Sunday, July 23, 2023

#204 / Atlas Mugged


Let's consider the story of Atlas from the perspective of Professor Jem Bendell, who is perhaps best known for his theory of "Deep Adaptation." Wikipedia describes "Deep Adaptation" as follows:

Deep Adaptation is a paper that Bendell self-published in July 2018. The concept of "Deep Adaptation" purports that humanity needs to prepare for the possibility of fundamental societal collapse, as global warming and extreme weather events increasingly disrupt social, economic, and political systems. Unlike climate change adaptation, which aims to adapt societies gradually to the effects of climate change, Deep Adaptation is premised on acceptance of impending abrupt transformations of the environment.
I think it is fair to say that Bendell is considered to be rather pessimistic about the future, with his pessimistic descriptions of what is to come being based on his scientific observations of what has already occurred. His 2018 paper, just described, is telling us to get ready for "fundamental societal collapse."  The "latest" from Bendell (a 2023 pronouncement) lets us  know that Bendell wants to amend his earlier statement. Bendell now tells us that he was wrong when he said that we should "get ready" for fundamental societal collapse. Here's the latest. There is no need to wait! It's already well underway!
I think I would be just as pessimistic as Bendell if I had to rely on what "observation," by itself, is telling us. However, I continue to believe that we are not only "observers," but "actors," too, which means that we can do unexpected and extraordinary things, things actually never even thought about or done before. These unexpected "new things" can change the realities that seem so certain from the standpoint of observation and extrapolation alone. I can't, really, be "optimistic," when I consider what global warming portends, and when I look at the other realities of our world today. Nonetheless, I have some hope. What we decide to do, and then do in fact, can change our current reality.

At any rate, rather than rehearsing the reasons to be either optimistic or pessimistic, let's listen to Bendell talk about the Myth of Atlas

Some Greek Gods, like Zeus, represented forces beyond humans, whereas other Gods reflected "ideal types" or aspects of human nature. Zeus is the Sun god, representing a key source for all life. Therefore, whatever happens in the world must emanate from Zeus. That means whatever is important in the human condition could be understood as coming from a "choice" of Zeus. Like us, the Greeks knew that the heavens were already existing above the Earth before they "needed" to be held up by the human qualities that Atlas represented – strength and responsibility. So Zeus was really "cursing" Atlas with the "idea" that the heavens needed holding aloft to avoid them crashing and killing his family and all of creation.

Could this myth convey how ancient Greeks recognized that at some point we humans shifted our awareness from everything existing without any effort from us, into the idea that we must strive, or that some God must strive on our behalf, in order for life to continue? Could it be that long ago they recognized this shift towards thinking that humans are central to the destiny of the universe was like a curse? Could it be that this myth was intended as a reminder that so much of nature exists without us or our efforts?

I choose to view the Greek myth of Atlas in such a way. Which means [that] I see [the Greek myth of Atlas] as a reminder of both the benefits and drawbacks of human ego, capability and care. We can suffer due to our assumption of centrality in the story of the universe. Today, we are dealing with some of the consequences of that story. Therefore, some people consider the concept of human centrality and power to be fracturing in the face of the ecological crisis. They perceive the ideological structures of modernity, which shape who we are as individuals and societies, to be breaking down. I share such a view, but consider the problem is the form of modernity that has been driven by monetary power – an extractive, dominating and expanding form of Imperial Modernity, and its contemporary confused manifestation as "overmodernity." Human’s sense of our own centrality, power and care for others is not something that can, or should, be totally denied, and instead we can recognize how through the centuries this impulse was coerced and directed to serving the selfish interests of the money-power. As these fundamental forces of human nature were appropriated by the money-power, the history of modernity is the story of "Atlas mugged."
Not everyone who observes the current global situation considers such critiques to be useful. Instead, they determine that without our sense of global care and more urgent striving, then the heavens will indeed fall, and humanity will suffer greatly along with the rest of life on Earth. I share the concern that such a perspective might promote approaches to our problems that are high risk, such as some forms of geoengineering, and others that are abusive, such as Eco-authoritarianism. Therefore, some of us might wish to see the whole story of human centrality, power and care to crumble away in this era of societal collapse. However, I believe the Atlas myth is helpful for suggesting that these aspects to human nature can’t disappear. Instead, they comprise an intractable paradox in human nature: the challenge is to better moderate and channel such aspects of who we are.
These aspects of human nature that are pointed to by the Atlas myth are now fracturing, and due to the influence of the money-power, they are now pulling the heavens down upon humanity and the Earth. Unless we free ourselves from the money-power, this fracturing will continue, with terrible consequences. Instead, we can seek to repair the paradoxical aspect of human nature that is comprised of the mix of human centrality, capability and care. As I reflected on the image of the statue of the Farnese Atlas from 200BC, I sensed it crumbling under the weight of its stories. Should it just crumble to dust? Or might it be saved in a new form? My mind drifted to the Japanese practice of Kintsugi. That is where items that break, such as a ceramic bowl, are stuck back together because they were loved so much before, often due to "sentimental value." The items would not be able to be used again for their previous purpose, but become objects for admiration, remembrance, and reflection. That is why they use gold to stick the objects back together in a beautiful manner. Only by recognizing that human centrality, capability and care are all fracturing, due to the distorting pressures of the money-power, can we bring those aspects of humanity back into balance with the natural world. The Kintsugi Atlas on the cover of this book is an imagined and mythical object. It reminds us of how we can appreciate notions human capabilities, compassion and courage, as important aspects of the human condition, but accept how they have been manipulated to now break both ourselves and the nature world. By "repairing" these aspects of the human condition so that they are not compulsions that drive us, we can also repair our relationship to the rest of reality, including our societies, the natural world and the divine (emphasis added). 
I found this statement by Bendell to be rather hopeful (more hopeful than I would have thought, given what I have known about Bendell). The Atlas myth is a story, in Bendell's version, that tells us that we have somehow taken upon ourselves the task of "holding up everything," while we don't actually have to do that at all. Bendell puts it this way: "the Greeks knew that the heavens were already existing above the Earth before they "needed" to be held up by the human qualities that Atlas represented." 
This statement is a somewhat poetic way of saying that the "natural world" (the world "God made") will take care of us, if we will just let it. Instead, Bendell suggests, we have been "tricked" into thinking that we must hold up that world by our own work, and the strain and stress of trying to do that is breaking us down, along with the Earth itself. The strain and stress and its attendant cracking and breaking are visible in the fractures that we can (and must) repair, making everything even more beautiful than it was before.

That's hopeful! Bendell is certainly right that it is the "money-power" that has convinced us that all our frenetic action and consumption is what is "needed" for our world to survive. 

But that could change. We can change.
Since I know that's true - and Bendell seems to suggest that he does, too - maybe Bendell is not as much of a "pessimist" as I have heretofore surmised!
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