Society is dead, long live society

Back in the good old revolutionary 70s with all its social change and upheavals there was a revolution also happening in the sciences. The world systems theory entered the stage of social sciences and put a few things into focus. Following Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in early 60s and the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth in early 70s it was about time that sciences had another long hard look at themselves.

Carson’s seminal Silent Spring (1962) was a story of war. Its warring tribes were the chemical industry and science on the one hand, and humanity/-ies and nature on the other. Big corporations versus nature. A fight that ultimately can only go one way. In Carson’s time DDT was in its heyday and seen as the wonder drug to get insects and bugs under control and to get a brave new chemicalised future we can rule. As we now know this was an affront to humanity’s health and more general basis of living (Mother Nature). Thanks to Carson for taking the time to chronicle this through meticulous data analysis, risk assessing, outstepping of traditional science and also making the direct link from those insect chemicals to cancer. In 1964, she died of cancer herself – Carson was so devoted to her book, she wanted to keep her cancer a secret. She thought, and quite rightly she was worried, it could be used to taint the message of Silent Spring.  The ‘hysterical female’ badge could be used and the book could be dismissed and discredited as a personal crusade (by the agri-chem business lobbyists).

Then there was the infamous Limits to Growth (1972). The clever people of the Club of Rome – scientists, thinkers, philosophers – got together and wanted to bring a major oversight to our attention: there are natural limits! For some reason the human being appears to find it incredibly hard to see (these) limits. We are limit blind. We seem to think all is available, always, forever and in huge quantities. And it is for us to take. This is coupled with an androcentric worldview whose arrogance alone is killing us. Well, if this man-centred worldview sounds like a stupid thought… we still act in accordance with it right now. Just spare oil or car reduction a thought. Yes, it’s a taboo. Still.

Also in stumbles world system theory (in the wider sense, I do not intend to go into its nooks and crannies here at all). This social-political science theory not only attempts to take a holistic sweep (at society, economy and politics) but it also politicises our worldview. And it is not afraid of social change. (A bit like feminist theory, in many ways.) I will keep my weary eyes open, and will do some reading on this over the next few months. Suffice it to say, there are still quarters in science persistently raging against taking a holistic view. Total neutrality is the positivists’ sneaky game. Just look at this philosophically, and you see in under two minutes how futile the outset of that statement is. But hey, the neutrality freaks play into the hand of the oil-road-car lobby – sometimes knowingly, but mostly through their naivety (and devotion to neutral science… eat that).

In any case, why am I writing this? Carson, Club of Rome and world systems theory have things in common. They see connections. They see a bigger picture. This picture is totally unconservative, unabashedly about nature as our life-giver and the human dependence on resources of air, water and nutrients. Conservatives, and many a liberal folks too, always try to drag the problem down to the personal individual level. Look at the conservativisation of road safety “What? Accident? It’s your fault!” Never mind the inadequacy of the road system. Systemic problems are not for conservatives to see. Or check out the helplessness of neoliberal politics! Trying to take strong decisive action in the glaring absence of any other belief than personal monetary gain. Example Brexit. (We still don’t know what it is, what it means, how the process works etc – I stop here.)

The other thing these three different systems talk about in their own ways is empathy. Knowing your neighbour. Helping your neighbour. Being helped by your neighbour. Understanding your neighbour. You live in England, your neighbour in Malaysia. We are all connected. Alas, we have been run by the conservative individualists for a while (unelected undemocratic world systems: IMF, world bank etc). They only know themselves. No neighbours. Sadly then, society is dead, after all. It’s been lying, motionless, in the ditch for a while. Some dark limousines are passing by.

Oh no! So. What can be done about it? Firstly, we have to acknowledge that democracy has largely left the room. Look at your local politics and their decision making process. What’s democratic about it? How is policy used? Is it used? Above all, I think, we need completely new narratives. Storylines that attack, not cosily tickle, the dominant rhetoric. We must be brave. The direction of discourse must be changed. Coming back to transport and cycling, this means finding the strength to say big things. Collectively…

The new discourse will grate. It will hurt. But climate chaos has coffin nails to bash. And Mother Nature does not do bailouts – money is of zero value to her. Reclaiming words like social, society, collective, collaboration, cooperative, community, communal, civic (you catch the drift) to counteract the atomisation, fracturing and splintering of society and find ways to make limits of our nature visible could constitute some slow beginning of new narratives…

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