Climate change is culture change: Why not birth a new Renaissance?
by James Thornton
We hear a lot about climate change. Contemporary Australian droughts and fires bring the message home. The news about climate change is often grim: the apocalypse seems on its way. We suffer bad news fatigue and want it to go away. Can we look climate change in the eye and be positive? I believe we can, and propose to outline why.
We are at a turning point in human history. Human culture has grown up in a comfortable period beginning 12,000 years ago known as the Holocene. All our culture is built on the assumption that the Holocene will continue, with its relatively mild global climate. But we have left the Holocene and entered a new geological age fashioned not by nature but by our own actions. This new landscape, the Anthropocene, may be less kindly toward us. Much that is familiar to us will shift and change.
Out of chaos comes new culture
In western culture, the dominant influence down through the end of the Middle Ages was the Judeo-Christian narrative. But narratives are never static, they always evolve, changing as the river of history shifts its course. In the fifteenth century in Italy, a new narrative was born. We now call it the Renaissance. Into a world tired of the Christian Middle Ages with its emphasis on church and faith, it introduced new art, new politics, new ideas of banking and finance, new philosophy. What helped crystallize this new narrative was the rediscovery of classical texts. Contact with Greek and Roman writers led to the birth of humanism. A great flowering of human achievement was unleashed.
What is our dominant cultural story today? It is a tale of capital. It reduces people to economic actors seeking profit and pleasures as the goals of life. This story is propounded in ads that promise fulfilment through purchase. Yet the story eliminates much of what is important to our psyche: it shuts down possibility beyond the material plane. By shutting down so much, this story calls up a powerful shadow: fundamentalism ranging from the soukh to the American heartland.
Our dominant story is sounding stale. The current financial crisis makes most of us less inclined to trust unregulated markets as the answer to all our problems, just as Renaissance thinkers were less inclined to trust medieval beliefs. Moving to a deeper level, the financial crisis is a symptom of a far deeper crisisâ€”an environmental crisis. The environmental crisis is emerging from our adherence to the cultural story we now have. Domination of nature follows from the story of the dominance of capital we have played out.
Our tale of capital has brought us to the threshold of fiscal chaos and environmental chaos. We are entering a period of creative destruction from which a new story can emerge once again.
Where will we find this new story? Not waiting in the wings. But a new storyâ€”a new narrative of our cultureâ€”will be needed to guide us into this new time.
The leaf, the tree and the forest
A new science called panarchy can help us here. In their book Panarchy, Lance Gunderson and C.S. Holling argue for a paradigm shift in understanding how human and natural systems are linked. Things are never stable and predictable in this view. Rather the human and natural world are in continual adaptive cycles of growth, accumulation, destruction and renewal. A central discovery in the field involves the role of time in driving and controlling change.Â
Imagine a forest. At the smallest level of scale, take the leaf. Leaves usually live for a year. They play a vital role, and when they fall they are recycled. Moving up, the next scale of magnitude is the tree. It will live decades and maybe much longer. During its life it transpires great quantities of water, produces leaf litter and seeds and in many other ways contributes to the forest. Now move up the next order of magnitude in both time and space. Consider the forest. It may cover thousands of square miles and live as an entity for thousands of years.
Scientists recently discovered that the long slow processes of the forest are the most important. Not the dynamics of the leaf or of the tree, but those of the forest dominate. Leaves and trees have short quick lives compared to the long slow life of the forest. Yet it is the forest that controls moisture, often creating rain. It is the forest that controls what species of trees can grow, and therefore what other forms of life can make a living there. The forest as a whole perpetuates itself. To do so it controls the life of its parts. It is the long slow variables that control the short fast ones.
How does this deep rule of the real world, recently understood, apply to the role of narrative in shaping culture?
Think of the legislative cycle like the leaves: quick, captivating stories, coming and going in rapid succession: who has power, what todayâ€™s scandal is, what the polls say. Moving up the timescale, a governmental era like the New Dealâ€”FDRâ€™s package of economic programs aimed at recovering from the Great Depressionâ€”is roughly analogous to the tree. By systematically creating social programs, the New Deal wrote a deeper pattern of story about the relations of government to its citizens that has repercussions 70 years later. An order of magnitude longer is the story of the merchant economy since the Renaissance and the birth of the ethos of capital. This story of capital is on the timescale of a young forest. The stories of Buddhism and Christianity are on the scale of a more mature forest. These long stories have a shaping role.
