Saturday, July 25, 2009

Anatomy of Insecurity

Part 3 of Prisoners of the Real

Despite the empty promises of several generations of modern leaders, we have gained little to date by trusting the judgment of technicians, bureaucrats, and other rational managers. If proof is needed, just ask yourself: Are we any more secure today about where we and the planet are heading?

Security, say the dictionaries, is a feeling of safety or freedom from anxiety. Based on this definition, few people can claim true security in the opening moments of the 21st century. Our political and social systems are seriously flawed; in fact, they apparently breed corruption. Most societies can't even meet the most basic human needs – shelter, food, and health for all. And the industrial way of life is probably the single largest factor in the violent disruption of nature all over the planet.

Even the richest among us, the few for whom the "system" still works, will admit that the price of our domination and wasting of nature may be too high for us to pay. We can't even be secure about our long-term existence on the Earth. In the coming years, the average global temperature may rise by several degrees, even taking into account a major reduction in pollution. In less than 40 years the world could be from five to eight degrees warmer.

Experts differ, as usual, about what this means, but it seems likely that sea levels will rise. In the Southwestern US, temperatures could easily be above 100 degrees almost six months out of every year. Meanwhile, thousands of acres of oceanfront in Massachusetts may disappear, and enormous expanses of forests will probably die. America may no longer be "breadbasket" to the world. The predictions are abundant, of course, and many of them contradict each other. But few provide any sense of security.

The very idea of nature as something independent of human will has become obsolete. Yet, rather than reacting with concern and looking toward the restoration of nature, most of the solutions being proposed focus on forms of "global management," new forms of manipulation designed to compensate for the older forms that produced this mess. The rallying cry of this misguided crusade has been to "take control of the planet" – meaning that we need only find new ways to dominate the mutated nature we’ve created. If our past mistakes have overheated the world, "global managers" suggest that we find new and better methods: make the forests grow denser and straighter, harvest not only crops but animals. Researchers are creating new species, in the long-term hope of turning the life process itself to our advantage.

For several hundred years we have believed that nature was nothing more than a complex mechanism, a machine whose secrets we could eventually unlock. Humans considered themselves the "lords of nature," destined to control the cosmic factory. We extended our quest to the very heart of matter – and smashed it. But we were wrong. Atoms are not solid, nature is not a machine, and the universe can't be divided and dissected without the gravest of consequences.

Domination of nature has led us to a dead end, just as domination of humanity has brought misery, poverty and the devastation of most of the world's peoples. The legacy of our mistakes is insecurity and alienation, war and waste.

At the heart of the problem is the set of values underpinning life in the developed countries. A desire for endless material advancement, the basis of our addiction to growth, has prevented us from setting limits or ending the domination of nature to suit our current fancy. Yet that is what it will take. In essence, we must transform our way of life, turning away from accumulation and toward sustainability.

Our old approaches – rationalism, competition, inventions and invasions – will leave us with nothing but a deadened, artificial world. If we want to save the planet, therefore, we must turn from the mechanical to the creative, from Apollo to Dionysus, from domination of nature and human beings to cooperation with both nature and one another. The time has come to choose; either we continue to adapt nature to suit ourselves, or we change ourselves.

Even if we do everything we can, the process will be slow and probably painful. And all along the way, the temptation to settle for some technological quick fix will continue. But if we resist, if we defy and, when we can, transform those who would manage nature into extinction rather than defying and transforming nature itself, we may find the way back to harmony, cooperation and the ecological security we have lost.

Prisoners of the Real is part of the process, a look back at how we reached an impasse, and a vision of where to go from here.

Next: Managers and Their Tools


The Creative Also Destroys

Deconstructing Leadership

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