This 2-minute video clip provides a good visual introduction to the anthropocene and this 5-minute introduction by Noam Chomsky provides the corresponding historical and political backdrop.
The human capacity for self-delusion
This documentary on inequality provides an excellent illustration of the level of self-delusion in contemporary capitalistic societies. An economic dogma predicated on perpetual growth provides an environment that nurtures instead of curbs the latent human tendency to develop an arbitrary socially constructed sense of entitlement and to construct deep social power hierarchies. The social norms that operated in small stateless societies and in hunter gatherer societies prior to the advent of large scale civilisations and empires did exactly the opposite and curbed any attempts to gain power over others, and such norms allowed human primates to become much more successful than all other primates. The documentary above compares the lives of
- a successful capitalistic entrepreneur
- a wealth manager and investor who has inherited a family fortune
- an engineer employed by a modern corporation
The entrepreneur relies on his work ethic and the abstract logic of capital as a justification for his sense of entitlement. In this context capitalistic economic dogma serves as the mental anaesthetic that numbs the human capacity for empathy, and long working hours provide a quasi-rational explanation for the entitlement to the profits generated by the team. The entrepreneur reasons that workers only need to be compensated to the extent that they can survive comfortably, and that any further compensation would be unjustified. This logic implicitly justifies arbitrarily high profit payouts to the entrepreneur. It becomes obvious that power acts as a powerful neurochemical drug that induces a delusional justification for a stratified society.
The wealth manager is unfamiliar with any notion of work that is related to creativity and production in the physical world. His entire world is constructed in terms of abstract notions of capital and return generating investments. In this world success is measured exclusively by the ability to multiply capital via abstract investment vehicles. In his professional life the wealth manager does not interact with people who depend on a salary. As a result, even if he understands that the construction of money as interest bearing debt provides him with a quasi-foolproof mechanism for generating returns, he is completely unable to relate to the lives of people who are not endowed with captial.
The engineer realistically grasps his situation on the perpetual treadmill of work in the social hierarchy, and the inability to ever accumulate any significant amount of capital. He has no option but to continue to work as an employee and perceives himself as being comparatively fortunate relative to less skilled workers who have to raise families on even smaller budgets. The only way to break out of the treadmill would be by embarking on a similar path to the entrepreneur, by neglecting family and other social relations, and by fully internalising the capitalist dogma and developing a sense of entitlement to more than mere employees – who may work less, but not anywhere close to the difference in compensation between the capitalist and employees.
In absolute terms all three candidates featured in the documentary are able to live comfortable lives, but there are huge differences in the level of individual agency afforded to each one by the social system. Ultimately the wealth manager wields the most power, by a significant margin. As shown in the documentary, in order to further grow his company, the entrepreneur is dependent on external investors, and this turns him into a tool of abstract finance.
Thus, in our civilisation, and in all money based civilisations to date, human agency accumulates in the hands of those who focus exclusively on their role as investors – that is in the hands of those who are completely disconnected from the lives of 99.9% of people and from the creative and productive processes that ultimately sustain the anthropocene and life on this planet.
The ultimate danger of inequality manifests in two interdependent delusions:
- the level of self-delusion and disconnectedness from the biological world of those who live exclusively in the stratosphere of finance, as it has the capacity to induce entire civilisations to commit collective suicide
- the ubiquitous belief in the universal utility of money and markets as an effective vehicle for intelligent collective decision making
The fatal myth of economic fungibility
In this article and corresponding talk George Monbiot explains in very accessible language why the notion of capitalism, which powers all modern economies, is fatally flawed.
Once we look beyond the simplistic and culturally biased lens of money, we can focus on domain specific non-fungible metrics from the physical and living biological world to quantify various forms of waste and inequality in terms of access to food, knowledge, resources, and energy.
Human life as perpetual busyness
The essence is that most innovation in bigger organisations is just Apes**t:
it is not about getting good new stuff into the market, but it is all about looking good and ticking the box during annual reports and annual events. It’s marketing, and that is fine, as long as you know it and don’t deceit [sic] yourself that you are doing the real thing.
In this Apes**t world, innovation is a Brand Of Smiling Young Successful Energetic Good Looking People reflecting sentiments of cool, hip, young, dynamic, agile, fast moving, energetic, smiling, fun, and rule breakers.
The future anthropocene is human scale
Our society devalues tacit knowledge and understanding, in the belief that once automated systems are in place we no longer need to understand and help each other. We have forgotten about the notion of human scale and we are wondering why we end up with #BullshitJobs.
The concept of human scale is not new:
Greek architecture was related to human scale, and expressive of its essential structural elements, yet was perfected in the temples, the greatest achievements of Greek architects, as habitations for the deities.
We have “just” ignored human scale for the last few hundred years, including the cognitive strengths and limits that define human scale.
If we have any desire to make the anthropocene inhabitable for future generations of humans, we are well advised to re-orient everything we do and the ways in which we live toward the goal of human scale rather than the tired goal of perpetual growth, which never was anything else but a nicer word for social cancer.
Join us for the next CIIC workshop on 22 September (Auckland) and 29 September (Melbourne) to discuss the challenges of the Anthropocene and of reinventing the foundations of civilisation.