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A Dialectic of Hope?

Poverty is hierarchic, smog is democratic.

–Ulrich Beck

Ever since the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries mankind has been increasingly applying the scientific method both to the natural world and the human world.

This of course has led to spectacular successes while at the same time it has brought existential crises.

Almost every discovery and leap of understanding has simultaneously shone a light and cast a shadow. Whether this is in the nature of discovery or intellectual advancement, or a result of the human character’s relation to the availability of increased power has been debated for centuries.

Rousseau famously thought that civilization ruined man while the ancient Roman poet Lucretius in his De Rerum Natura extolled the accumulated social effects of rational inquiry and the arts and customs of civilization. Similarly, Hegel mystically argued for Reason’s dialectical advancement while Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx saw it as a fragile mask hiding deeper more irrational forces voraciously feeding from either greed, sex, or lust for power.

Most recently, the Lucretian argument has been forcefully expounded by Steven Pinker in his book Enlightenment Now. It makes a strong case that the world has generally gotten better through the application of science and of reason, particularly in the last 50 years. At the same time, James Bridle has cogently concluded that we stand before a new age of Barbarism in his passionately argued book New Dark Age.

The truth of the matter lies perhaps, as it almost always does, somewhere in the middle.

As pure knowledge has advanced, its practical application has as well. The later part of this equation has almost always thrown up new moral conundrums: factories, bombs, smog, climate change. Yet, what the sociologists Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens, and Scott Lash famously described as Reflexive Modernity has increasingly played an ever growing role in the destiny of this planet.

Essentially, Reflexive Modernization means that while we both increase our store of knowledge and the new products and processes derived from it we also think about their potential consequences and risks. As Ulrich Beck memorably put it: we mature from a modern society into a Risk Society wherein we become a community united in anxiety over our collective decisions and concrete actions. Thus, Reflexive Modernity is the ultimate hangover of modern society.

But as we ever expand our material circle of action, we, arguably, also increase the speed with which we can rethink, re-engineer, refrain from those actions if found hazardous.

A positive example of this would be the The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer that came into force in 1989. Indeed, had it not been for this treaty I very well might not be writing this article at the moment. The substances that were then destroying the Ozone layer at a rapid pace could conceivably have caused if not the extinction then the degradation of the human race. Yet, it did not precisely because humanity followed the reflexive pattern of first taking blind action (hazardous products and their effluvium), finding out about their consequences and taking reflexive action to stop the direction of the first action. The net dialectical result of which is a higher state of knowledge which may substantially help with the next inevitable crisis.

The concept of Reflexive Modernity offers us a glimmer of hope. It tells us that we have the intellect and the tools to analyze our actions and to correct them. Yet time is always a factor. And the present global climate crisis is not temporally generous. While many of us have reflected on the causes of our present circumstances, few have taken action. Unlike the Ozone crisis, climate change calls for far reaching systemic change: technological, ecological, and political. Our summons is great. Now, it is not only our intellect which is being confronted by this crisis but the very definition of global society itself.

Homo Faber is being mortally challenged by a profoundly wounded Nature to finally bring true justice and material balance to the world.

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