July 20, 2018

The Dark Mountain Project - An Owl & Ibis Assessment

More than a year ago I stumbled upon the Dark Mountain Project, a British social and literary movement to alert the world about Humankind’s threat to itself and Earth. DMP disturbed me. Most of what its founders and members had written rang true with my own thinking about the negative cultural evolutionary direction of Humankind over the past five centuries, and our rapid degradation of Earth along the way. But was DMP’s solution of a total abandonment of the Western, now global, approach to economics, politics and ecology justifiable, and would DMP’s suggestion for doing something different work?

These were questions I could not answer. So, in December 2017 I made an email proposal to my fellow participants in the Owl & Ibis Confluence of Minds hoping to answer them. The full text of that email is here. Here is an extract of the proposal itself:

I propose a close look at DMP by Owl & Ibis over the course of several meetings in 2018. This would require an O&I team approach that would investigate and make presentations on various topics contained in the following questions:

Is the DMP prediction of the collapse of the world system likely to take place, totally or in part? To find out I propose O&I compare DMP’s reasoning and evidence to that supporting the mythic-story-turned-truth standard version of civilization in the three notions presented above - Humankind’s dominance relationship with nature; trust in religion, progress and science for continuing survival and ever greater economic prosperity and social flourishing; and that current unending capitalistic economic growth and consumption is the only system that is productive and sustainable.

If we decide DMP is correct, that the current world system and vision is uncontrollable, destructive and therefore unsustainable, what are our options - damage control and contingency planning and measures? What might these be like?

Is DMP’s call for an exclusively humanities response, especially “uncivilized” writing, to ameliorate the collapse of civilization, along with a complete discard of current political, economic and scientific/technological methods, and religious approaches, sufficient?

I propose that we discuss the DMP Manifesto at the scheduled O&I meeting on Tuesday, Dec 26, 2017. If at the meeting we decide to look into DMP more deeply in 2018 as proposed here, we could then come up with a framework for an approach at the meeting.

Beginning in January 2018, a small but determined group of us, most of O&I’s regular attendees, spent six months examining and discussing the DMP with the hope of answering two questions: Is Humankind’s current heading leading to, as DMP claims, the destruction of civilization and an unsustainable planet? If so, what should our proper heading be and how might we redirect to and stay on a better course?

We sought answers by examining in detail the Dark Mountain Project’s premises and arguments. DMP’s assumptions and arguments may be found in three of their major publications: The Dark Mountain Manifesto; The Eight Principles of Uncivilization; and Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist. An abridged compilation of these assumptions and arguments may be found here. Of all these works the Eight Principles of Uncivilization gives the best summary of DMP’s full message. Below we will look at the O&I group’s conclusions regarding each of the eight principles.

Here’s how we decided to assess the DMP. The Owl and Ibis core agreed that each would take a pertinent area or sector of concern addressed by DMP, research it and make a presentation to the group. Under the general title “Current Worldviews and Visions of the Future” the following multi-media presentations were made:

The Dark Mountain Project, An Overview, Jim Lassiter, Jan 23 & Feb 13, 2018
How Western Prosperity Came About Part I, Part II, Part III, Jim Lassiter, Mar 13 & Mar 27, 2018
Natural Science and Technology Futures, Steve Yothment, Apr 10, 2018
The Social Sciences, Parts I & II, Jim Lassiter, May 8 & May 22, 2018
Art, Judith Moore, June 12, 2018

Again, the over-arching goal was to find out what is currently going on in these areas and where do they seem to be heading with reference to DMP’s catastrophic forecast.

It was not easy to sum up or find consensus among the five of us who tried to collectively shine a light on the Dark Mountain Project. But some trends and general similarities did emerge. The following is a summary of my recollections of what the group concluded about the premises and assumptions of the Eight Principles of Uncivilization.

I kindly ask John, Judith, Richard and Steve to comment on this post as to the accuracy of my summing up under each principle. I am certain I have made errors of commission and omission. All others are also welcome to comment, of course.

