contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Human ecology

HUMAN IMAGINATION

The Paris Situationists of the 1968 uprising used the slogan “l’imagination au pouvoir”, giving human imagination a Romantic and emancipatory ring. Historian Yuval Noah Harari (1) is brutally anti-Romantic on imagination, pointedly using terms like ‘gossip’ and ‘fiction’ to describe its manifestations. But he too sees its potential power. Indeed, he makes the case that, both for better and for worse, the imagination holds power already.

For Harari, we humans are a rationalising species rather than a rational one. We developed our distinctive ways of thinking and talking primarily to connect with and influence other people. Understanding the wider world, problem solving, and developing technologies are supported by our language skills. But they take more effort. They don’t come as ‘naturally’.

“In the wake of the Cognitive Revolution, gossip helped Homo sapiens to form larger and more stable bands. But even gossip has its limits. Sociological research has shown that the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals. Most people can neither intimately know, nor gossip effectively about, more than 150 human beings.

“How did Homo sapiens manage to cross this critical threshold, eventually founding cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants and empires ruling hundreds of millions? The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.

“Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, and ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths … States are rooted in common national myths …Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths.

“Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.

“Peugeot is a figment of our collective imagination. Lawyers call this a ‘legal fiction’. It can’t be pointed at; it is not a physical object. But it exists as a legal entity. … It can open a bank account and own property. It pays taxes, and it can be sued and even prosecuted separately from any of the people who own or work for it.

“In the case of Peugeot SA the crucial story was the French legal code, as written by the French parliament. … Once the lawyers had performed all the right rituals and pronounced all the necessary spells and oaths, millions of upright French citizens behaved as if the Peugeot company really existed.

“Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it. … Yet when it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work toward common goals.”

For me, Harari underemphasises the inequalities of power in story-telling that have featured so influentially in achieving widespread belief, or the compliant appearance of belief, in privileged stories. The authorisation of some stories and beliefs has gone hand in hand with the repression and erasure of others. The imagination, as (somewhat reductively) understood here, has been a weapon in a long history of human dominance and submission. Fortunately, it can be a form of resistance too, as the Situationists of fifty years ago declared. Where there is imagination, there is also the possibility of re-imagination, and this possibility offers hope.

(1) Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind London: Vintage, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: RIDERS ON THE STORM

“It is with the dignity of life on earth, and our human part in it, that the passion of this book is concerned.” Alistair McIntosh is a Scottish ecologist based on the Hebridean Isle of Lewis. Riders on the Storm (1) interweaves reflections on the scientific, social-ecological and spiritual aspects of the climate crisis. He writes from the standpoint of 2020, where this overarching existential threat enfolds the more limited and specific crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The early chapters consider the current science, “sticking closely to the peer-reviewed publications of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)”. There are individual chapters on land; oceans and ice; and on 1.5 degrees. They make it clear that scientific truth-telling in this complex domain is a work of establishing levels of confidence on how climate change is unfolding, and “narrowing uncertainty”, rather than establishing facts. McIntosh upholds the IPCC approach, “for all its limitations”, as a peer-reviewed, panel-appraised, consensus-settled science. He sees it as an outstanding model of co-operative working and the most reliable route to take.

The next chapters look at the wider community’s response to the scientific evidence, given the tension between what the science says and how different groups use it. McIntosh discusses the denialism spear-headed by lobby groups disguised as ‘think-tanks’ and their disastrous effects on public discourse, such as the false balance practised by media organisations, including until recently the BBC, in holding futile ‘debates’ between climate scientists and deniers. He also discusses the roles of climate change contrarianism and dismissal in the current moment when outright denial has become harder to maintain. McIntosh goes on to look at the psychology of denial amongst the wider public. He has a section on the intimidation of the scientists themselves, including the dissemination of conspiracy theories accusing their whole community of deliberate deception, and its psychological effects on them.

On the other side of the argument, McIntosh has a chapter on ‘rebellion and leadership in climate movements’. He sees Greta Thunberg as authentically taking on the traditional prophet’s role, which is “to pay heed to their inner calling, to read the outer signs of the times, and to speak to the conditions found upon the land to call the people and their leaders back to what gives life”. McIntosh does have concerns about ‘alarmism’ among some activists. Without giving it a false equivalence with denialism in terms of damage it may do, he sees a tendency to edge out of step with the science, “pushing a point to make a point”. He identifies this as a tendency within Extinction Rebellion (XR) (2), though not extending to XR as a whole. In this context, he also discusses the difference between his understanding of satyagraha, Mahatma Gandhi’s grounded way of peace and social transformation, and instrumentalist versions of non-violent direct action applied simply as a tactic.

After an ambivalent consideration of proposed technical solutions to climate change, the later chapters “shift into story-telling mode” in order to “enter further into depth psychology and beyond”. McIntosh asks questions familiar from his other work (3): what does it take to reconnect with the earth, with spirituality, and with one another – with soil, soul and society? McIntosh’s own work is grounded in close-to-the-ground community development informed by the lens of human ecology, with its strong focus on interactions between the social environment and the natural environment in which we live. McIntosh emphasises grass roots led consensus building and decision making, drawing on emancipatory action research methodologies developed largely in the global south. The spiritual dimension of this, for McIntosh, lies essentially in “the interiority of outward things”, the profound interconnection of all things, and “the meanings of life as love made manifest”. Traditional stories and the wisdom they hold have a valuable role to play in such a project. In an earlier post (4) I extracted a Chinese rainmaker story presented in Riders in the Storm. Within the book, the value of traditional wisdoms is explored through a meeting between Hebridean and Melanesian community leaders and activists when the latter visited Lewis as guests of the former.

I found this book a rich and dense exploration of where we now stand with the existential threat posed by climate crisis. It does not read like a novel but is worth the effort and a great resource. McIntosh himself urges readers to use it in whatever way we want. To anyone committed to “the dignity of life on earth, and our human part in it”, this book has something to say.

(1) Alastair McIntosh Riders on the Storm: the Climate Crisis and the Survival of Being Edinburgh, Scotland: Birlinn, 2020

(2) For a review by an XR insider, see https://earthbound.report/2020/08/24/book-review-riders-on-the-storm-by-alastair-mcintosh/

(3)Alastair McIntosh Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power London, England: Aurum Press, 2001

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/09/11/rainmaker/

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