Enlightenment’s dimming light

Anthony Painter at the RSA: “…The project of the Enlightenment is dimming and more of the same values and the political economy and society they surface cannot enable us to resolve the global problems we face. One America is already too much and with China heading that way in consumption and environmental degradation terms the global impacts will be devastating. Something must evolve and fast if we are not to crash into these limits that have become apparent. COP26 was a step; many, many more are required. First there was the unravelling, but unless we face it then there will be reckoning – for many, though innocent, there already is.

There is a volume of documentary evidence behind the nature of these multiple crises. Whilst we should constantly remind ourselves of the depth of the challenge, and it is at scale, there are two urgent questions that are needed if we are to find a way through. In the words of Arundhati Roy, who do we want to be at the other side – through the portal? How do we travel with that sense of purpose and deep values as we confront the future? Survival requires us as societies to rapidly learn together and evolve.

To make the transition relies on developing three inter-connected and mutually reinforcing values: home, community and democracy. Through these we will develop a sense of the ‘lifeworld’ we wish to safeguard. The German philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, sees the lifeworld as a space of human interaction and civic community and see its interface with big systems of money and power – human creations but distinct forces from the ‘lifeworld’ – as the critical site of human progress and well-being. Creativity happens at the frontier between the lifeworld and big systems.

What is meant by ‘home’? Some elements of home are in proximity. They are our close relations, those we care for directly and receive care from, as deep commitment rather than reciprocated self-interest. Home is a state of what Michael Tomasello has termed, collective intentionality. Any account of the future will need to have a convincing account of close relations. Increasingly these relationships are mediated by technology and we need to develop a more conscious account of how technology can and should act as a bond rather than a thinner of human relations.

There are seemingly more distant aspects of ‘home’ too – most particularly the natural environmental into which we are woven. And there we have been committing acts of domestic harm: polluting the atmosphere, depleting the stock of species, and poisoning the water and the ground with toxic waste. This two century long destructive streak is now visible and realised. There is a common understanding that change must come: but how and how rapidly? How can we develop an even greater collective sense of the need for rapid and radical change? And how can we begin to evolve systems of money, power and technology to respond to this new ‘common sense’? How can our future be one that regenerates nature as well as ourselves?…(More)”