In May 2021 contemporary thinker and writer Jonathan Rowson wrote, “To be metamodern is to be caught up in the co-arising of hope and despair, credulity and incredulity, progress and peril, agency and apathy, life and death.”
Rowson might have replaced the phrase “to be metamodern” with simply “to be alive in the 21st century”. He goes on to describe that as the “meaning-making animals we are, we hide our confusion under capacious conceptual canopies …and by taking shelter there, we allay our sense of feeling completely lost.”*
Who Are We?
I have often wondered whether the absence of universal values, as a kind of guiding force, has left us bereft of a moral compass to steer us through the experience of 21st century life. Has our ‘post truth’, secular, and highly materialistic world deprived us of a means of meaning-making? Has it denied us a reference point in consciousness on which to build our individual and cultural sense of self? Without which, who are we? And what direction are we humans charting in this era gloriously dubbed the Anthropocene? What will be our legacy…and do even we care?
Sometimes I feel we have surrendered ourselves to a reckless form of gambling, where long-term outcomes and awareness of the complex ecology of interconnected actions and reactions, are simply (or deliberately) not considered. Instead, our lives are determined by powerful market forces in lockstep with the narrowly defined interests of vast global corporations and the politicians bound to them. A nexus of power and money, this alliance is further empowered by sophisticated digital technologies and the media.
Technological advances today surpass sci-fi imaginaries. Yet more often than not we witness their application subverting the potential for collective stability and prosperity in the rush for short-term gains – profit, efficiency, and the comfort of the few. It’s as if the essence of what it means to be human – that sense of purpose that inspires human beings to create a better world – has shrivelled. And ironically in an era where personal freedom and agency are extolled, our society is increasingly comprised of alienated individuals moulded by opaque forces that control our destiny.
Technology has brought us many advancements. However, the consciousness behind technology matters. As social philosopher Daniel Schmachtenberger* describes, technologies today are largely based on ”fast-paced nihilistic design”. Who is behind the wheel then? The ‘accidental’ chaos we experience around us in the form of escalating serial meta crises, appears to be the result of a profound lack of intentionality, or worse – an absence of our most precious human attribute – care. Where does intellectual brilliance lead us if that core element of care is missing?
In a world in which instant gratification rubs up against looming existential threats, it’s no wonder confusion reigns. The sheer scale of the issues is daunting. Furthermore, our culture is perfectly set up to assiduously facilitate our distraction, creating inurement from reality.
A Perennial Debate
Recently, a sensitive and deeply thoughtful friend of mine who is dedicated to exploring the spiritual life, posted an honest description on his Facebook feed about his relationship to the ecological crisis defining our time.
“My feeling has been and still is one of distance, even disconnect, from the burning facts. It’s as if I watch them on a movie screen or read them in a fantasy book, not realising that they are happening in reality. I am looking at my feeling of disconnect from the ecological situation and trying to understand it”.
He goes on to list a number of possible causes. However, what stood out to me from these explanations for the ‘soft denial’ that permeates our affluent societies – reasons we can all connect to – was the final question he posed. “Is it because my purpose in this life is not to care about the “outer” but only about the “inner” world?” This question in particular received considerable affirmation in various forms.
The opposing juxtaposition of care for the “outer” world against that for the “inner”, however, left me feeling strangely troubled. Spirituality has all but disappeared in postmodern life. But where that critical inner dimension does exist, offering a space for existential exploration, is it also providing a sanctuary to “allay our experience of being completely lost”, as Rowson described? And if so, how has this happened, particularly in those spiritual/philosophical circles that embrace an understanding of ‘nonduality’ – either ancient or post Cartesian? That is, an understanding of the ultimate indivisibility of form and emptiness, spirit and matter, mind and body.
Despite feeling disconcerted, I appreciated my friend’s willingness to open up this controversial subject in such a vulnerable way. What he expressed is probably one of the most critical questions any of us can ask right now. Do I care?
