Forum Replies Created
Jal, I agree that it will be different but I think that short of total sterilization, i.e. the sun explodes, there is no question that life will recover. I think that the permian extinction shows that quite resoundingly.
Thanks for the response, I have put into a compilation of all the criticism and reflection I have received as I find it all invaluable. I wanted to express a few thoughts. Firstly I am well aware of the political nature of the potato famine. My family is Irish and was a strong part of the cultural memory that was passed on to me. Regardless though the result was famine and I was speaking more to the impact that experiencing famine has on individuals, communities and family dynamics regardless of what conditions created it. That is not to dismiss the effects that colonization, oppression and injustice have upon individuals. On a side note it is an issue that particularly raises my ire when my ethnic and cultural identity is reduced to being “white”. My people are Irish and damned if they were considered “white”, or racially superior throughout the vast majority of their history. That is a very recent phenomenon and one that requires that near total obliteration of Irish history.
As for shifting baselines, you are absolutely correct. It is the issue of the frog boiling in the water. I am certainly not arguing that there is no or even just superficial damage to the biosphere, and the longer it takes for us to adapt it will only get worse. Of course the worse things degrade the more powerful the pressure becomes, so there will be a point of equilibrium even if that is our extinction. However given what we know about the nature of life once that equilibrium is achieved it will start to recover, hopefully we are part of that process.
Finally I agree that we are always in a process of constructing narratives about our past. These are inherently shaped by our subjective biases. However I do believe that it is possible to created more accurate and less accurate narratives. My point was that we cannot truly know the individuality of our ancestors, but we can at least hold our selves to a standard of intellectual honesty that at least accepts that and tries to incorporate it into our narrative.
All the best – Alex
Thanks for the thoughts. Firstly I feel that there is a large difference between “distorts” and “incapable”. To distort means to twist or warp something, meaning that is not holding its true form. However this does not mean that it is completely “untrue” the fundamental structure is still there, we have just altered it through our perception of it. This is very different from incapable. Rather I just think we can take some of the cultural twists that we have put on the process so that we can look at the historical process closer to its real nature.
This leads into your question, “in which empathy with the reality of forbearers led to a fuller understanding of current reality?” (I really appreciated this by the way.)
I think that one of the greatest examples we have is the Italian Renaissance. I think that it represents a period where an intense curiosity and desire to understand the minds and culture of the classical period resulted in massive cultural transformation in the present. While I am not trying to say there was not mythologizing and distortion in this process it was a real attempt to empathize with and understand their ancestors and that there were many positive and beautiful effects.
Cheers – Alex
No worries Ashvin, I certainly understand not wanting to get into a discussion about such things here. I would only say briefly that the Judaeo-Christian metaphysics are from plane. While I am not a Christian I have a deep affinity for the Greek version of John describing God as Logos and believe absolutely that the ethics of Jesus express logos amongst humanity. I promise I am not trying to draw you in a discussion, I just wanted to express that there is probably more that we agree upon than you think.
Ashvin, I would be very curious as to your metaphysical views if you ever care to share. Cheers – Alexander
I sincerely appreciate the criticism as that was the original reason I sent my musings to Ilargi. I would like to justify myself a little in that the essay is an attempt at boiling down a few observations and I know that there is much that is left out and truncated. A description of history is far from “the thing in itself” so to speak. The narrative constructs that we develop always have aspects of mythologizing to them. I think that it is probably unavoidable and that it is up to our individual ethic to try and be aware of the far greater complexity and magnitude of reality than any attempt to describe it can actually encapsulate. Perhaps “demythologizing” is the wrong term, maybe it is an issue of selecting for better myths. To try and reduce the billions of psyches and their interactions over the course of millennia to a few pages is undoubtedly a simplification and probably a bit hubristic. Certainly I worry about making things sound reductionist, mechanistic and linear. It also worries me that you feel that my framework “totally leaves out any role for human spirituality and metaphysics” as I value this aspect of our humanity deeply. The irony for me is that the process I have been attempting to describe is something that I perceive and feel on a very spiritual level. This is obviously something that I must refine in my communication. The idea that the emergence of our cultures are predicated on human consciousness responding to its own presence in the world has powerful metaphysical implications to me.
