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The Monthly Salon: May
Changing the World vs living with it
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the notion of ‘changing the world’, and how it represents a kind of post-religious religious impulse. I’ll be writing in my next essay about the teleology of Progress, but a good question to ask of any culture, and of any person, is: what god do you worship? It’s a question that would have been easy enough to respond to in any previous time, and still is to most people worldwide. But to those of us raised by the Machine it’s inadmissable. We do worship gods, of course, but we don’t call them gods, because gods are superstitious things that our ignorant ancestors dealt in, whereas we, being grown-ups, deal in reason and facts and The Science.
Of course, we don’t really do anything of the sort, and the notion of ‘changing the world’ illustrates it. Progress is our God, and ‘changing the world’ is its liturgy. It’s a phrase I used to use all the time, but now I’m almost embarrassed even to look at it. Changing the world. Changing the world. Changing the world. It’s such an astonishing concept: that we have, or could ever have, the agency, ability or knowledge to change the nature of a vast, complex planet we barely understand, when most of us can’t even change ourselves. And that we imagine the results would be good if we did. What could be more superstitious?
‘Changing the world’ is of course a modern notion, and it has gone into hyperdrive since the 1960s, as religion, with its promise of perfected kingdom beyond this life, has been replaced by materialism, which requires us to try and achieve it in this one. But the prevalance of the ‘changing the world’ narrative has also become ubiquitous for another, more everyday reason: the world is getting worse. And the worse it gets, the more we are desperate to change it - or to believe that we can. With God gone, after all, what else is left to us?
This was the foundational argument of Uncivilisation, the manifesto which launched the Dark Mountain Project in 2009. I believed then what I believe now: modern civilisation is beginning to collapse under its own weight. There is nothing to be done about this; it is too late to alter our course, even if were inclined to, and we’re mostly not. Every civilisation, as Oswald Spengler and many others have repeatedly reminded us, has its own natural pattern of rise and fall. Only this time, it’s global.
What’s been notable to me is how much this has obviously begun to happen in the thirteen years since that manifesto was written. Back then, ‘collapse’ was an abstract notion. Now we can see it all around us, in supply chain shortages, rising food prices, runaway greenhouse gas emissions, record levels of deforestation … well, you name it. The American eco-druid John Michael Greer does a good job of naming it in his latest essay, in which he reflects on the same obvious pattern. I have read Greer’s work for many years; he’s read mine too, and sometimes we’ve had our arguments. But we’ve always seen eye to eye on this subject, on which he was something of a pioneer. More and more people are seeing the same things daily now. They are becoming as impossible to avoid as the gaps on the shelves and the rising prices everywhere.
The question then becomes: what now? That was a foundational Dark Mountain question, and it’s also a question that was posed in the comments section of my last essay by reader Mark Kutolowski, who has his own Substack, Metanoia of Vermont. Mark was interested in the reactions of others who frequent the Abbey to a simple but urgent question:
If/when I fully accept the reality of this time, how am I called to live a faithful, fully human life, here and now?
Needless to say, there are as many answers to this as there are people. But it is the question of the times. I’d also love to hear the thoughts of readers about how they respond to it. Over to you.
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