“A great wind blows among the tress, and everywhere fruit falls down — truths. The squandering of an all-too-rich autumn; one stumbles over truths, one steps on and kills a few — there are too many.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
Much of modern social thought has not come to grips with the tragedy of modernity. Contemporary thinkers are flying into the future but facing backwards, escaping from the horrific pain of the past but blind to the destruction that lies ahead, Bruno Latour observes.
Drastic climate change necessitates that we rethink many of the foundational assumptions of modern societies, the modernization process and our ideas about “progress.”
It has typically been assumed by mainstream social thinkers that:
» The Enlightenment brought “reason” to humanity and through its strategic deployment societies could evolve into a better future.
» Advances in technology sustain a modernization process through which less developed areas of the world are pulled into more rational forms of social organization.
» Humans make history and through our (rational) deliberate actions we progressively move into a future better than our past.
» Large-scale problems should be able to be avoided by “reflexive” feedback processes in which knowledge of the problems leads to humans altering their behavior.
» Nature simply exists as an input and resource, as something in the background, which serves the needs of business.
» Capitalism is a largely benign “market system” — the most rational way of managing the forces of production and consumption. The social relations between different groups under capitalism represent universal divisions of the population largely based on merit. Capitalism is progress incorporated.
» Our end goal is “progress,” which since World War II has largely been identified with economic growth. Politicians of all stripes — conservatives, liberals and communists — have been united in the aim of increasing the gross national product.
I now question all of these assumptions.
With the advent of the Anthropocene — the new geologic era that has emerged to deal with the facts of massive human impacts on the Earth — human history has converged with ecological history. It is no longer possible to maintain the separation of social forces from natural ones.
One of the key lessons of the climate crisis is that we did not reflect upon our actions and change our behavior but instead carried on as if nothing was happening.
In the Anthropocene, the future is no longer ours to make. As Clive Hamilton states: “Nature is no longer merely an inert stage on which the human drama plays out.”
We can no longer take nature for granted as something to be molded by human desires.
The goal of endless growth assumed the mild and stable climate of the Holocene geologic era. The advent of the Anthropocene represents a huge obstacle to endless growth and all the social thought that presupposes it.
Climate volatility and a rate of warming unprecedented in the climate records force us to rethink the ideal of “progress.”
Originally our notion of progress emerged from the Christian promise of salvation. After the Enlightenment, philosophers like Georg Hegel provided the dialectic engine through which history would emerge.
Those who grasped the law of progress saw it as their duty to advance a future that was inevitable. They believed that history and the future were on their side.
We must now rethink the idea that humans make history, for as Hamilton states, “The stage on which we make it has now entered into the play as a dynamic and capricious force.”
Rather than building the New Jerusalem, our goal will increasingly be to protect the gains of the past and hopefully manage the effects of climate instability. While we had thought that the future rested on the technological transformation of nature, we are increasingly realizing that our future lies in nature’s hands.
— Wayne Mellinger, Ph.D., is a social justice activist living in Santa Barbara and social worker for the homeless. He is on the board of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE).