Two Millennia Later

Akropolis I am back, but a bit tardy. I returned to much more immediate stuff to do than I ever expected. But I hope to get back on the same schedule of blogging as earlier (more or less). Before I get back to the subject of sustainability, a few words about my travels. My wife and I went from Crete to Zagreb with stops in Athens with a cruise on a small ship stopping at ports all along the Adriatic. The region was a crossroads for centuries and contains the northern boundary of the Ottoman Turkish empire and the boundary dividing the Roman catholic world from the Orthodox. Greek, Roman, Ottoman, and Venetian structures coexist. The topography is spectacular with mountains rising from the edges of the sea. The whole region is still recovering from the Tito era and the wars that split the former Yugoslavia asunder.

One impression that is hard to avoid is the ephemerality of the empires that overran the region and, as noted above, left their marks on the land and the culture. The Ottoman Turks were the last to leave after staying around for about 400 years. The Romans (Western part) hung out for about 500 years until they were run out by barbarian invasions from the North. Later, the northern parts of the Balkans were part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Some might say that 400 to 500 years is a long time and these eras existed in a stable state for some time. But could they be labeled as exhibiting sustainability?

In terms of their load on the earth, they probably were deep into a well far from the edge and the risk of upsetting the natural world and moving into another attractor. Locally, they may have threatened the environment. The disappearance of the various regimes is primarily due to some shift in power. The use of lead in the pipes that are found in Roman settlements has been proposed as a cause of the decay of the Roman Empire, but this argument remains controversial.

I would argue that these periods persisted for some time, but failed to exhibit sustainability in human terms. The Greeks are credited with the invention of democracy, a system where all citizens as a group would make political decisions. At first glance, this looks very good in respect to providing equality, a key feature of flourishing. A closer look reveals that “citizens” comprised only men over the age of 20. Slaves, of which there were many, and women were excluded.

Much of these early times is characterized by war, conquest and domination. The leaders might have believed that the Empires would last forever, but circumstances proved otherwise. The main source of power to construct the infrastructures was the muscles of human beings. Slaves were the engines of antiquity, a situation that can persist only under domination. The combination of master and slave was unstable and was gradually supplanted in a succession of new forms of governance. Feudalism eliminated the formality of slavery, but not the domination of the masses of the people. In exchange for protection to be provided by the lords, people agreed to a form of domination.

I don’t intend to make this a lesson in political history. I am not at all knowledgeable enough. But I want to make a point by providing a little context brought to light by my recent travels to a part of the world that passed through almost all forms of government and political economy. I would say that no civilization of the ancient world contained the possibility of flourishing as I define it. The primary reason is the omnipresence of domination and its consequences on authenticity and dignity.

Then, coming back to the present, I have to ask myself what has changed and are we any closer to sustainability. Surely our material conditions are better. We live longer, have better shelter and clothing, are not as physically stressed, move more quickly, know much more about how the world works and so on. But sustainability is just as out of hand today. There are many reasons, but two come to mind as very critical. Domination lives on. The current “Occupy” protests demonstrate vividly the presence of domination in this rich country. The lives of most are dominated by the few that control the capital--the fuel of our political economy. Protests are much in the news these days. I was in Athens during the protests there. The “cause” was not the same sort of domination, but a reaction to the threat of a reduced life style and means. The series of riots in the Middle East were clearly a response to domination by a powerful tyrant. So these ancient forms of suppression of human Being survive and stand in the way of sustainability today.

The second “cause” is hubris, recognized by the Greeks who coined the word, as an attitude of arrogance and refusal to see the world as it is. They saw hubris as a cause of failure and undesirable outcomes. The downfall of many of their heroes was attributed to this cause. Hubris shows up today is several important places. We act is if we know how the world works, a consequence of the success of the epistemology of science. We act as if this knowledge allows us to solve all problems through the technology and technocracy built on its foundations. We are blind to or refuse to acknowledge the complexity that forbids complete knowledge of the world. We use dogma to dominate public speech and action and to justify hubristic actions. A question that has been asked since the ancient times I was a witness to on my travels is “How can we know so much and understand so little?” I do not think the possibility of flourishing today will be significantly different from that that existed 2 millennia ago until we are able to turn this question on its head. We are hubristically mistaken in claiming that the advances in materiality and knowledge constitute progress toward sustainability. Progress by the self-serving terms used to define it may have marched forward, but not progress toward sustainability. In both human and environmental terms, we may well be farther away.

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Jamie Saunders said:

See also 'The Nature of Technology' W Brian Arthur