On not taking back control

As we enter what may turn out to be one of the most crucial weeks for the future direction and prosperity of the UK, I would like to ask a very important question: are we, or can we ever be, in control of our future? I ask for number of reasons. Primarily because in politics in particular, but in life generally, we try hard to avoid accepting what to me is a basic fact of life – that this life is inherently uncertain. Politicians very rarely stand on a platform to talk about their plans or their visions for the future in ways that acknowledges this uncertainty. Instead they want to appear to be strong and in control. Rather than be honest and talk about what they would like to achieve, together with a reasoned assessment of the chances and difficulties of bring it about, they feel the need to portray their potency whilst exposing the impotency of those that oppose them. And their audiences, we the voting pubic, are equally as culpable for wanting this control. Hence the very effective slogan devised by Dominic Cummings for the Vote Leave campaign: “taking back control”.

This problem (and I really do think it is a problem) is related to what I term our existential paradox: life is, in a most fundamental way, devoid of any meaning and purpose. As Jean-Paul Sartre explained, certain things, things made by humans, are made with a purpose in mind. They are designed to fulfil a certain function. And this function, together with the idea of the creation of the object (its essence) exists prior to its actual creation (its existence). For humans at least, Sartre argued, it’s the other way round. We first of all exist, then we create our essence – our meaning and purpose. Pushing this a little further, I would add that the success of human evolution (so far), and possibly it’s most important aspect, has been our ability to create meaning and purpose. This has allowed us to impose a degree of order on the world, and to be able, to a reasonable degree, to be able to predict events. This meaning does not need to be true – it only needs to work more times than not to give us an advantage over other animals who do not possess this ability.

However, being somewhat arrogant about our relative position in the Earth’s ecosystem, we tend to think in terms of binary oppositions rather than subtleties. We veer towards believing that we are either in or out of control. This is a mistake. It is far too simplistic. In reality, and for reasons that I only have time to very briefly refer to, all life, all living systems, are in their most optimal and creative state when they are ‘on the edge of chaos’, when they have sufficient order to hold the various elements of that systems together (such that it is a recognisable system), but not so much order that it can’t respond to changes in its environment – for if there is one certainty in life it’s that a system’s environment will change. So, too much order prevents adaption to changing circumstance and leads to eventual system collapse, whilst too little order also leads to system collapse.

The problem that politicians face, if they have any desire to be effective decision makers, is to somehow find that optimal line between order and chaos. It’s a line that is impossible to predict in advance, it’s a line that is impossible to define, but it’s a line that I would like to think can be felt and discovered with training and practice. It’s a line that has possibly been best described as ‘going with the flow’, a line that requires both knowledge of how dynamic (social) systems work, and an acquired attunement to the various social and environmental forces at play. I am not even sure that such an attunement is possible in the political arena, but I really do think we should try. At the very least we should eradicate our desire to being in, or taking back, control.

A plea regarding public debate

Politically there is, unfortunately, much to fear at the moment. Apart from the socio-economic effects of our fast approaching climate and ecological breakdown, I am deeply concerned about the amount of not just anger being expressed regarding our ongoing political chaos, but the potential violence that could accompany it. Violent threats appear to be multiplying in every direction. Only this lunchtime I heard a report on Radio Four about closed Facebook groups in which members freely make extreme threats against people, but particularly politicians, who have the audacity to hold different opinions to themselves. The antidote, I suggest, is two-fold. We need to take some advice from Tony Benn, and we need to get rid of some myths about politicians.

Tony Benn once argued (I’m sorry, but I can’t remember where) that we should attack other people’s ideas, not them as a person. It’s ideas that should be challenged, and brought to account, not the people who express them. But doing this requires a degree of skill, skills which I fear as a society we are rapidly losing. These are skills of debate, of critical thinking; skills that enable us to analyse an argument that we do not like, understand not just what it is we do not like about it but why we do not like, and explain all this to other people. In return, we also need to be able listen to other people’s views, understand their argument (even if we don’t agree with it) and respond in a thoughtful way. But most of all, these skills involve us appreciating that there are no absolute right or wrong accounts of any situation, and that listening and understanding to other viewpoints may require us to either amend our own, or even abandon them altogether. In short, we seem to have lost the ability (if we ever truly had it) to have public debates.

