May 28, 2011 by sgoobie
At the heart of our efforts is of course the question: What could help bring about real change? What would help us better our treatment of Nature — we, the people of industrialized nations? What would begin to shift societies away from our current trajectories and along alternative paths of “sustainability”?
Let us look to existing examples when and where we have witnessed sweeping change in society (both positive and negative), where mammoth challenges have been met and problems successfully overcome. Through such an examination, it is not enough to simply consider the technical and logistical details of how these changes happened. It is not enough to isolate key leaders or single events. Rather, we need to look at the cognitive revolutions which played a role in these societal shifts.
The abolition of slavery. The end of European colonialism. The exploration of space. The beginnings of peace between peoples previously in conflict. Apologies to First Nations peoples for past wrongdoings. What brought about these changes? What sustained their completion?
We may not always be rational creatures, but we are certainly moral creatures. Whether we follow them or not, we all have values. We all have a deep need to be able to justify our actions. Whether it is at home, work or elsewhere, or on the scale of institutions, corporations and governing bodies, we have a need to feel that our actions have a level of legitimacy.
However, when our actions begin to lose legitimacy, when our institutional practices become increasingly difficult to justify, the cracks in the status quo begin to show. It is often the case that when legitimacy is threatened and traditional rationalizations no longer hold dominant public sway, other justifications are sought to maintain the present course of action. As those who gain most from behaviours become more and more desperate, we grasp at straws to find any way we can to say we have a validity to maintain our hegemony. And then, eventually, the old set of rationals is not enough — we see the beginnings of behaviour change. The revolution becomes unstoppable.
In the case of the transatlantic slave trade, over many years the original economic rationale for slavery (to replace the indigenous slaves of the Americas who were dying off because of introduced disease) was challenged by those who argued that Africans were people, too, of the same flesh and bones as Europeans — not beasts of the land as they had been thought to be. To maintain the institutional and legalized kidnapping, purchase and forced labour of these people, it was necessary to then exploit the new scientific theories of nature, based as they were on categorization and hierarchy. “Races” were invented. The “White” race, conveniently, was determined to be superior to the “Negroid” (as well as the “Aboriginal”); this granted the duty of Whites to govern over all. We cannot blame the individuals of this era as it is always easier to judge in hindsight. But through these grand cultural excuses, profit through enslavement found its moral fuel, until this inherent racial superiority too was being challenged by daring new ideas of equality of peoples stemming from Enlightenment thought. With this, the battle began. Debates. Combat. An entire civil war. But over time, the invented justifications which made it morally permissible to treat African men and women as personal property largely became usurped by the justification for freedom — that all men are born equal. (Women would have to wait for the same conditions, and in many places, they continue to wait.)
We see similar delegitimizing of old justifications and earth-changing shifts to new rationals in countless other social movements and global transformations.
This is what we need to learn, think and discuss more of in the aims of guiding society to a more ecologically and culturally sustainable path. What are the current justifications by modern industrialized societies for the exploitation and destruction of the natural world? How can we challenge these justifications? Rather than simply suggesting alternative choices of behaviours toward the planet, what powerful justifications can we provide for these alternatives?
This is not to say that if we simply reveal the conflict between moral values and problematic actions, and simply convince people that their moral values are better aligned with other actions, that new actions will automatically result. As with slavery, it took a long and bloody civil war to bring an official close to this practice. Even today, we still see the vestiges of slavery-era racism in our streets, schools and societies.
So too will the struggle to rebalance our relationship with Nature be long, difficult and full of complexity. Given the state of the planet, this struggle is neccesarily huge in scale. However, the process of problematizing old rationals of earlier times has already begun by a number of organizations, individuals and peoples around the world. We need to recognize and build on these efforts. Many years from now, hopefully, after achieving real change, we will look back at the current ways we treat the planet with much incredulity — and perhaps, with some amusement, we will marvel at how we had ever justified our modern ways.
Hindsight, the saying goes, is 20/20.