2015: The Turnaround Year? Part 1: Critical Mass

So much poison in power

The principles get left out

So much mind on the matter

The spirit gets forgotten about…

—Rush, Grand Designs, from the album Power Windows

At what point does the necessary critical mass accrue to reach what Malcolm Gladwell called “the tipping point” (in his book of the same name)? To some extent the answer to this question depends on whether you see yourself as what author Carter Phipps calls an “evolutionary” with a belief in the ever upward progress of the human race or a social Darwinist committed to the ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ model of existence. Phipps, in his book Evolutionaries: Unlocking the Spiritual and Cultural Potential of Science’s Greatest Idea, quotes the philosopher Teilhard de Chardin to explain this worldview. Chardin saw humanity divided into these two camps of belief: “…one looking toward the horizon and proclaiming with all its newfound faith, ‘We are moving,’ and the other, without shifting its position, obstinately maintaining, ‘Nothing changes. We are not moving at all.’” (p. 25)

Andrew Carnegie: in his day, the richest man in the world and a prime promoter of social Darwinism.

Contrast this with the self-serving philosophy of the One Percent, summed up more than a century ago by arch-capitalist Andrew Carnegie in his 1889 article Gospel of Wealth: “We accept and welcome therefore, as conditions to which we must accommodate ourselves, great inequality of environment, the concentration of business, industrial and commercial, in the hands of a few, and the law of competition between these, as being not only beneficial, but essential for the future progress of the race.” As John Ralston Saul noted in Voltaire’s Bastards, the elite will always seek to co-opt language in service of their agenda, so it’s not surprising that 19th century capitalists seized upon the competition and dominance model suggested by Darwin’s evolutionary research. (It is surprising, however, that it was Victorian Poet Laureate Alfred Tennyson coined the phrase “nature red in tooth and claw.”) Other than a brief flowering of democracy following the Second World War and the leveling effect of postwar prosperity, 19th century capitalism’s excesses—child labour, the lack of a social welfare system, low to no unemployment benefits for those displaced by economic meltdowns, and a chronic poverty rate—seem set to continue as the status quo of the 21st century. Or do they?

New research into animal behavior—much of it released this year—is showing that in fact, a sense of social justice and cooperation may be hard-wired amongst primates, dogs and rats. (See SOURCES.) This picks up where anarchist and evolutionary theorist Peter Kropotkin left off a century ago with his landmark but largely ignored work Mutual Aid. In his field studies, Kropotkin recorded numerous incidents of animal cooperation and it was this principle—not bloody competition—he saw as the defining trait of Nature. “We maintain that under any circumstances sociability is the greatest advantage in the struggle for life,” Kropotkin wrote in Mutual Aid. “Those species which willingly or unwillingly abandon it are doomed to decay.” Darwin himself wrote: “Those communities which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.”

Peter Kropotkin: an evolutionary theorist a century ahead of his time, historians chose instead to focus on his anarchist writings. Wikimedia Commons

I may not be a utopian but I do follow the poet Robert Browning’s dictum that, “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” As I wrote in the essay, A New Romanticism for the 21st Century: “…it’s better to reach for utopian ideals and fail than to assume our fundamental nature is self-serving and vicious. That merely becomes a sad, self-fulfilling prophecy—a self-justifying strategy of looters and pillagers, whether they come in army fatigues or pinstripe suits. It’s a model we’ve watched play out in market collapse, governmental corruption, corporate bailouts with public money, and global climate upheaval. If anything, it’s proven that capitalism’s childish insistence on free reign without constraint is no more mature or realistic than Romantic idealism. The monomaniacal focus on the bottom line has reached the logical end of its excesses. A new model must be built that places the need for profit in tandem with responsibility to the community and the planet. No one ever died because they made a little less profit this year than last. By contrast, plenty have died in the unprincipled pursuit of obscene profits, as this (or any) year’s catastrophic climate events make abundantly clear.”

Jeremy Rifkin: arguing for a compassionate civilization. Courtesy Speakers Bureau

Increasingly it’s becoming apparent how the dominant worldview promoted during the past century is nothing more than the lies and propaganda of the business and political elite, propagated to further their interests. As Jeremy Rifkin writes in The Empathic Civilization, historians “have given short shrift to empathy as a driving force in the unfolding of human history. Historians, by and large, write about social conflict and wars, great heroes and evil wrongdoers, technological progress and the exercise of power, economic injustices and the redress of social grievances. …Rarely do we hear of the other side of human experience that speaks to our deeply social nature and the evolution and extension of human affection and its impact on culture and society.” (pp. 9, 10)

If we’re to meet the challenges of the 21st century, then compassion is a good place to start. As Eric Michael Johnson wrote in Scientific American: “Fairness is the basis of the social contract. As citizens we expect that when we contribute our fair share we should receive our just reward. When social benefits are handed out unequally or when prior agreements are not honored it represents a breach of trust. Based on this, Americans were justifiably outraged when, not just one, but two administrations bailed out the wealthiest institutions in the country while tens of thousands of homeowners (many of whom were victims of these same institutions) were evicted and left stranded.” Johnson was reporting on a study that showed chimpanzees exhibited a sense of fairness in a study conducted at the University of Texas by Sarah Brosnan and colleagues. Thus, both social ethics and evolutionary research bolster the argument that the ethos of cooperation is far more adapted to survival of the species than the pursuit of pure self-interest, especially at this late date in history.

