William Ophuls has written some very thoughtful books about our political age. Plato’s Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology is one of them. He challenges our world, not just at the level of tinkering with deck chairs (e.g. biofuels to power the Titanic – when the problem is the Titanic and its direction). The deckchair techno-obsessions are part of the problem. But it goes deeper. Ask yourself why we fiddle while Rome burns.
Ophuls challenges the whole basis of government back to Thomas Hobbes – you know, his view that we’re all individualistic scum who need to be controlled or else our lives will be nasty, brutish and short – but first we’ll measure you as well. Units in the machine assembly line of life. Soulless. Other. And so vice is less a consideration because it can be measured away by instrumental rationality – the ‘other’ being reduced – always reduced – to an ‘instrument’ for me. How can you harm a thing reduced to a soulless digit. What vice?
… “.. the modern political paradigm – the body of political concepts and beliefs inherited from Thomas Hobbes and his successors – was bound for self-destruction even before the emergence of ecological scarcity. That paradigm is no longer intellectually tenable or practically viable because any polity that abandons virtue and rejects community necessarily becomes the author of its own demise. The tendencies toward moral decay, social breakdown, economic excess, and administrative despotism that are evident everywhere in the so-called developed world testify to the need for a new public philosophy – on political as well as ecological grounds.”
I couldn’t agree more. We are being run increasingly as if we are disconnected, individualistic units, resources in a storehouse ….. where greed and power are applauded, the shortest and narrowest blinkered perspectives are given weight above the knowing and feeling and wisdom of people who belong to a place …. and where archetypically male ideals of quantification and certain, directed order are assumed, not just the way to make good decisions, but the way to be.
There is more to life – more to see – than just the path
And with each cock-up, we shuffle some more deck chairs, while going full steam ahead. I’m not sure it is any lack of wit that keeps us ‘on-board’ so to speak. So what is it? Are we raised and so strongly constructed in the social reality of the day? Can we not break out, be indigenous again, think it is ok to say that, yes, the numbers say this, but my heart says something else because this place is me, and the numbers rationalise yet another madness?
I keep seeing a convergence of thought – away from Modernity and the machine, the dispassionate, disconnected world, reduced to some meaningless spreadsheet that doesn’t include wisdom, virtue or belonging. And the critics of ‘othering’ and dominating hierarchies by thinkers about gender, race, class, indigenous philosophy/culture, environment etc. are all calling for a re-connection of sorts.
In Māori, to ask who you are is to ask what waters you are. Ko wai koe? (Who are you? What water are you from?) Nō wai koe? (Where is your place, your river, lake, spring?) Mā wai rā (Who are you doing this for? What waters are you doing this for?)
Realise we belong. Get away from the dualisms – the us and them, the me and the other, especially where they are quantified to some small irrelevance of meaning, just because we can find a number …any number will do, somewhere … and we’ll call it ‘objective’ after we make the entirely subjective choice.
Reimagine. Look to the world as connected. Question what ‘it’ is. It is not, say, just a ‘water resource’. It is not even an it. It is us. It is you. You have to look to the construction of reality that comes from culture and language to realise there are other ways to see. Better ways.
I’m reading Val Plumwood, Carolyn Merchant, F David Peat, Freya Matthews, Gregory Bateson, political ecology books, new economic thinkers, indigenous philosophers, and they’re all saying the same thing. Converging feminist thought with indigenous philosophy, emphasising relationships not parts whose whole meaning cannot be reduced to measurement and mechanics – reimagining what it is to be and know.
Get off the Modern obsessions with mechanical measured marching. Learn to dance within and amongst the motes in the sunbeam. Learn to feel. Deal in quality and virtue and belonging, not measured utility to self.
Because we are not just selves. And the world is not an instrument outside, set apart, over the fence, in the spreadsheet, bounded by this Modern defining. Re-imagine.
Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy.
About Chris Perley
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