1.     We live in a time of social, economic and ecological unravelling. All around us are signs that our whole way of living is already passing into history. We will face this reality honestly and learn how to live with it. All members of the group agreed with this declaration. One suggested a slight change in the wording of the last sentence so that it would read: “We will must face this reality and learn how to live with it.” All of us were not as confident to use “will” as did DMP.

2.     We reject the faith which holds that the converging crises of our times can be reduced to a set of ‘problems’ in need of technological or political ‘solutions’. The group was mixed on this view. Some partly agreed by being skeptical that scientific, technological and political solutions were the best path to a survivable and sustainable future for Humankind and Earth. Others argued we have no choice but regard the future as a set of problems solvable though science, technology and politics. Most were willing to concede that this approach alone was insufficient unless it was coupled with a radically new “story” of Humankind’s place in Nature, a reworking and refocusing of its various moral systems, and a re-commitment to the scientific truths about the deterioration of the survivability, livability and sustainability of the biosphere due to capitalistic human ecology.

3.     We believe that the roots of these crises lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves. We intend to challenge the stories which underpin our civilisation: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality, and the myth of our separation from ‘nature’. These myths are more dangerous for the fact that we have forgotten they are myths. The group as a whole accepted this as an accurate statement of the worldview of most, not all, of Earth’s wealthiest and most powerful people, corporations, and governments. We also accepted that the mythic story Humankind has come up with about its self-exalted place in Nature and the Cosmos is delusional. That is, the story of our belief in our ability to make progress in the direction of individual and societal perfection has become falsely regarded as an absolute truth by most of Humankind. That this story turned truth is a very dangerous delusion.

4.     We will reassert the role of storytelling as more than mere entertainment. It is through stories that we weave reality. The group agreed, we are a species that survives and thrives on our wits and the stories our imagination and reasoning create about how to survive and prosper. We certainly weren’t likely to otherwise survive during the early period of hominin evolution with our relatively under-sized canine teeth, weak musculature, long postnatal childcare, and slow foot speed compared to the predators we lived among during the East African Pleistocene. Language, social cooperation and accumulative cultural transmission over generations form a structure, a strategy, in which we place and improve upon ideas for surviving and flourishing. We were likely to become a minor footnote to the evolution of Life on Earth without this strategy and the stories, the life-ways, we packed into it and built upon. But stories are meant to be, must be, thought about and questioned as they are retold through the generations. Environments change and the challenges they present require that humans come up with better stories, better ways of thinking about what we are, how we should relate to each other, and how we should treat all other life forms and the Earth itself. The story of human supremacy, unbridled capitalistic exploitation, and inter-national Darminism is not proving best for our species, now and in the foreseeable long and short term future. The cost in human suffering and planet degradation the current story exacts is unacceptably high. Yes, we need a new and better story. Now.

5.     Humans are not the point and purpose of the planet. Our art will begin with the attempt to step outside the human bubble. By careful attention, we will reengage with the non-human world. All members of the group agreed. We must adjust our view of our place in Nature. That in doing we might redefine the “point” of Humankind’s existence and our “purpose” for being. The hard question is: How?

6.     We will celebrate writing and art which is grounded in a sense of place and of time. Our literature has been dominated for too long by those who inhabit the cosmopolitan citadels. This is the point where the O&I group’s respective points of view showed the greatest disagreement. Essentially, the group was divided, with some overlap, in terms of holding one of three positions regarding DMP’s claim of the primacy of art and literature in writing a new story for Humankind:
A.    Science, technology and political solutions should suffice. A good story to go along with them won’t hurt and might help.
B.    Science, technology and politics are methods we have worked hard on and steadily improved during our species’ cultural evolution. Let’s continue to improve on them and guide our efforts utilizing them with a new and better story.
C.    Coming up with a new and better story is of paramount importance. Art, and new stories from literature are essential but they will not suffice. Our new and better stories must be fomented not solely by the hopes and dreams of the Humanities. Art and literature are essential, but alone they will not suffice. Our new and better stories must be informed not only by our hopes and dreams, they must also have the substance and direction that only the ever-evolving provisional truths of the natural and social sciences can provide, and the knowledge of the pitfalls ahead that history and philosophy can help alert us to avoid. Art and the Humanities generally provide inspirational sparks and reflections but science, history and philosophy are the fire and light leading us to and along a path with the highest probability for survival and flourishing. A consilience is underway - a linking together of principles from different disciplines, especially those of the arts and sciences, to form a comprehensive theory.

