They don’t play nice. Should we?

So manifestoes are all very well, in the visionary department, but things get harder when you get down into the nitty-gritty of making transformative change happen.  I thought I might take some time this New Year’s season, 2012, to reflect more deeply on what it would mean to turn my dreams into reality.

Let’s start with the first point in my recently penned Manifesto for a Sustainable Future, which is:

1. Move from a top-down hierarchical system to a horizontal, egalitarian model of social relations based on inclusivity across all of the traditional boundaries used to keep different groups apart, and also opening up the possibility for cross-species collaboration based on respect and stewardship.

People have been talking about coalition across artificial differences between humans for a long, long time, and in some cases it has worked: for instance, the privileged white folks who believed in “equality, fraternity and liberty for all” played a huge role in freeing the enslaved Africans during the 19th century, and then a later generation of freedom-loving people from various heritages worked together again in the 1960s to extend the earlier gains through civil rights, women’s rights, decolonization, etc.

It’s not that hard to get people to agree in principle that all human beings deserve equal treatment before the law, or that children should have equal access to quality education, good food and health care.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is based on just such agreement.  The problem is that principles and declarations are one thing–like manifestoes–while actions on the ground are quite another.

In practice, we know full well that people of color, poor people and immigrants are not treated equally before the law in the U.S. We also know that there are millions of children in this country whose public schooling is inadequate, sometimes terribly so, and who do not have access to healthy food or good quality health care.

We know this, and yet we choose to ignore what we know.

It’s the same thing with what is happening to animals in this country.  We know that scientific research, aka torture, is conducted on thousands, if not millions of defenseless animals every year.  We know that millions of pigs, cows and poultry are treated with total disregard for their well-being, as if they were machines being assembled for market, instead of living, sentient beings.  We know that millions of wild mammals, birds and marine life are relentlessly being pushed into extinction by the pitiless advances of human “civilization.”

We know this, but we choose to pretend we don’t know it.

Maybe that’s because if we really took this information in, the knowledge would be unbearable.  How could we live with ourselves, knowing that just by conforming to the status quo, we are responsible for so much suffering of others on this planet?

But we need to stop pretending and closing our eyes and turning away.

Because it is out of this deep knowledge of our connection with other living beings on this planet, and the inescapable awareness of the suffering we humans are causing, that a movement of solidarity, resistance and change will grow.

To bring up the term “movement” is to be clear that the kind of transformative change I’m envisioning could not possibly be the work of one person, or even a few people.  It has to be an unstoppable wave, demanding change and taking nothing less for an answer.

In the 19th century, the abolition movement ended up sparking a civil war in the United States.

A second American civil war seems rather unthinkable to most of us now, even as we watch with amazement as regimes fall to enraged mobs all across the Middle East and North Africa.

In the US, free expression is tolerated far more widely than, say, in China, where journalists and bloggers are regularly beaten up and thrown in prison for daring to speak an unpopular truth.  The U.S. was shocked–shocked!–when the government called out the military and tanks began firing into the crowds at Tiananmen Square back in 1989.

But you have to wonder, watching the ruthless way city police are now trained to deal with street protests, how much it would take to provoke a similarly harsh response from our federal government.

What if there were a real movement of people united in their demands for “equality, liberty and justice for all,” as schoolchildren in the US are still trained to recite piously every morning, hands over hearts, when the Pledge of Allegiance is played over the PA system?

What if people got fed up enough with our bungling and corrupt national leaders, our deeply unfair and wildly overpriced medical system, the outrageous skewing of entitlements of all kinds to the wealthy, the militarization of our relations with other countries, the poisoning of our environment, the killing off of the natural world–fed up enough that we were willing to take to the streets and demand change, and not back down even when they brought out the tear gas, the tanks and the guns?

Then we might just have a Civil War II on our hands.  And like the first Civil War, it would be bloody, chaotic and uncertain in outcome.  But if the vision that guided it was sure and true, it might just lead to a whole new country arising out of the ashes of the old.

In this globalized age, such a civil war might easily turn into a global war, as the 99% the world over rose up against the tyranny of the rich corporate interests that are ruining the welfare of humans and the planet as a whole.

And here’s where I need to get back to the Manifesto, where I imagined a new social order based on a horizontal, inclusive, respectful, egalitarian model of social relations, with the welfare of the poor as important as the welfare of the rich; the welfare of the coral reef as valued as the welfare of the watershed feeding a city; the welfare of a livestock animal as important as the welfare of a cherished pet.

Not to say that everyone would necessarily be treated exactly the same–a cow wouldn’t want the same treatment as a dog, after all.  But whatever it takes to give a cow a comfortable, dignified life, should be undertaken.  Whatever it takes to give every child access to a high-quality education, should be done.  Decisions should be made in truly representative fashion, with no possibility of wealthy interests buying votes, no PAC lobbies or media manipulation allowed.

The devil is in the details in putting such a new world order in place, I know.  Many smart people maintain that human beings are irredeemably aggressive, competitive and greedy, and so we are incapable of creating such an ideal world.

But many other smart people say the opposite: that human beings are naturally empathic creatures, whose first instinct as infants is to love, not to hate.  Very few children are instinctively cruel to others.  The majority of us seem to be naturally good-natured, though easily swayed and corrupted by our social conditioning.

As Jeremy Rifkin has argued, “What is required now is nothing less than a leap to global empathic consciousness and in less than a generation if we are to resurrect the global economy and revitalize the biosphere. The question becomes this: what is the mechanism that allows empathic sensitivity to mature and consciousness to expand through history?”