There also seems to be a generally held view that politicians are ‘only in it for themselves’, and that as a result they are open game to abuse, even violence. I would like to offer a different view. Since being elected to Dorset Council I have been struck by both the sincerity and hard work of the vast majority of my fellow councillors. With the odd (very odd) example, I have to admit that even those councillors who politically and ideologically I strongly disagree with work with a profound sense of public service, and are definitely not involved in politics to improve their own wellbeing or wealth. And although I am not an MP, I have absolutely no reason to think otherwise of them. In fact, in recent months I have been deeply impressed by the integrity of most of them, and particularly my local MP, Oliver Letwin. I disagree with many of Sir Oliver’s opinions, but I struggle to fault him as a constituency MP. People will always be able to recite examples of corrupt politicians, and politicians whose motives are very questionable, but these are very much the minority and should not be allowed to tarnish the characters of the hardworking and sincere majority.

So, in advance of the inevitable general election, I would like to make a public plea. Please could everyone, unless there is actual and relevant evidence to the contrary, respect the sincerity of all the politicians who will be campaigning for your support – even the ones you disagree with. And could we please try to listen to the arguments, and criticise (even attack) these and not the person expressing them. Once a climate of fear takes hold only the voice of the most violent will be heard – and that would be disastrous for us all.

The problem with ‘the will of the people’

What is ‘the will of the people’? Does it actually exist in any meaningful sense? This phrase has been much used in recent weeks and months to refer to not only the result of the 2016 EU referendum, but more significantly to the perceived lack of resultant parliamentary action. This failure to ‘deliver Brexit’ is being interpreted by some people as a rejection of the supposed ‘will of the people’, and, as a consequence (and of great concern to many) as an excuse to turn on ‘the establishment’. I want to suggest that this phrase is at best a gross simplification of an incredibly complex process, a convenient metaphor that blinds us to what actually needs to happen to resolve our constitution crisis, but in reality is a phrase devoid of any useful meaning.

What do we mean by ‘will’? Traditionally the will has been understood to be a psychological faculty responsible for acts of volition, that aspect of the human mind which makes decisions and initiates motion or action. Let’s put to one side any discussion of the actual psychological processes that take place in the human brain / mind and accept that decisions are made and actions are initiated, and that we refer to this process as ‘the will’. There are two very important aspects of this process that get ignored when scaled up to a supposed aggregated ‘will of the people’: that ‘will’ is a psychological process that requires a mind, an actual brain; and that this act isn’t complete once a decision has bee made, but continues, and is modified, throughout the process of enactment.

A decision to do something requires a brain / mind, an entity that ‘the people’ as a body of people do not possess. There only exist individual minds. When a mind makes a decision it does so either out of habit, because that is what it usually decides to do in a given situation so why waste valuable mental energy contemplating alternatives, or (as I would hope happened when asked to caste a vote in the referendum) the various alternatives are contemplated, all the various arguments are weighed, and a decision is reached. When this decision is finally reached, and action (voting) takes place the complexity of the internal psychological debate is reduced down to a simple decision. The problem comes when an attempt is made to aggregate these simple decisions into a one off collective decision. When an individual mind makes a decision it tends to rationalise the process that brought it about and, in effect, bring all the dissenting aspects of the thought process into line. It constructs an internal narrative that makes sense, and gives meaning to the decision. As ‘the people’ do not have a collective mind, this process cannot occur. The dissenting voices remain. The supposed ‘will of the people’ remains, at best, an aggregate decision of 52% of those people who voted. It ignores the 48% who voted ‘remain’, those who did not vote, and those who were too young to vote.

