Friday, 23 February 2018

A Visit to the Woods...and more thoughts on Deep Ecological Futures

The last few weeks have been a time for soul-searching. I've had a number of unpleasant difficulties and setbacks that have dented my confidence somewhat.  To be blunt, it feels like reality has taken my hopes and aspirations and given them a good groinal kicking.

Slightly more poetically, at times, I've felt like Dante at the beginning of the Inferno:

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.

Translation here.

Taking this metaphor somewhat literally, last week I decided to go to a 'forest savage.' We're lucky to be blessed with some very nice patches of woodland locally, and they provide very good refuges for some mental reflection.

I didn't meet Virgil in this particular wood, or get taken on a tour of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, but still, the sun was out and I saw catkins, a red kite and the resident herd of fallow deer. 

One of the things that I've been pondering is the previous post. In this, I discussed the 'Future Primitive' mode of writing and suggested that 'modern' Western high-tech societies have much to learn from traditional, indigenous and  prehistoric ones. 

Since that post, I've been doing further research and my thinking has evolved somewhat. 

Firstly, I've become unhappy with the term 'Primitive' used in the context of traditional cultures. The problem with the term is that it's culturally loaded with nineteenth century assumptions about linear progress and the life-course of cultures.

In short: traditional and indigenous cultures were seen by nineteenth century Europeans as 'backward' because they didn't have things like modern science, steam engines, christianity, capitalism, guns and wage-slavery. It was therefore appropriate to treat indigenous 'primitive' people like children and 'civilise' them in various brutal ways.

For this reason, I now prefer alternative terms to 'Future Primitive, including 'Wild Futures,' 'Deep Ecological Futures' and possibly 'Indigenous Futures.' None of these alternatives are perfect, but they seem preferable to me. I'd be grateful for further suggestions.

I'd like to say that 'colonial' thinking has gone away, but that's far from being the case. I would argue that the work of the 'New Optimists' and Ecomodernists recapitulates this sort of narrative in only slightly less blatant ways than their nineteenth century forebears. The narrative that these factions promote is that despite the various 'doom and gloom' stories, things are actually getting better and better, and that this can be proved by various graphs.

There is a darker side to this, however. In the much cited Better Angels of Our Nature, Stephen Pinker makes the claim that prehistoric and traditional societies were riven with warfare, and that it took the rise of states, along with virtues like reason, for violence to decline. This claim reaffirms the claims of 'modernity' (i.e. linear progress from savagery to 'civilisation') in quasi-scientific language.

This brings me to an important controversy in anthropology concerning human nature and warfare. In a paper on hunter-gatherers and resource scarcity, Allen et al suggest that there is a rift between those who think that civilisation rescued humanity from never-ending war (traditionally associated with the philosopher Hobbes) and those who think that prehistoric and indigenous cultures lived in a generally peaceful state and that civilisation was actually the primary cause of violence and war (associated with another philosopher, Rousseau). 

My own view is that both these polar extremes are too simplistic: I think that generalising in this way over a wide range of human cultures and times is probably not possible, and that various kinds of contexts play complex roles in shaping different societies and cultures which includes how violent they end up being. However, many folk seem to end up on one side or the other.

One of these people is Jared Diamond, whom I mentioned favourably in the previous post. He rejects that idea that prehistoric and indigenous cultures were generally peaceful and like Pinker, suggests that a state is needed to suppress violence. As a result, his book The Day Before Yesterday came under fire from various quarters.

One author, Stephen Corry, even suggested that the book was 'completely wrong.' Corry rejected Diamond's identification of contemporary tribal culture with prehistoric ones. He also rejected Diamond's 'constant warfare' claim, disputing his statistics and conclusions. Diamond, reportedly was unrepentant in the light of this sort of criticism, seeing those who support a Rousseau-type model as unrealistic.

Another reviewer of Diamond's, the anthropologist Wade Davis, made a number of critical comments that I think could be very useful to the writers of Deep Ecological futures.

Firstly, Davis also accuses Diamond of accepting the nineteenth century, colonial view of modernity and progress that sees all cultures on the same, linear march. This view is allied with a form of environmental determinism, which sees societies as primarily shaped by geography and material resources.

Davis suggests that the “triumph of secular materialism may be the conceit of modernity, but it does very little to unveil the essence of culture or to account for its diversity and complexity.” Cultures, Davis claims, “reside in the realm of ideas,” which means that we cannot understand how a culture forms simply in physical terms.

He also objects to Diamond's suggestion that we might appropriate practises from indigenous cultures. He points out that  “Traditional societies do not exist to help us tweak our lives as we emulate a few of their cultural practices. They remind us that our way is not the only way.”

This last comment seems applicable to social SF. Increasingly, we live in a global monoculture and need to be reminded that there are many possible ways of living life. Anthropology is one way to do this, but so is social SF: the writings of Ursula Le Guin may serve as a primary example.

The assumption that we are on a linear, singular course to technological perfection can blind us  to alternative possibilities: Davis suggests that through anthropology we can “embrace the wonder of distinct and novel cultural possibilities" to "enrich our understanding of human nature and just possibly liberate ourselves from cultural myopia.”

Davis concludes:

“The voices of traditional societies ultimately matter because they can still remind us that there are indeed alternatives, other ways of orienting human beings in social, spiritual and ecological space.”

It seems to me that these controversies are reflections of a deeper conflict between those who favour a linear, 'modern' model of progress, and the singular, 'inevitable' future that this implies, and those who favour a more diverse and pluralistic mode. My own preference, increasingly, is for the latter, because it seems to me more humane, realistic and ecologically sound. More thoughts next time....

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