Is this the end? The end of capitalism? The end of the human species?
Anyone who has closely observed developments of the last 10 years can be forgiven a quick affirmative response. In a decade that has seen startling discoveries in climate science (none positive), unprecedented fires, and increasingly frequent and far more destructive tropical storms and hurricanes, the evidence is clearer than ever that our economic plunder of the planet’s natural bounty has gone too far. Add to that the emergence of a deadly worldwide pandemic with devastating economic consequences, and the question does seem to answer itself.
Similarly, rampant police brutality and the oppression of Black, Brown, queer and transgender populations would indicate that centuries of racism and oppression are not only alive and well but are growing in vehemence.
These questions have become especially popular topics in leftist literature. From Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future to Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything to more esoteric offerings such as McKenzie Wark’s Capital Is Dead: Is This Something Worse?, the futures of both capitalism and of humanity itself are up for discussion.
A new entry into this crowded space is Mark Schuller’s forthcoming book, Humanity’s Last Stand: Confronting Global Catastrophe. What makes Schuller’s book notable is its focus on strategies to confront global collapse. Schuller is a professor of anthropology and nonprofit and nongovernmental organization studies at Northern Illinois University, and affiliate at the Faculté d’Ethnologie, l’Université d’État d’Haïti. (Full disclosure: Schuller is an acquaintance of the author.)
Schuller understands that the course we are on as a society and as a planet is unsustainable, and he has no illusions about the difficult task we face in changing course. It will require dramatic reversals in our approach to the economy, and a reconfiguration of our attitudes toward other inhabitants of our planet.
Schuller creatively articulates that the present movements to control climate change, to erase the enduring legacies of colonialism and racism, and to restructure our economic life to provide a decent and humane life for all are intrinsically bound together, even if this might not be apparent at the moment.
“Our destinies are already intertwined, connected by legacies of colonialism, patriarchy, slavery and capitalism,” he writes. That grossly unequal system, one based on endless growth, has reached its limits, and now is the moment of reckoning –– the moment wherein these limits have come back to bite us.
Informing all of Schuller’s thinking is his background as an anthropologist and his experience working in Haiti, one of the poorest nations on the planet. Throughout Humanity’s Last Stand, he offers what he refers to as an “Anthropological Imagination.” He explains this as looking at the complex problems through the lens of anthropology, which involves the study of lived lives; how human beings relate to each other and form communities.
Schuller offers this not as a replacement for more traditional world systems theories (such as Marxism) but as a complement, one meant to guide the way to understanding that all struggles for a just world are tied to one another and all are mutually dependent upon all the others; understanding from the bottom up, if you will, to complement analysis from the top down.
The result of following one’s Anthropological Imagination is what Schuller refers to as a “radical empathy.” What is radical empathy? It is the ability to identify with struggles for justice that do not impact upon your own community. It is the willingness to recognize not just the legitimacy of these struggles but also the centrality of all of them in the struggle for a survivable society. And finally, it is a call for those of us who live in privileged positions in highly developed societies to understand that “it might just be our way of life that is strange, that needs to change.”
This radical empathy guides Schuller as he winds through three core chapters addressing major issues confronting us today: dismantling white supremacy, climate change and issues of immigration. He tries to develop an understanding of the way vast regions of the world have been laid waste by decades of oppression; how the prosperity of the West was built upon on a long history of colonialism and slavery, brutal institutions whose immense damages continue to reverberate today.
Schuller wants us to understand that we in the West bear the primary responsibility for climate change, while the poorest and weakest lands bear the brunt of the damage. Any decent theory of justice should inform us of our need to be in solidarity with the movements of the victims and understand that changes in Western lifestyles are the price to be paid for a more just and livable world.
Schuller elegantly sums up our present dilemma in one paragraph in the book’s concluding chapter:
Human beings evolved from being prey to predator; from living in the forest to the savannah to ever growing concrete jungles. We are now our own primary threat. As Agent Smith mused while interrogating Morpheus in the movie The Matrix, “Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area and multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed, and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area.” We’re out of space; running out of time.
Indeed, we are. As I mentioned before, there is no shortage of literature aimed at convincing us of that fact. What matters now is how we respond. The great strength of Humanity’s Last Stand is in pointing us to the way forward: uniting the disparate movements for social, economic and climate justice through a radical empathy that understands and feels the deep connections between all of those issues and between all of us.