There is, however, an even more important aspect to this attempted aggregation of individual wills into a collective ‘will of the people’ that is ignored. In most situations, for individual minds, making a decision to act is only the start of the process. To make this decision meaningful it needs to result in action. But when we attempt to enact a decision we often come face to face with reality. We often find that what we thought was a straight forward desire to bring something about, say, for example, to learn to play the piano or learn a foreign language, in reality proves to be far from straight forward. We may find that learning the finger movements required for the piano or grasping the grammar of a particular language either too difficult, or (more often), requires more time devoted to it than we have available. As a consequence of this experience we modify our original decision; we either choose a different instrument or language, chose a different course of action to fill our perceived need, or we abandon the project all together. Whatever the outcome of the mental process, it will result in our amending our original narrative (that made sense of our original decision) such that the whole process now make sense and our subsequent changes of mind, brought about by the discovery of the reality of the situation, are coherent. This is totally normal. We do it all the time. Decision making is an ongoing, and often highly complex process. But it can only happen in individual mind, not in the mind of the ‘will of the people’ which, after all, does not exist!

Leadership

I have had several conversations recently about leadership, which for me is a bit of an enigma. I have always regarded myself as a bit of rebel, as someone who not only resists being told what to do, but who has a strong imperative to challenge any imposed authority. But recently, and particularly in politics, I have found myself seriously thinking that some strong leadership is required, particularly in terms of an effective opposition to our current government, and on the world stage in relation to our climate and ecological breakdown. But I have no sooner had these thoughts than the warning bells start sounding. I remind myself that strong political leaders like Mussolini were initially welcomed onto the political stage as solutions to a political crisis. And we all know what happens next.

I am not even sure I know what I mean by leadership! Perhaps a certain quality or set of qualities / abilities that certain people seem to have? Something you can’t define in advance, but recognise when you encounter them? For example, Confucianism has described these qualities in terms of five virtues (intelligence, trustworthiness, humaneness, courage and disciple) which a leader must not only have, but have in the correct balance. If this so, then how do you explain the popular appeal of politicians such as Johnson and Trump? They both seem deficient in most of these virtues. But perhaps that’s an unfair question. Perhaps it’s wrong to equate being popular with leadership, even though both of these clowns appear to have, from the perspective of their supporters, the charisma that Max Weber thought so essential to political leadership.

If a certain set of virtues is the way to understand good leadership, one missing from the above list is vision – that ability to not only possess a clear picture of what it is you want your group / community / nation to achieve with you as their leader, but to be able to communicate that picture to the group. And in many ways this vision (together with the other relevant virtues) must be context specific. Arguably Churchill was a very effective war-time leader, managing to utilise his persona and rhetorical skills to unite the nation at a time of extreme crisis, but a very poor leader of the following peace. What this country so desperately needs during our current constitutional crisis is an effective leader of the opposition – someone capable of presenting a clear alternative vision of the future that a significant number of the public could muster behind and support. Even more importantly, what we need both nationally and internationally is leadership capable of presenting a clear vision of a post climate and ecological crisis world.

A third approach to understanding leadership is perhaps to take a functional approach and argue that the role of a good and effective leader is to meet group needs. I could see the value of such an approach in certain contexts, but what if the group is unclear as to what their needs actually are? What if (as I think is the case at the moment) the needs which people think they have (to consume what they like, travel where they like, and accumulate as much wealth as they are able) are actually inconsistent with the vision the potential leader has. If the leader’s assessment of the future is accurate, yet, for the sake of acquiring power appeals the ‘needs’ of the group instead, they will surely fail. In which case, the real quality our great leader will require is the ability to change the group’s understanding of their perceived needs. Now there’s a challenge!

Facts, on their own, are not enough

I attended two meetings this last week that considered, at different levels of local government, how to respond to their respective declarations of a climate emergency. At one of these the command of Mr Gradgrind, the school board superintendent from Charles Dicken’s Hard Times, came charging into my consciousness: “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.” Dickens was, of course, highly critical of what he considered to be the cold, utilitarian approach to education that was being promoted by various ‘progressive’ elements of Victorian society. He believed that facts, on their own, were not enough. Something else was needed to bring about social change.