A Civilisation Gone Awry
The year 2020 witnessed birds dropping from the sky due to temperatures generated by raging wildfires in Australia. The fires killed three billion animals and destroyed an estimated 243,000–338,000 square kilometres of countryside.*
In 2022, just six months after COP26, birds again fell from the sky. This time in Gujarat, India, where unprecedented heat threatened human and non-human life. And in July 2022, the cold, misty isle many of us call home, surpassed 40 degrees celsius. The ecological crisis is no longer an ‘event’ of the future. It is happening now.
The climate/ecological emergency is perhaps the most far-reaching and extreme consequence of a civilization gone awry. And for most of us the yawning chasm between the pledges our governments make to address this existential crisis and the policies they are actually pursuing, is no secret. Yet few public officials or media address this. UN Secretary, Antonio Guterres is an exception. In an unusually blunt statement, he recently rebuked world leaders. “It’s not climate activists who are the dangerous radicals. The truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels. Investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure is moral and economic madness.”
Most understand there is no single solution to the existential threat we face in climate change, that it demands redress at its root – a shift in consciousness, a civilizational re-set. And many are working hard towards this. But in a world that is exponentially heating, literally burning up with temperatures reaching 50+ degrees in parts of Africa and South Asia, 40+ degrees in Paris, Vancouver, and now London, if we are to survive, it’s imperative that humanity transition from a lifestyle based on heat trapping emissions – the primary contributor to our planet’s destruction.
But we are not transitioning. Not at least on any timeline that could ensure success. Why is this?
In the post-Enlightenment world of the West where church and state are effectively, if not literally, separated, rationality and science are supposedly the touchstones for policymaking. Yet for over forty years now, our governments have categorically ignored peer reviewed science on climate change, and the perilous impacts this is having on biodiversity and the interconnected systems life is dependent on. Dr Jason Hickel, an economic anthropologist, professor and Senior Fellow at LSE asked the question in an article for Current Affairs, “What would it look like if we treated climate change as an actual emergency?”*
My Facebook friend is far from alone in experiencing profound disconnection from this “outer” reality of our lives. In fact, there is abundant research written about the phenomenon of “soft denial” or implicatory denial. According to Wikipedia this is “a state of mind acknowledging the existence of global warming in the abstract while remaining in partial psychological or intellectual denialism about its reality or impact.”
Why, given our unprecedented access to knowledge do we suffer so pervasively from this malaise? Like others, I think about this a lot. I am no stranger to the experience of fear and overwhelm at the magnitude of the situation. And knowledge of the entrenched interests, the deep pockets behind what is happening – the sheer scale of it all – have left me feeling impotent. I have witnessed first-hand how easy it is to slide into the anonymity of semi-conscious thoughts along the lines of ‘what’s the point of even trying?’ in order to just keep living my life.
The Implications of Being Human
For over four decades I immersed myself in various forms of exploration of that inner dimension my friend wrote about. And the question of the relationship between the ‘inner and outer’ pursued me.
In 2016 I travelled to Pittsburgh to participate in one of Al Gore’s Climate Reality trainings. This three-day immersion shocked me. The authentic grief and despair of peer reviewed scientists from all over the world, as they described dangerous cascading tipping points, told the unambiguous story of a dying planet.
Three months later, however, the cultural fog of distance and disconnect descended again. But a haunting sense of the unprecedented reality we are living amidst lingered on. That raw encounter with science and the broken hearts of hardcore academics and researchers, instilled an understanding in me that the crisis we face is real, that its existential in nature, and most importantly, unlike a meteor from space, it’s a meta crisis of our making… As such we have the power to rectify it.
A few years later, I found myself participating in a radical climate campaign of civil disobedience rooted in the historic principles of non-violence employed by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jnr.
I want to make it clear that I do not see civil disobedience as the only route to respond to the meta crisis of our time. There are multiple responses occurring on multiple levels from the spiritual to the practical, the philosophical to the technological, from systems design to agroecology. Furthermore, these draw from ancient and contemporary sources. All these are essential. What seems critical, however, for significant change to happen, is to end the separation our culture has created between the inner and outer dimensions of our lives.
