Question everything: scepticism as a way of life

Question-everythingIn 155BC, Carneades the Sceptic travelled to Rome to give an important speech to the Roman Senate. Carneades was the head of the Athenian Academy and the most dignified philosopher of his day. He was known as a brillant speaker with a whip-sharp mind and a mastery of sceptical techniques that was second to none. In Rome, there were mixed feelings about Carneades’ speech. Some people were concerned about Carneades’ brand of sceptical philosophy and the effect it might have on the Roman youth. Others, however, were curious to learn what Carnaedes had to offer. Greek scepticism was a mystery to the Romans, yet to immigrate across the Ionian Sea. Carnaedes was an ambassador from the land of skeptikos. Was this a land worth visiting?

Introducing Sceptic philosophy to the Romans was not Carneades’ main objective. Carneades came to Rome as a diplomat, tasked with convincing the Senate to reduce a fine that had been imposed on Athens for the invasion of Oropus. The Romans believed the fine was just, while the Athenians thought it was wildly inappropriate. Carneades had promised to take a sceptical approach to the debate, to see if it were possible to transform the way that both parties thought about things. To achieve this, he’d deliver two speeches in the course of two days, both on the topic of justice.

On the first day, Carneades wowed his audience with a stunning review of Platonic and Aristotelian arguments in favour of justice. Justice, Carneades declared, was the supreme virtue, the Archimedian point that should guide all thought and discussion. The Roman senators were impressed. That evening, there was much talk of Carneades’ oratorical power and persuasiveness. How would he top it on the second day, people wondered?

When Carneades turned up the next day, the Senate was packed with the best and brightest of Rome, ready to imbibe his wisdom. Carneades stood at the podium and calmly refuted everything that he’d said the day before. The senators listened aghast as the great philosopher enumerated the virtues of injustice, which Carneades presented as a natural law that any reasonable person should adhere to. He wound up with some practical advice for the senators. ‘Rome has won her empire by injustice both to gods and men’, Carneades declared. And such is the course that Rome should maintain. Heaven forbid that the capital should explore the virtues of justice. How foolish! Carnaedes claimed: ‘A policy of justice would make Rome again what she was originally – a miserable poverty-stricken village’.

To say that Carneades’ speech went down badly is an understatement. Carneades and his entourage were ejected from the city. Scepticism never set root in Rome and the Greeks, presumably, learned an important lesson: never enlist a philosopher in diplomatic work. [Read more…]

The earth is full: scarcity and abundance thinking

abundance

‘Take care! Hot noontide sleeps upon the fields. Do not sing! Soft! The world is perfect’.

~Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

It may be the gloomiest TED talk ever. In 2012, the Australian environmentalist Paul Gilding stood before a packed house at Long Beach, California, and explained how a catastrophic economic crisis is inevitable. Gilding calls it The Great Disruption. Gilding’s choice of title reflects his optimistic view that our societies can navigate this crisis and emerge renewed on the other side. If this optimism is misplaced, we’re facing The Great Collapse. The crisis, Gilding explains, is being ‘triggered by humanity passing the limits of the earth’s capacity to provide cheap resources, especially soil, climate and water’. Gilding cites the research of the Global Footprint Network, which calculates that we need 1.5 planet Earths to sustain the global economy at its current levels. With a business as usual mindset in Washington DC, and astounding economic growth in China, India, and other parts of the developing world, a full-scale ecosystemic meltdown is unavoidable. Gilding is frank about the consequences: ‘[W]hat happens when you operate a [finite] system past its limits … is that the system stops working and breaks down. This is what will happen to us’.

Gilding’s argument, while persuasive, is neither original nor new. The argument was first articulated by the Club of Rome in its paper on the limits to growth in the 1970s. Recently, Annie Leonard reiterated the thesis in The Story of Stuff: ‘[W]e live on a finite planet and you can not run a linear system on a finite planet indefinitely’. In 2013, with record heatwaves about the world and weather-related disasters shocking climate deniers out of their complacency, the implications of this idea seem to be sinking in. The GFC reminded us what happens when we live beyond our means. The Great Disruption will remind us that our economies and societies have been drawing down on planetary ecosystems for one hundred and fifty years and giving nothing back. We’ve been stacking up an ecosystemic overdraft. Sooner or later, we’ll have to pay the debt. [Read more…]

2045 United Federation Report on the Great Transition: The Culture of Transition

cyber-radicals-003The following passages are taken from the 2045 United Federation report on the Great Transition. This report, released on the eve of the East-West Realignment and founding of the United Federation in December 2045, was the first comprehensive account of the shift in social and economic relations that swept the world between 2015 and 2040, a period known as the Great Transition. The paragraphs are taken from Part 3 of the report, which deals with the role of sharing and social innovation in the Great Transition. For the complete report, see Realignment Mandate 12337 (released by authority of UF Secretary-General Tirrab Hassan 04/04/75).