The first part of this particular meeting was given over to a presentation by Extinction Rebellion, a campaign group who have my full support. They presented the meeting with, what I would consider to be, the main facts behind our fast approaching climate and ecological breakdown, the data that is supported by 97% of the scientific community. The main argument of this presentation was that too many people are in denial of these facts, and that consequently they need to told the truth. I largely disagree with this. Whilst much of the population may not be able to recite all the data, I am not convinced that people are simply in denial of the issues. More is at play here. More is required than endless facts. In my experience many people actually get turned off from important issues when presented with facts.

Following this presentation, the chair of the meeting informed us that having heard one perspective on the issue we now need to step back and consider the facts. The implication of this statement was two fold: that the ‘facts’ as just presented needed to be checked to ensure that they are genuine ‘facts’, and that other ‘facts’ may be available that would throw doubt on the status of these ‘facts’. From my perspective there was more than sufficient evidence to justify action, but the chair was obviously approaching from a different direction. So how do we make sense of such a conflict? It seems obvious that facts, on their own, are not enough. They need to be interpreted, they need to be made meaningful. But what is the missing ingredient here?

For Dickens it was sentiment, emotion. Whilst Dickens was a great campaigner for social change, as a novelist he is often criticised for being overly sentimental. But this, for him, was the missing ingredient. He recognised that for change to happen people not only needed the facts, they needed to genuinely feel something for the those at the lower end of the social hierarchy. To bring this point bang up-to-date simply look at the result of David Attenborough highlighting the effects of plastics entering our oceans in his documentary Blue Planet II. Campaigners had been banging on about this issue for ages, but as soon at this programme used some very emotive filming to show birds and sea life suffering it entered our national consciousness and things started to change. So yes, we need facts, but we also need to bring these facts to life with emotion. However, I have recently come to the opinion that a third element is also required.

Any radical change also needs to resonate with our ‘grand-narrative’, that all encompassing, but often background story that provides meaning and purpose to our lives. Our current ‘grand-narrative’ is based on the market economy – on individualism, competition, growth, wealth. It is from this narrative that we derive our sense of self and social status. It is from this narrative that we measure ‘success’. It was from this direction that I suspect the chair of the above meeting was approaching the problem. If we are asked, for very good reasons, to change our lifestyle, even if we are presented with overwhelming evidence about why we should do so, we will find these changes very difficult to bring about if they do not resonate with this narrative. In these circumstances most of us tend to acknowledge the need for change whilst carrying on as normal, often finding some small change that allows us to say that we are ‘doing our bit’. This isn’t denial. No amount of ‘facts’, on their own, will enlighten us. What’s needed is a new grand-narrative. I haven’t got the solution to the problem of bringing this about, but I’m convinced that all the time we hold onto our current narrative all the facts presented to us will be interpreted against it.

What is best for the country?

I don’t know whether it’s my age, or the pedantic philosopher lurking inside me, but certain commonly used phrases are really starting to bug me. Some, like ‘going forward’, whilst annoying and vacuous, are harmless. Some, however, are being used to justify, at best, lazy thinking, at worst, anger and aggression. The worst of these phrases at the moment is ‘what’s best for the country’ – though for ‘country’ you could easily substitute ‘Dorset’ or ‘Bridport’ depending upon circumstances. I was campaigning in Lyme Regis yesterday for a second People’s Vote to help us out of this Brexit mess, and was struck by how passionately the phrase was used, usually as an attack on particular politicians who were seen as acting in their own interests rather than the country’s.