This has implications. It has struck me that the fear we experience is often fear of the significance of being human – of our responsibility as human beings.
In my experience most climate activists, far from being angry protagonists, exhibit a sense of care for something bigger than themselves. And similar to a spiritual epiphany, theirs is an awakening to something we can’t see but are existentially connected to. The source of non-violent action is love. And in a world where so many of us are lulled into being passive consumers, many young people are transforming their grief and anger into positive action, inspired by a sense of purpose that is both empowering and transformative.
It’s no doubt easier to shelter in the illusion of our separate lives. And to some degree this can keep the pain of separation, our grief at the destruction we are inflicting, at bay. But in doing this, we risk forgetting that this option is not available to indigenous people, or those in the global south who bear the brunt of our careless destruction of the sentient environment we are all part of.
The ‘reluctant activist’ in me has not gone away. Cultural codes are powerful forces. The consciousness that has taken us to this precipice is still alive in me. The only difference is that I know this for what it is. And similar to a spiritual awakening, once you know you know. This does not mean we all take to the streets. There are so many ways to affect consciousness. But what mainstream forces fight so hard to hide, is that the meta crisis we have created is the context of our time. It is the context of our lives. And our most dangerous enemy is the consciousness of ‘business as usual’.
The Deceptive Meme of Business As Usual
What does “business as usual” mean? As innocuous as it sounds, this mindset has been carefully crafted over decades. Fuelled by consumerism and a sense of cultural entitlement, it is a mindset where the individual is prioritised over the collective, where false narratives of separation run deep. Tropes like “It’s OK to be selfish” and “selfishness is human nature” are embedded in our culture. There is even a “selfish gene” falsely proposed to justify our intensely competitive society and lack of care.
What this creates, however, is a dead zone to the regenerative consciousness that can re-imagine 21st century life, a barrier to generative dialogue. Instead, we have an elaborate defence system of cultural codes to preserve the status quo. As children of postmodernity we experience a visceral allergy to discomfort, especially moral discomfort. Not putting pressure on ourselves or on others. Not stating too loudly that something matters out of fear of laying a ‘guilt trip’, or being seen as moralising. The end-product of all this is denial. A wall between ourselves and reality. A wall that can stymie our responses, deaden our natural human responses and deprive us of our creativity at a time it’s most needed. Denial is dangerous in all its forms simply for its function in supporting ‘business as usual’.
In addition, amongst spiritual circles there can exist a somewhat superior ‘ultimate’ view that all is cosmic play, an unfolding in which we have no agency. But what this transcendent perspective omits is that we do in fact co-create our reality with each other, and with the non-human world. And this reality is a direct expression of consciousness – ironically, of how deeply we know, or don’t know, that we are ‘one’.
The Power of Consciousness
What shifts consciousness and when is a mystery. But just how powerful the phenomenon of a paradigm shift is in effecting social change was demonstrated in the cultural switch of perception on smoking that took place in the ‘90s, in the West. Seemingly overnight smoking cigarettes went from being cool and chic, to an activity that was shunned, banned from most public buildings. Smokers found themselves relegated to forlorn ‘smoking’ enclaves, no longer welcome even in their most beloved of havens – the English pub
Since the ‘60s smoking had been glamourised by PR companies. Male smokers were typically depicted as rugged and ‘masculine’, women as cool and ‘liberated’. Deceptive marketing showed doctors recommending specific brands. And national sports stadiums displayed giant billboards sponsored by the tobacco industry. Despite decades of manipulative PR campaigns in which the industry deliberately employed false science, the facts of smoking’s destructive impact on health finally broke through. A shift in consciousness occurred seemingly overnight. In reality, this shift took decades of hard work by scientists, medical professionals, and activists to break the mythic grip of a highly profitable industry that thrived on misinformation and denial.
