Our Grand Illusions vs. Survival

I was an undergraduate student in anthropology when I saw a remarkable documentary film depicting the lives of the !Kung people. Also known as the San, they lived in the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa as hunter-gatherers, still undisturbed by outside forces in 1952-3 when some Harvard ethnographers shot the film. The social structure of the small band met the requirements of that harsh environment in intricate ways. The San people worked very hard to survive yet had plenty of leisure time and seemed quite happy. Later incursions of Europeans seeking diamonds changed all that.

In stark contrast, the victims of America’s “sacrifice zones” such as Camden, New Jersey, and Pine Ridge, South Dakota, live very hard lives in environments devoid of ecosystem resources from which to build a life. They are dependent upon the larger industrial-consumer economy from which they are structurally isolated. The rest of us live in consumer bubbles, where we are equally dependent but allowed to participate. In both cases, people have no direct connection to the land where they live; all relations are indirect, mediated by large national or international institutions over which we have no control.

The Cultural Problem of the Illusions Complex

Having long since abandoned any sacred or direct relations with the order of Nature, industrial-consumer economies have briefly enriched some, excluded many, but at great peril to all. Their elites have constructed a story of unending progress through industrial expansion. But that story of unnatural ambitions is no longer valid on this finite planet. The foundations of our grand illusions crumble as we seek to build more on top of them. The Great Transformation that launched the industrial age began by “enclosing” traditional communities in England and Scotland to accelerate industrialization and never looked back.

I was fortunate to have grown up experiencing much of nature through involvement with the Boy Scouts, despite living in a working-class suburb of Los Angeles. We learned so much about the natural world beyond the suburban bubble that was a small part of the “Great Acceleration” of fossil-fueled economic expansion of the late 1940s and 1950s. I will never forget those adventuresome days. I understood later experiences of people whose lives were entirely urban partly in those terms. Their lives and beliefs develop entirely within the culture of industrial consumerism, devoid of any sense of the natural world.

Devolution of Education

The education system has not helped much. In college, I believed that education could be the source of solving most of the world’s problems. However, educational institutions, like science itself, developed as part of the modern world built on the foundations of rational humanism that viewed “Man” apart from and meant to dominate Nature.

The Earth seemed an unending source of materials to be plundered at will. The emerging industrial system became the vehicle for exploiting the natural world. Education became a means to prepare workers for obedient contributions to the growth of that system, not a method for cultivating the skills of thinking citizens. In the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s, the American education system expanded with the rest of the economy. That growth allowed some slack for faculty to explore learning in diverse ways, partially fulfilling the goals of developing thinking citizens.

From the very beginning of my university career in 1970, for thirty-five years I watched the quality of education in the U.S. decline as corporate economic interests pressured for the university to produce trained workers. Elimination of the progressive income tax system severely constrained public budgets, putting additional pressure on education to operate like a profit-making business instead of a public service.

Education became a commodity delivered like a sack of potatoes. Now we have the sister of the head of the private Blackwater mercenary army heading the U.S. Department of Education, attempting to “privatize” all education for corporate profit. Education today sidelines intellectual development, critical thinking, literature and the arts in favor of training new workers for technical performance in corporate environments. From George Bush’s “no child left behind,” to the privatization of educational institutions, the decline of education in America serves the corporate state, not the people, and sets the stage for the rise of fascism.

The broader attack on the public sector through “privatization,” whether schools or prisons, parallels a range of policy choices favoring corporate control of both politics and the economy that Sheldon Wolin calls “inverted totalitarianism.” Trained workers, whether on the factory floor or in corporate offices become technical functionaries with little sense of citizenship other than by adherence to the group- think of the “righteous mind,” cultivated by corporate propaganda and economic insecurity.

Dumbing Down the Culture, Anti-Intellectualism, and Social Chao

Culture is the collection of our beliefs. In our marketed consumer culture, efforts to exploit personal anxieties and collective resentments work directly in opposition to “thinking for ourselves.” Fads grow out of people trying to “be different.” Branding manipulates the desire to express our “individuality.” Persuasion works best on imagery and emotion, not on rational thought. The dumbing down of education aids the dumbing down of the culture, leaving more and more people susceptible to commercial advertising and political propaganda. Demagogues express distinctly anti-intellectual beliefs that exploit anxiety and fear while inciting hatred of any group not part of one’s own.