This phrase seems to imply that there exists some objective set of conditions that constitute the best or ideal state the country should be in, and that this set of conditions is obvious to anyone who sets their own interests to one side. There are two fundamental problems with this viewpoint. First, and most importantly, no such set of conditions exist. The closest that you could come to such a set of conditions is to ask “what, for me, should be the goals this country pursues?”. And the answer to this question will vary according to your own values and political orientation. A passionate believer in free-market economics, for example, will cite a reduction in the amount of regulation governing markets and the further spread of market conditions into the public sector. On the other hand, many people on the left (including myself) would cite a reduction in inequality, particularly income inequality, and the spread of the public sector into areas which are currently dominated by the free market. These views are completely at odds with each other, yet supporters of each will consider their view to be ‘best for the country’!

Second, even if we could, to some degree, agree on a future vision for the country, on what goals we want to pursue, we would then start debating how to achieve them. Once again, agreement on this would be thwarted by the fact that no clear objective path to the achievement of any goal can be said to exist. Life, all life, and particularly human social and economic life, is inherently uncertain. For a whole host of reasons related to complexity science, it is impossible to predict with certainty the future state of any system. The most we can hope to achieve is a realistic assessment of various probabilities, but humans are notoriously unskilled in this type of assessment. Even economists, who claim to have turned this into a science, are constantly being brought up short.

When people use the phrase ‘what’s best for the country’, not only do they imply the existence of some ideal future state, they also imply that the vision of this state is clear to anyone who can stop their own self interest obscuring what is obvious to ‘common sense’ – a common sense view that they obviously have and that politicians lack. I suspect that what they really mean is that politicians should simply agree with them and do what they think is best. In my limited experience of politics, my perception is that most politicians are acting and thinking according to their own best judgements of what they consider to be best for the country. Whilst there are obvious exceptions, most politicians are not acting out of self-interest. However, what people in all honesty consider to be in the best interests of the country is both subjective and highly contested.

Democracy

There seems to be no end of new twists to our ongoing political story. As this week’s chapter ends the dramatic tension has been raised to new heights by democracy itself, that most treasured and emotive of characters, being brought under threat of attack. But what do we know about this character? Before we start next week’s chapter I think it may be worth trying to examine Democracy a little closer.

Abraham Lincoln’s phrase “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” is often used to describe what we mean by democracy, even though he didn’t actually refer to democracy as such. But it’s a good starting point anyway. Democracy literally means government or rule making (…cracy) by the people (demos). Any group of people living and working as some form of collective, or having some degree of unity, require decisions to be made at a group level – decisions need to be made that affect the whole group. These decisions could be made by a single person who holds power by force or through some form of inherited right, but under a democracy these decisions are made by group members themselves.

There are a number of obvious advantages to such a system. First, because everyone (or nearly everyone) is involved in the decision making process the welfare of the population as a whole is improved, as opposed to just the welfare of a select few. Second, it is claimed that democratic participation enhances autonomy – that when an individual group member knows or realises that their opinion counts they are more likely to actually have an opinion of their own. And third, because democracy is the best form of government for enhancing equality. This last point is crucial. There is a very strong correlation between the wellbeing and flourishing of human life and the degree of equality the group lives under. So great. Democracy is undoubtedly the good guy and deserves the accolade of hero. Yes?

Well, not necessarily. There are also a number of problems associated with democracy that tend to go unmentioned. A dark hinterland, if you like, that makes Democracy’s character altogether more complex. For now, let’s focus on just two related issues that have been revealed by economists, and a third drawn from philosophy. First, individual preferences do not generally aggregate into orderly collective preferences. When an individual makes a decision or expresses a preference they usually do so for a multiplicity of reasons, reasons that come together in a single mind (their own). This single mind operates almost like a dictator over these multiple reasons. But his process cannot be scaled up to the level of the collective, for the simple reason that individual minds will not be silenced – well, not in a democracy anyway. Second, even if it was possible to produce well defined collective preferences, many, if not most individual motivations for action will always be incompatible with that preference.