Siobhan Kattago, a senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Tartu, Estonia, observed that “In the current political climate of populism and xenophobia, it is tempting to simply close the door and withdraw from public affairs. Indeed, there is a pervading sense that there is no alternative to our polarised politics, neoliberal capitalism and corruption”. We could add ecological breakdown to this unenviable list. Kattago goes on to make the point that “It is precisely such retreat into the private realm that Hannah Arendt warned against during the 20th century…For Arendt, withdrawl form public affairs denotes the situation of ‘worldlessness,’ whereby the sense of shared reality begins to disintegrate. Worldlessness is like a desert that dries up the space between people”.*
A Civilisational Wake-Up Call
So, who or what is going to save us? Certainly not the forces that got us here. Many in our struggling societies have neither the space, nor the luxury of time to even think about the meta crisis. The change required is unlikely to come from any one source – any one event, policy, campaign, idea, or even set of ideas. When historical societal shifts have occurred as with the abolition of slavery, gender equality, same-sex marriage etc, they represent a paradigm shift. No one has figured out exactly what triggers this. But most do agree it appears to be a convergence of multiple actions and influences that raise awareness.
In 2014 Naomi Klein wrote “climate change isn’t an issue…It is a civilisational wake-up call…..telling us we need to evolve.”* It is here that the inner dimension is critical as a potential source of intelligence – responsive, contextual, and creative. Our humanity – our capacity for love, care, holistic intelligence and discernment – is a powerful tool desperately needed. Equally important is that uniquely human whisper from within – our conscience – which alerts us to the ways we forget we are not separate, the ways we disrupt the fabric of the ‘whole’ we are part of.
We all want to live guilt-free lives. It’s almost an obsession in our postmodern society to the point where we experience anger, if someone makes us feel guilty. But can someone make us feel guilty? Or is it our own conscience that is calling to us? As un-PC and vilified as conscience is these days, when freed of ideological baggage, could it be seen as a human link to consequence – a mirror of our non-separateness? And then, rather than holding us back, could our conscience become a vehicle empowering us to override the soothing messages of our culture, releasing us to act authentically with autonomy?
We are living in exceptional times. History is in the making and we happen to be on the front lines. Engaging reality as the context of our time does not deny fulfilling our individual place in the cosmic schema. As the people living through an epochal transition from industrial thinking and the societies this created, to a regenerative age rooted in knowledge of our interconnectedness, we have an opportunity to re-design how we live and relate.
Can we as a culture afford to continue to separate spirit and ‘the world’, the inner dimension of life from the outer? Can we justify turning away from the existential crisis of our time, when the crisis itself is a product of our turning away from the quintessential nature and values of spirit itself? Does it make sense to insulate our spiritual interests and passions from a world that is suffering from their absence? Although our focus may be more on one or the other at different times in our lives, isn’t their separation the root cause of the meta crisis we are facing?
Some form of spiritual immersion or extended retreat is needed at different times in our lives. Letting go, experiencing depth beyond our own minds, connecting with timeless values in a values-deprived society, and discovering autonomy and agency free of cultural memetic influences and the pressure these exert, is precious time spent. However, spiritual depth, rather than being seen as divorced from the realities of the world, can potentially shape new realities. Surely a symphony of talents is needed, where the outer is a dynamic reflection of the inner, and together we consciously co-create the world we want, rather than slide into a chaos that we have the power to prevent?
* Metamodernism and the Perception of Context: The Cultural Between, the Political After and the Mystic Beyond, Perspectiva, May 25, 2021.
*Daniel Schmachtenberger is a founding member of The Consilience Project aimed at improving public sensemaking and dialogue.
*Binskin, Mark; Bennett, Annabelle; Macintosh, Andrew (28 October 2020). Royal Commission into Natural Disaster Arrangements. Commonwealth of Australia. p. 115.
*Current Affairs, 15 November 2021
*Institute of Art and Ideas, Dec. 2018