Sustainability is the possibility that humans
and other life will flourish on Earth forever.
Reducing unsustainability, although critical,
will not create sustainability.
Again, David Brooks got me thinking. Today he writes about “The Segmentation Century,” his way of describing the failure of national and international cultural convergence.
In 1949, Reinhold Niebuhr published a book called “Faith and History.” Niebuhr noticed a secular religion that was especially strong in the years after World War II. It was the faith that historical forces were gradually bringing about “the unification of mankind… Old nationalisms would fade away, many people believed. Transportation and communications technologies would unite people. Values would converge… Unfortunately, this moral, cultural and political convergence never happened. In the decades since, people in different nations, even people within nations, have become less alike in at least as many ways as they have become more alike… The United States is a single nation with a common history, a common currency and a strong identity. Yet the country has become more polarized, not less. The country has become more difficult to govern, not less.
After some discussion of the degrees of divergence in the US and in Europe, Brooks utters a most pessimistic solution for the continuing problems of governance problems.
The larger issue is, how will the world cope with its own segmentation? How do you govern amid divergence? If multilateral organizations can’t bind nations, do we simply resort to an era of regional hegemons — or chaos? . . The first step, surely, is abandoning the illusions of convergence and the schemes based upon them. In 1949, Niebuhr questioned the naïve belief that history drives toward unity. He cited the book of Psalms: “He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision.” (My emphasis)
I think he is totally wrong in abandoning the hope that Niebuhr expressed. If hope is as Havel says, “ . . the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”, we should stick to our efforts to construct a world built on love and care. It is clear to me that more divisiveness is neither working nor can work to anyone’s benefit over the long run. The separateness of these cultural chunks springs from each one’s beliefs that that their beliefs are the only true ones. This is the case whether these beliefs are rationally derived or spring from dogma.
The discovery of the failure of convergence to occur along with the essential institutions necessary to govern a finite planet should be a call to double down. It’s much too easy to throw something away because its promise hasn’t happened yet. Brooks sounds like the sociologist he is, basing conclusions like this on some deeply held theory that suggests there are only true and false statements to make about the world. Convergence is a false belief because it hasn’t produced the results hoped for; therefore throw it out. The pragmatist I am becoming says, conversely, why not keep the belief and try another institutional experiment. As difficult as this might be at the necessary scale, it is far better than to abandon an idea that has the possibility to lead us to a better world.
The better world I envision is that of sustainability-as-flourishing. I see no possibility of getting there without adopting new beliefs and continuing to design and redesign our cultural structure until the world starts to bring forth flourishing all over the place. The failure of convergence can be attributed to the way truths and reality are linked. Both rationality linked to the scientific method and dogma produce absolute truths. With such absolutes as weapons, the most powerful in a culture will always dominate. Nationalistic dreams always take on dogmatic clothing and become absolute truths about the nature of life and the values underlying it. They become arguments for exceptionalism and superiority, and all to often lead to hostility both within and between nations. Religious and political evangelism, far beyond and outside of its Christian origin, has been growing, recalling much earlier, generally unhappy times for humans.
I do have some ideas about how to go from here. It’s critical to point out the emptiness of our culture. It is no longer creating our own dream. Divisiveness may be very refractory, but it is wrong. While it is extremely hard to change beliefs tied to institutional contexts, individuals can grapple with what it means to be human, asking if what culture is telling them about who they is producing authentic well-being. Can they look forward with more than hope that their lives will be satisfying? I do not think so as long as our identities are tied to economic or religious doctrines or for that matter to any present cultural messages about what it is to be human. A powerful alternative is available now. It takes courage to even think about it and real guts to start to embody it.
And it is so simple. Life is about caring, not having. Life is about caring in this world, not waiting for the glory of another world. Life is about accepting that one exists in a highly interconnected web of life, not some narcissistic isolated node. Life means believing that freedom means possessing the capabilities, as Amartya Sen writes, to fulfill one’s own authentic visions, not merely the freedom from external constraints, real or moral. Life is about loving, the most basic of human emotions, not about love as something one either possesses or gives away. A world run by loving will be one where the quality of life will be measured by the richness of relationships with all beings, not by the richness of one’s treasury. Take note David Brooks and all who would give up on the possibility of flourishing.