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2045 United Federation Report on the Great Transition

Part 3: The Culture of Transition

Parts 1 and 2 of this report have outlined the policy and strategic planning work that underlay the Great Transition. We have described the vision shifts in energy and carbon policy that enabled the rapid development and roll out of carbon negative infrastructure, and the social policy associated with the transition to a Totally Mobilized Agenda, including the adoption of civil agency and ‘zero unemployment’ schemes, massive federal and state investment in sustainable cities, and the expansion of the social enterprise sector as a viable hub for commercial investment. We have seen how these policy and planning shifts contributed, between 2015 and 2040, to the re-engineering of the international economy and the creation of a global carbon negative environment.

Part 3 of the report looks at the social and cultural changes associated with the Great Transition. We leave aside the oppositional and countervailing views expressed in parts of the online and corporate media in this period. These views, and the reasons why they lost purchase on the public imagination through the 20-teens, are discussed in Part 4 of the report (see also Appendix 2: Dangerous Liaisons: Big Oil Inside the Beltway). Part 3 seeks to explain the widespread and well-documented shifts in social and creative culture that gathered steam in the 20-teens and fuelled the forces of Transition. We are particularly concerned to understand the role of ‘open source culture’ in this period and how it contributed to new historical framings and existential orientations.

[Read more…]

Smart data: towards a social change enlightenment

Three hundred years ago, the spread of science and liberal revolution inspired thinkers to claim that society was on the brink of an enlightened era. Today, as new data-driven technologies exponentially increase our ability to understand social problems, new strategies engaging the heart and the head boost the impact of social change programs, and tested techniques for evaluating impact reduce the cost of programs and ensure that funding flows in the right directions, there is reason to believe that we are nearing a new socio-technical threshold.

As David Bornstein claims, we are riding the verge of a social change enlightenment.

We can see it in the way that we are tackling social problems. For decades, social reformers labored under a vision of human beings as self-maximizing rational agents, a vision developed in the first enlightenment and perpetuated in the field of economics. Today, as Bornstein claims, we’re seeing the death of ‘homo economicus’. New research in neuroscience and behavioral psychology is showing that we’re not as rational as we thought. We certainly don’t respond rationally to social problems. Today’s generation of changemakers are taking this lesson to heart. Successful social change programs are targeting the heart as well as the head, effecting change by appealing to ‘non-rational’ factors such as emotion, group identity, and relationships. [Read more…]

Hug the monster: own your anger and use it

Marvel’s The Avengers (2012) won’t ever be mistaken for high art. But the film at least has some character development wedged between the fighting and explosions. My favourite moment in the film comes towards the end, as our heroes battle an army of flying fiends in New York City (where else?). Dr Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), aka the Hulk, faces down a flying robotic lizard creature the size of a A380, which Tony Stark (Robert Downey Junior), aka Iron Man, has kindly steered in his direction. As Banner, still in human form, trudges down the street to confront it, Captain America (Chris Evans) suggests: ‘Doctor Banner, now might be a really good time for you to get angry’. ‘That’s my secret, Cap – I’m always angry’, Banner replies. He shapeshifts into the Hulk and suckerpunches the flying lizard on the snout.

This scene marks the completion of Bruce Banner’s character arc in The Avengers. Previously in the film, Banner had divorced himself from both his Hulk alter-ego and the anger that causes him to change into the Hulk. He’d refer to Hulk as ‘the other guy’, meaning ‘not me’, and remained a picture of calm when he wasn’t turning green and decimating everything in his path. In this context, Banner admitting to an abiding sense of anger represents a reconciliation, of sorts. The anger that creates the Hulk comes from Banner himself. Banner is the monster. L’Hulk, c’est moi.

[Read more…]

Flow and the 21st century canyon

James Martin, founder of the 21st Century School at Oxford University and author of The Meaning of the Twenty First Century (2006), has a powerful analogy for thinking about our situation today. We are like a group of canoeists paddling down a broad, deep river. For a long time, the current has been steady and slow. We have relaxed into the ride, hypnotized by the flow and the canopy of blue overhead. Suddenly the vessel quakes. We look up and see a bottleneck canyon ahead. The mighty river is being forced through the canyon. When a river runs through a canyon, things change quickly. The water turns to rapids – indeed it is already churning into foam about us.

No one knows how bad these rapids will become. We don’t know if we can make it through the canyon. Still there is only one way ahead. Into the rapids we go.

When the river of life gets rough, there is only one thing to do. Put on that helmet, strap on that life-preserver. It is time to get ready for change.

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This is an excerpt from my book Life Changing: A Philosophical Guide. Life Changing is available in Kindle and ebook versions. Paperbacks will be available on Amazon soon.

Check out the UK-based Philosophical Foundation, where I am June’s guest blogger.

Web 2.0 and climate change: an interview with Lucie Crise

On April 1, 2010, Lucie Crise, a journalist for the French magazine Rue 89, wrote to me with the following questions about Coalition of the Willing. Answers were provided in writing. Francophones can read the published interview at Rue89.

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– What do you see as the problem with the current politics of global warming?