So just a few thoughts in response to you uneasiness. On reflection my statements can look a little absolutist which enforces a perception of mechanistic linearity. We can put the idea of simple mechanistic selection to rest when we look at how close the Chinese, the Islamic caliphate and the classical Greco-Roman world all came to the advent of industrialization. Certainly if it was so perfectly linear industrialization would have been selected for with the development of the first steam powered device at the beginning of the Christian era (and the mess would have long ago resolved itself one way or another).
I also did not intend to strip the peoples that I mentioned of the depth and intensity of their world views. The Christians for example were not simply operating on a cost benefit analysis of material returns. They had true, passionate belief in what they espoused that in turn molded and shaped their actions far beyond just food and care. However the providing of service was a behavioural expression of those beliefs that allowed them to “compete” more successfully.
My hope with the descriptions of historical events was to describe the material circumstances that helped form the parameters of emergence within the cultures I mentioned. You are correct, within those parameters a multitude of worldviews and behaviours existed. What influenced or predisposed the individuals that constituted those societies to select for and organize around some ideas and not others? What created the attraction towards certain values and modes of being even if there were “better options” available (I immediately think of Babbage’s Analytical Engine and Tesla’s research but there are many examples and many beyond just material advents). The best term that I have ever come across for the real complexity of human causality is Karma. It was one of the things I really wanted to elicit in my writing, the sense that we are in dialogue with and shaped by relationships, perceptions and actions from countless generations preceding us. The subtlety of that can be overwhelming and largely impossible to verify. For example I wonder how the experience of the Irish fleeing the potato famine and the dynamics that would have developed in Irish families and communities as a response to that have affected the culture of food in America some 160 years later. I am not saying this to be trivial, roughly 12% of the United States are descended from people that experienced a severe famine and this undoubtedly has had a powerful karmic impact on family and cultural dynamics. I suppose that what I am saying is that the rabbit hole goes really deep on that one.
As best I understand it our universe appears to select for complexity and this complexity seems to be directly linked to thermodynamic flows. I believe that evolution and human consciousness reiterate this process. However there is massive variability in this process, and by the time we hit something as complex as human consciousness that relationship becomes unbelievably profound, but as best I know these are the rules by which we play the game. I don’t think of this as something that limits our freedom but is rather the condition by which our freedom is made possible. We are an entity that imbues this world with value and meaning, and what value and meaning we create is invariably a metaphysical decision. Even in the case of science, the decision to value quantifiable phenomenon over non quantifiable or qualitative phenomenon as having greater truth value is a metaphysical leap of faith (as far I know we have yet to find a truth particle). So for me this does bring in the spiritual element of the whole process, we know we must play by the rules of the game, yet it is the value and meaning that we embody and imbue that determines how we play the game. This is probably the greatest freedom in the universe. So in the end whether and how we survive will be as much a metaphysical/spiritual relationship with our world as it will be a material manifestation.
