Sunday, February 22, 2009

How things fall apart

At the ISA convention in New York I came across a paper entitled “The Sheep Look Back: Counterfactuals, Dystopias, and are We Really Going to Hell in a Handbasket?”. Written by the Berkeley-based scholar Kate O’Neil, the paper caught my immediate interest. Not only was I flattered to find myself quoted but also intrigued by how closely the paper reflected my own concerns about our current situation.

While most eco-dystopian writings tend to take their starting point in some single future disaster, be it a nuclear war or a climate catastrophe, O’Neil brings our attention to the work of John Brunner and his 1972 novel “The Sheep Look Up” which instead portrays a future about to collapse under the accumulated pressure from a multitude of different problems or, to borrow the original wording, from “death by a thousand cuts”.

Though probably far more realistic than the standard all-out apocalyptic event, moral philosophers and political scientists alike have had surprisingly little to say about the possibility of systemic collapse, especially in the context of ever shorter political time horizons and the rise of single-issue politics. Fractured by post-modern thinking, our politicians have retreated into a reactive stance of “fire fighting”. With less room for agency they find themselves confronted by a constant flow of structure; ever day there is a new crisis to attend.

And even if the dots may be there, it takes a credible theory of causality to connect them. Without such a theory and an associated progressive vision, we are left with nothing but our own fears and the stagnating memory of what was once politically possible.

Instead of advancing the open society we are tempted to think that we can stop terrorism by repression and surveillance. Instead of seeing the rise of the world’s poor as a chance to achieve sustainability we regard it as a threat. Instead of boldly innovating ourselves out of the zero-sum equations we return to the dated language of 19th century geo-politics.



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