7.     We will not lose ourselves in the elaboration of theories or ideologies. Our words will be elemental. We write with dirt under our fingernails. The group generally thought this was insufficient. Our theories and ideologies, the group concluded, are part of our basic story, an extension of the primal story of Humankind. But they do nothing without constant challenging and redirection. A voice from the “dirt” is necessary but it alone is not enough.

8.     The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop. Together, we will find the hope beyond hope, the paths which lead to the unknown world ahead of us. We agreed, the world is likely to survive the best and worst Homo sapiens  does to it. But “will” we find the “hope beyond hope?” Some thought we would. Others hoped we would. All agreed there’s an “unknown world ahead of us,” of course, but we also concluded there is more reason for hope than what was given by the Dark Mountain Project.

July 17, 2018

Political Disagreement - Choosing Understanding And Tolerance Over Hatred

Since a recent meeting with a close friend I’ve been thinking a lot about his caution concerning my views of those who hold political and moral views different from mine.

Specifically, I’ve been thinking about revising what I think of the mostly white, rich, Christian, (ultra)conservative, Republicans, WRCCRs (pronounced “wreckers”) for short, currently in power in the US. I’ve decided I want to shed my hatred for them and their beliefs and values, and replace it with a deeper understanding of why they hold the views they do.

Socially, I’m looking for common ground as a basis for a better dialog when I encounter them, in person or via media. Personally, I’m looking to replace my hatred based on judgment with a tolerance based on understanding. All things considered I think this approach is the only reasonable option. "Those folks," as my friend reminded me, aren’t going anywhere and their thinking isn’t going to change easily or quickly. My hatred won’t free up or change their thinking and it leaves me ineffective and unhappy.

To change my thinking I’m relying on my old methods but have also added one I recently found. It’s contained in a new approach to journalism:

It has become clear to me, from the above article and from the admonishments I’ve received from my friend and conservative acquaintances on social media, that the hatred I feel towards the WRCCRs who disagree with me is a characteristic of someone involved in an “intractable conflict.”

Amanda Ripley, author of the essay linked above, “Complicating the Narratives,” describes IC as follows:

Researchers have a name for the kind of divide America is currently experiencing. They call this an “intractable conflict,” as social psychologist Peter T. Coleman describes in his book The Five Percent, and it’s very similar to the kind of wicked feuds that emerge in about one out of every 20 conflicts worldwide. In this dynamic, people’s encounters with the other tribe (political, religious, ethnic, racial or otherwise) become more and more charged. And the brain behaves differently in charged interactions. It’s impossible to feel curious, for example, while also feeling threatened.

Despite her use of the now wildly popular “my brain made me do it” approach which I’ve argued against here, here, here, here, and elsewhere on my blog, Ripley is right. I, that is, me, my entire embodied self, becomes a very different person when I’m exposed to or just think about the beliefs, values and actions of WRCCRs.

June 14, 2018

The Power Of Human Creativity: The Future Of The World May Depend On It

"Things I Would Not Normally Recycle"

On Tuesday, June 12, 2018, the Owl & Ibis Confluence of Minds took a swipe at the Dark Mountain Project by tapping into our respective creative spirits. Why? Perhaps to actively, personally demonstrate to ourselves that the human creative spirit is alive, well and ever necessary - now, if not more than ever, during the 200,000-year evolutionary history of Homo sapiens.

Necessary, especially now, given DMP's and others' claims of impending global catastrophe(s) from human arrogance and delusion, and wasteful, unbridled-growth global capitalism.

Since January, O&I has been closely examining DMP's bleak forecast, and DMP's suggestion that only the arts, especially literary efforts at a new "story" for civilization, can help avert the coming fall of Humankind. Tuesday evening's presentation, "Current Worldviews and Visions of the Future, Art" led by Judith Moore, and the upcoming O&I presentation on June 26, "Current Worldviews and Visions of the Future, The Humanities" by John Cruickshank, will conclude O&I's look at the Dark Mountain Project. To the relief of many, I am sure.