Ashvin, I thank you for your criticisms, they have given me much to reflect on and I hope that my response was adequate enough. Sincerely – AlexJuly 15, 2012 at 11:01 pm in reply to: From Crisis to Crisis: Zimbabwe to Greece to Montana #4635
Ken, You are absolutely correct. Mugabe and the Zanu-PF were monsters born of Rhodesian parents. Ian Smith and the intractable and reactionary Rhodesian Front created the militant backlash that resulted in the Bush War by not working with the moderates to create a more inclusive and democratic system which they had ample opportunity to do so. On the other hand though it should be noted that the lions share of white owned farms were purchased after the war and the majority of whites that stayed in Zimbabwe were of a different mindset than the hardline Rhodies. Mostly the old guard went to South Africa, while those that stayed like my family truly identified Zim as home and worked to create something new. Even during the war my family was generally left alone. My Grandfathers Irish upbringing gave him a deep empathy for the colonized which was instilled in us. When he died hundreds of the locals came to his funeral and played the drums well in to the night. We all learned Shona growing up, my father even taught me to sing Ishe Komberera (God Bless Africa) formerly the Zim national Anthem (replaced by something more militant these days). My father started one of the first organic farms in Zim as well as a successful furniture factory training and employing highly skilled carpenters. Our family helped to start schools in the local communities as well as provide farm land. And when the Move For Democratice Change started gaining traction many whites and blacks from all walks of life organized together. My father was even abducted and disappeared for nearly two weeks for organizing with them. Things were not perfect, there was a lot of imbalance to be sure (a large part of which was simply access to the credit markets provided to Europeans) and I have abundant criticism of White Africa. However most of those that stayed in Zim truly believed in a new society and worked hard to make a new country. Ultimately what it comes down to in my view is a cynical power play by the Zanu-PF. They had a cultural wound they knew they could exploit for power and the economic instability produced from exploiting simply acted to concentrate economic power in there hands by eliminating any alternatives.
I find this attitude of “Oh well, everything’s fine!” very confusing. I know that here Monbiot is speaking solely on that viability of non conventional oil, but even if you assume that the premise about it is correct it seems like such a linear response to an incredibly complex set of causal relationships. So the questions that pop into my mind are… what about energy return on water invested? What about the effects of development on local communities? I have a lot of friends who are out in eastern Montana and North Dakota who are watching local communities just getting shattered. What happens if we see increased resistance from them? What are the ecological effects, the Boreal Forest is being decimated in Alberta. What about broader ecological effects from these forms of production. Geopolitically what are the effects for example of supplanting Middle Eastern production with non-conventional’s. Could it collapse the political economy of those regions? And of course what about the law of diminishing returns when applied to non conventional production? These are just the immediate questions that pop into my head. There are so many unknown variables that again even if you accept the premise of the argument, it is way to simplistic and arrogant of a response to say problem solved.
I grew up in an Irish farming family in Zimbabwe Africa. When I was 16 the country’s economy began to collapse in earnest when the government took over the farms. Friends (black and white) were beaten and killed, homes were destroyed. On my uncles farm 400 fully grown citrus trees were cut down by the “war vets” because he refused to hand over the years tobacco crop to them. Over the course of a few months the main support structures of the economy were essentially wiped out. There was 30% unemployment virtually overnight and that was just getting started, it was still years before it got really bad. Since the beginning of the millenium my home has suffered a 7 septillion percent inflation rate, 95% unemployment, and a drop in life expectancy from 65 to 32. The infrastructure and resources necessary to support communities were either wiped out or monopolized by elites, solidifying their hegemony over the country. While half the population requires food aid to survive you can see multi million dollar (U.S.) homes going up around Harare in gated communities with expensive shopping centers peddling fine imported foods and goods. Zimbabwe has been sold off for pennies on the dollar, but when you concentrate that into a small elite it is still a massive amount of wealth for individuals. What was once a truly beautiful place, full of vibrant people has been horribly disfigured by the corruption, greed, nepotism and outright psychopathy of the Zanu-PF. In essence Zimbabwe is a corpse of a country kept on life support by the Chinese now as they haul off any raw materials of value.