Global warming not only presents us with a major ecological crisis but a global political crisis as well. It is clear from the failure of the Copenhagen talks that the international system of states is inadequate to enable a response to the challenge of global warming. Many people blame political leaders for the failure of the talks. But the problem is not the leaders (many of whom seem to be genuinely concerned to respond to global warming). The problem is the system of competing states, the inter-national system, which was born with the treaty of Westphalia in 1648, and which has come the define “the political” generally. The global capitalist system that we know today has grown up through competition and negotiation between states, facilitated by international law. But because the international system in premised on competition, it makes it difficult for coalitions of states to band together to address common problems. And that’s how things stand today.

Global warming calls for a new political ecology. This problem is like nothing the human race has faced before: it is global in scope and potentially cataclysmic in its effects. And the political system of competing states that we have at the moment prevents us from even responding to the problem. Our only hope is to transform the political. Fortunately, this is not as difficult as it sounds: the infrastructure that will enable this transformation is already in place and the process is underway. “Coalition of the Willing” is not so much a new idea for tackling global warming as it is an attempt to focus attention on how new internet technologies are already transforming the way that people all over the world understand themselves as empowered political agents. I think that in the next few years we will see global climate action networks start to play an increasingly powerful role in world affairs, as people come to appreciate the impotence of the international state system for tackling global warming. The way ahead lies in global grassroots action, coordinated through online platforms for participation. If we continue with politics as usual, there is no future. [Read more…]

Unlearning in crisis and change

What do you need to know in order to effect change? What do you need to learn to bring change about? These are questions that we ask as we set out to become agents of change. But we should also ask: what do I need to unlearn in order to prepare myself for a new and different way of thinking? Unlearning is important too. Unlearning is an essential part of the process of change.

Change and innovation both call for unlearning. To think anything new, and to see what could be new in things, one needs to find a way of unlearning what one already knows. Without unlearning, there is no chance of achieving a break and new beginning in your way of doing things. Think of experiences you’ve had of working towards change in whatever respect, and reaching a moment in which you saw that change was actually possible – more than possible, inevitable. In the sense of inevitablity – the realization that nothing you can say or do will make a difference, things will change – there is a new beginning. [Read more…]

Coalition of the Willing

It has been a long haul and herculean effort for everyone involved, but at last, the website for ‘Coalition of the Willing’ is live. You’ll find it here.

Press release

‘Coalition of the Willing’ is a collaborative animated film and web-based event about an online war against global warming in a ‘post Copenhagen’ world.

‘Coalition of the Willing’ is being crafted by a network of 24 artists from around the world using varied and eclectic film making techniques. Collaborators include some of the world’s top moving image talent, such as Decoy, World Leaders and Parasol Island.

The film offers a response to the major problem of our time: how to galvanize and enlist the global publics in the fight against global warming. This optimistic and principled film explores how we could use new Internet technologies to leverage the powers of activists, experts, and ordinary citizens in collaborative ventures to combat climate change. Through analyses of swarm activity and social revolution, ‘Coalition of the Willing’ makes a compelling case for the new online activism and explains how to hand the fight against global warming to the people.

‘Coalition of the Willing’ will have an innovative staggered online release. As from 3rd February 2010 the script for the film will be fully available on the site. The completed animated sections will be uploaded in 6 different ‘waves’ 2 weeks apart, over a 12-week period, as they are finished by the contributing artists. Each wave of uploads will introduce 3-5 new sections of the film. The film’s staggered release and the online forum will allow the site to be a crucible for debate on the issues it raises, and allows the audience to collaborate in re- defining the argument even as the film is being made. The film will be complete by mid-April 2010. [Read more…]

Are you ready for change?

When a senior politician is charged with adultery today, we expect them to issue a press release, either in self-defence or contrition. Exiled to Corsica on the charge of extra-marital relations with Julia Livilla, sister of the emperor Gaius, the Roman Stoic philosopher and statesman Lucius Annaeus Seneca wrote a letter to his mother, offering philosophical consolation for her grief at being parted from her son. In Stoic style, Seneca emphasises the importance of preparing oneself for change in life, so that one is not unseated by the shock of its arrival. One must be like a sentry on guard, he advises, always ready for sudden attack. For drastic change, like an enemy ambush, “scatters those whom it catches off guard; but those who have prepared in advance for the coming conflict … easily withstand the first onslaught, which is the most violent” (Letter to Helvia, 5).

In my seminars on Philosophy for Change, I’ve found that Seneca’s Stoic approach to change resonates with people of various ages and walks of life. This is not surprising given the times we live in. The global financial crisis has compounded the sense of anxiety that pervades society at the end of a tumultuous decade of terrorism, war and epidemics. When we add to our list of challenges the existential threat of runaway climate change, the future begins to look grim indeed. It is already clear that the Copenhagen talks this month will be full of trade-offs and compromises, but it is imperative that they result in a genuine plan for reducing global net greenhouse gas emissions. The hard work of figuring out how to achieve these changes on the ground will fall on governments and civil societies across the planet. Stalling will only make things more difficult after 2020, when the modest targets must be ramped up to meet the goal of cutting global emissions by 80 per cent or more from 1990 levels. One doesn’t have to be a futurologist to see that there are major social changes on the horizon. [Read more…]