Faust

I bought my copy of Goethe’s Faust in 1952 when I was an undergraduate student of literature and philosophy at the University of Minnesota. It is a mid-XX century translation by C. F. MacIntyre with the original German text displayed on the opposite page for convenient reference. it is the earliest book purchase I still possess, and it has been carried it along with me throughout my long life. I thought of it today while rereading an essay I wrote at age 20 in 1954 as a summing up of my thinking, when I received my BA degree in Humanities.

Since then, I have studied philosophy, astronomy, medicine and, alas, psychiatry. Like Faust I feel no wiser now than I was before, and realize that we are all basically ignorant.

My essay proclaimed the dawn of a world-outlook, and one may compare  what I thought 65 years ago with what I now believe.

Scientific knowledge then as now was celebrated as the sole means of understanding the structure of the universe, with intersubjective testability as the criterion for assessing the truth of a proposition about the natural world. The role of language was considered  fundamental for this understanding, and my view of that remains strong.

Ethical values and social concerns also remain much the same now as then, and aesthetic interests while broader, continue as before. I didn’t like jazz or broccoli then and I still don’t.

My early thoughts about philosophy reflected a feeling of sterility about logical empiricism, useful in dealing with science and epistemology, but of limited benefit in examining value judgments and moral issues. I now incline more towards existentialism.

In a closing statement from 1954, I wrote “It would be nobler for mankind if the universe had no preconceived plan, because then we ourselves might endow it with a purpose. For what is man but a very small and yet complex chunk of the universe come alive and conscious? We are the universe, and what goals we set for ourselves we set for it also.” That remains my credo.

A lifelong theme has been a wide range of interests and not becoming a narrow specialist. Like Faust, I don’t presume to be an expert in anything, though learning has always been a source of fulfillment. I’ve tried to become at least a competent amateur in some areas, respecting the advice of Aristotle who wrote, “A man should be able to play the flute—but not too well.”

Finally, as a physician, I’ve tried to do no harm and hopefully have done some good for others. A sense of humour has been helpful in dealing with the vicissitudes of illness and advanced age.

After a lifetime studying history, science, literature, and psychology, the collapse of civilization looks inevitable, and the only certainty is the second law of thermodynamics. Applied reason and competition have enabled the human race to survive and achieve mastery over nature, but are destroying us. Compelled by our inborn traits and poisoned by our technology, the Eternal Masculine drags us down.

Freud wins over Goethe.

Kingsnorth: Epilogue

In an epilogue Kingsnorth sums up his thinking, starting with a trenchant quotation by American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization.”

Kingsnorth elaborates on the fragility of civilization and foresees its fall, identifying as an underlying cause the myth of ‘progress’ leading to unlimited economic growth at the expense of the natural world. “Our attempt to separate ourselves from ‘nature’ has been a grim failure, proof not of our genius but our hubris.”

Denial is rampant. We are poised at the edge of a massive change, an ecocide we have wrought upon the planet, and there is a reluctance to accept the undeniable truth that the culprit is civilization itself. This is the last taboo. As a writer, he advances our need to admit it and to detach ourselves from it, employing what he calls the Eight Principles of Uncivilisation:

1. We live in a time of social economic and ecological unraveling. All around us are signs that our whole way of  living is already passing into history. We will face this reality honestly and learn how to live with it.

2. We reject the faith that holds that the converging crises of our times can be reduced to a set of ‘problems’ in need of technological or political ‘solutions’.

3. We believe that the roots of these crises lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves. We intend to challenge the stories that underpin our civilization: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality, and the myth of our separation from ‘nature’.

4. We will reassert the role of storytelling as more than mere entertainment. It is through stories that we weave reality.

5. Humans are not the point and purpose of the planet. Our art will begin with the attempt to step outside the human bubble. By careful attention we will re-engage with the non-human world.

6. We will celebrate writing and art that is grounded in a sense of place and of time. Our literature has been dominated for too long by those who inhabit the cosmopolitan citadels.

7. We will not lose ourselves in the elaboration of theories or ideologies. Our words will be elemental. We write with dirt under our fingernails.

