Sunday 8 September 2019

Systems Breakdown: What Next?

Whoops! Back in 4,200 BCE when this 20 metre high granite pillar ('Le Grand Menhir' in what is now Locmariaquer, Brittany) toppled over, it must have caused quite a stir. It had been sitting tall and strong for about 300 years – that’s longer than Germany, Italy, Greece, Belgium and a host of others have been nation-states – then the shift happened.  Maybe it was an earth tremor, or a team of terrorists or...? What is apparent though is that systems and structures break down.  Sometimes suddenly. They take work, and belief and power to establish, they come to define us – and then: Goodbye Ottoman Empire, goodbye Yugoslavia, goodbye USSR: who’s next? American post-war hegemony, and its claim to set the standards for the 'free world', is an outdated notion. 'United Kingdom'– is not so in the spirit and maybe not much longer in the letter. Even the ideal of the European Union has lost some of its gloss as its economic programs bite into social welfare and as local sentiment chafes against pan-European standardisation. Christendom has gone, how about NATO (currently being shaken by the USA) or the international banking system (after all it did go belly-up in 2008)? 

As for what's next; the collapse of a holding structure sucks power seekers into the resultant vacuum. See the Middle East and the Balkans. The USSR got grabbed by opportunist entrepreneurs, and the resultant political elite spasms with attempts to revive the Russian Empire. The status quo all seems so solid – until it brings around its own breakdown. The neo-liberal economic revolution of the 1980s that replaced post-war social welfare programs with privatisation seems so much in charge of the human world. But what you may not take into account is that money itself is no longer backed by anything solid (Nixon disengaged the dollar from gold in 1973, so that the underpinning of global finance is a set of floating exchange rates) – wealth is balanced on nothing more substantial than agreements. (And what has been agreed can be disagreed.) So as people wake up to the consequently increasing unequal distribution of wealth and the virtual serfdom that they are obliged to operate under, unrest grows. Far right militarism, and left-wing protests.  What agreements? What next?

On a more positive note, new ideas spring up to be tested. Finland (and districts of Ontario) have decided to offer unconditional basic income: to just give people what they need to live, irrespective of work. Another think tank – Autonomy – argues that in order to avoid more than 2C of global warming, the working week will have to be reduced to nine hours. Less commuting, fewer goods, less resources used. Sounds interesting – if with all that spare time, people take up meditation rather than social delinquency. But the ideas from Autonomy refer to 'global warming', and that is just one aspect of another systemic crisis – the 'eco-crisis'. The eco-crisis includes the substantial reduction in the insect population  (hence pollination and fruit production, as well as health of the soil are threatened). On top of this there is the poisoning of water and air through the chemicals that are used to kill the insects. And let's not forget, much as I'd like to, that these chemicals are still only a fraction of the total chemical assault on Nature. Note the deluge of plastic trashing our water and invading our bodies, note fuel-based air pollution damaging city-dwellers' lungs. The environmental damage caused by the meat and dairy industries? There are a few books' worth of arguments and statistics behind all these aspects; I'm not interested in adding more to that point. Just to acknowledge the results: with the Arctic tundra burning and the Antarctic ice sheets melting, with species extinction and desertification, with Pacific islands threatened by the rising level of the oceans and the Amazon forest shrinking fast, one thing that occurs is that people get alarmed and start pushing for change. What next?

The fact that a considerable amount of pushing has had to take place to draw attention to the loss of this self-sustaining and inhabitable planet (from which many species have already disappeared) speaks of another, more fundamental loss: the erosion of truth. Concerns about climate change, first broached by James Hansen to the US Congress in 1988, were not just ignored, but actively discredited (by fossil fuel companies) and are still dismissed to this day. Truth has long been understood to be more of a visitor in the political arena than a resident, but one more recent and striking development has been that when leaders of government in the US and the UK are found to be lying, a sense of shame has been replaced by bluster, and by counter-attacks on the fake media. 'Democratic' ( admittedly failing) structures are giving way to simple slogan-waving strong-men – who gain support by offering simple populist 'solutions.' As for media: as the internet provides news that changes by the minute, it also lessens the opportunity for a reasoned assessment of truth. Reasoned assessment (an aspect of wisdom) disappears altogether: it's getting to be that we can't talk to those of opposing views; we just trade polemics. 

Religion should surely provide an answer. But through time it becomes interlocked with culture and that gets nationalistic. Back in 1948, TS Eliot, in his 'Notes towards the Definition of Culture' wrote that 'the culture of Europe could not survive the complete disappearance of the Christian faith... If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes.'  Well, if 'our culture' means the mixture of fundamentalist attitudes and sexual scandals around and within the Church, and with the predominance of secular materialism, there's not much hope for 'our (= Eliot's) culture'. Without going into the Anglican perspectives of the great poet, I'd like to suggest a more broad-based culture might work. 'Sharing, morality and being of modest needs', the graduated instruction that the Buddha gave to beginners, could provide a commonly acceptable standard – especially if we included the rest of the animate world as that which we should extend our sharing and morality to. 

So, could the welfare of the human and creaturely environment become a common multi-faith denominator (almost any faith being better than none)? Back in the late 1980s, the common cause of environmental concern did bring religious leaders together at Assisi and then Canterbury, and supportive declarations on the environment have been made by leaders and spokesmen of all major religions. However, since then we've also witnessed acts of violence undertaken by fundamentalist movements in Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, all based upon a strong desire to protect or solidify their sense of (national) identity. It may be that although most people 'belong' to a religion, most are not engaged in the quest for truth, wisdom or the divine. Religion for most seems to be a way of giving personal or national identity more backing, not for reducing the sense of self. And a united front and common commitment to wisdom, in theory and in practice, can't come around without a good amount of letting go of one’s individual, even national, viewpoint. 

Like many others I struggle with the sense of despond at all this. As a Buddhist, I can use such reflections: 'This is the way it is. The world is like this, all is changing, let go and work on your path to nibbāna'. But it loses its resonance when I am asked: 'I've got used to dealing with the anger and the fear that all this [political, economic, environmental domination] brings up – what do I do with the grief?' It takes me a while to respond, generally along the lines of finding one's inner refuge and opening the heart. Surely then, another aspect of the way it is, is that:  'Heart is like this, there are values dear to the noble ones, live those with wakefulness.' An act of faith is definitely called for, along with sense-restraint and compassion – but what action arises from that?

Take note: As the fixed structures crack, as the established mind-sets founder, something in humans wakes up. Dharma practitioners organise protests and eco-ventures. Children go on strike. Massed gatherings peacefully block the city streets. Organisations whose one aim is the protection of the environment attract millions – having more members in Britain at least than to any political party. Here, the cause of the environment even unites a population fractured by views on Brexit. Technology starts whirring and shifting to low-impact solutions. Billions of trees are planted. All this is transnational and trans-religious. Maybe Nature, internal as well as environmental, is calling us out of our selfishness. As with the Buddha's last words: 'Systems break down, strive on with diligence (vayadhammā sankhārā appamadena sampādetha)'. Systems break down, whereas truth, although often obscured, doesn't. What will it give rise to next?