A third problem relates to what is sometimes termed ‘the fallacy of collective intentionality’. Intentionality in this respect does not refer to a person’s intention of performing a certain action, but to the relationship of their thoughts and feelings to the objects of these thoughts and feelings. So, for example, I might say that I like red wine or that I consider myself to be European. Both of these are intentional relationships. But to do this at a collective level, to say that ‘we’ like British ale or that ‘we’ consider ourselves to be British, like is so often done, is erroneous. A collective mind does not exist to form such a relationship. All three of these related problems are well illustrated by the political consequences of the 2016 EU referendum, particularly the uttering of phrases like ‘the will of the people’. There is no collective will. All utterances of this and similar phrases are useful metaphors, not statements of facts.

These problems can, to some extent, be overcome by the type of democracy in operation. Referenda are examples of a direct democracy, the type of democracy that emerged (with limited suffrage) in ancient Athens. Because of the reasons outlined above, this type of democracy becomes more and more problematic as the size of the collective increases. It was problematic in Athens (with, say, a total population of 100,000), but by the time populations reach the level of modern states it becomes close to impossible.

However, modern states usually operate some form of representative democracy. Under this form of democracy the people vote to elect a person or persons to represent them at local and national government level. However, if just one person is elected to represent a large group of people (as is the current practice in the UK) then, for all the reasons outlined above, it is impossible for them to directly represent the views of all the people that elected them. Instead, based on their perceived political beliefs and character, that person is effectively elected to make decisions on behalf of the people, and then answer for their decisions at the next election. This problem could be mitigated by a more proportional voting system, one in which it becomes more realist for people to be elected to represent particular ways of thinking.

Winston Churchill famously described democracy as “the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” It is fraught with problems that largely get ignored – mostly because they are complex and hard to visualise. Instead it is easier to resort to metaphors. In this sense, Democracy may still be the hero of our political story, but its character is no where near adequately understood. And whilst not understanding the character of the hero may make for good drama, it seriously problematizes the making of good decisions.

A human comedy

My last couple of posts have referred to the need for a positive narrative to not only give meaning and purpose to our lives, but to guide us through the climate and ecological emergencies that we face; a narrative that acknowledges the dire situation that we are in, but which offers hope and inspiration for our future. However, as someone has pointed out to me during the course of this last week, I haven’t really said what this narrative should be. So here it is in outline. It’s the story of how at a critical point in its evolution humanity woke-up and realised that we are a single human society living as an integrated and interdependent part of the Earth’s eco-system; that they key to survival and a positive future is the reversal of our separation from both the natural environment and ourselves.

In a sense this is no more that what Aldo Leopold wrote in The Land Ethic seventy years ago. A land ethic, he wrote, “changes to role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for its fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.” In other words, it’s a complete reversal of the biblical notion of domination, of God’s command to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish in the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” This was a ‘command’ that itself came to dominate all other ancient understandings of our relationship with non-human life, a command that gave rise to the industrial revolution, a command that gave rise to the dominant human attitude to nature and the planet that Naomi Klein termed extractivism: “a nonreciprocal, dominance-based relationship with the earth, one purely of taking.”

In The Natural Contract, the French philosopher Michel Serres points out that human history, and particularly western history, has been dominated by our focus on some form of social contract, some form of understanding of how humans should organise their cities and states, what their relations with each other should be, who should have power and who should be subordinate. The consequence of this focus has been the ignoring of our relationship with the planet and all other the living systems that we share it with. Echoing Leopold he describes this dominant relationship as parasitic, and calls instead for it to become symbiotic. He calls for us to develop a natural contact to sit beside our social contract, one that recognises our interdependent relationship with planetary systems and non-human life. Such a contract would not only reverse our separation from nature, but would allow us to fully understand just how dependant our flourishing is on this relationship.

But this reversal of our separation needs to extend beyond that of our relationship with wider nature. It needs to include global humanity. In A Convenient Truth, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett point to what I consider to be an inspiring phenomenon: “our species, which originally emerged from Africa and diversified as it spread across the world, is now coming together again. Through international travel, migration and intermarriage, we are seeing a process which amounts to nothing less that the reunification of the human race.” I fully accept that purely for administrative and organisational reasons we will need to organise ourselves into semi-independent states, but we need to move on from considering any of these states superior to and in competition with other states. We need to move on from any form of nationalism and all forms of separate racial identity. We can fully accept the various, and often shameful historical paths that have led us to our current situation, but our new human story will tell how we realised that our future flourishing required a shared narrative, a new global grand-narrative of co-operation, solidarity and empathy.