Kudos and a hearty thank you to Judith for organizing and leading this great evening, and to her husband Richard who participated and helped schlep the pile of art materials to the meeting! Judith's presentation also included showing excellent short videos on creating art works from disposed of materials and Dan Phillips' construction of alternative homes from found and natural items, and construction project discards.

"Never underestimate the power of human creativity!" one attendee quipped at Tuesday's meeting.

Great evening, time well spent! At top is an image of one of the evening's creations. Here are the rest:




Pith helmet a prop, not standard O&I gear. :)

June 11, 2018

Remaking the World With Words - Plus, How to Read Them

Johannes Gutenberg (1400-1468)

Johannes Gutenberg's printing press met the Catholic Church's need for consistency in its canon at a time when the Christian church was divided within and challenged from without. Later, this great invention assisted the Church's central European detractors by facilitating the beginning and spread of the Protestant Reformation. The invention then promoted science by hastening the dissemination and exchange of scientific ideas about the composition and workings of the universe, and how to study them. More broadly, it greatly contributed to the Western Enlightenment in terms of making ideas - such as how to improve individual well being (freedom and justice), and how to better organize and facilitate group living - available to more people.

The details of these important events in world history and what led to an invention that deeply influenced them all is a story well told in Gutenberg: How One Man Remade the World with Words (2002) by John Man. This book is an excellent description of the life and times of Johannes Gutenberg, and the impact of his 1440 invention, the movable type printing press.

Example of a European Printing Press 1568

"Gutenberg's invention had created the possibility of an intellectual genome, a basis of knowledge which could be passed from generation to generation, finding expression in individual books, as the human genome is expressed in you and me itself remaining untouched, a river of knowledge into which every new generation could tap and to which it could add, even after the last press ceases, and paper is no more, and all that the vast store of accumulated knowledge is gathered in hyperspace. For there, in perpetuo, will be Gutenberg's Bible in all its electronic glory, to remind our children's children that this was the thing that started the revolution made by Johannes Gutenberg."

An Early Printing Press with Movable Type

For more on the great inventions in human evolutionary history see here.

As for how to read, there's this:

Photo: Zat Rana

Zat Rana
June 8, 2018

"Reading is telepathy, and a book is the most powerful technology invented.

"Homer, Shakespeare, Voltaire, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Woolf, Hemingwaythese are names without a living body. We cant talk to them, nor touch them, but their thoughts are immortalized through the written word.

April 22, 2018

Hamlet & Human Nature

What follows in this note and the linked essay below may be obvious to you. Maybe such things become more obvious to most of us the longer we live; and if, in living longer, we find ourselves among the fortunate who learn from our experience. I think the matter of decision-making prior to taking actions in our lives is worth thinking about to some degree, at least occasionally.

Doing so seems especially important in our teens. Or maybe later in early adulthood when we start to put in practice and test the ideas we learned, fully or partially, as teenagers. But, really, who among us ever did this in our youth? Rarely, except maybe when we were smacked between eyes by the reality of some stupid action we had taken, did we stop and consider what led us to such an action. And when we did we were seldom able to ferret out a good, useful answer from our under-cooked brains and the cauldron of hormones we were drowning in. That said, I think it is important from time to time - in our youth, in our prime, and in old age - to occasionally revisit our means of personal decision-making.

What is the point of such an effort? To become sagely wise? Very few of us become sages including first and foremost, yours truly. In fact, I've never met a sage and if I did or ever will I am not smart enough to know it. Should we study our moral decision-making because Socrates insisted that "an unexamined life is not worth living?" I don't think either justification has merit or is inherently worth pursuing. Self examination should be attempted for good practical reasons and purposes. The Stoic Epictetus put it this way: "This, then, is the beginning of philosophy – an awareness of one’s own mental fitness." More to the point, he said: "If you didn’t learn these things (the principles of philosophy) in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?" In short, we should pursue wisdom and self-knowledge in order to become better persons.

