There are some nations around the world where people have long been forced to adapt to living in a state of existential uncertainty. At global climate talks, the residents of small island states, from the Maldives to Tuvalu, are distinguishable by their dignity and astonishing calmness about the uncertainty of their entire existence, their history, their ground, being swept away by rising oceans. They have an undeniable moral authority, but also wisdom and insight to which others find themselves forced to listen.
At COP26 in Glasgow, I was privileged to chair a session where Jumas Xipaia, a young woman from the indigenous Xipaya people in Para state, Brazil, spoke with calm wisdom and insight about the traditions of her people, with always hovering in the background the knowledge that their way of life is under foundational threat – a continuation of colonial and post-colonial destruction.
Yet for most of the world, until recently, this was not the case. People my age, I’m 55, and those of the following generation, say 30 and upward, established their world view in an assumed fundamental stability, an unthinking expectation of progress, and even our elders, if they still remember the fearful days of threatened Cold War nuclear annihilation, largely see that as a past danger averted. That’s true of China and India, most of South East Asia and significant parts of Africa, as well as the Global North. It’s something that nations like Britain have had as a baseline assumption for centuries, built on the exploitation of the resources and labour of others.
Yet a whole Western nation has been through more than a decade, and perhaps remains in, a state of uncertainty – economic, social and physical. That’s Greece, and in my Christmas listening, I learnt how Scottish-based anthropologist Daniel M Knight studied the experience, tying it to his own personal life also, and concluded was experiencing “temporal vertigo – the ricochets people felt between rapidly onrushing pasts, the entrapment of the present and the cliff-edge of failing futures. Not knowing where to turn, questioning when they were living. It was lives being knocked off-balance by the crisis juggernaut”.
It is a useful diagnosis for the state of the entire world today. The certainties apparently delivered to us by economic growth and technological advancement are no more. There is Covid-19’s impact on everyday life. Will it be possible to meet up with my family, or go to school or work, tomorrow? No one can be sure. There’s the climate emergency that is already, at just 1.1 degrees of warming, presenting deadly threats from fires (even in the depths of winter in the US), floods and tornadoes, and threatens far, far worse in future. And of course, there’s the economic uncertainty amplified but not caused by SARS CoV2, the obvious breakdown of ‘just-in-time’ systems spanning the globe being replaced by what’s been dubbed ‘just in case’.
We live in a world, we have lives, spinning from crisis to crisis, uncertain what the next day will bring, seemingly falling into a new age, yet with so much from ages past (Cold War-style threats from Russia, the “Great Game” apparently revived in Afghanistan, food insecurity sweeping across nations rich and poor) pounding at the news agenda.
The always laughably, if disturbingly, arrogant Francis Fukuyama thesis of the “end of history” – as he put it “the triumph … of the Western idea”, is definitely dead. Our economic, social, environmental, education systems have failed, yet the new cannot be born, in this age of entrenched economic interests, of multinational companies far more powerful than states. There are, as Gramsci warned, a great many morbid symptoms in these last zombie days of neoliberalism.
Yet there are many pointers to new ways forward, both in thinking and practical action – green shoots that could develop into a flourishing, diverse, sustainable, caring world…
The just-published magnum opus of the late Great David Graeber (with David Wenrow), The Dawn of Everything, shows how the dominant historical narrative has picked case studies and interpreted history in the image of the societies from which the writing has emerged. It offers the security of knowing other ways of living – focused on human flourishing and creative, even playful, invention, are possible. There is nothing inevitable about where we are now. It is the result of past political choices. We can now make different ones.
The sad loss of Archbishop Desmond Tutu is a reminder that in the past few decades there have been huge advances in the development of norms of human rights and international standards, something I wrote about recently for the Green European Journal. And, while some have yet to catch up, the idea of living to work, rather than working to live, is getting increasing traction. Instead of the age of hypermobility and ‘hard work’, there’s the fast-growing idea of a four-day working week as standard, maybe even in time a three-day week, or life operating at a far more human pace.
In yesterday’s ‘big’ speech in Birmingham, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer put a big focus on ‘hard work’ – “If we work hard we should also have a right to job security”. But if you are in a “Time Of Crisis” – as Knight identifies in Greece and which is now extended across the world – then keeping doing the same things, even harder, is not the answer. And it is impossible to offer a guarantee, individually or collectively, that that can deliver security from our current economic system. As Knight writes: “A Time of Crisis welcomes and elaborates the discourse of fate, chance, luck – the roll of the dice into time and space.”
Uncertainty and collapse are built-in. It is only by changing the system, ensuring time to live, time to breathe that the vertigo can be tackled, both individually and collectively. And that system change is coming. Where we are now is profoundly unstable – the vertigo isn’t just an impression, but a reality of life.
And that’s good news. Because we’ve been trashing the planet and creating a miserable, unhealthy, hopelessly unequal society. We can build something different – from the grassroots up, relying on indigenous wisdom and broader historical understanding, trust in human creativity and inventiveness – social, education, political and economic innovation, which Graeber and Wenrow show is our past as it can be our future.