The parallels between the computer models of climate scientists and what is happening in everyday experience around the world — droughts, changes in seasons that affect crops, rains and floods of Biblical proportions, extreme weather patterns, melting of polar ice and glaciers, and record high temperatures — point to fundamental changes occurring in the Earth’s ecosystems. The consensus among climate scientists is that human activity is releasing more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. These gases, in turn, are accelerating changes in the acid levels of the world’s oceans, killing the coral reefs that are home to 25 percent of marine life. These changes are creating water scarcity in many regions of the world, thereby threatening both human life and animal species. What the West historically assumed to be the pathway to progress is turning out to be the pathway to ecological and social catastrophe.
The accelerating ecological crisis poses a special challenge for Americans, who appear irreversibly divided between liberals and those who should more accurately be called the “faux conservatives.” If we get beyond these abstract labels by considering the core beliefs and deep cultural assumptions of both liberals and the faux conservatives, we find a shared bedrock of beliefs. That is, both assume that this is a human-centered world (that the environment is a human resource to be exploited), that the individual is autonomous, that science and technology are the engines of progress, and that the West provides the model the rest of the world should follow. They differ on social justice issues, including the role of government in providing safety nets and in limiting the abuses within certain sectors of society. While the social justice concerns of liberals have led to criticisms of the consumer-dependent culture promoted by capitalism, it has only been in the last few decades that liberals have begun to take environmental issues seriously. The core beliefs and assumptions continue to go unquestioned by both the faux conservatives and most liberals, even though they underlie the industrial/consumer culture that is contributing to the release of the greenhouse gases accelerating climate change.
It is important to note that the origins of these core beliefs and assumptions were derived from the abstract and ethnocentric theories of Western philosophers and social theorists who were unaware of environmental limits. They were also perhaps willfully ignorant of the Indigenous cultures that have a long history of living within the limits and possibilities of their bio-regions. Given the threats we now face in a world of 7.5 billion people, with billions now struggling just to survive, the important questions not being addressed by either the faux conservatives (who are really libertarian and market liberals) and the social justice liberals have to do with knowing what to conserve and how to contribute to an ecologically sustainable future. The education of both the faux conservatives and social justice liberals promoted the Enlightenment idea that represented traditions as obstacles to social and economic progress. Thus, their shared vocabularies are heavily oriented toward promoting changes that supposedly lead to more progress. What separates the social justice liberals from the faux conservatives is that the latter perpetuate gender, racial, ethnic and social class inequality.
The most important question today is: What do we need to conserve as we enter the ecological and digital tipping point where scarcity in food, work, security and other necessities becomes the new normal — including the loss of wisdom traditions that are being replaced by data? The ideological framework best suited to guiding the cultural transformations in everyday lifestyle and belief systems is cultural/bio-conservatism, which has guided most Indigenous cultures throughout history and continues to characterize many contemporary forms of analysis and practice in Indigenous communities today.
Bioconservatism is the easiest to understand as it refers to conserving species and habitats, which challenges both the idea that this is a human-centered world and the right of the individual to exploit the environment. But it cannot be treated as a separate form of conservatism; rather, it highlights that the wisdom of cultural conservatism is derived from the awareness that the health of natural systems is essential to the health of the human community. A cultural/bio-conservative does not promote the idea of settling the planet Mars. If we are to have a future, it is here on Earth.
So what do we need to conserve as the ecological crisis deepens and as social chaos results from population stresses occurring in different regions of the world? The combination of a long history of social injustices, the rise of a total surveillance culture that is already giving us glimpses of a techno-fascist future, and the potential of the digital revolution to lead to cyber warfare means we need to conserve what remains of our traditions of civil liberties and resist the loss of craft knowledge and other human skills now being threatened by the ever-wider use of algorithms and robots — as well as the Social Darwinian thinking of computer scientists who are promoting the idea that humanity is entering its post-biological phase of existence. It is their Enlightenment view of progress that leads them to ignore the traditions that will be essential to surviving the social chaos that lies ahead as the industrial infrastructures come under cyber-attacks, and as the impact of climate change reduces regions of the world to what is now being experienced in oil-rich Venezuela.
Conserving the diverse cultural commons that still exist in nearly every community, including urban communities, will be especially important as individuals and communities recognize the wisdom of intergenerationally renewing the knowledge, skills and mentoring relationships essential to self-reliant and mutually supportive communities. This means the restoration of face-to-face communities where local decision-making and intergenerational accountability replace the data-driven decision-making of elites focused on amassing material wealth, regardless of its destructive ecological impacts. What is common to the diversity of cultural commons (which should not be romanticized) is that the knowledge and skills ranging across a broad range of cultural activities — from the growing, preparation and sharing of food, healing practices, ceremonies, uses of technologies, craft knowledge, artistic performances, games, use of language, knowledge of the behavior of the local ecosystems, and so forth — are less monetized.
When understood within the context of the cultural commons, wealth is acquired by developing personal skills and talents valued by the community — in knowing traditional recipes, in carrying forward the narratives of past mistakes and of models of behavior that strengthen community, in knowing a craft, mentoring in one of the creative arts, in modeling how to exercise ecological intelligence, and so forth. To reiterate, the cultural commons are passed forward in face-to-face intergenerational relationships where the local cultural context becomes a rich source of information — and not from the abstract accounts in books and printed texts appearing on a computer screen. The cultural commons also become sites of resistance to the hackers and market-oriented data collectors who are now creating the Internet of Everything and introducing the digital technologies that will further reduce the opportunity to earn a living.
The community and environmentally-centered focus of cultural/bioconservatism takes account of the mainstream of human history, which was sustained by a healthy cultural commons, as well as awareness of what both the faux conservatives and social justice liberals continue to ignore: namely, how to survive as 7.5 billion people face the coming deprivations that accompany climate change.
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