So what are some of the victories that we can savour of evidence of genuine human progress in 2015? In Part 2 I expand on this theme but for now here’s a good start:

  • Thanks to years-long efforts by the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), laws against physician-assisted dying for terminally ill patients were struck down. “For the first time, the Supreme Court affirmed that incurably ill Canadians who are suffering unbearably have the right to seek doctor assistance to have a peaceful death.” Unfortunately, provincial legislators are dragging their heels, but the precedent has been set.
  • Another of the BCCLA’s victories was the reform of non-conviction disclosures on police information checks in British Columbia. “This disclosure of information about police contact that did not result in a conviction is an unwarranted invasion of privacy and a violation of the right to be innocent until proven guilty. Particularly egregious is the disclosure of mental health information, contributing to stigma and discrimination. After years of advocacy, BC has finally reformed this practice.”
  • In April the Supreme Court of Canada struck down a mandatory minimum sentencing scheme, and reaffirmed the central role of judges in assuring a fair sentence. (SOURCE: BCCLA)
  • Following months of public outrage over the killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe, conservationists are celebrating a huge victory for Africa’s iconic big cats with a long overdue announcement that they will get endangered species protection. (• Alicia Graef, ‘Success! African Lions Get Endangered Species Protection,’ Care2, http://www.care2.com/causes/success-african-lions-get-endangered-species-protection.html#ixzz3vfcYmy7u)
  • In one of the biggest victories for the environmental movement in years, President Obama finally said “No” to the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline in November. Among the other 7 environmental victories celebrated in 2015 include the shutting down of 200 coal plants in the US, the abandonment by Shell Oil of drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean, and of course the agreement reached at the Climate Change Talks in Paris, though the latter remains subject to ongoing scrutiny and debate. Most controversial will be the lack of any wording in the agreement regarding the need to keep 80 percent of oil reserves in the ground if we are to avoid hitting the catastrophic 2 degree Centigrade warming point. (‘7 Surprising Environmental Victories For 2015,’ Care2, http://www.care2.com/causes/7-surprising-environmental-victories-for-2015.html#ixzz3vfdCRIAT)

SEE ALSO: Sarah Van Gelder, executive editor of YES! Magazine, on ‘Six Hopeful Breakthroughs from 2015’: http://commondreams.org/views/2015/12/30/six-hopeful-breakthroughs-2015

NEXT: Part 2: 2015: The Turnaround Year? Hopeful Signs

SOURCES:

  • Carter Phipps, Evolutionaries: Unlocking the Spiritual and Cultural Potential of Science’s Greatest Idea, Harper Perennial, 2012
  • Jeremy Rifkin, The Empathic Civilization, Jeremy M. Tarcher/Penguin Books, 2009
  • Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Little, Brown & Company, 2000/2002
  • Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, Black Rose Books, 1989
  • Eric Michael Johnson, ‘The Gospel of Wealth Fails the Inequity Test in Primates,’ Scientific American online, December 6, 2012:

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/primate-diaries/gospel-of-wealth-fails/

  • Sarah F. Brosnan, et al., ‘Mechanisms underlying responses to inequitable outcomes in

chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes,’ Animal Behavior,

http://www2.gsu.edu/~wwwcbs/pdf/Brosnan%20et%20al%20AB%202010.pdf

  • Laura Goldman, ‘New Study Finds Dogs Are Altruistic to Each Other,’ Care2,

http://www.care2.com/causes/new-study-finds-dogs-are-altruistic-to-each-other.html#ixzz3vfZLgtVk

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About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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One Response to 2015: The Turnaround Year? Part 1: Critical Mass

  1. Keith says:

    “Our Inner Ape” by Frans de Waal is relevant reading, investigating the behavior of three closely related species – humans, chimpanzees and bonobos. He stresses that kindly, cooperative and helpful behavior is natural to all three species. All three can fight and kill, but none can be defined as a “killer ape,” (as suggested by Raymond Dart.) Compassion and caring are part of our animal nature, apart from any extra input from spirituality, and need to be thoroughly respected and developed in our societies.

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