Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Through the canyon

The recent spate of postings here on Rawls & Me has brought back some familiar themes, such as the contested role of technology in securing environmental sustainability. Like in the past, I find myself discussing policy measures when something tells me that much of the debate actually has to do with far more fundamental questions.
Looking towards the future, I think the stage is set for a grand debate about the direction of the human enterprise. While there are already ample signs of a growing planetary consciousness, much of its focus still remains on the global challenges we face rather than on the solutions that we could possibly develop.
If humanity is to make it through the mid-century canyon of environmental stress as the world adopts Western lifestyles, we need to think hard about what brought us here. Instead of looking at the escalating environmental destruction as ultimate evidence of social and political failure, I think it makes more sense to think of it as a painful feedback signal in a longer civilizational learning process. After all, it is hard to imagine how a planetary civilization would be able to develop without at some point confronting its bio-physical limitations. The question is rather if we, in time, will be able to overcome the traumatic character of our initial encounter with modernity and use the knowledge we have gained to find a more sustainable trajectory into the future.
In the search for such a trajectory, we should be careful not to fall victim to either romanticized notions of a pastoral past or to utopian ideas about some advanced Star Trek-like future. At the same time, we have to realize that given the unsustainable nature of present trends, any viable response to the ecological crisis will most likely need to be radical in nature.
One key fault line in the coming debate will be our relation to the natural world. As Martin Lewis pointed out already in 1993, “the central theme of modern environmentalism may well be the idea that humanity’s separation from nature lies at the root of the ecological crisis”. Among environmentalists, it is commonly believed that the only way we can close this rift is by reimmersing ourselves in the natural world, by only using locally manufactured natural products (such as wood), and by “treading softly” on the planet. As evident not the least from this weblog, I hold pretty much the opposite view, that in order to protect the natural environment, we should seek to decouple ourselves from it. Recognizing that any attempt to “return to nature” in a world of seven billion people would literally destroy nature as we know it, I believe that we should instead return nature to itself and begin the process of ecological restoration. While nano-technologies may hold part of the key to such a decoupling, it is clear that only space industrialization on a massive scale can truly allow us to disengage from the sensitive ecological systems that we now occupy with our buildings, roads and mines. This does not mean that I do not appreciate the spiritual value in nature. It is rather because I recognize this value that I think that nature should be preserved and that human contact with it should be limited to recreational purposes.
A second fault line is the legacy of the Enlightenment. As Stephen Eric Bronner points out in his book “Reclaiming the Enlightenment: Toward a Politics of Radical Engagement”, there is currently a deep confusion among intellectuals on the left about the origins and objectives of progressive politics. According to a commonly held view, the Enlightenment is the source of all exploitation and its values are inherently racist, sexist and eurocentric. What such a view obviously ignores is that the yardstick it uses for judging the Enlightenment, is in itself a product of the Enlightenment. And as much as we cannot ignore that individual thinkers of the Enlightenment harboured the prejudices of their time, it is – as Bronner persuasively argues – wholly unsustainable to reduce the ethos of the Enlightenment to those prejudices. I believe that the true legacy of the Enlightenment lies in its emphasis on critical reflection, its cosmopolitan sensibility and its enduring commitment to social reform. If progressive politics is to offer any hope for the future, I believe that it needs to reconnect with this legacy and point to a world of universal democracy and freedom.
Finally, and somewhat connected to the previous point, I believe that capitalism represents a third, and very dangerous, fault line in the debate to come. When living in a money-obsessed society like Hong Kong, capitalism may seem like an unstoppable force. Driven by powerful economic interests but also billions of individual aspirations, the accelerating process of capital accumulation that began in Europe in the sixteen hundreds is now distinctively global in nature. Clearly, this process has done a lot of good to the world, brought out our inherent productivity, enabled unprecedented levels of functional differentiation and given a majority of the people on this planet a far richer material life than their ancestors could ever imagined. At the same time, the human and ecological toll of capitalism has been catastrophic. Child labour, maimed workers and animals shackled in factory farms are all sufficient reasons to resist capitalism in its current form. However, as I repeatedly have argued, we make a mistake if we think that capitalism equates exploitation. In fact, as the economy becomes more sophisticated, value creation requires ever higher level of human ingenuity and creativity. While people could get rich in the past from exploiting their workers, a mature capitalist economy rather depends on access to a highly educated work force, not to mention consumers who can buy what is produced. It is my belief that a social democratic system is uniquely equipped to provide this context for growth. I recognize that part of this belief comes from the fact that I grew up in one of the most successful, yet egalitarian, economies in the world, Sweden. I will not expand on this point any further right now but I strongly believe that many critics of capitalism (and many capitalists as well) fail to see its full long-term implications. In any case, I think few would deny that our global future to a large extent is dependent on what happens with the capitalistic system and what direction of change it will undergo in the decades to come.

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