We are alive and we know we are alive. How wonderful is this awareness! But it comes with a shadow for we are also burdened with the realisation that with life, inevitably if imprecisely, comes death. We don’t like to think about this too much. Don’t be morbid! Giles Fraser the outspoken former canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral observes that death is no longer something that happens in the public realm like it has done for centuries. Reflecting on death, he seeks to assure us, rather than being miserable is actually “fundamentally liberating because it’s about focusing on what it is for us to be human”.
In psychology there is a theory, terror management theory, that proposes that awareness of our mortality and ultimate helplessness and vulnerability to annihilation induces feelings of overwhelming anxiety. To help us manage these emotions, human societies construct cultural worldviews that serve to convey a sense of living in a world of order, of meaning. Life is given purpose and value.
However not all worldviews are equally healthy. It turns out that some worldviews are more deluded than others: modern neo-liberal industrial growth societies have developed a belief system particularly out of touch with reality – so much so that it crazily threatens the very existence of human life that it seeks to support!
The project of modernity to achieve human self-determination and freedom is a struggle against the limits imposed by nature. With exploitation of nature regarded as a moral right, nature is instrumentalised as a mere means to human ends. Modernity denies nature its intrinsic value. Science and technology – technoscience – is applied to achieve mastery over nature and harness its forces, so that human wealth can be increased.
But tragically, in developing science and technology that affords a degree of human control over some natural processes, we have arrogantly convinced ourselves of our autonomy, our separateness from nature. We believe the fantasy of our own superiority: that we can transcend natural limits. It has led us to deny the reality of our dependence on the natural world. Furthermore, by compulsively controlling nature, in cultivating, manicuring and domesticating it, we create the illusion of order and control over nature, and by extension create the illusion that we can transcend death.
This hubris, this narcissism – for superiority, arrogance, exploitativeness and entitlement are all dimensions of narcissism that apply to societies as much as to individuals – is woven into the very fabric of modern political and economic systems. The model of industrial economic growth is predicated on the notion of a world without limits, and it has led to overexploitation of nature’s resources and an overwhelming of biosphere cycles resulting in the planetary crisis we now face of climate change, species extinction and habitat degradation, with devastating consequences for human wellbeing and social justice.
The sustainable development ‘mirage’
Such colossal looming threat, caused by this most virulent worldview of economic techno-scientism, thus triggers the very existential anxiety that it was developed to defend against. And what is the predominant response to such threat? Why, more of the same! The grand idea is to technofix our way out of this mess. But the notion that technology can solve the problem it created in an earlier version of itself, is of course perverse. Ronald Wright calls it an ‘ideological pathology’. He argues that the beliefs inherent in such a worldview are addictive, as material progress creates problems that are seen to be soluble only by further progress. This kind of progress is a trap. In similar vein, John Foster exposes the sustainable development model as a mirage, an elusive policy goal, because the seemingly plausible and operationalisable solution it offers is founded on an irretrievably misconceived framework of pseudo-numbers. The figures the model depends upon are manufactured, quantified from a gross exaggeration of our powers to predict and control.
What I am suggesting is that Manchester has fallen into this progress trap. It has been there, oblivious, ever since the heady days of the industrial revolution and the subsequent emergence of modern capitalism and consumer society.
Manchester loudly claims its place at the top of the honour roll of Industrial Revolution cities, and now prides itself as a post-industrial exemplar that has successfully reinvented itself as a thriving centre of business and technological and scientific innovation. Although it likes to parade its history of radicalism, marketed as cool edginess, it is its longstanding identity as a major player in the development of industrial growth society that now holds it back as a radical leader in reimagining the future to design a truly ecologically sustainable city.
Psychology explains that when confronted with a major challenge to deeply held beliefs, people often cling more fixedly to their beliefs, even (or especially) in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, because to do otherwise means acknowledging and engaging with the extremely difficult emotions that come with a destabilisation of one’s identity. In protecting one’s sense of self, the boundary between self and others becomes hardened, the distinction between one’s in-group and out-group more pronounced. A common defence tactic is to then denigrate the out-group, to ridicule the people speaking uncomfortable truths, because what they are saying can then be conveniently dismissed.
Technoscience: the early adopter
As an early adopter of technoscience, the ‘original modern’ economic techno-scientism worldview is very deeply embedded in Manchester’s DNA, perhaps more so than many other cities in the UK and other parts of the industrialised world.
Policymakers are in the tight and deadly embrace of an ideological pathology that simultaneously denies the likely catastrophic reality of the ecological crisis we are in, indulges in unrealistic optimism and wishful thinking, and fiddles about with minor behaviour changes. Reduce reuse recycle mollifies guilt and helplessness, it makes us feel as though we are doing something, and in so doing it relieves us of the need to engage in radical transformation which is the more appropriate response for addressing a threat on the unimaginably huge scale presented by climate change.
Manchester’s response to the 6th major extinction of species since the dinosaurs 65 million years ago is not to encourage wild nature, but to tame it – or keep it at bay. Only this distorted version of nature is allowed, for it is safe. To maintain the illusion of control and order, the challenge posed by wildness must be curtailed, neutralised.
Manchester’s psychic energy is largely focussed on economic growth, on courting big business, on pursuing extrinsic goals of financial success, competitive advantage and social status. Materialistic behaviour and pursuit of extrinsic goals are diversions: they serve to enhance self-esteem and demonstrate self-worth in a capitalist culture that equates worth with financial status and material possessions, but they do not address the city’s contribution to and responsibility for overexploitation, overconsumption and overstressing of the natural world. In this regard, the city aligns with national political discourse that ridiculously pits green issues against economic growth, as if there could ever be an economy without a healthy functioning natural environment, and which lets itself off the hook by pointing to actions of other countries. As George Osborne in his 2011 party conference speech in Manchester said, “But Britain makes up less than 2% of the world’s carbon emissions to China and America’s 40%. We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business. So let’s at the very least resolve that we’re going to cut our carbon emissions no slower but also no faster than our fellow countries in Europe.” Clive Hamilton and Tim Kasser say of this blame-shifting tactic, “In small, rich countries this is akin to a shoplifter absolving himself (sic) because someone else robbed a bank; in large, rich countries it is akin to a bank robber absolving himself because someone else shoplifted.” According to its own monitoring group, Manchester is scheduled to fall well short of its target for reducing carbon emissions.
Denial, denigration, wishful thinking, diversionary activities and blame-shifting are defence mechanisms that enable the city to avoid confronting the possibility of annihilation of our comfortable way of life, of our particular form of modern civilisation, and allows it to continue as Deborah Du Nann Winter says, "as if our dangerous behaviours are trivial, even though they are treacherous".
Instead, Manchester needs to take a deep breath and have the strength and courage to a) accept the coming reality of irreversible changes in climate induced by past and on-going destructive human behaviour, with all its ugly attendant consequences, b) acknowledge the limits of our control as small dependent parts of a bigger complex natural system, and c) engage with, rather than run away from, unpleasant and painful emotions that accompany acceptance of these facts: fear, anxiety, guilt, anger, anguish, grief, sadness, despair, depression, helplessness, hopelessness.
The catastrophic consequences of climate change are without precedent for humanity. Paul Hoggett asks, how can we think in a realistic way about something whose implications are unthinkable? This is not about being morbid or apocalyptic. Only by being fully, mindfully, awake to the facts and emotions can the real adaptive work begin to increase resilience. And there is much work to do.
All else is perilous time-wasting pretence.
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