400 years down the wrong road


    Descartes has a lot to answer for. If only for the fact that, four hundred years on, we are still taking the evidence of rampaging ecological breakdown and the endgame of the fundamental flaw in our extractive world view with remarkable calm.

    Around the world, peasants and communities with their animist festivals and respect and gratitude for seasons and connection to the land are almost gone. We have more knowledge and connectivity than ever before but can be beguiled into believing in nothing. Or anything.

    Defying the most basic of scientific principles, we are still being driven towards growth, GDP and 24-7 work-lives to keep the juggernaut on the road, no matter the social and ontological cost to stable societal values.

    The international climate summit COP27 warnings from United Nations leader António Guterres and $10 billion in bank profits being announced for New Zealand branches of banks we no longer own are top of the news cycle this week, with the prime minister challenging their ‘social licence to operate’ in a world gripped by (amongst everything thing else) a global cost-of-living crisis and imminent famine.

    It’s a useful enquiry. How did capitalist expansion come to rule the world with a licence to plunder the lives of its citizens so completely?

    Economic anthropologist Jason Hickel’s 2020 book Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save The World, has some useful answers, ‘retweeting’ Descartes, a shift to ‘degrowth’ and a return to humankind in sync with all life rather than duality and the superiority of man in his world.

    “We are all heirs of dualist ontology. We can see it everywhere in the language we use about nature today. We routinely describe the living world as ‘natural resources’, as ‘raw materials’ and even – as if to emphasise its subordination servitude – as ‘ecosystem services’,” Heckel says. “We talk about waste and pollution and climate change as ‘externalities’ because we believe that what happens to nature is fundamentally external to the concerns of humanity.

    “These terms roll of our tongues, and we don’t even think twice about them. Dualism runs so deep that it wriggles into our language even when we’re trying to be more conscientious. The very notion of ‘the environment’ – that thing that we’re supposed to care about –presupposes that the living world is nothing more than a passive container, a backdrop against which the human story plays out.” Like mood lighting or pictures on the wall, he said.

    “We all know that the violence of colonisation was justified, by its perpetrators, as part of a ‘civilising mission’. What we tend not to grasp is that one of the key goals of this mission was to eradicate animist thought. The object was to turn the colonised into dualists – to colonise not only lands and bodies, but minds.”

    Hickel quoted Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o. “Colonialism imposed its control of the social production of wealth through military conquest and subsequent political dictatorship. But its most important area of domination was the mental universe of the colonised, the control, through culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world.”

    Eventually, all that matters is growth to feed a structural imperative for growth, says Hickel.

    “From the perspective of capital, profit alone doesn’t count. It is meaningless. All that matters is growth.”

    The author is talking not just an Anthropocene world order capable of altering the future of the world but also what scientists after 1945 called the ‘Great Acceleration’ – “the most aggressive and destructive period of the Capitalocene”.

    Virtually every indicator of ecological impact has exploded as a result, with the exponential rise in material use tracking in lockstep with GDP.

    “Instead of gradually dematerialising, the global economy has been rematerializing” and is showing no signs of slowing, says Hickel. And it drags fossil fuel consumption behind it.

    About now, it’s obvious that examining the ‘social licence’ we accord to banks is at least looking in the right direction.

    Ditto for tech giants, multinational corporations, ownership of food and fuel production, our wider financial institutions, the country’s family homes and local governance.

    René Descartes said creation is divided into two substances, mind (or soul which is special; part of God) on one hand and mere matter on the other. Seventeenth century rival Baruch Spinoza is also one of the most important—and radical—philosophers of the early modern period and is counted among the most relevant today. His naturalistic views on God, the world, the human being and knowledge serve to ground a moral philosophy centred on the control of the passions leading to virtue and happiness and also laid the foundations for strongly democratic political thought.

    As Hickel and contemporary ecological science summarise it: “Everything is intimately interconnected; behave accordingly”. • Liz Waters

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