8. The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop. Together, we shall find the hope beyond hope, the paths that lead to the unknown world ahead of us.

Whether one agrees with his arguments or not, they are relevant and merit discussion.

Kingsnorth: Connections

In this third grouping of essays by Paul Kingsnorth in Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist he includes a series of seven shorter writings relevant to the somber prospects for future civilization on this planet expressed earlier in the text.

In The Black Chamber, describing his thoughts while entranced by paleolithic cave paintings in the French Pyrenees, he senses the enmeshment of reason and emotion and the meaning of what to him is sacred. He expresses a desire to be a servant of God, “If by God we mean nature, life, the world.”

The Old Yoke is a reflection on Anglo-Saxon resistance to the Norman invasion in the XI century expressed in “foliate heads” in Norman churches. In The Bay Kingsnorth celebrates nature when running over the sands of Morecombe Bay in northwestern England, and England itself gets its own chapter called Rescuing the English, which touches on national identity, implicitly hinting at the West Lothian Question.

The Witness turns to Buddhism and the need to accept that all things perish, change and transformation is inevitable. The Holocene Extinction is underway and we are the cause. “Much of nature is dying away in order that we might have access to smartphones, takeaway coffee, private cars, aeroplane flights and Facebook.” This will not change, it is accelerating.. All we can do, as a Zen master said, is to “sit with it.”

Singing in the Forest returns to a memory Kingsnorth celebrates, of being in a tropical rain forest in West Papua, accompanied by local guides, singing to their forest as a shared living entity. We think ourselves to be in control of our destiny, but we are not. “The notions that only humans matter, or that humans are in control, even of themselves, are unlikely to outlast this century.”

The final essay Planting Trees in the Anthropocene contrasts simple labour with the technium, “the huge and complex web of advanced technologies we have built around us”, that has become central to our lives, and to which we are addicted. Kingsnorth quotes D. H. Lawrence in a passage lamenting dehumanization.

The overall tone of Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist resembles a synthesis of Ecclesiastes and Zen Buddhism, “everything is transient” and “so what?” Some have called it defeatism, others say it is realistic. Perhaps it is a mixture of both. I thought of Voltaire’s Candide cultivating his garden.

The future will bring discord, uncertainty and loss. To deny this is to deny reality, but like the proverbial ostrich burying its head in the sand when faced with danger, that is what most humans do when confronted with the ominous facts.

While the overall feeling of the book is grim, one admonition is welcome, if not consoling: “You can spend too much time with thoughts of the future.”

Other animals don’t.

Kingsnorth: Withdrawal

Paul Kingsnorth opens part 2 of Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist with three autobiographical sketches of his formative years, beginning with an episode at age 12 when with his father, an inveterate hiker, was compelled to forge ahead on his own through rain on a cold and windswept moor. Another vignette is from age 19 with peers on the south downs, protesting the construction of a highway. The third from age 21 is from the two months he spent in an Indonesian rain forest. His experiences away from urban areas led to developing feelings about the effect of humanity upon the natural world and its remaining wild places.

Kingsnorth maintains that the focus of “environmentalism” has shifted from the initial concerns of preservation to sustainability, interpreting this as being a euphemism for  maintaining the security and comfort level of the wealthiest. He laments the mass destruction of the world’s remaining wild places by mining and agriculture, in order to feed the economic machine.

Disillusioned by “green politics” that has become “an adjunct to hyper-capitalism”, he has chosen to withdraw, to opt out. He celebrates poets like Dylan Thomas, who knew the juggernaut could not be stopped but only lived with, and even though having lost the battle, proclaimed his famous lines “Rage, rage against the dying of the light”.

As an example of a self-sustaining lifestyle, Kingsnorth describes constructing a compost toilet, avoiding contaminating the environment with human waste by flushing it out of sight with clean water. “What happens in a society that won’t deal with its own shit? It ends up deep in it.” He considers it his duty to live simply and with the minimum effect on his natural surroundings.

