Monday, 21 April 2014

The Morrow Project, Chapter 2: Is the World coming to an End?

Is the wrong question. It's too vague as it stands. One obvious answer is Yes, it is. That is, the World (as experienced by any individual component of it)is in a constant flux, changing by the day, hour, minute. Some of these changes are cyclical, and some linear, the difference being that cycles repeat patterns (if not exact details) and lines do not; there is no going back.

Let's try to be more precise then: Is the World as we (humans) presently experience it in the process of entering a state of change which is linear, not part of a 'natural' cycle, irreversible?  And let's be more detailed; here, we are talking about 'the World' as a shared experience of a large system or set of systems which currently persist, whether these are natural, social or commercial. Furthermore, does this imply that the World and its systems as we experience it/them are coming to an end?

According to many observers, the answer to this question is also Yes. There is no shortage of evidence that the Twenty-first Century World is different in substantial ways to what came before, and contains within itself the seeds of a transformation to yet more changes in the years to come. According to some, and within the underlying anxiety and guilt of many, these transformations will be sufficiently dramatic to mean that the World as it is to be experienced by our descendants is likely to be very different to the World we know. In this sense, quite possibly, we can say that the World that we know is coming to an end.

Are we ,  then, one of the 'last generations' of 'civilised' humankind? In terms with which some will be familiar, are we living at the 'End of Days', not necessarily in a religious or moral sense, but also perhaps in a practical one?

Well, let's be clear; every generation is the last of its kind, and the first of its kind. Certain key stages in human social development stand out - for example the Fourteenth Century, during which plague and famine possibly halved the global population (the Sixth to Eighth century is probably also, arguably, another such period). Was this the end of the World? It marks a watershed - before and after this period, the World as lived in by us changed. But the World did not, as such, come to an end. It became something new.

The Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries also stand out. The Agricultural, Industrial and Scientific revolutions combined to create a whole new set of conditions, in the residue of which we now live. Does the present period of human society stand out as such a period of radical change? Or, more extremely, are we now at a stage where we actually are threatening our collective survival, our present state of civilisation, and heading for a spectacular collapse, on a scale previously experienced in those earlier periods?

This final question, then, is probably the 'interesting' matter for us, as one generation struggling with its own expectations and responsibilites. For there is one way in which we 'modern' people differ from those which preceded us. Before the 1800s, it was clear that radical and dramatically negative large scale changes were the consequence of outside forces, the Deus ex Machina, Fate. Since then, living a a World of science, medicine and large-scale agriculture, we have been relatively immune, collectively, to these (so far). Since the 1940s, we have also lived in a World where we are uniquely conscious of a new phenomenon - our capacity to destroy ourselves and our world through our own actions and choices. And this is where the matter of responsibility comes in, for we now live lives which contain an awareness that the 'End of Days' is more likely to be in our hands than from any outside force. As such, we bear a responsibility for our decisions about how we live, and what we do, which did not previously exist on a global scale.

So, the next chapters of the Project will start addressing this last question: through our relationship with the World (our home), it's natural systems, the biosphere, the atmosphere, the oceans and land, are we setting the conditions for a new 'collapse' of human society? This is not a simple question, and will take a lot of working out. So, here's a spoiler; simple observation suggests that the World as we know it is due for another dramatic set of changes, probably stimulated by our own actions, but we still have choices about the nature of these changes...

Saturday, 5 April 2014

The Morrow Project, chapter one

"Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Santayana.

Which is my introduction to this morning's subject, the History of the Apocalypse. Hopefully, you can see the marker for what it is; the early parts of the Morrow project are to map out the context in which we consider the idea of impending doom, vis a vis Catastrophic Climate Change. Once we can make sense of why we might have an inclination towards apparent nihilism, it then becomes possible to place present-day concerns over the impacts of a changing climate into a space from where we can puzzle out an attitude, or approach to the future.

If you go to see (or just read the rubbish about) Russell Crowe and Noah, you're following a popular and enduring trend in human society to consider the possibility of the End of Days. It sits very deeply in the Western cultural consciousness. It is, of course, a theme in parts of the Bible and, through the thousand year social/intellectual dominance of this particular religion, informs our development consciousness as individuals, whether we are aware of it or not.

But it is also there embedded in the Viking/Nordic consciousness, as Ragnarok, in Millenialist cults from the tenth, fourteenth, eighteenth centuries, on into the modern era. From the early Twentieth century, influenced no doubt by the horrors of the global conflicts into which we were plunged, and by the Cold War and Post-Existentialist modern, it reaches us first through late-period sects (such as the Jehovah's Witnesses), through Science Fiction, in examples too numerous to mention, and in contemporary Fantasy fiction. The End of Days is a sufficiently common and enduring theme to be able to confidently claim that it exists within our cultural identity, and thus within our individuality, like a toothache.

And our attitude towards this apparent apocalypse is interesting, for it is a qualified doom, not an unequivocal one. In most versions, since neo-Platonic times, possibly since Aquinas, we, the recipients of the wisdom of the Revelation, are excluded from the ranks of the doomed - we are the chosen, the few, the blessed. In personal imaginings of the catastrophic realignment of human existence on Earth, the question of whether I will be one of the few does not arise, it is taken as a given. We are the witness to the new, the post-apocalyptic World. This is, of course, counter-rational, since by definition, if 90% or so of the World's population is to die, the odds against a personal survival is quite small..

There's probably also a link to one of the fundamental premises of Christianity (and, implicitly, in some versions of Buddhism), that the reward for suffering in the present is a better, purer 'life' in the future. The power of this particular promise is obvious - your life may be crap now, but there is always hope. But in the adult awareness of our individual inefficability, a deus ex machina, an mighty outside force, is required to bring about the transformation, at least on a timescale that signifies within the self-aware mortal frame of normal human life.

Neither is such irrational hope confined to religion - it persists in a huge proportion of the Advertising, Marketing, consumption and social human activities that constitute a significant proportion of our daily input, wherein it addresses and promises to answer our everyday existential anxieties about power, control, desire, significance, and solve these if only we buy this, bet that, own this, use that...

In a similar way, the idea of a Global Catastrophe allows us to hope, in the abstract, that the problems and worries which beset us as individuals and as a society entire, a species, on this planet, our home, are capable of a solution. This is a dramatic and exclusive solution, but we are, ipso facto, the survivors, the new wave, the pioneers of the better tomorrow... and so we come to welcome what is in rational terms an appalling holocaust.

So, we seem to exist in Developed Society as entities for whom the tendency to worry and wonder about our collective future is a mirror for our anxieties about our survival and flourishing as individuals. In this, we follow another familiar neo-Platonic meme, the doctrine of Microcosm-macrocosm (As above, so below).

Here is a suggestion, then. When we speculate about tomorrow in terms of the imminent collapse of civilization, or a sudden transition to a Brave New World, what we are doing is transferring our uncomfortable awareness of our own mortality and our wish to signify onto the larger scale. This form of abstraction allows us to separate out our terror of death from our dream of persistence, and exist in a form of hopefulness, or optimism, in which we can beat death itself. Our imagining of the Apocalypse is an imagining of our immortality.

Next time: Chapter two; Is the world coming to an end?

Be loved.