Friday, September 20, 2013

Homeland Earth 3 - The Earth in crisis

This is the fourth essay of a series on the book “Homeland Earth” by Edgar Morin, and part of a larger series on The predicament -and hope- of mankind. Better read in order.

Are there problems of problems? meta problems? problems of "the second order"? Yes there are, and the third chapter of Homeland Earth is dedicated to exploring some of those: widespread, deep and sometimes invisible problems that need to be solved before or at the same time that other problems are solved.

But first, Edgar Morin starts describing some well-known first order problems: the financial and demographic disorders and the ecological crisis. The second order problems then follow, and the chapter finalizes discussing whether humanity is in a “life and death struggle”
The market system is mostly self-regulated and autonomous on the international level; yet modern, formal Economics has largely forgotten that it depends on and is affected by the bio-socio-cultural and political spheres; “The relation to the non-economic is missing in the science of economics… it achieves [apparent] precision by forgetting the complexity of the real situation”. Economic problems are thus solved by precarious regulations that cause havoc in other places and other spheres.
The demographic disorder includes the increase of poverty worldwide, the decrease in fertility rates in rich countries combined with the increase of rates in poor countries, and the uncontrollable migratory flows that affect social, cultural and political processes. Once again we see Morin’s insistence in considering problems not in isolated form but in all their systemic complexity.
The ecological crisis ignores national boundaries, but there are no strong international organizations able to dissipate the crisis. Further, there is a paradox: the limited idea that the world has of development involves an increase in pollution, whereas the conservation of the environment requires a decrease in pollution. And Morin does not mention the second kind of ecological problems - the incessant destruction of non-renewable resources.
Now for the problems of the second order, Morin considers the simultaneous “solidarization and balkanization of the planet”; the “crisis of the future” (no future econo-political models or ideologies appear adequate); the “underdevelopment of the concept of development” which includes “the uncontrolled and blind development of TechnoScience”; the invasion of “the logic of the artificial machine” into all spheres of life which imposes “mechanistic and fragmented thinking”; all evolving into a “dis-ease of civilization” and a blind race to nowhere.
The Planetary era demands “the cooperation of nation states with respect to the vital problems that concern humanity as a whole” yet, although historically the creation of a new nation has produced the solidarization of previously separate ethnic tribes or groups, one now sees a proliferation of nation-states and the intended breakup of states along religious,ethnic or political lines, which difficulties solving supra-national problems and arriving at international agreements. Problems race forward more quickly than the ability of humanity to reach consensus to solve them.
Development is underdeveloped, says Morin in another of his brilliant recursive phrases. Universally understood as economic growth, it is generally thought that such growth is “the necessary and sufficient condition for all social, psychological and moral development”. But here again we run into the underdevelopment of the modern science of economics mentioned previously, currently designed to ignore whatever is not economic. It was not always like that; Heilbroner in his book “The worldly philosophers“ [1] details the historical evolution (or degeneration, we might say) of Economics from a humanistic science to a formalist, mechanized one.
But now everything has to be sacrificed for economic growth, including local cultures. Blind to the cultural riches of archaic societies, this notion of development is also blind to gaps in our own culture, such as the “fragmented, reductionist, compartmentalized and mechanistic thinking” which only perceives mechanical causality, reduces reality to the quantifiable and favors rigidity of action, generating a “blindness to the context, the global and the fundamental”.
As an example of the tragedies of development, Morin mentions the Cree indians of Canada, displaced from their usual habitat in order to build large dams. They got employment in the dams’ construction, but now that the project is finished they have found  themselves uprooted from their usual fishing activities. Desperate, they fell to the attractions of Western culture… among those, drugs and alcohol.
TechnoScience which Morin calls “the locomotive of development”, invades every tissue of society imposing the logic of the artificial machine: functionality, precision, predictability, efficiency, speed, mechanization. This logic, initially applied in industry;  then went to encompass  industry’s workers, administrative structures, travel, consumption, leisure, education… Schools with standardized testing attempt to issue standard graduates finely oiled and tuned to the needs of mechanized industries while largely ignoring their subjective qualities. “Taking possession of technology is simultaneously a possession by technology”.
“We must reject the underdeveloped concept of development that made techno-industrial growth the panacea for all anthropo-social development and renounce the mythological idea of an irresistible progress extending to infinity”.
All these integrated problems of the first and second order bring about a dis-ease of civilization: civilization is sick, and several “cures” are being attempted without much success.
In this part of the chapter, Morin first considers the individual human being, enjoying the  benefits of material progress and the increase in worldwide communication; simultaneously however, techno-bureaucracy, mechanization, competition, fragmented work, hurried life and stress brings about the atomization of individuals, who “lose their old solidarities without acquiring new ones”. The rise in the standard of living can be linked to a degradation in the quality of life, says Morin.
“At the same time, something  is threatening our civilization from the inside: the degradation of personal relationships, solitude, the loss of certainty… nourishes an increasingly widespread subjective disease, lodged in our depths… that manifests itself psychosomatically”. People respond to the disease fleeing towards “bulimic over-consumption”, vacuous entertainment, gurus, psychotherapists, travel, Oriental methods, neo-naturalism… and love. These several “cures”, says Morin, are still to weak to counter the dis-ease.  
Is civilization “heading towards self-destruction, or to its metamorphosis… a life and death struggle”?. The planetary poly-crisis manifests itself in mounting uncertainties in all domains; the rupture of regulating sufficient negative feedback coupled with accelerating positive feedback in the uncontrolled development of industrial growth and technoscience with its accompanying destructions; and the deathly perils of nuclear arms and the collapse of the biosphere. On the other hand, this process of destruction has also been one of creation… and of the globalization of the call for peace, democracy, freedom and tolerance.  Which will have the upper hand? How to raise consciousness about “this insane rush forward” this “suicidal folly”? How to slow down to be able to regulate and control? Is there an essential inability of “humanity to become Humanity”; of a world to become The World?
The multiple problems cannot be solved one by one but require a simultaneous comprehension of all their inter-relationships; further, there is no “principal problem” that must be solved first. And, according to the Union of International Associations, there are about 50,000 global problems.
A better approach perhaps is to establish numerical relationships among the principal variables that drive our world, such as population, arable land, industrial output, amount of resources and others; and then construct future scenarios to find out what would happen if these variables keep growing or diminishing at the current rates; or if humanity decides to manage in various forms these variables and relationships. This would at least give a more accurate diagnosis than words and more words manage to convey.  To this end are targeted the next essays, based on the series of books that started with “The limits to growth” by Meadows; we’ll come back to Homeland Earth in later essays.

[1] Heilbroner, Robert L. “The worldly philosophers”. Touchstone 1999