A shrewd section, The Barcode Moment, invites us to closely examine any of the ubiquitous barcodes affixed to merchandise. Barcodes differ from one another in terms of the numbers they represent, but all have three identical “guard bars” at the beginning, middle and end, all longer than the others. Each of them represents the number 6, and three of them yield 666, the “mark of the Beast” in the Book of Revelations! Satan is Capitalism? A clever coincidence?

Kingsnorth worries about technological encroachment on human interactions, and perceives a shift from only being irritating to becoming more sinister (as we see with manipulation of data to direct merchandising and even now, alas, to target political propaganda.) Meanwhile we sink deeper into “narcissistic virtuality . . . while the world burns around us.”

The final essay in this section is Dark Ecology, wherein he quotes writings by the criminal technophobe Theodore Kaczynski foreseeing the collapse of civilization. Kingsnorth formulates five suggestions: withdrawal, preserving non-human life, getting your hands dirty with genuine physical work, Insisting that nature has a value beyond utility, and building refuges to weather the oncoming storm.

“None of it is going to save the world—but then there is no saving the world, and the ones who say there is are the ones you need to save it from.”

This is his personal philosophy for a dark time—a dark ecology.

Paul Kingsnorth – Essays

A collection of essays by this acclaimed English writer entitled Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist has recently appeared. Sandwiched between his introduction and an epilogue are 17 short articles, grouped into three sections, called Collapse, Withdrawal, and Connection.

The sober introduction reviews the degradation of the planet by industrialization, noting that extinction levels are presently the highest they have been in 65 million years. Kingsnorth grimly recognizes resistance is futile, and avers there is “no stopping what we have unleashed.”

In the first section of Collapse he describes universal denial of the impending catastrophe, and compares the glib and reassuring assertions of politicians to “a sermon by a priest who has lost his faith but is desperately trying not to admit it, even to himself.” The enemy of the earth is bigness itself, and continual economic growth is environmentally toxic and unsustainable.

Seeing life as a series of collapses, in frustration he concludes, “I will write and write and write and stick the lot, all anyhow, in my desk drawers. They can sort it out when I’m dead. Why would I care? I don’t write for them anyway.”

The fantasy of extraterrestrial colonization of humanity is just a fantasy. Mining the moon or asteroids to replace depleted resources on the planet were it possible would only be more of the same. We are all stuck here, and there is no way out, including “renewable energy sources.”

Dams drowning communities are built around the world because of expanding economies needing more water, electric power, or both, and we are always slyly told it’s for our benefit. We can see what’s coming. The Machine of the global industrial system is unstoppable, and a mass-extinction event must be the endpoint. What is to be done? Kingsnorth asks and can only reply, “The only thing to do is to keep on keeping on. After all, the alternative must be ‘giving up’ and watching the world burn.”

Disillusioned by environmentalism which he believes now to be hopeless arguing about how best to power the industrial Machine, he mocks the claim that renewable energy can’t meet our so-called energy needs. “Our needs for what?” More broadband or clean drinking water?”

We need to cherish a sense of biophilia, “a love for the natural world of which we as animals are a part. . . we have made ourselves caged animals, and all the gadgets in the world cannot compensate for what we have lost.”

Kingsnorth’s eloquent jeremiad rings true to me. Unlimited industrialization and explosive population increase accompanied by worldwide environmental degradation is proceeding apace, and, as he writes, “the Machine” is unstoppable.

Tomorrow I will consider his second section, Withdrawal. Tonight I expect to share the unsettled dreams of Gregor Samsa. We’ll see what Kingsnorth has to say in the morning.

Xi Jinping: CEO, China

English Sinologist Kerry Brown’s 2017 update of his acclaimed study of the Chinese president since November 2012 was released after the election of American president Donald Trump. Since then, China has become the global champion of response to climate change and the world’s leading supporter of free trade. “Many will now look to China to provide mature, measured leadership in the face of a volatile, Twitter-addictd US leader. Unlike others, this book doesn’t promote the usual assessment of China as America’s main competitor for world leadership.