A shrinking job market and diminished incomes deplete the middle class formerly dominated by white male workers who resent the “browning of America.” Techno-toys provide distractions from dwindling prospects for a life with any intellectual content or personal meaning. Hate speech distracts attention from one’s own problems, allowing their projection onto feared groups of others deemed outside the pale. People form their beliefs in groups of like-minded people, not in contemplation of facts or evidence.

Confirmation bias allows “peace of mind” by acknowledging only beliefs consistent with one’s group perspective. Well-documented facts disappear before emotional imagery supported by group identity. When realities are too hard to face, such as loss of status and opportunity, people become more vulnerable to political manipulation. It all blurs together as opportunists tout scapegoats such as minorities, immigrants, Muslims and uppity women as the source of personal losses.

Two hundred years have passed since industrial culture reduced the person o an artificial commodity known as labor and economic individualism severely constrained the viability of communities for increasingly detached individual workers. Individual freedom became the veil hiding alienation and limiting severely the apprehension of reality.

Defending Society from Its Grand Illusions

Numerous attempts to protect society from the damage caused by free-market economies have occurred throughout the industrial era, with mixed but discouraging results.

The English poor laws and the American New Deal offered temporary palliatives without addressing the underlying problem. The revolutions in Russia and Eastern Europe, China, and Cuba replaced the tyranny of capital with political totalitarianism. Western “democracies” substituted growth and the “McDonaldization” of consumerism for the resolution of social problems.

The grand illusions of multinational dominance over societies have gone global, right when the impacts on the entire Earth System approach tipping points toward collapse. The crises of ecosystem and climate, caused by pushing the limits of economic growth, continue to deepen. The limits to growth are physical, not ideological. Yet, corporate controlled media and political institutions perpetuate ideological illusions that threaten our very survival. Nevertheless, growing numbers of people realize that something is very wrong.

Creative Destruction of Our Grand Illusions for Survival

Here’s the thing. A New Great Transformation of humanity’s relations with planet Earth upon us. If we continue to ignore the deep changes humans have triggered, leading us into the unknowns of the Anthropocene, we will lose all control of our fate. Our grand illusions support a headlong rush to planetary chaos and potentially human extinction. Survival – never mind the “good life” – will depend on whether humans are up to the revolutionary task of paying the debt we have incurred to the planet and finding new ways to live in harmony with the Earth System we have already changed so radically.

So Much More than Warming: Misunderstanding Climate Change

The words we use to describe the world tend to “frame” our understandings by bracketing the range of images and meanings that make sense to us. Our reasoning builds on deep emotions. Moral reasoning also rests on an emotional sense of right and wrong and the beliefs and personal relationships we hold dear.

1200px-Global_Temperature_Anomaly.svg

Global Warming ~ Source: Wikipedia

The terms used to describe the effects of human induced emissions of large quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere, are a good case in point. The facts are quite simple, though their implications are very complex. We gradually changed the chemical composition of the atmosphere over the 200 years during which we accelerated the burning of fossil fuels. In doing so, we humans have caused climate patterns to change.

 

The Rise of Civilization…and Danger

So much of what humans do depends on climate conditions that remained relatively stable during “the ascent of man.” The discovery of fire, the invention of cooking, the advent of agriculture and growing populations they supported, all occurred within the Holocene, the geological epoch of stable climate during the past 11,000 years or so. Some scientists now conclude that the Holocene is over and we have entered a new epoch, the Anthropocene, a period when the activities of humans have so disrupted complex Earth systems that the changes will likely last thousands of years.

Yet we continue to frame our understanding of the changing climate conditions brought on by the industrial era in very strange ways, which stem from our emotional attachments to the past and current course of economic growth. We identify with the utopian dreams of economists who project endless growth of resource use and energy expenditures in a finite world. Such illusions directly conflict with the facts resulting from diverse scientific research findings. The current trends in resource depletion and global warming have already destabilized many of the living Earth systems that we depend upon to survive. Clive Hamilton illuminates these forces in his book, Defiant Earth. Those trends are accelerating as political ‘authorities’ around the world bicker over what reductions in carbon emissions are necessary and who is responsible to achieve them.

Utopian Dreams and Political Power

In the U.S., political debates rage on. Now we have a federal political administration, riddled with Trumpery, which denies the facts of science in order to further its aims to consolidate political power and to enrich the rich ever more. Yet, we all live on the same planet. Even though the initial damage caused by global warming has already begun to affect the most vulnerable populations, ultimately everyone is at risk, even the super-rich. Everything is moving faster than expected.

