Published online 21 July 2012.
At this point it’s difficult to imagine the trajectory from this world to a sane world. There are so many hurdles to overcome,so many double-binds to consider! Scary shootings in movie theaters occur in our world, and if we lived in a sane world, we might tell ourselves, this wouldn’t happen. I think that it behooves us as activists to consider what the world would look like if sanity were more of a priority.
Oh, sure, the thought-experiment of “in a sane world” might end up being completely debunked. Of course our world’s not sane. But maybe such a conclusion would end up by seeing sanity as a different mental object than we saw it before. Sanity might be a possibility of the imagination. Sanity might be a temptation we encounter in our insane daily routine. In debating the matter we might get closer to knowing what it is we’re looking for.
Let me suggest a beginning principle here: a prerequisite of sanity is the pursuit of sanity. The problem is that individual sanity is dependent upon social sanity — it does no one individual any good to “be sane” in a society gone insane. The goal, then, is to pursue sanity, both individual and social. And sanity has to become a priority — it has to be more important to the world than the insane priorities it currently makes of its social lives.
It’s easy to imagine what some prerequisites of a sane world are. An end to social states of insecurity, an end to mass violence, some degree of happiness for everyone. Sanity is not an escape from insanity, though escaping from insanity might motivate a wish for sanity.
We might be tempted to start with fundamental propositions that might seem, in themselves, to produce a sane world. “If everyone in that theater had been carrying a gun, that guy wouldn’t have gotten very far in his mass murder,” some people might argue after the shootings in Aurora, perhaps with a degree of validity. But this is only after-the-fact reasoning — global sanity is more likely to come by starting from sane principles, and not from gut reactions to the latest tragedy. A step upward might be, for instance, Russ Baker’s piece: “Why Mass Shootings Have Become Commonplace In Our Country.” Often this line of reasoning leads to advice of varying qualities, which one is free to accept or reject.
As for specific principles that might help us find sanity, interconnectedness is a good choice for a principled start. Recognizing our connections to each other can promote social harmony — one of the things that Rebecca Solnit suggested in her book “A Paradise Built In Hell” was that people often come together in the wake of disasters because they somehow feel connected by the experience of the disaster itself. Do you think perhaps a sense of interconnectedness might have stopped the shooter in Aurora from firing?
A sane society would be doing things differently, and perhaps an understanding of global interconnectedness would facilitate an understanding of what “things differently” it should be doing. You can get a clue of this in Bill McKibben’s piece on global warming in Rolling Stone, or for that matter from any serious discussion of global warming. Bluntly put: a sane world would not put so much carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere, nor would it hold on to its current addiction to fossil-fuel burning for as long as it already has. A sane world would, then, recognize its interconnectedness with the ecosystems of a gradually warming world.
I think that John Dryzek’s book Rational Ecology sets some parameters for what counts as rational (i.e. sane) priorities. Human beings are full of intelligence. But sometimes they don’t have the priorities to put this intelligence in the service of sanity. So priorities are the first thing we need. For Dryzek the indexical priority, the priority which underwrites all of the other priorities, has to be ecological connectedness. Everything is connected through the web of life, and so we need to recognize that and begin with proper stewardship of mother Earth. Let’s stop putting species into extinction for a change, and live sustainably. Or, put negatively, without ecosystems we can’t live here at all. Our water dries up, the land becomes too hot, our food crops all die.
Dryzek’s book is interesting because it’s not a plea for ecological sanity, but rather an investigation of what sort of decision-making systems would promote ecological sanity. Dryzek suggests two strategies of importance: 1) practical reason, by which he means the “proposal, development, and rational acceptance of common interests, purposes, and values” (p. 203) Meaningful, fair discussion toward common ground, then, makes sense in ecological terms — if people can be convinced through rational argumentation that sustainability is their priority, too, then a movement for sustainability can proceed forward. Also, Dryzek suggests, 2) radical decentralization would help, because “local autonomy and small scale in social organization” (p.216) facilitates ecological reason:
Local self-reliance… means… that communities and their members must pay great attention to the life-support capacities of the ecosystem(s) upon which they rely. (218)
So those are two “decision-making systems” which might facilitate a sane world. They don’t qualify as good things in and of themselves; that’s not how Dryzek is using them. We use these decision-making systems to fashion tools for the promotion of sustainability, and thus also of sanity — local affinity groups, for instance, or groups to reach out to those whom our society rejects, for the promotion of that connectedness which serves as such an important prerequisite.Our political world is currently in a stage which it calls “election-year run-up.” In this stage, people say all sorts of things which are ultimately about coercing the votes of undecided populations for one candidate or another. Very little of this conversation appears to me to have any relation to what Dryzek is calling “practical reason.” Practical reason entails open-mindedness and the examination of reasoning, rather than voter conformity and slogans.
In our business lives we are conditioned to pursue money, from the point at which we finish our schooling to the point at which we retire from business. There is, of course, only so much money to pursue, so the pursuit of money becomes a competition in which some win and others lose. This is not the way to pursue a life in which connectedness is one’s primary value.
The common consolation prize for lives spent pursuing money is ostensibly one of a number of consumer lifestyles. These lifestyles do not bring us happiness because they are, after all, consolation prizes, and that furthermore each lifestyle is tethered to the compulsion to consume more and more, as is necessary to increase “demand” in a global economy which needs to grow in order to survive. The growth economy, in turn, harvests the natural world with increasing rapidity, which conflicts with the goal of ecological sustainability.
Our nation’s foreign policy puts a premium on paranoia, the emotional motor which conditions 5% of the world’s population to pay taxes for 41% of the world’s military spending. The end result is that the US fights wars that just make things worse — Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and so on.
None of this discussion is going to stop anyone from pursuing individualized, ego-directed self-preservation, or whatever version of self-preservation has become popular in this era. Maybe it’s better just to lay it out as the late comedian Bill Hicks does: