Pleasure and to hell with the future?

MY QUESTION: Given the inevitability of social collapse, maybe we should live out our declining years as disciples of the pleasure principle and to hell with the future?

MY WISE FRIEND’S RESPONSE:  Do I detect some post-Methodist disdain for pleasure?

I wonder what a world run according to pleasure might be like? It’s so hard to imagine, conditioned as we are to believe life is about struggle, self-sacrifice and deferral? The mainstream religions are strongly opposed to any notion that life could or should be about pleasure, and when did any politician refer to it? One of the phrases I most disliked from the last Labour government was “hard-working families”, which seemed to encapsulate an appallingly narrow view of life, as well as contradictory ideas of both undesirable and necessary toil. Why should life be about working hard? That idea has been propagated by Christianity, capitalism and communism, which must indicate that something is seriously wrong!

I think this denial of pleasure also largely explains modern society’s strange attitudes toward sex. It’s one thing that’s rarely discussed openly and honestly, though of course we are assailed on all sides by sexualised images. I’m endlessly perplexed why people should disapprove of homosexuality, and I can only conclude that they have found no genuine pleasure in sex. Contented people have no desire to repress others.

My own life has been significantly conditioned by my parents’ inability to discern and seek any real pleasure in life. For them everything was a means to an end, and those ends never seemed attainable in this life. But our lives are so short, so why should we not want what we might attain right here, right now (provided that it doesn’t cause suffering to others)?

Of course you will say that the modern world’s behaviour is indeed causing suffering for others: for the poor and future generations. But my point is that we are busy trashing the planet for no good reason. There is now much evidence that economic wellbeing ceases to add to happiness after a certain point, and we might reasonably conclude that our society’s excessive consumption is unconscious compensation for our pleasure-free, stress-filled, overworked lives. Money itself is largely a surrogate for all those things we can’t directly experience for ourselves.

Politicians cannot talk about pleasure because really it’s about what we can do for ourselves. Our “political selves” are weirdly two-dimensional, but we are multi-dimensional beings. I’m becoming less and less interested in what any politician or religious person has to say; I’d rather lie in the sun, listen to music or go for a run! This is probably how I shall live out my “declining years”, though I shall be holding off the “decline” as long as possible!

Personal freedom & social collapse


For some time we’ve been discussing two interrelated issues: how humans relate to the planet, and how humans relate to each other.

The ecological crisis requires that humanity significantly reduces its impact on the planet, which can only come about through:

  1. top-down control/coercion,
  2. voluntary action,
  3. a combination of economic and population collapse.

The first is highly undesirable and almost certainly unworkable (given the record of previous attempts, e.g. communist regimes). The second is preferable but unrealistic, as governments are most unlikely ever to agree on behalf of their people to the necessary sacrifices (e.g. Rio +20), and groups of citizens working together will never have more than a negligible effect on the overall problem. The third is not a policy option but a plausible and alarming consequence of inaction.

In contrast, the core issue for modern human society is the development of personal freedom. Most of the political argument over the last century or so has been about this, though many of the options have presented this is in language that now seems strange to us. I’m not arguing for historical inevitability, though in the globalised era it does seem to be the case that when people have tasted some measure of freedom or observed it elsewhere, they demand more of it for themselves. Part of the psychological appeal of capitalism and consumerism is that they give some experience of personal choice. The hundreds of millions of the new middle classes in China, India, Brazil and elsewhere will certainly feel that their lives have got better. Greater economic freedom probably leads to an expectation of freedom in other areas of life because it expands the idea of personal sovereignty. We no longer see ourselves as part of the collective in the same way and become less willing to submit to controls and coercion. The “social contract” has been rewritten, and on the whole this is a very good thing.

These two trends are clearly antagonistic. This is the dilemma of contemporary humanity, and I see no means of resolution unless people become radically different from the way they are and are ever likely to be. This is where we’ve got to in the “human beings on planet earth experiment”, and the outcome doesn’t look very hopeful. However, we don’t know how this will play out and over what timescale, so I don’t think we should become overly pessimistic. We are still individually experiencing the miracle of life, and there are endless things we can do to make our lives rewarding and meaningful, including acting on behalf of others and the planet. The point is not to be deluded about this, or fanatical, or coercive.