We are at that critical point in our evolution. At one level we can understand our ecological relationship with our planet and non-human life, and we can understand how we evolved out of Africa, continued evolving in relative isolation, and now, due to various technologies, are coming together again. But these understandings seem to lie outside of those narratives that effectively control our day-to-day lives, particularly the dominant neo-liberal narrative of competition, consumption and wealth creation. Our new narrative will tell how we woke from our dream of separation, and realised that to flourish into the future we needed to create both a natural contract, and a global social contract; that our future survival depended upon both our reunification with nature and our reunification with our wider human family. Future generations will tell the story of how this was the crucial scene in the drama of human life, and that thanks to the resolution of the conflict that came to a head in the early decades of the 21st Century, the drama became a comedy not a tragedy.

On our need to create an inspiring narrative

Last week I talked about the need to start writing (and speaking about) a new ‘grand-narrative’, a new story that gives structure, meaning and purpose to human life on this planet. One significant dimension to this new grand-narrative is obviously the future. Here Grace Blakeley, writing in this week’s New Statesman, is spot on when she calls for a “new narrative, one that can translate ideas about political economy into uplifting visions of a securer, more equal future”. This is particularly relevant when responding to our current climate crisis. It’s all well and good talking about our imminent climate and ecological breakdown, as I often do, but does this actually help create such a future? I know the idea is to scare people into action, but scaring people often causes them to freeze and / or look for more pleasant distractions. Should we start talking instead about the alternative, positive and altogether more attractive future we could create if we took this crisis as a wake up call?

The future has been particularly on my mind this week. Not necessarily my future, but the future of my daughters, and particularly my grandchildren, who I have been visiting. What sort of world are we creating for them? My usual response would be to note that the two degree rise in global temperatures that we well on course for will cause unimaginable problems for my grandchildren when they are in the prime of their lives in fifty years time. All the indications are that, in addition to it obviously being much warmer, many parts of the world will become uninhabitable due to the heat, and sea levels will rise by anything up to a metre above current levels due to the melting of glaciers. The result will be less habitable land for humans to live on, less land capable of supplying food, mass migration in search of both, together with a massive increase in global conflict as people try to protect what little they have and obtain what they need to survive.

But what’s your response to such a scenario? How do you react to being cast as a character in some science fiction future, being asked to imagine a world that is totally alien to everything you currently experience? Most of us I suggest would rather not think about it in too much detail. Science fiction films are good entertainment, and can make us think, but we can leave the cinema and return to our ‘normal’ world anytime we like. Many of us accept that such a future is likely, and will try and ‘do our bit’ to prevent it happening, and a few of us (and I’m particularly thinking here of Extinction Rebellion) will actively try and prevent the story unfolding, but I suspect that most of us would rather avoid the reality altogether. We seek pleasure not pain. Why think about such a depressing narrative when we can immerse ourselves in the ‘reality’ of Love Island or Premiership football?

So how different would it be if we started to tell a different story? A story where after thousands of years of evolutionary self-obsession, humanity suddenly woke up to the fact that they are actually part of nature? That they are are just one living system amongst many? And that many, if not most of our problems start diminishing if we can live with nature not against it? How having evolved out of Africa, after having spread across the Earth and settled into relative isolation, global humanity came together again to form a single community? How learning to co-operate with each other, non-human animals and our Earth systems, rather than seeking power, status and domination, humanity discovered that they could actually flourish and be happy? That equality and respect were more effective than inequality and domination in achieving human needs?

But this new story will also need to be about the past. The future we create for our children and grandchildren will be understood and interpreted by them, in part at least, by their memories – in short by what they hear and experience as they grow up. What we say to them, how we behave as they grow up, whether we direct these actions at them or not, will be absorbed by them and will influence how they interpret the world they inherit from us. And my growing fear is that if they grow up surrounded by fear and negative talk, rather than optimism and positive talk, they too will absorb these characteristics. That they will grow into fearful and negative people.