Needless to say something like this has a huge impact on the psyche of a teenager. It pretty much wiped out any normalcy bias about what to expect from our political or economic systems. It also seeded a deep philosophical and practical anarchism within me. I graduated from University in Athens, Greece with a degree in philosophy in 2006. I wrote my thesis on the philosophy of history with the central argument that Industrial Civilization would collapse and either be replaced by a new emergent socio-economic revolution an order of magnitude higher than industrialization and agriculture combined, or we would go back to the stone age or extinct. My philosophy department dismissed me as a futurist and the economists dismissed me as a philosopher (Of a little vindication I have since had a few individuals contact me and apologize for dismissing me and in review they have found my premises and argumentation sound even if they still do not necessarily agree with my conclusions). Upon leaving university I travelled around the world, back to Africa, Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand and North America. For a few years I travelled to various communities to see how they functioned, permaculture farms, indigenous peoples, artist collectives, anarcho comunes. I was trying to assemble real world knowledge of what actually worked. If there is one thing that should be obvious to us it is that we must create the infrastructure and institutions at the ground level that will provide the stability and resources for communities and individuals to realign their behaviour around as the old systems increasingly breakdown.
In 2008 I moved to Denver to start a collective with one of my best mates from University ( http://www.kindacollective.org ). We started small, we opened a little space and the first activity we ran was a documentary and discussion evening and branched out from there. We did things like help to run volunteer art classes in a low income elementary school that had had its funding cut. Currently we have a large permaculture garden with free internet access and a building we can teach hay bail construction with. We now have 150 students from the local elementary school that run classes in the garden. Last year we organized a large block party in Denvers Art District on Santa Fe street called Here is How. The event was based on collaborative practice and educational outreach. We invited a host of community groups, organizations and local businesses to the event. Their only obligations were to handle the nature of their presence at the street party i.e. info booth, entertainment, crafts etc. plus they provided at least 200 printouts of a How-to page that we gave them the template for. This could be things like “Here is how to Build a Garden, DJ a party, Protect Local Pollinators or Fold an Origami Crane”. The collective took care of logistics, outreach and media. At the actual block party we had a book binding table where people brought all their “Here is How” pages they had collected and we showed them how to bind their own books so they could create their own community DIY manual to take home. Ultimately something like Here is How is very small, but the idea is that it helps to foster a culture of collaboration and mutual aid.
In 2011 I was asked to teach a University class in Greece to American students. We discussed the philosophy of history as Egyptians knelt in prayer before water cannons and as the fires set in the Ministry of Finance in Athens flickered light across the marble of the Acropolis. It was the perfect classroom and it allowed us to have extensive dialogue about the role of history in our lives and our responsibility in that context. The point for me was never to tell my student that things were “fucked”, but to provide the framework and information to form their own perspectives and ideas on what they were learning and to form a dialogue about the issues. For me the key goal is to plant the seeds, whether they are intellectual or infrastructural and recognize that the unfolding of history (or whatever term you like for the fast complexity of events we are immersed in.) will do the fertilizing.
I have since moved to Bozeman Montana (where my other best mate from University lives) having been offered a graduate teaching position which will pay for me to work on another degree (a little insulation). My small but close community here is working hard to develop what we can to provide alternatives. We are putting on Here is How Bozeman this summer and in the beginning of August we are opening a small community space. It is an extremely flexible, if not large, space that we can reorganize for a number of uses. We will have a small merchandise section with books and goods made by local artists and craftworkers to try and supplement some of the cost of running the space. Beyond that it will mostly be composed of a library with internet access and sitting area. We will be running free tutoring and presentation/discussions out of it, small events such as movie showings, as well as providing free meeting space for anyone that wants to use it. We also have a good friend who works in early childhood development who is interested in setting up a small enrichment program for families. We are also located a block over from the bar scene near the campus. Last year there was a string of serial rapes and we are speaking with some of the local advocacy groups and developing a plan to keep the space open and staffed Friday and Saturday nights until an hour after the bars close so that if there is anyone feeling uncomfortable or threatened by a situation can come and use the space as a safe haven and have the option of being walked home at the end of the evening. From there we will expand in whatever ways we can.
