a consequence, I have had major difficulty deciding what to write in this particular post. The issues of our society are so complex, that it is hard for me to do other than to gloss over the complexity, especially if I want to keep the length of the post to a reasonable size.
For the past twenty-five years, usually during the workshops I have run on anger management, I have asked a question: “What are the rules that run you, the rules you do not even think about?” The question originally arose for me after reading the book Dancing With A Ghost: Exploring Indian Reality by Rupert Ross. Ross was of European descent, and as a young man had worked many years as a fishing guide amongst Native Canadian guides. Later, when he became a lawyer, he attempted to understand the difficulties of natives in Canadian courts. (This book profoundly influenced my own understanding of human dynamics — highly recommended.)
Ross tells the story to two cultures, that I have chosen to call “The People of the Ladder” and “The People of the Wheel.” These cultures have evolved separately for perhaps 30,000 years, and have come together in the past 400 years. Each culture presumably had a coherent body of ethical behaviors, giving the greatest possibility of survival for that unique culture! In this posting, I am going to outline the people of the ladder; in another, I will explore the people of the wheel.
The people of the ladder became agriculturalists early in their development, and strived to master the external world, eventually developing empires, and waging wars with each others. Eventually, they shifted from monotheistic religions to materialistic technology, with immense gains. They became masters of the external world. They also devastated the people of the wheel, who only in the past half century have begun to express their own culture again.
For the most part, the rules that have run the people of the ladder have been the rules of power, especially power over — they became dominators. Effectively, they (or I should say, my people) have become so powerful that they could actually change the physical and chemical structure of the world, once they began utilizing fossil fuels as a source of energy, with the current consequences of global warming.
Their technological prowess has allowed major advances in health care, in forming massive cities of millions of people, developing space travel, quantum physics, the internet, and numerous other advances.
They have also gradually moved into more and more valuing of rights of the individual. Examples include the Magna Carta, the emancipation of slaves, the elimination of child labour practices, the valuing of women and children, the elimination of racial and gender prejudices, amongst others. Yet each of these advances has only occurred after extensive struggle to overcome the dominator mentality, and in most cases these advances are incomplete still. Most recently, there has been the valuing of the environment, again incomplete after major struggle. As mentioned in the first post, the eminent environmentalist David Suzuki believes that the environmental movement of the past 50 years has failed — any advances have been temporary, and the destructive forces just keep on coming.
Then there is the mixed blessings of technology — philosophers have been writing about the dehumanizing impact of technology for the past hundred years. Some quotes (the actual references are in my book Acedia: The Darkness Within):
Berdyaev (1934): “We are confronted by a fundamental paradox: without technique [technology] culture is impossible . . . yet a final victory of technique . . . brings the destruction of culture.”
Lewis (1947): “What we call man’s power is, in reality, a power possessed by some men which they may, or may not, allow other men to profit by.”
Ellul (1963): “the further technical progress advances, the more the social problem of mastering this progress becomes one of an ethical and spiritual kind.”
Dave Meslin (2010) alludes to this in a TED talk Redefining Apathy where he concludes that apathy is due to “a complex web of cultural barriers that reinforces disengagement.”
Why? What are the rules that allow this cultural insanity, especially the rules we do not name? One of the rules, of course, is that money talks! Money is the dominant value of our culture. I am not an economist, but it seems that the dominant rule is growth, especially monetary growth as expressed as Gross National Product, an artificial valuing of productivity that ignores most of the hidden costs to the environment. It also ignores the fact that you cannot have unlimited ongoing growth in a finite system.
Hidden from view is another major rule: “Don’t talk about the rules.” Do not examine the long-term consequences of actions that produce “good.” This has been a marvellous rule for technological progress, but has left us with many technological problems, such as what to do with nuclear waste, let alone the consequences of ignoring carbon pollution. It has also spilled over into huge emotional issues, such as the systemic problems of domestic violation, and corporations that we now treat as persons.
Then there is the high-jacking of modern democracy by business interests. Modern organizations have the potential, and in some cases the actuality, of operating as special interest groups that override the common good; the many political scandals of the past 50 years bear witness to this. I am not sure how to name this rule, but overall, I perceive a society that is unable to manage its own complexity. (On the plus side, I know of many positive advances in small instances, at the corporate or municipal level, but they do not seem to translate to higher political levels.)
There are, of course, other hidden rules, but to identify them would mean talking about them!
This post is part of what I am calling the core posts for understanding what I am attempting by this blog. For other core posts, click here.