Advocates of social change generally focus on the leaves. Most activist work addresses immediate events: the legislative term, the immediate harm. Sometimes the attention reaches deeper in time to a decades long programme on civil rights or protecting whales. But it has not reached deeper into shaping a narrative that drives events.
By not reaching into that narrative, activism misses the long slow variable. It is the forest that controls, not the leaf or the tree. It is the narrative of the culture that ultimately controls, not the next bill in parliament. The next bill might be captivating. But it is the cultural narrative that shapes the imaginations that write the bills, for better or worse.
If the positive world we wish to realize is not articulated as our shared narrative, no legislature will ever sculpt it into reality, no consumer group will ever choose it, and the Anthropocene world we are entering will never actualise it.
Telling our own story
So if we need a new narrative and there is none lying around ready made, what do we do? Can we make one up? Or does it have to evolve organically all on its own?
I believe we can make up a new story to suit our needs. That is what happened in the Renaissance. The flowering of art and finance, science and philosophy did not just happen. People got together, passionately debating the merits of their new vision. Scholars like Marsilio Ficino gathered brilliant minds in drawing rooms to invent the new culture. Funded by the Medicis who were also inventing the new tools of finance, these people talked, wrote, painted, experimented and financed the new culture into being. All of it shaped by the new story they invented, the humanism that birthed the modern world.
For us as for them, the story of our culture feels threadbare. Business as usual in the face of climate change is not enough. We need a culture change. So why not make a renaissance?
The guts of any good story is inspiration. A new story has to make sense of our lives. It has to situate us in a stream of meaning. In the last few generations, we have become the dominant force on the planet. We act as gods though unconsciously. We change the atmosphere and the seas though not to our own advantage.
Our new story needs to reconnect us with forces larger than ourselves. It will show us how to deepen our connection with the web of life while tearing it less. It will help us appreciate the embedded wisdom in the coevolved ecosystems of earth.
The doorway of art lets inspiration enter. We need art to help us, and it will if we encourage it. I am not saying it must give us a prescribed vision. We do not need to repeat the Chinese communist experiment where classical music was a total of eight revolutionary operas, a piano concerto entitled Yellow River and songs about the happiness of workers. Art lives when it has the freedom to question received wisdom. Equally important we must find a way to encourage it to touch reality, to probe shadow and touch transcendence, not hide its talents in the commercially anodyne.
After the inspiration comes the machinery. In the Renaissance, modern finance was being invented and art burst with new technique. We must be equally inventive. Our new story cannot ring true if it is a romantic looking back. The Renaissance took the Greek idea that man is the measure of all things forward into the fifteenth century. Our new story must take elements of the pastâ€”like the symbiotic connection of indigenous people with the natural worldâ€”and bring them forward into our brave new world of technology.
On the side of the machinery, we need to push science in all directions. We need deeper understanding of genetics because we will need to employ its tools to survive in the Anthropocene. We need to push new energy technologies from super-smart electric grids to concentrated solar power. We need to redesign our transport and our agriculture so they are carbon neutral. We need to save the life in the seas. We need to study geo-engineering as a last resort.
We need carbon caps and carbon taxes. We need new international institutions to facilitate global cooperation on climate issues. We need to create huge financial flows from the developed world to the countries with tropical forests so they can afford to save forests for the carbon they store and the species they house. We need to do this while protecting the rights of indigenous peoples.
On the level of the individual we need to recognize rights to clean water, to a healthy environment, to a reasonable standard of life. Because rights without remedies are empty promises, we also need to give access to justice so citizens can keep governments and corporations honest in carrying out their new duties.
Our new story will be a tale of exodus and beginning. It will show us how to leave our present wasteful ways, transition into rapport with life and each other and arrive at a locus, wherever we live on the planet, where our descendants can thrive as a species with a culture beyond our own, one we can only imagine. So let us imagine it now. And let us do it together.