It’s a truth universally acknowledged that we live in a divided world. But do we agree on where the big divisions lie? Is the biggest gulf between the right and left, between the rich and poor, or between the nationalists and the internationalists? Do these three spectra perhaps all correlate enough for us to perceive a zig zag fault line, between the affluent-enough, rightwing nationalists on one side and on the other side the relatively poor, leftish, migratory internationalists? Of course, it’s not that simple. Beyond either side of this possible fault line we also have rich internationalists, and on the other, poverty-stricken communities vulnerable to persuasion of aggressive nationalism. And there are many kinds of uncategorisable outliers, as well as pollinators stitching across these divides. And the divides are different in every country, or continent. And all this is not to properly mention racism and divisions between faith groups.
I’m not sure how useful this concept of a divided world is. It’s a narrative constructed to make sense of how we are being manipulated and of how things seem to be falling apart. Our world is becoming increasingly VUCA (Vulnerable, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) mainly due to the breaching of planetary boundaries. The complexity and uncertainty are being exploited to further confuse us, and web-based media means that everyone can have a go at disseminating their own theory about what the hell is going on.
But, while the divide is a narrative construction, there is also truth behind it. A small number of individuals, the oligarchs and extractive capitalists, are largely responsible for stretching the planet’s limits of growth and perpetuating social inequality. And it’s becoming apparent that the most powerful and sociopathic of the 1% are engaged in a takeover of our algorithmic, social and broadcast media in order to manage our perceptions and destabilise our democratic and international institutions, using the passion-inducing power of nationalistic and religious tribalism as lever and cover. Just read this investigation by Carole Cadwalladr as one way in to understanding this tangled web of purchased algorithmic manipulation that lies behind Brexit, and how this all connects to Steve Bannon, Trump, Putin and their combined desire to lift barriers to plundering more fossil fuels. (For this piece of journalism, Cadwalladr/The Guardian are now being threatened by the law farm that lobby for Gazprom and Rosneft.)
If there is a division (or if what there is can be called a division) the most significant distinction is between those who want to continue the system of extraction and growth, threatening populous civilisation for their own profit, and those who want to continue biodiverse life on the planet. Business as usual vs Life as it has existed for millennia.
This is a difficult division to discern, and is a great example of the ambiguity in this VUCA world. Every one of us needs biodiverse and civilised life on the planet to continue, of course, so it’s difficult to say that we don’t stand for continuing life. It’s only a small portion of the 1%, who are smart or informed enough to be aware of what is being unleashed and confident enough that, if they can just delay regulation enough to profit more, they can pay their way to safety — perhaps to survive in an elite sphere of mountain cities, earthship bunkers or seasteading — in a catastrophically disrupted planet.
We are all at the mercy of these few, and some are willingly working at their beck and call. However, you might not know that the great majority of us would prefer biodiverse and civilised life to continue, such is the lack of consideration of this mission in mainstream culture and politics, such is its bracketing off as a separate issue. Too much is conspiring to make us support the increasingly catastrophic system: Complacency, conformity, constructive denial, lack of imagination and foresight and the fact that money buys media and corrupts democracy.
This division between continuing the extractive system or continuing life is not a neat slice through the mass population. It is more of a battle fought in abstract in agonistic fora such as the law courts, blogs and journals, councils and parliaments, and in real contested sites such as the Dakota oil pipeline or the Arctic, between the well paid defenders of the extractive system and the passionate defenders of the Earth. The majority of us are caught up in this battle. The extractive capitalists are the most powerful recruiters and propagandists, corrupting political systems, so they are winning the war even though the masses do not want the end result — a hastening of planetary chaos and conflict.
People almost everywhere in the world have been progressively de-cultured, or separated from cultures rooted in a sustained relationship with places (whether fixed or nomadic). Nearly all of us have long been separated from a hunter-gatherer style link to place, many are increasingly separated from a pastoral relationship, and now even an industrial connection with a particular place is being weakened. And all of this adds up to being denatured: our agency to interact meaningfully with the living world has been weakened.
This de-naturing of humanity has two waves of action, one slow and the other rapid. Imagine a forest over centuries of human interaction. The slow wave sees its effects in patches over time, small clearances, introductions of invasive species, poisonings, managed fires and so on. The forest recovers but as the human population grows, the resilience of the forest is depleted more and more. The fast wave is much more recent. In the forests we see its effects in rapid mass clearance of old growth, the massive fires, storms and pest outbreaks worsened by climate change, and the feedback effects of climate change reducing the forest’s ability to absorb CO2. This forest analogy — in fact, the real effects of slow and fast waves of human damage-are extended to the whole ecosphere. And it is not just a story of impersonal, ‘natural’ forces but of the combined actions of people, increasingly conscious of the catastrophe they are bringing about.
This depletion of resistance does not have to apply to us all. We can open our eyes. We do not have to succumb to the conspiracy of factors that make us continue the ecocidal system at the expense of biodiverse life. But it’s not just about seeing, or believing, or not succumbing. We have to be active stewards, in terms of how we use resources, in how we protest ecocide and climate denial, in how we expose the management of our perceptions, in how we are gentle with each other to avoid conflict as people migrate and suffer, in how we express our views and push for justice and democracy, in how we explore new ways of sharing resources, in how we care for our local environments and in how we regenerate our planet.