Contemplative Activism

Letting go of Being Enlightened

It is strange for me, at this time, to be putting the last touches on a paper on collective wisdom, which argues that to navigate the future well, we Westerners must grapple with our deep attachment to some of our foundational ideas. Is now the time when we start to truly realise that, when we declared our enlightenment a few centuries ago, we were a bit premature, and make a course correction?

I don’t know, but I feel certain that our decision making is impaired by massive attachments to these notions: that we can control fate through reason and science, that we are separate individuals living “our own lives”, and dogmatic ideals of equality. In the paper, I discuss how these ideas relate to our inaction in the face of the long-standing threat of climate change. Here, I discuss here how they have affected our coronavirus response. 

To be clear, I don’t want to tie coronavirus too tightly together with climate anxiety of the last year. Diseases have moved from animals to humans every decade or so, HIV in the 80s, SARS in the 2000s, COVID-19 in late 2019, at least partially because of our invasion of remote habitats. So I am not so sure that the coronavirus proves that now is the crisis point, but it is definitely an opportunity to wake up, and be in a better collective frame of mind to handle future challenges. 

We’ve heeded warnings about the coronavirus about as well as our governments heeded climate scientists, up until the point when Italy, the birthplace of the renaissance, was consumed by crisis — why is this?

To start, like in climate change, effective action on the virus requires the collective, through the government, to interfere with individual rights. The idea of the government shutting things down runs so strongly against our ideas of individuality that we literally could not conceive of the actual necessary measures until hundreds of thousands of deaths were just about to be a reality. With the air about to be filled with viruses that stood a good chance of killing our parents we are dispensing with the well worn ideas about how as individuals we were each going to make socially responsible free choices, and started doing something that would actually work. Like confining ourselves to our houses. And we’ve needed to do the same thing with climate change for decades rather than waiting for everybody to make ecological consumer choices. Maybe now we’ll think about it. To be clear I am not arguing for obedience.

I’ve always seen the American rock song “Life is a Highway” as the perfect artistic glamorisation of our individualist ideology. Life itself is like a man-made expanse of impossibly flat asphalt that we can drive down in our individual cars at our individual will. 

In reality maybe life is a forest where if you’re left alone in it you won’t last very long – and that, is what “community” means. We can no longer afford to see this as “political” talk — dirty and to be avoided. What we have to avoid is disdain for others and moralising. Let’s face it — we’re almost all super-individualists (yes, that includes me), and it doesn’t work. Pointing the finger and trying to appear morally superior is just another way of being different.

Nature has never been easy to live in alone.

This is not the only reason why this virus and climate change have gotten so out of control, they are something of “perfect storms.” Just as there is never one reason why a person becomes known as the best in their field, there is no one reason why a crisis comes to be the worst we have seen.

We live inside a myth of rational control of the world and certain progress. We didn’t take the coronavirus or pandemics seriously because diseases of this kind are simply a thing of the past, according to these myths. SARS was often regarded in the West as the world health system crying wolf rather than a pandemic narrowly averted, as it was within professional circles. We have been unable to realise how close we’ve come to this before because it doesn’t fit into the story of progress.

Another reason is that we have let belief in equality reach extreme and absurd heights, to the point that the idea of expert knowledge, paradoxically, is seen as old fashioned. Just as in climate change, the opinions of any critic is treated as “equal” with that of scientists. The reason why we have vaccines for many viruses and could believe that diseases were a thing of the past is because of highly developed systems of education that allow some people to spend their lives understanding viruses. What technical progress we’ve achieved has been done by experts, who supported by wider society.

But, expert knowledge is distrusted because the practice of rationality has been so overused and abused, partially because we try to explain everything, even things we can’t explain. As we’ve seen recently with overused words such as mindful, organic, and “green” there is a centuries long tendency to market ideas and products by using the words “scientific” and “rational.” The academy and professions are supposed to be like certification bodies, that do a good job of making sure the label science is well-used, but they’ve been overwhelmed or compromised, at times. We have been told, for instance, that economics is a rigorous science, with its equations that make individual happiness synonymous with consumption and individual free time, with no place for empathy or concern. Mainstream medicine prescribes addictive drugs for distress. I think now demonstrates the need for building trust in institutions and experts, but this is a two way street, it requires institutions and expert communities that are able to admit that they are sometimes wrong or morally compromised. And in order for them to admit these things, we have to be ready to forgive past missteps, as much as possible.