This essay attempts to offer a path for human survival in a pessimistic scenario, a scenario which there are grounds to believe may come to pass, but which fails to account for as yet unseen emergent properties in a highly complex situation. This essay upholds and seeks to institute values of human and animal emancipation and to exploit the past human folly that has created a situation not only in which this scenario is plausible, but which demands that policies, institutions, societies, and humans change. This essay therefore advocates not merely social transformation, but human transformation.
This scenario comes about as the confluence of environmental devastation, climate change, an accumulation of hazardous materials (including weapons of mass destruction), resource depletion (including oil), social policies, and economic policies. It comes about as the consequence of numerous curious turns in the human story, all of which likely deserve critical examination, and only some of which actually have been critically examined. Human survival will depend largely upon luck and upon decisions that take account of the lessons of our past—and the sooner we make these decisions, the better our chances for survival become.
But paradoxically, the decisions that this essay advocates cannot be made by an elite, but rather through a consensus built among a world population of over seven billion people. Getting to a place where this is even conceivable likely means that the crises itemized above—and possibly more—will need to be perceived not in the abstract but as existential threats. Such a shared perception might not arise until the impact of these crises—in famine, fresh water shortages, epidemics, and possibly war—is widespread. And in some respects, it might be seen as preferable that this essay were not written at all, and certainly not posted on line, for it risks posing a prescription—itself an authoritarian practice (Gordon, 2008). But it is written in the hope that it will call attention to the dire threats we face, and that it may inspire positive thinking toward our survival.
That humans will survive should not be taken for granted. Only with the end of the Cold War has the threat of all-out nuclear war in a policy of mutually assured destruction appeared to recede. Nuclear weapons, however, continue to exist in large numbers (Norris & Kristensen, 2010) and it is something of an anomaly in human history that weapons exist without being used (atomic weapons have been used only at the end of World War II, when the United States deployed them in raids against cities in Japan).
But the threat of nuclear war is, as yet, the only threat to human survival that has seemed palpable, as school children were trained to hide underneath their desks in the event of a nuclear attack (May, n.d.). Other threats have developed gradually over a period of thousands of years and have been noticeable mostly only to indigenous people. Accordingly, Bodley (2008) distinguishes between indigenous society, which has survived sustainably for 500,000 years with small, stable populations in low densities; and commercial society, which arose around 6,000 years ago, with unsustainable rapidly growing populations in increasing densities, that require ever more resources, and thus ever more land, and ever more people to conquer that land. Oelschlaeger (1991) describes how human attitudes have shifted from a view of nature as something which provides for all human needs and as something to be lived with in harmony, to something which should be suppressed and controlled. And as we have disrupted natural processes that ensured the availability of clean fresh water (Outwater, 1996), so we have polluted the earth and added greenhouse gases. Climate change forecasts have generally been increasingly alarming and there is cause for suspicion that existing models may severely underestimate the impact (Pearce, 2007). A Pentagon quadrennial defense review noted that
climate change could have significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to poverty, environmental degradation, and the further weakening of fragile governments. Climate change will contribute to food and water scarcity, will increase the spread of disease, and may spur or exacerbate mass migration. (Department of Defense, 2010, p. 85)
The report makes clear that the Pentagon views climate change as a threat to U.S. national security. And Frank Fenner, blaming population growth, consumerism, and climate change, predicts the demise of the human race within 100 years. Fenner’s statement is remarkable in that he tells a journalist, “It’s an irreversible situation. I think it’s too late. I try not to express that because people are trying to do something, but they keep putting it off” (Firth, June 19, 2010). First, if he avoids expressing this, then why is he telling a newspaper reporter? Second, if he truly believes it is an “irreversible situation,” then why does it matter that people “keep putting it off?”
As a species, humans can hope that Fenner’s is a calculated statement, intending to retain credibility by introducing a time line just long enough to be difficult to dispute, yet short enough to (hopefully) introduce a needed sense of urgency, while seeking to manipulate public opinion. But the public relies on the elite to solve this problem, preferably without introducing reductions in their standard of living, and the elite, comfortable with the status quo, appear to have limited interest in doing so. In a State of the Union address, President Barack Obama (2010) made clear that nuclear energy is part of his plan for “clean energy” that will help the United States curtail its greenhouse gas emissions. Apart from the risks of nuclear power, this signals an elite faith in a technological solution, despite a likelihood that any new technological “solution” will generate more problems that will also cyclically require technological “solutions.” (Ellul, 1964).
This faith in the elite, and in scientists and engineers, to devise solutions to problems appears to stem from a division of labor that was made possible with the introduction of sedentary agriculture that produced enough food that not everyone had to be a hunter-gatherer (Diamond, 1999). But elites, it seems, maintain their legitimacy at least in part through violence. Barbara Ehrenreich (1997) connects human sacrifice with intimidation; those who were not sacrificed, she writes, were grateful to be alive and much more fearful of challenging their rulers. And, she believes, rulers instigated wars in order to maintain a supply of sacrificial victims. Sometimes the violence is physical; other times it is structural, limiting human access to necessities for physical survival, for comfort, and for self-actualization (Barash & Webel, 2002). And we have not always had rulers. Of four categories of social organization, Diamond describes bands and tribes as largely non-hierarchical; hierarchy is introduced with chiefdoms and is fully developed in states. Ironically, Diamond believes that hierarchy, in a dominator form, was seen as a means to contain interpersonal violence. But Riane Eisler (1995) connects dominator society with social inequality, especially patriarchy—the devaluing of women and, as she (2007) also later emphasizes, of care-giving. Pattrice Jones (2004) further relates our treatment of women with our treatment of animals. What we see in war is largely an argument among elites over which of them may do what to which people in which territories. To the extent this is the case, we have merely substituted inter-state and intrastate violence against vastly larger numbers of people for interpersonal violence—and with patriarchy, not really even that.