Scientists frame the processes that are changing the conditions on the planet in ways that reflect the best available data. Unfortunately, the facts challenge long held assumptions about the ability of humans to control nature. Yet, people identify with those who have achieved ‘success’ in the past, before we reached the natural limits of economic growth.

Social Illusion or Hopeful Realism

Propaganda encourages people’s emotions to align with the interests of those who bribe politicians through campaign contributions, personal “expenses,” and various lobbying strategies. As political scientists have demonstrated, most of what passes as “legislation,” consists of actions that favor the economic interests of the rich and powerful, both individuals and corporations. What the public wants or believes in pretty much does not count, except for pandering to the misunderstandings of reality that politicians encourage among their “base.”

So, what about “global warming,” or the current analgesic, “climate change”? Only when deteriorating conditions sufficiently infuse enough people with fear and anger, will direct political action, both locally nationally, take place. Will it be too late? Nobody knows. We can only find hope in realism.

Writing Your Mind while Living in the World

One of the things I’ve done more of since ‘retiring’ is to write. Of course, I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. But I guess I never really wrote “for myself” before, not much anyway.  Most of my writing as a professor involved community research reports, course syllabi, and caustic memoranda to recalcitrant and imperious administrators – deans, provosts, et al. – along with some papers presented at professional meetings, and the occasional book review.

I didn’t much play the “publish or perish” game beyond what was necessary to get tenure. I figured the purpose of tenure was to be able to talk back to megalomaniacal executives and still keep your job. Eventually, I became (in)famous on campus for my caustic memos. It was fun and sometimes quite effective.

Writing for What?

For thirty-five years, I taught mostly adult undergraduate and graduate students many of whom also worked full time, on the most ethnically diverse campus in the nation. All the while, I was writing books in my head, not necessarily on the topics I was teaching. It is not that the so-called “teaching load” kept me from writing those books outside my head. But the teaching component of my professorship had an open-ended supply of matters to deal with.

If I were indifferent to the plight of poorly prepared students struggling to succeed in college, it would have been easy to take the time to write more. However, if you take teaching seriously, there is no limit to the time you can put into it. To teach working adult university students who come from some of the “most dangerous neighborhoods in the nation” – Compton, Watts, and South Central L.A – was a challenge in itself. The Los Angeles Unified School District did not exactly prepare well the people who became our students, for university level performance.

At the same time, many students’ main goal was to “get that piece of paper” so they could get a promotion or a better job. Critical thinking, computer literacy, writing well, and sociological theory or research, were not at the forefront of their minds. Nevertheless, many had high ambitions and were quite smart. The tragedy was that they had been dealt a bad hand by their primary and secondary “education” institutions. The skills of many fell way below their intellectual talents. I found that quite upsetting and worked long hours with those who understood the depth of their own “remedial” needs. Some, of course, had both the intellect, skills and motivation, like Derrick, Darby, and a few others who have now gone on to complete their PhDs at major universities.

Writing My Mind

I’ve almost completed one of those long-deferred books now. “At the Edge of Illusion,” I call it. The subtitle is “Preparing for the New Great Transformation,” since it addresses the multiple converging crises of economic instability, ecological degradation, and climate chaos humanity now faces and so many deny. These converging crises are forcing the living Earth systems we live in to destabilize. The world has begun to go through a great new transformation as a result, yet humans have hardly noticed. We are wildly unprepared. To deal with it we are going to have to transform our relations with the planet and each other in ways not previously imagined.

Actually, I began working on preliminary essays leading to the book by writing some free flowing essays on related topics in this blog, TheHopefulRealist.com as they came to mind over the past few years. I also enjoyed writing some of the “Learn More” articles and a blog called “Diary of a Mad Jubilado,” for A Parallel World, and exiting new site that provided information to environmentally conscious consumers on local sources for low carbon-impact products. Unfortunately, that site was taken down by unknown bots and trolls; after all, it threatened the progress of the fossil-fueled industrial—consumer leviathan.

A book I initially called The Social Illusion has been in my head, in ever-changing form, for a long time. Today, almost ready to submit to publishers, it is quite different though, because the world is so very different. After ten years of research for the book, my view of things has changed a lot too.

At the Edge of Illusion

The trajectory of humanity has reached a crossroads. Humans are now confronted with the absolute necessity to take massive collective action to halt and reverse the damage we have caused “in our own nest.” If we do not take such action to stabilize the complex living Earth systems we have so long ignored except to exploit them, we are likely to become involuntary participants in the “sixth great extinction” now underway.