I have no blueprint to offer. I know I cannot preach to others actions I’m not prepared to take myself. My life is not “sustainable” in planetary terms, and neither is yours. Also, I’m not willing to accept others’ rules about how I should live my life. I am very wary of the collective. I am clearly part of the problem rather than the solution!

Can evidence transform worldviews?

My on-line friend Slav Heller has created a useful map of existential beliefs (MEB) or ideologies which can be used to compare basic worldviews. The scientific-rational worldview is termed by Heller the Ideology of Superior Mind, implying a certain hubris for those who see the world through the lens of reason and science and are not confident in using supernatural beliefs to make sense of the world. His map uses the label Ideology of Power and Domination as underpinning the almost universal driver of ‘progress’ as unending wealth accumulation. Opposed to this is the still minority worldview whcih he labels the Ideology of Nature’s Wisdom.

This article which summarises an academic papaer, makes an assertion and asks the question: Global politics is based on an outmoded and increasingly destructive model of human progress and development. Can science change a dire situation? It argues that the political notion of progress as modernisation and GDP growth needs to be re-examined against a scinetific analysis of its costs not only its benefits.  Costs include, especially, the growing impacts of modern ways of life on the natural environment and on human wellbeing (which are, of course inextricably linked). That many of the world’s most populous nations, including China, India and Brazil, are, in important respects, following this path of progress greatly increases the global threat.

Unfortunately for those wishing to redefine ‘progress’: Changing the political and cultural status quo runs up against formidable obstacles. One is the inertia in the system, with currents ways of doing things locked into place by entrenched and self-perpetuating organisational values and attitudes, and the multitude of existing mechanisms by which the world is run. Another obstacle is the money and effort that vested political and corporate interests put into maintaining their advantage….

the task is to enlarge political debate to question the worldviews that underpin politics. This would open the way for far-reaching policy choices that the current status quo precludes. Politics and the media define arbitrarily what warrants coverage and discussion, and much that is important is left out. … There is no valid reason why the worldview of leaders could not be a central theme of political debate. This would be very different from today’s emphasis on ‘issue’ and ‘identity’ politics, whose elements are kept firmly within the conventional framework of progress.

The article concludes: The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are useful, but remain embedded in the orthodox model of development. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change provides one model for how to move forward if it can be applied to the much larger task of genuine sustainable development.

Governments and leaders will not implement solutions to the threats facing humanity if they are not convinced of their extent and magnitude, which they are not at present. Perceived scientific legitimacy is a central justification for these political perceptions. Changing these perceptions is arguably science’s greatest challenge today.

On a website that is concerned for the sustainablilty of sentient life on Spaceship Earth the definition of ‘progress and development’, as represented by prevailing worldviews, is fundamental. For years it has been my clear mission to challenge the ‘no brainer’ delusion that unending economic, population and technological exponential growth (human impact on the finite planet) is a fatal trajectory and the resources on this site offer ample evidence of the consequences, but sadly, few indicators of evidence that the worldviews that drive this trajectory can or are being significantly changed.

Catastrophic Metaphors

Monbiot in this review claims that Jeremy Lent’s “The Patterning Instinct”  is the most important book he has ever read. This is a remarkable claim from such a prolific writer, scholar and activist who has dedicated his life to the protection of nature from the ravages of human civilisation. Lent’s work falls within a new discipline called cognitive history.

From infancy, our minds are shaped by the culture we grow into, which lays trails we learn to follow, like paths through a field of tall grass. Helping us to construct these patterns of meaning are powerful root metaphors embedded in our language. Without our conscious knowledge, they guide the choices we make.

Lent argues that the peculiar character of Western religious and scientific thought, that has come to dominate the rest of the world, has pushed both human civilisation and the rest of the living world to the brink of collapse. But he also shows how, through comprehending its metaphors and patterns, we can step off our path and develop new trails through the field of grass, leading us away from the precipice at its edge….

Far from standing aside from nature or being able to dominate it, we are embedded in it, intimately connected to processes we can never fully control. It allows us, potentially, to see the universe itself as a web of meaning: a powerful new root metaphor that could, perhaps, change the way we live.

There is plenty of work to do, to translate these insights into a practical politics. But it seems to me that Lent has explained why, despite our knowledge and even our intentions, we continue to follow our path to the precipice. To solve a problem, we need first to understand it: this is what “a good start” looks like. We cannot change the destination until we change the path.