This relationship between rulers and violence, especially of the structural sort, adds an existential aspect to economic systems of domination, like capitalism, like the authoritarian forms of socialism we saw especially in so-called communist countries (Chomsky, 1970/2005; Fromm, 1956/2010), that create a concurrence between military, economic, and political elites that C. Wright Mills (1958/2005) observed in the United States. Rationalizations for social inequality, then, are rationalizations for at least a form of the status quo.
Further, when we view our relationship to nature in terms of domination and when we view our relationship to each other in terms of domination, we see how domination is at the heart of so many problems that beset us today, from poverty and war to environmental degradation and climate change, and how it is unreasonable to believe that domination can be a solution, or even a part of a solution, to our problems.
That makes today’s direct activism, with consensus-driven decision-making and with a conscientious effort to avoid and to critique domination (Gordon, 2008), an important training ground for the skills and sensitivities that are already needed and will hopefully be valued in a not so far away future. But in Bill Moyer’s (2001) MAP model, it also reduces todays social movements to what he calls submovements. Moyer is critical of direct action, yet in the much larger picture drawn in this essay, it is crucial to a future of social justice. Further, just as some vegans and animal rights activists find People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, whose campaigns often seem silly and whose ads heavily emphasize exploitation of women’s bodies, an embarrassment, it is implausible for the sorts of activists that Moyer approves of to expect what he calls “negative rebels” to just go away and to abandon their sense of urgency in defense of animals, people, communities, and ecosystems that are under siege when in fact it is often their actions that expose the victims’ faces to public view (Davis, 2004; Jones, 2004; Stallwood, 2004; Schnurer, 2004; Webb, 2004), an aspect of Moyer’s stage three. Finally, the transformation this essay advocates is not so much about influencing the elite, but rather about substituting partnership models of social organization for dominator models (Eisler, 1995), rendering the elite in their present form largely irrelevant. It is a transformation, for which we are, in Moyer’s model, very much still in stage one, where normal times are construed as including occasional uprisings that ameliorate the most visible abuses in the status quo. By contrast, the Occupy movement that has gained so much attention in the latter half of 2011, is now likely in a transition between stages four and six, as public opinion appears to have shifted in support of movement aims (Time, October 12, 2011); if this movement—or submovement—succeeds, the elite will adjust their policies as a consequence of stage seven in some way that does not eliminate social inequality but rather, in stage eight, sets the stage for a new beginning and a new struggle against, for all practical purposes, the same powers that be.
A possibly more promising beginning lies towards this transformation lies in a growing concern over our present systems of food production and in an advocacy of “slow food” (Pollan, 2007). Bill McKibben (2007) extends this critique to argue that with resource depletion, these systems of mass food production and of globalization will become less feasible. His notion of sustainability lies in self-sufficient local communities and with intensive agriculture that optimizes yields of a variety of produce from a relatively small space. He argues that with reliance upon each other within a community, we will regain some pre-industrial constraints on conspicuous social inequality. A possible critique of his work rests in his heavy reliance on his experience in Vermont, experience that may not transfer well to large cities where self-sufficient people might still be anonymous in a sea of millions. Indeed, Malcolm Gladwell (2002) suggests that most humans function best in social organizations that do not exceed 150 people—a relatively small tribe in Diamond’s (1999) schema—and that this limitation is a function of human brain structure. Gladwell also points to a relatively few people in any population who function as connectors, capable of managing weak ties with tens of thousands of people.
Though Gladwell’s (2002) book unfortunately reads like pop-psychology, his insights might offer a way through the conundrum of coordinating smaller communities within the close proximity of cities. Chomsky (1976/2005), in his approach to anarcho-syndicalism, suggests a political structure in which the authority to represent a group of workers would derive from the workers themselves and that persons holding that authority should be accountable directly to those workers. In contrast to the present arrangement in Washington, D.C., representatives would work only part-time as such and largely remain within the communities they represent and their positions would rotate through the community. Presumably, such representatives could be replaced on short notice. A difficulty with this approach is that not all people prefer the same styles of communication and argumentation. Some, as Gordon (2008) observes, often women, who are socialized differently from most men, may be more comfortable exercising influence in less confrontational settings. But Chomsky would apparently rotate the role of representative to each of them as well. With Gladwell’s recognition of connectors, it becomes possible to imagine larger-scale political organizations which nonetheless remain responsive to their constituents. Cities could conceivably include thousands of communities, each of which may grow to a size that seems to work, and which may split up when necessary. Such connectors could be chosen as representatives, but as with Chomsky’s suggestion, continue to reside within and be accountable to their communities, commuting part-time to meetings where bottom-up consensus-driven decision-making could occur. Gordon cautions against any situation in which one or a few people seem too often to be offering advice or taking any sort of a leading role, and it would still be necessary for each group to ensure that its representatives do not dominate, just as it would be necessary in the congress—for lack of a better word—where large scale consensus-driven decision making occurred.
Such structures could theoretically arise as McKibben’s localization inevitably diminishes the relevance of national and state structures and raises the profile of local governance. McKibben hails from Vermont, where Thomas Naylor, founder of a small but vibrant secession movement, believes that the United States will disintegrate just as the Soviet Union did (Ketcham, January 26, 2005). In making that comparison, he apparently does not consider that the U.S.S.R. broke up for very different reasons than those which may now lead to localization. In either case, human emancipation and social justice will rest upon educated citizens prepared to take up new responsibilities in a new social system—responsibilities to each other.
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