Rifkin’s own answer to this question has to do with what he calls the “distributed Internet revolution,” which is “changing human consciousness” by “extending the central nervous system of billions of human beings and connecting the human race across time and space, allowing empathy to flourish on a global scale, for the first time in history.”

Rifkin envisions just the kind of transformation in social relations that I have also been dreaming of.  His description of a new human relation to what he calls our “biosphere” is worth quoting in full:

“The biosphere is the narrow band that extends some forty miles from the ocean floor to outer space where living creatures and the Earth’s geochemical processes interact to sustain each other. We are learning that the biosphere functions like an indivisible organism. It is the continuous symbiotic relationships between every living creature and between living creatures and the geochemical processes that ensure the survival of the planetary organism and the individual species that live within its biospheric envelope. If every human life, the species as a whole, and all other life-forms are entwined with one another and with the geochemistry of the planet in a rich and complex choreography that sustains life itself, then we are all dependent on and responsible for the health of the whole organism. Carrying out that responsibility means living out our individual lives in our neighborhoods and communities in ways that promote the general well-being of the larger biosphere within which we dwell.”

It would be nice if we could simply persuade the 1% corporate types of the necessity of this shift in human consciousness. But these people don’t play nice.

That’s why we dreamers who share this kind of transformative vision may have to toughen up, if we want to achieve our goals.

As Derrick Jensen keeps saying, how long will we wait until we realize that action is necessary to avoid annihilation?  It’s the birds, the bees and the bats who are dying now, but these creatures form the base of the pyramid on which current hierarchical human society rests.  If their populations crash, can ours be far behind?

Can we afford to wait and see?

Facebook vs. Dead Space 2: which 21st century geo-political model will win?

This week I am teaching Darwin again, Darwin being a staple of the Simon’s Rock Sophomore Seminar, required of all students.  I have always found The Origin of Species difficult to read, but lately I am realizing why: because Darwin seems so sure that aggressive competition, the infamous “survival of the fittest,” is THE biological paradigm on our planet. All species are locked in a relentless “battle for life,” from which only the strongest and best adapted (which often means the most ruthless) will emerge evolutionarily victorious.

However, there have been some persistent voices in the past few years arguing that Darwin understated the case for altruism and empathy as an evolutionary advantage for human beings.  Jeremy Rifkin, in The Empathic Civilization, argues that cognitive neuroscience is now proving that we are in fact at least as empathetic, as a species, as we are aggressive.  He believes that the linking potential of the internet age has the power to help us overcome the divisiveness that marred the past 500 years or so of human history, and make a great leap forward in our social evolution.

“The information communication technologies (ICT) revolution is quickly extending the central nervous system of billions of human beings and connecting the human race across time and space, allowing empathy to flourish on a global scale, for the first time in history,” he says.

“If we can harness our empathic sensibility to establish a new global ethic that recognizes and acts to harmonize the many relationships that make up the life-sustaining forces of the planet, we will have moved beyond the detached, self-interested and utilitarian philosophical assumptions that accompanied national markets and nation state governance and into a new era of biosphere consciousness. We leave the old world of geopolitics behind and enter into a new world of biosphere politics, with new forms of governance emerging to accompany our new biosphere awareness.”

Human beings’ amazing use of technology has always been both our blessing and our curse.  Technology is enabling me to send these ideas out into the ocean of the Web, a digital message in a bottle that could potentially reach millions of people across the globe.  Amazing!

But my reliance on electricity generated by oil and coal to perform this technological wonder is the Achilles heel of the whole enterprise, since collectively we as a species are overloading the biosphere with our wastes and driving the planet to the brink of what Darwin would call an “extinction event.”  Our own.

Will we make that great leap forward that Rifkin is foretelling, waking up to the necessity of moving from global competition to global collaboration in a new, more localized model?

Rifkin imagines a future global society based on the localization of energy sources like solar, wind, tidal and geo-thermal, as well as the re-localization of agricultural and manufacturing economies.

“In this new era of distributed energy,” he says, “governing institutions will more resemble the workings of the ecosystems they manage. Just as habitats function within ecosystems, and ecosystems within the biosphere in a web of interrelationships, governing institutions will similarly function in a collaborative network of relationships with localities, regions, and nations all embedded within the continent as a whole. This new complex political organism operates like the biosphere it attends, synergistically and reciprocally. This is biosphere politics.”

I believe that this rosy vision is theoretically possible, but I sure don’t see anything like it on the horizon today.  Rifkin puts his faith in the upcoming generation, who have grown up as “digital natives” and are more likely, he thinks, to be collaborative across traditional national and political boundaries. Facebook Nation!

Maybe so, if the young can be roused from their entertainment media trance and made to see the urgency of the mission.

I read with dismay yesterday that the U.S. video-game industry is one of the most highly subsidized sectors of our economy, rewarding, for example, the makers of “Dead Space 2, which challenges players to advance through an apocalyptic battlefield by killing space zombies.”  Dead Space 2 shipped 2 million copies in its first week of sales.

How can we expect young people to focus on serious, urgent issues like global climate change when they’re so busy chatting with friends on Facebook and killing zombies on Wii?

If this is the best we can do as a society, then I’m sorry, folks, but maybe an extinction event is not only on the horizon, but, as Darwin would say, “for the good of all.”



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