Thursday, December 03, 2020

The Changing of the Shared Narrative

 In his excellent book, Sapiens, a Brief History of Humankind , Yuvak Noah Harari shows how humans cooperated on the basis of shared myths. These stories enabled increasingly large empires to evolve from modest towns such as Jericho about 8500 BC to the Qin dysnasty in China 225BC that organised some 40 million subjects. 

These myths were sufficiently powerful to motivate people to accept order and discipline prescribed by the elite. The myths to a greater or lesser extent explained how the world came into being, why things happened in history, why things are the way that they are, and where things were ultimately heading for. 

Early myths were primarily theological. They began with strictly limited gods who were primarily there to protect a town or kingdom provided the right rituals were observed. Later, the gods became interested in protecting whole cultures of their devotees, be they Christian, Muslim or Jewish.

Although these myths persist into modern life, the operative myth of our times since the mid 18th century is, of course, Money. "It's the economy, stupid" in the oft-quoted phrase of Bill Clinton's campaign manager. Money makes the world go round. 

Money, in the modern myth, is not just a means of exchange and a store of wealth, it is a commodity that can be created out of nothing, on a promise of future returns. Money is created in the act of making an interest-bearing loan, and need to repay interest is the key driver of Economic Growth, which is the patently absurd belief that it is possible for material human constructs to grow indefinitely in a finite planet.

The creed of Money can be summarised as "Fallible men, competing against each other for the sake of material greed, in the absence of any restraint or regulation, will produce the best of all possible worlds".

This belief is quite obviously false. The devotees of free market fundamentalism  trumpet their success in creating enormous wealth, but their success is at the expense of global heating, mass extinctions, and growing armies of impoverished people.

The myth of the free market has run its course. It is finished, dead. 

What then will take its place?

We need not an imagined myth, but an accurate narrative of how we got here, why things are the way thing are, and where we are going. Not a made up myth, but a true and scientific account of the situation.

The narrative exists already. It is the ecological account of reality. It is the realisation that we humans are a social mammalian species who have evolved on this planet in an amazingly successful way using technology that has released stored solar energy. Unfortunately the process has had a severe and unacceptable side effect of altering the energy balance of the planet, so that the continuation of our human civilisation depends on making a very rapid transition away from using up the energy capital represented by fossil carbon, towards using the energy income offered by the Sun. At the same time we need to change our attitude to other species, from seeing them as resources to be exploited to seeing them as a network of life to be respected and protected.

This change of world view, and the technical changes associated with it, is a huge challenge, but it is possible for us to succeed in it. We have changed world views before and we can do it again.


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