My Agreement with this Medium — and something (to begin with) on Sam Harris
New year is rather a random event from my perspective, although as a Scot, one might expect that I would be rather wedded to the idea of song and celebration. I do love a good poem. And a song (I finally heard the sea shanty that went viral last year on the radio recording of an interview I listened to last night here in Tenerife.) Yes. I’m in Tenerife. I didn’t fly for many years before it became a thing, but we don’t always get to do the things we want or value. Sometimes other circumstances take precedence. And that’s the point, isn’t it? This isn’t about judging people for what they fail to do, or feeling judged when someone shouts, ‘we’ve got to stop flying! In fact, we have to stop travelling for fun at all!’ Or, ‘we’ve got to stop eating meat!’ Or ‘we’ve got to stop using plastic!’ You can look at every aspect of your own lifestyle in that vein, and no doubt that’s a healthy thing to do. We all do need to do things individually. Recycle. Stop wasting food (at all). Stop buying stuff except that which is absolutely necessary. Stop. Just stop.
But we also need to notice that this shouting can be very oppressive. We can start very quickly, unless we are thick skinned, or don’t care what other people think (in which case there might be something wrong there too) to feel really bad. What if I don’t live up to the kind of life I aspire to live? What if I fail, again and again, to sell everything but the very basics to keep me alive, and live a life of austere simplicity? Does that make me a hypocrite?
The point is, we are all hypocrites
OK. There may be very rare exceptions — a hermit in a cave who doesn’t engage with society at all. But even they may find they have to come down from the mountain and rely on others who in their turn rely on a system that is unsustainable. We all use plastics, and other petroleum derived products. We who have been given the vaccine have had petroleum derived lipids carrying animal tested synthetically produced (by Big Pharma) vaccines plunged into our arms by medics whose entire training relies on the operation of a system that is saturated, at every level, with reliance on capitalism, and just as often, small-scale breaking of the rules, that is to say, corruption. None of us is perfect. None of us has never told a lie. If you tell me you’re the exception to that rule, I’ll bet my life on your lying.
That doesn’t let us off the hook, of course
Being a hypocrite is simply an acknowledgment of our own imperfection as human beings. It is also an acknowledgment of something subtler and more controversial: we are not in control of the vast number of options for action, usually called choices, that we normally think we are in control of. In other words, our freedom of choice is not, in the normally understood sense, free. We are, instead, the products of the circumstances, birth place, culture, parentage, upbringing, and thousand shocks that flesh is heir to.
Neuroscientist, meditator, author, atheist, podcaster, and philosopher (www.samharris.org) recognises this in spades. And yet he rarely carries the thought to its logical conclusion. Because I’m somewhat digressing here, I’ll come back to Sam and his free will argument and logical inconsistency in a moment. But first, the case in point. The ecological emergency. I’ve said this many times, but in case you’re confused by what I mean by the phrase, it’s slightly larger than the idea that Tim Morton, philosopher (http://ecologywithoutnature.blogspot.com/) came up with and which I like to use. This phrase means both climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution, and the extraction of energy from virtually every other bio- and physical system for human use. These processes cause fragmentation, a kind of pulling out of the jigsaw puzzle pieces until the picture itself begins to collapse. But it also means what is happening in human systems: the political and ideological extremism that creates conditions where one group not only will no longer discuss their agenda with another, but will take offence at any attempt by those of the ‘other’ group even to characterise the issues. I want to add a third sphere, even though the three are hardly equivalent in reach. This third is the personal, within you and me. It is our own inability to integrate, to cope with, if you like, the increasing sense of disconnection within our own psyches (I use that word reluctantly. There’s probably a better one. I don’t like the association with psychology or souls. But we’ll come back to that too). This inability manifests itself in depression, anger, grief, rage, blame, hatred, resentment, and of course psycho-somatic illnesses that affect our immune systems, and general ability to function.
My contention is that these three spheres are not, in fact, uniquely distinct. There is clear evidence for this. The personal is rooted in the social and the physical spheres, and all interact with one another. But the point of calling the process we are currently collectively engaged in the ecological emergency is also to highlight one key aspect. What we are experiencing is what is emerging into our consciousness, individually and collectively. The fragmentation and collapse we see externally and experience internally is what our awareness is making us aware of. As the situation becomes more critical and urgent, so the intensity of the experience deepens.
