The Barbarians Inside the Gate

[This article has been adapted from a section of the preface to In Search of Sense and Sensibility.]

There is no question that we in the first world are the heirs of the great instigators of the scientific revolution and are the most successful people in history when it comes to understanding and shaping our physical environment, but does that make us the most civilised? It could be a matter of semantics—if that is taken as the definition of ‘civilised’ then the answer is trivially yes, but it is not at all clear that is what people mean when they assert that we are a great civilised people.

Something more is generally understood to be needed before a people qualifies for the appellation ‘civilised’, something that embraces art, philosophy and culture in general but attributes such as greed, violence and unfairness are generally considered incompatible with civilisation. Yet when we look at our culture it is not at all clear what kind of culture we have generated since we proclaimed ourselves enlightened at the end of the eighteenth century; some would say that we have been, culturally speaking, living off things we produced before our collective Enlightenment.

If we move away from such vagaries and start looking at the hard data (figure) we see a disconcerting picture.

In the first place we are not living at all sustainably. Some sedentarist communities think poorly of nomadic communities for trashing their environment, but look closer and this is really a disagreement on values, as from the nomadic perspective their way of working makes sense and is quite sustainable, nature cleaning up as they move on. On the other hand the industrial world knows that it is trashing the environment through over-consumption in a way that is entirely and inescapably unsustainable. Nowhere is this clearer than in the data on the per-capita energy consumed by various nationals, and in the amount we spend on the means of death and destruction. The first world has a crushing monopoly that used to guarantee access to the resources required to perpetuate these manifestly unjust and unsustainable levels of consumption.

Anyone who thinks that this is down to some elite group of capitalists is missing the point. This is far too systemic phenomenon for anyone living inside the system to award themselves a pass because they claim to have an enlightened perspective that would fix the problems, if only their views were to prevail. (Nor is it saying that people shouldn’t try to fix the system and most certainly not that the only answers are radical, violent solutions.)

One of our best philosopher and sharpest critic of our ‘Enlightenment’ philosophies is John Gray, yet in a recent article Gray seemed to place the entire emphasis on rescuing the situation to technology, ‘there [being] no technical fix for the human condition’. Technology can’t by itself fix this problem; the human condition must be addressed in the solution. To illustrate this, consider that we have doubled our energy efficiency since 1970, but at the same time also doubled our energy consumption. Indeed gains in energy efficiency tend to drive economic growth as the energy becomes cheaper, thereby leading to an acceleration in energy consumption, just as wider roads tend to draw more traffic so leading to more congested roads (Jevon’s paradox). The only way to reduce our energy consumption is to decide to reduce our energy consumption—it is as simple as that and it requires a transformation in attitude—i.e., becoming less greedy—i.e., addressing ‘the human condition’. The logic is inescapable.

If the adjustment is done in an orderly manner (including the development and deployment of the right technology) then the stress and/or distress of the needed adjustment can be reduced immensely. Indeed we may even find ourselves much happier for it. A philosophical revolution is needed, one that sees the futility and sterility of pursuing ever-increasing consumption and instead seeks fulfilment through self-development (and caring for the environment). Pre-Enlightenment norms—religious norms—have consistently taught that happiness through materialistic means is a powerful delusion that must be systematically resisted and with the rise of happiness metrics, science is now agreeing; thanks to the work of those like Kasser (2002) and Malka & Chatman (2003), we know that people who try to achieve happiness by pursuing materialistic goals tend to be more distressed than those that don’t (Oliver James summarizes the case in Chapter 2 of The Selfish Capitalist and associated articles). Note that there is no evidence at all to suggest that those compelled through poverty to be materialistic suffer from their materialism; the most acute dangers lies with those with a surplus of wealth who nevertheless continue to be driven by materialistic motives. The former (absolute materialism) is healthy as the materialism is addressing true needs; the latter (relative materialism) tries to achieve fulfilment through acquiring ever more wealth, fame and reputation, a debilitating, stressful and unfulfilling treadmill (much as those in the first world tend to suffer poor physical health through eating too much rich food). But it is those in the First World, making themselves sick and miserable through over-consumption, that are leading the destruction of the biosphere.

The pre-Enlightenment (religious/philosophical) systems remain (to authentic practitioners) highly effective in turning their adherents away from pursuing fulfilment through material means, but they are also remarkably tenacious. Less than a fifth of the world’s population is secular/nonreligious/agnostic/atheist despite hundreds of years of being dismissed by great philosophers (as well as the not so great). People that continue to attack and undermine these pre-scientific wisdom traditions are hideously deluded, the naked objective evidence—the data—the figures—showing plainly that it is an entirely doomed enterprise. It can’t possibly be a solution to the modern malaise, there being far too much cultural inertia for religion to be expelled from our global village in any reasonable time frame (even assuming it was at all desirable). The solution must lie in making modern religion rational, and that means understanding it, and that can never be done from the contemptuous, dismissive vantage point typified by so many contemporary Enlightened individuals making up the intellectual establishment of the first world. Unfortunately the people most exercised by the damage being done by (bad) religion show an appalling inability to grasp even the basic rudiments of religious thought—indeed they manifest some of the worst tendencies of dogmatic religion in the unshakable conviction their rightness and righteousness.

This is why Jane Austen’s writings are so important and why they have such potential. Any perusal of a good bookshop (both the general and specialist sections) or any good video shop, will confirm that her novels have a powerful attraction for our modern culture that seems to grow with the modern malaise. As Richard Whately said, not only was she a ‘evidently a Christian writer’, but, for aesthetic and practical reasons, it was ‘not at all obtrusive’. It is this secular presentation of the wisdom at the centre of our Christian tradition that makes Jane Austen’s writing so important to us today. She had a deep understanding of the old world while shaping the new, and that channel, so urgently needed, remains wide open.


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