If humanity is to survive and flourish (and that’s a big ‘if’) we will need to become creative and positive – we will need to develop an uplifting narrative to act as our guide to the future. This narrative will need to inspire future generations, and it will need to show how previous generations (us) woke up the reality of their place in nature and started to care about the world they were leaving as their inheritance.

Our existential paradox and our need for a new grand-narrative

I tweeted yesterday about what I considered to be, against a lot of competition, the most depressing news story of the week. An article in The Guardian was reporting that “astrology is having a cultural moment” with a “surge in enthusiasm for astrology apps”. This disturbing loss of rationality and good sense was summed up by the comments of one of the interviewees: “I think anything that feels real is real in a way. And if I find the answers to questions I want through astrology and horoscopes, that makes it real.” My concern, however, is of a more fundamental nature than my rather glib tweet implied. What this person seems to be seeking is some narrative structure that helps make sense of, provide structure to, life’s events – a structure that seems to falling away before our eyes at the moment.

For me, one of the defining features of being human is what I term the existential paradox. We humans have an existential need for meaning and purpose in our life, both individually and collectively. But when examined, when critically challenged, any such meaning and purpose is exposed as being a myth of our own creation, is shown to be devoid of any solid ground. This problem was most famously brought to our attention by Jean-Paul Sartre. To explain what he meant by ‘existentialism’ he coined the phrase that for humans ‘existence precedes essence’. What he meant is best understood by first of all considering any item made by humans – say, for example, this laptop I’m writing on. This, like any other artefact that we have produced, was first thought about, considered or designed, and then actually produced or brought about. Its essence (it’s meaning and purpose) preceded its existence. But for at least one being (the human being) it’s the other way around. Sartre was an atheist, and in the absence of a designer / creator he argued that humans first of all exist, and then create meaning and purpose to their lives.

This meaning and purpose may only be of our own creation, but it has provided us with a profound survival advantage. Creating myths that explain both the origins of a tribe or hunter-gatherer community and its destiny, that provides a reason why it exists and what its purpose is, allows that tribe or community to work together as a community. Working co-operatively on a large scale allows that community to achieve far, far more than could be achieved by the sum of its parts, by individual members working as individuals. It has allowed communities to come together to create powerful nations, and has allowed us to develop technology of devastating power. In short, our myths and grand-narratives (to use Jean-François Lyotard’s phrase) have brought us to planetary domination. But in so doing they have been shown to be the charlatans they always were. Like some huge erotic tease, they have brought us to the brink…and then deserted us.

Such is the paradox of human existence. Our survival has been assured through the creation of myths, stories, grand-narratives that provide meaning and purpose to our existence, that, through encouraging us to work co-operatively, have allowed us (so far) to overcome all obstacles. But none of these narratives have, in any profound sense, been true. They have all been of our own creation, and, being fictions, are destined to come up against reality and be shown to be impotent. This is happening now – on a big scale. Capitalism, and particularly its latest incarnation, neoliberalism, has not only reached the limits of what it can ‘achieve’, but is now creating a negative response from those whose personal stories are grossly at odds with what its grand-narrative has led them to expect. But of even greater concern is the myth of omnipotence, the one that makes us feel special and all powerful, the one that makes us believe we have the right to dominance over all life on our planet, the right to extract as much of its resources as we are able, and the right to dump as much of our waste wherever we want to dump it. That one is now starting to bite us back big-time.

So what is the solution to this paradox? Well, in a sense, it’s to do what those people who are turning to astrology are doing. Except of course, that astrology is just an attempt to bury our heads in the sand – to pull the covers over our heads and return to dreamland. No, we do need a new grand-narrative, one that fully acknowledges both the fast approaching existential crisis and the existential paradox expressed by grand-narratives. Who wants to help me write it?