Robert Jensen at Dissident Voice:
As we stand at the edge of the end of the ability of the ecosystem in which we live to sustain human life as we know it, what kind of hubris would it take to make claims that we can know the future?
It takes the hubris of folks such as biologist Richard Dawkins, who once wrote that “our brains … are big enough to see into the future and plot long-term consequences.”3 Such a statement is a reminder that human egos are typically larger than brains, which emphasizes the dramatic need for a drastic humility.
I read that essay by Dawkins after hearing the sentence quoted by Wes Jackson, an important contemporary scientist and philosopher working at The Land Institute. Jackson’s work has most helped me recognize an obvious and important truth that is too often ignored: For all our cleverness, we human beings are far more ignorant than knowledgeable. Human accomplishments — skyscrapers, the internet, the mapping of the human genome — seduce us into believing the illusion that we can control a world that is complex beyond our ability to understand. Jackson suggests that we would be wise to recognize this and commit to “an ignorance-based worldview” that would anchor us in the intellectual humility we will need if we are to survive the often toxic effects of our own cleverness.4
Let’s review a few of the clever political and theological claims made about the future. Are there any folks here who accept the neoliberal claim that the triumph of so-called “free market” capitalism in electoral democracies is the “end of history”5 and that there is left for us only tweaking that system to solve any remaining problems? Would anyone like to defend the idea that “scientific socialism” not only explains history but can lay out before us the blueprint for a glorious future? Would someone like to offer an explanation of how the pending return of the messiah is going to secure for believers first-class tickets to the New Jerusalem?
To reject these desperate attempts to secure the future is not to suggest there is no value in any aspect of these schools of thought, nor is my argument that there’s nothing possible for us to know or that the knowledge shouldn’t guide our action. Instead, I simply want to emphasize the limits of human intelligence and suggest that we be realistic. By realistic, all I mean is that we should avoid the instinct to make plans based on the world we wish existed and instead pay attention to the world that exists. Such realistic thinking demands that we get radical.
Based on my political activism and my general sense of the state of the world, I have come to the following conclusions about political and cultural change in my society:
- It’s almost certain that no significant political change will happen in the coming year in the United States because the culture is not ready to face these questions. That suggests this is a time not to propose all-encompassing solutions but to sharpen our analysis in ongoing conversation about these crises. As activists we should continue to act, but there also is a time and place to analyze.
- It’s probable that no mass movements will emerge in the next few years in the United States that will force leaders and institutions to face these questions. Many believe that until conditions in the First World get dramatically worse, most people will be stuck in the inertia created by privilege. That suggests that this is a time to expand our connections with like-minded people and create small-scale institutions and networks that can react quickly when political conditions change.
- It’s plausible that the systems in place cannot be changed peacefully and that forces set in motion by patriarchy, white supremacy, nationalism, and capitalism cannot be reversed without serious ruptures. That suggests that as we plan political strategies for the best-case scenarios we not forget to prepare ourselves for something much worse.
- Finally, it’s worth considering the possibility that our species — the human with the big brain — is an evolutionary dead-end. I say that not to be depressing but, again, to be realistic. If that’s the case, it doesn’t mean we should give up. No matter how much time we humans have left on the planet, we can do what is possible to make that time meaningful.
Occasionally, I almost agree with Jensen. And then I don’t.
I agree that we are unlikely to see great political change made willingly by our political leaders. I disagree that this means we should stop thinking about all-encompassing solutions – to keep focussing on hacking away at the edges of small problems dooms us to failure. There’s no time left. Lots of people know it now and more people will know it soon.
I agree with all the “inertia of privilege” stuff, but I think that some Canadians, Americans and Europeans are already experiencing losses of socio-economic privilege sufficient to spur them to action in the not-at-all- distant future. There are vast numbers of people whose experiences of privilege are few and far between and small already, and rapidly approaching non-existent. To deny that is to live in denial. To believe that they will sit by passively while their worlds are destroyed is to deny their agency and the efficacy of the human beings who can organize and act collectively.
Is it “plausible” that the systems in place can only be changed by and through violence? That widespread violence may occur before such systems are overridden can hardly be challenged, since widespread violence is already happening. Might the actors switch places in terms of the violaters and the violated? Of course. But I see no reason to believe that it is inevitable, as if violent revolution is the only thing that can override these systems. A passionately committed democratic movement could do it. Such a movement would not likely be completely non-violent. But we have no choice about our course in this regard either. Massive outbreaks of violence will lead more surely to our destruction than anything else I can think of. I will not prepare for that. Why would I? Further, I don’t believe in small political groups that can act quickly to exert sufficient power and clout to make the massive changes we need to change course. The answer has always been and will always be collective action. When the best interests of a critical mass of people coincide, that action will commence.
And finally, no one believes more strongly in the power of imagination and creativity in the face of destruction than me. But I cannot celebrate the meaning of the achievements of imagination and creativity if there is no being on earth left to appreciate, learn and grow as a result. If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it … and understands what they’re hearing … I cannot find meaning in the tree falling.
There is altogether too much acceptance in Jensen’s musings for my taste. If I’m going out, I’m going out screaming and fighting and I won’t be thanking anyone. I’m not sure that our ability to secure the future of humanity is actually limited by the human intellect but rather, to the uses we have made of human intellect. Really, we know the answers. The problem is finding the political will to apply enough minds to finding the solutions.
I agree with Richard Dawkins that our minds are large enough to see into the future and predict consequences. I think the consequences have been predicted quite accurately by many people and not just by scientists. That’s not the problem.