I’ve explained that before, but I hope that by doing so again and again I might be able to make it clearer to any doubters. I’m open to questions, of course.
So, back to hypocrisy
If we allow ourselves to get bogged down in the notion that just because we cannot act perfectly, we might as well give up, then of course we will not achieve the kinds of admittedly enormously challenging shifts in personal and collective activity that will allow us to come to a better relationship with what is going on. If we get angry and blame others for the situation, then, likewise, we will find ourselves isolated, or at least only able to connect with our own ‘tribe’ and thus just reinforcing the very process of fragmentation that is exacerbating the emergency. We must, therefore, find ways to first, live with ourselves, with our imperfection and hypocrisy. We must do this by being kind to ourselves, and encouraging ourselves, taking small steps, and making note of small achievements. Reaching out of our comfort zones to pick up other people’s rubbish (I know, this is controversial with Covid. I don’t touch my face and I wash my hands). And seeking to connect with others who, even if we don’t agree with them on everything, can teach us, and perhaps we them, how to put some small pieces of the puzzle back in place.
The Challenge: Create Connection
The more of us who can create connection, and get better at communication, the more chance we have of creating a movement that will have real political force. The green movement is notorious for its inability to cohere. We must change that. We must also reach beyond green activists and talk to Coca Cola executives, people who work for Shell, the airline industry. These people are the ones who hold the reins right now. We must find ways to speak to them.
Briefly, because I’m attempting to practice what I preach and keep things reasonably brief, and get some rest between activities, back to Sam. I’ve been listening to his podcast, ‘Making Sense’, over the past month. I’ll write a separate post about it. Two things here. First, his caricature of Donald Trump’s verbal meanderings as those of someone who doesn’t know what he’s going to say next jars uncomfortably. At the end of the book ‘Free Will’, Harris writes that he doesn’t know what he’s going to write next as an example of how he himself, like all of us, has no conscious control over the words that come to mind as they do. That latter point I absolutely agree with. But the point is rather lost if he then berates Trump for the very thing he has just claimed is a feature of being human (actually, it’s a feature of being. But that’s another story). Of course, his point is that Trump is so heavily under the illusion that he is fooling everyone that he is like an emperor shouting, look at my beautiful clothes, when we can all see that he is naked. And that point is fair. But I think it’s interesting that Harris himself doesn’t seem to realise that the reason for Trump’s failure to convince is not because he himself doesn’t know what he is going to say, but because he lacks awareness of this fact. The relevance of this to the ecological emergency is, again, to recognise that characterising another as less human than oneself will perpetuate and even fuel the emergency. Looking for points of common ground, on the other hand, or at least attempting to understand where the other’s (all too human) motivations lie, is a better strategy.
Secondly, Harris is highly hierarchical in his thinking about what has value in the living sphere and to me, this is an anachronism, a throwback to the time when we thought humans were atop a pyramid of living beings, above which were angels and archangels, and below which demons. I will say this again, though I have said it before: we need to examine, and then uproot, the false notion we have of our own superiority. We are not the dominant species on the planet because we are superior. If that was the case, we would have to acknowledge that other dominant species — dinosaurs, perhaps, or prokaryotes — were superior to all others in their time, something the facts do not bear out. To be dominant is simply to use more energy. And in all cases where that strategy has evolved, it has fallen on its face. The strategy that has worked, as Lynn Margulis, brilliant biologist almost ignored for being female, and many others have recognised, is symbiosis, or cooperation. This isn’t cosy utopian cuddling up, it’s compromise, often with jostling for the upper hand, but it is species working together, as they do in rainforests, ocean floors, tundra, prairie, rivers, mountain tops, in fact, in every ecosystem we know of. We will survive in a shape worth preserving only if we learn this cardinal rule. And fast.
Happy new year
My resolution is to post a piece a week. Let’s see how I get on! I’m offering courses on my site, and one-to-one existential mentoring, so please get in touch, and let’s see what we can do together. The possibilities are almost infinite! And perhaps, after all, with your help, I’ll make a living out of this.