Now I am not writing all this to toot my own horn so to speak, the gains of my communities have been modest but tangible. What is of key importance is to me is surmounting the isolation that we feel when we are confronted with the apathy, ignorance and aggression of those unwilling to look at the issues that confront us with real intellectual honesty. For years I was ridiculed and dismissed by family, friends, professors and co-workers. I learned a very careful, humble and diplomatic pedagogy for eliciting others to think on their own terms and come to their own conclusion while always being honest (but not aggressive) about my own views. In the consistency of my argumentation I have won over many once intractable individuals closer to my way of viewing what is happening. Again this is more about the fertility of history than any specific capacity of mine. I have remained consistent and articulate, but intellectually honest when I have been wrong, for many years now. When 2008 rolled around and then the European crisis started to properly kick off suddenly my arguments were not so outlandish and I was increasingly validated by events. Above all we must have compassion for the cultural and historical perspectives in which our fellow humans are embedded. The relationships of industrialization have so deeply purveyed our cultures and psyches. Indeed it is as unimaginable for many of us to perceive the world without our industrial economies and nation states at the nexus as it must have been for medieval peasants to contemplate a world without the Church of Rome.
However I think it is also important to recognize that a little shock (if given with humour and kindness) can go a long way to breaking down ingrained dialogues. For example a person asked me the other day what it was like in Greece this past year and I responded, “You know the scene in Titanic when the band is playing and all the people are running around screaming and throwing deck chairs over the side…” They laughed but it expressed the true intensity of the situation and subverted a lot of the propaganda fairly quickly. We then had a fairly extensive and honest discussion about the real implications of what is happening. The other thing that I would say is that we need to stand our ground, again with humility and compassion but conviction none the less. I have a few years of food stored up, and the first thing that I will do when distribution breaks down is to start providing it to the community. I will readily admit this to anyone, and if they act like I am out of my mind I will humbly state that I hope I am wrong and that nothing would make me happier, but I then gently inform them that they never have experienced anything like what I am describing and I have seen it twice now. It is not some misanthropic preoccupation but a visceral awareness of the implications of what I describe. This is not the providence of fiction but actual historical phenomenon. It is easy to dismiss something you have not experienced but that is a position of unexamined assumption and bias that must be exposed for what it is. It is not about making someone agree with you but to at least intellectually recognize the validity of the claim and to earn respect for your position. This again is at least a seed. I often summarize my goals as radical intention coupled with diplomatic action.
I will leave off with a short story. After the war that liberated Zimbabwe from Rhodesia in 1980 my parents and a friend renovated a Land Rover in order to go Safari through central Africa. They cut off the roof over the front seats, welded down the back cover and installed a stereo system. However, it being post independence Zim they could not find any speakers so they installed three headphone jacks and proceeded to cruise through the bush open air with their headphones on. Everything was brilliant until they got to the border checkpoint with Malawi. This was Africa in the 80’s, the Afrikaaner government in South Africa was doing everything it could to hold onto power and destabilize Black Africa, so needless to say there was a lot of suspicion and fear. The checkpoint was your typical third world military post. Dusty concrete, topped with concertina wire, the windows broken in the guardhouse and a large picture Hasting Banda glaring down from the wall. The Guards rushed out screaming in a language my parents did not understand, waving and pointing their A.K.’s they forced them out of the vehicle. Shouting the guards alternated from shoving the A.K.’s into their chests and pointing them at the Land Rover. It was extremely tense and terrifying and then my mother realized they were pointing at the headphones and it occurred to her that the guards were thinking they were South African Spies. Very gently my mother took the headphones and placed them over the head guards ears. They were playing Bob Marley. The look of anger suspicion melted away, replaced by a massive grin as he started to bob his head and move his body. The guards proceeded to pass around the headphones smiling and laughing. They invited my parents for tea and then let them continue on their way. Music alone bridged not only the divide of language but also the massive divide of black and white Africa. Courage and dignity demands that we must relentlessly seek the common ground of our humanity, from there I believe that anything is possible.