Unfortunately, a vast complex array of social illusions prevents or delays the most important actions needed to allow the survival of humans on the only planet we have. It becomes increasingly paramount to write one’s mind about the world we live in and the social and ecological illusions we retain at our peril.

In the coming months I will post some excerpts from At the Edge of Illusion on this site, and report progress on its publication and related events.

 

Magical Thinking: It’s Everywhere and Getting More Dangerous

We all labor under certain illusions, some modest and minor, others enormously majestic. Social illusions have always been with us. We tend to think of the myths of “primitive” peoples as illusions and our own beliefs as facts. But that may be the biggest illusion of all. Some of what at first appear to be outlandish illusions turn out to be, on further investigation, valid and useful. Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein come to mind. Their scientific theories were at first dismissed as blasphemous or absurd.

Illusions, Then and Now
For millennia, human groups have labored on the basis of illusions, myths, or stories. Such stories gave them a conceptual framework for making decisions about their lives in the places they inhabited. What seems to confuse us moderns is that the stories on which ancients and “primitives” depended for guidance in their lives seem so fanciful and unreal. Yet they worked. As anthropology eventually figured out, the myths of ancient and indigenous peoples worked for them in their time and place. That is because they were consistent with the conditions of life for those groups in their environments. However little sense they make for us, their structure and content led to useful behavior for the tribe, or group, in the lived environment. However unreal the myths of others may seem in our modern and post modern context, they worked in their time and place.
Today, the stakes are much higher at a vastly larger scale. Many of the myths and stories we believe are increasingly unrelated to the conditions of modern life. The social and environmental conditions of the modern world have changed radically in the last two hundred years. The illusions of any era seem perfectly reasonable to those who believe them. In more stable times, those illusions were relatively stable over time and were consistent with the conditions under which people lived. When they were not, the group that held them in spite of changing conditions died off because their myths failed to lead to the decisions needed for survival.
That’s pretty much where we find ourselves today, except that the scope and depth of changing conditions are worldwide and “mission critical” for human survival. The scary part is that we may very well be wandering down the same path to collapse as the societies of the past that failed to respond to changed conditions because they insisted on holding to the beliefs they had always felt comfortable with.

Science and Magical Thinking
We are very proud of our science, technology, and exploitation of fossil fuel energy, which have produced the conditions and conveniences of modern life. The exploitation of fossil-fuel energy has allowed an overabundance of new and entertaining products the world has never before known. We pride ourselves on our reasoning, our “rationality.” But in many ways such pride rests on illusions that can kill us.
Then there are the utterly foolish notions of those anti-scientists such as Senator James Inhofe.  In the face of mountains of evidence from all over the world for human caused global warming, Inhofe declared it all “the greatest hoax.” Inhofe’s magical thinking is, of course, closely tied to the oil and gas interests that support him.
The very science and technology that has for a very short historical period allowed us to live in relative luxury, have produced conditions that are disrupting the earth systems upon which we rely. But our industrial culture has failed to inform us of the dangerous environmental and social trends that have resulted from our extractive massive-waste producing economy.
Instead, the most important element of science itself, skepticism, has been suppressed by the culture of consumerism brought on by the economic domination of society by the corporate state. It is relatively easy to manipulate a population that is mostly unable to engage in critical thinking by encouraging and directing magical thinking. One of the key components of magical thinking is the ignoring of evidence – the Inhofe syndrome. In contrast, critical thinking is attuned to the many forms of illusions that marketers use to convince us to buy buy buy – both products and politics. Reasoning on the basis of evidence overcomes the untruths of magical thinking.

The Growing Danger of Magical Thinking
Magical thinking results from the capacity to ignore evidence in determining one’s beliefs. It is able to override both facts and logic in order to arrive at a comfortable belief that relieves the believer of the responsibility to critically judge all claims to knowledge. Magical thinking overrides facts and ignores logic in order to retain the comfort of believing that, for example, dire circumstances that may require us to make difficult decisions simply do not exist. We don’t want global warming to disrupt climate, damage crops, raise the sea level, and cause long term droughts, or produce resource wars, etc., etc. It is easy to ignore ominous facts if you allow magical thinking to shape your beliefs. The relief from responsibility is a powerful unconscious motivator.
The short term economic interests of some giant corporations are for people to not believe the overwhelming scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate disruption. Exxon-Mobil paid the same marketing and public relations propagandists that had helped the tobacco industry deny the harm done by cigarettes, to plant all sorts of “climate denial” disinformation in the mass media. Continued magical thinking resulting in “climate denial” puts us all at grave risk.