As for you who have a means of personal decision-making you are satisfied with, or have no difficulty with the imperfect way most of us muddle through, I salute you. But I'd be lying if I didn't say I'm skeptical that the confidence and comfort you feel comes from a decision based on blind faith for the sake of making the anxiety of uncertainty tolerable, if not "go away." I understand that. "Hamlet moments" of indecision over the serious matters arising in our lives are unpleasant. And the act of agonizing over these episodes solves nothing. I think for most people making these decisions is a practical matter. That is, make the best decision you are capable of at the time, in a way that keeps one's stress level as low as possible, then just move on. I suppose, sooner or later, we all end up doing this.

But I sometimes wonder, is it better to be comforted based on such faith, or be practical and not agonize over our dilemmas, or to live in the ebb and flow of anxiousness from trying to truthfully, objectively stare the uncertainty of our moral decision-making in the eye? Maybe there is room for a full range of valid and viable approaches among Humankind. Maybe there always has been and always will be. Then again, maybe there is a way out of the recurring dilemma of whether to act or not, and if to act, in what way? To find out, let's consider the main character in Shakespeare's Hamlet, and an author and a reviewer's respective views of him and his moral decision-making.

Is Hamlet the moral, decision-fearing weakling we were taught in high school or college? Was Hamlet no different from the rest of us at present?  That is, being too often overwhelmed when facing serious moral dilemmas - to be, or not to be; to act or not act? How is it many of us so often find ourselves blocked from making a decision about action on a serious matter because we don't have, or refuse to avail ourselves of, a satisfying moral system to turn for help in making our decisions? For example, when someone finds no help in the rigid moral codes of religion, or secular reasoning such (including Stoicism), or the common sense of folk psychology? And in the end is left on his/her own, with only the question of what is best for ourselves and, maybe, for others? Then, finding our 'self,' by its very nature, torn between our personal needs for survival, virtue and self-respect on the one hand; and on the other the needs of other people - the moral obligation to honor our family and larger groups, and live up to that which others say a honorable person should do to be human?

All social animals often face and must resolve this dilemma. Sometimes the result has serious if not deadly consequences. That is, deciding what is best for oneself and/or what is best for the group. Humans, and perhaps all sentient social creatures, are born with and improve upon inherent capacities to do this. But each of us must resign ourselves to probabilities rather than guarantees that the choices we make and actions we take will benefit us and/or others appropriately.

Of course, during our respective lives some of our possible and actual choices and actions are better than others. But we can never know for sure beforehand, only afterwards. Even then, the outcome can be mixed as to its virtue or morality. That is to say, acting in a compromising manner that partially satisfies oneself and the other can be a disappointment to all.
The Nguni Bantu peoples of southern Africa (Zulu, Xhosa, Swazi, & others) provide some insight on these matters. Their notion of ubuntu, "I am because we are" or "a sense of and appreciation for the humanity of others" is helpful. The Nguni take the long view - in your decision-making give first priority to what is best for the group not the self, that is, one's family and one's community. Their rationale being, if all give first priority all the time to the self, the group will eventually fail and disappear. When that happens there will be no more groups to give birth to, nurture, protect, and support new selves.

However, there is seldom a clear and unequivocal choice between what is best for me or what is best for us. Further, whatever decision is made or action taken, on all matters great or small, the outcome that is played out in our lives and among our fellows is for the most part beyond our control.

The book Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness and a review of it "The Question of Hamlet" provide respective views on Hamlet's decision making. Both consider the consequences of relying either on the groups' moral systems or on his (our) personal, self-oriented needs. The author and reviewer both seem to argue there is no way to resolve the dilemma. That it is an endeavor each individual is bound to lose, especially when choosing what best suits the self.

Here's my take. Your best chance to survive and possibly thrive is to learn the rules of the game, take the stage, make decisions and take actions you think best. Sometimes this will favor your own interests, other times the interests of your groups. Then, once your action is taken, respond to the consequences as best you can in a like manner. Maybe you will survive. Maybe you will flourish. Maybe not. In the course of your life, that being the evolutionary short term, consider if each action option matters to you, and consider what you see of your self living within the group after each of the options is taken. In the group's life, the long evolutionary term, you and your decisions only really matter to the extent your actions help the group - to survive, to flourish.

Your thoughts?