Brown regards the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) as a business, currently “the world’s most successful and complex enterprise”. Beyond the commercial angle, Brown portrays Xi as appealing to the Confucian moral teachings of justice, harmony and acceptance of authority. Xi is general secretary of the Party “not because he is defending an organization: he is there beause he is defending a faith.” One of his hardest tasks has been to deal with the legacy of Chairman Mao, regarded as positive by some fervent supporters , but others consider him a liability and a “badge of shame.”

Xi proposed a basic contract between government and society, stating, “The main responsibility and role of government is to maintain the stability of the macroeconomy, strengthen and improve public services, ensure fair competition, strengthen market oversight, maintain market order, promote sustainable development and common prosperity, and intervene in situations where market failure occurs.”

He proposes state owned enterprises be weaned off subsidies, taxes raised to narrow the difference between rich and poor, adjusting to increasing urban and decreasing rural populations, instituting democracy “with Chinese characteristics” (maintaining one party rule but with gradually increasing consultation and elections of local officials), reforming the judiciary, stamping out corruption, coping with an aging population, pollution and environmental degradation, coping with negative events like epidemics and dissent from ethnic minorities, and dealing with unresolved political issues arising from Hong Kong and Taiwan being considered as culturally but not administratively part of China.

Given this host of problems for the most populous country in the world (and third largest in area after Russia and Canada), Brown observes that “without the guidance of the Party and its unified and unifying vision, China’s problems will be insoluble. The CCP is the sole unifying element in a society of increasing diversity.

The demographics are predictable, and the largest foreseeable coming challenge will be a steep rise in median age and dependency of people over the age of 60. Xi foresees a bright future, but unexpected events like a collapse of national unity, war, pandemic, or massive financial crisis could potentially lead to a return to chaos that nobody wants.The CCP desires stability, as do we all, and ironically in this context, “we are all supporters of Xi’s CCP.”  This is a sober but positive assessment, finally, from a non-American.

Cosmology, Ufology & The Fermi Paradox

The discrepancy between the expectation that there should be evidence of alien civilizations or visitations and the presumption that no visitations have been observed is known as the Fermi Paradox. US Physicist Kevin Knuth, editor of the peer-reviewed journal Entropy, suggested in a recent posting in The Conversation that we should consider the “unsettling and refreshing fact we may not be alone.”

While it is clear that about 95% of reported sightings of unidentified flying objects can be attributed to atmospheric phenomena or mistaken perception of known objects such as aircraft and weather balloons, according to replies from a survey of 1356 members of the American Astronomical Society, 4.6% reported witnessing or recording “inexplicable aerial phenomena.”

Knuth argues that scientific study of the small number of unidentified flying objects is reasonable, and not limited to what he terms “the domain of fringe and pseudo scientists, many of whom litter the field with conspiracy theories and wild speculation.”

In the context of what is now becoming understood about the structure of space, population of stars and possible planetary systems like our own, Fermi’s question in 1950 “Where is everybody?” makes more sense in 2018 than 60 years ago, when the ability to formulate verifiable cosmology was more limited.

Observational astronomy in the mid-XX century was infinitesimal compared to what is now possible with orbital telescopes outside the earth’s atmosphere, and the ability to examine the entire electromagnetic spectrum both in frequencies above and below the limited range of human visual perception. With the help of digital technology, reliable information is now available that in the past was only speculative.

Studying philosophy, astronomy, medicine & psychiatry have lead me to reflect on our current level of understanding of natural phenomena and the human condition. As a logical empiricist by training, with the background of working in observational and statistical astronomy, and subsequent experience as a physician and psychiatrist, it seems both a blessing and a curse to have heightened awareness of these concerns.

Nevertheless, it seems plausible to consider possibilities other than aircraft and weather balloons, given that there is reliable evidence that a small percentage of sightings appear to be of flight characteristics beyond any known human technology, and that “there are simultaneous observations by multiple reliable witnesses along with radar patterns and photographic evidence revealing patterns of activity that are compelling.”

I agree with Knuth’s suggestion that scientific consideration of these phenomena is warranted, and not to be dismissed peremptorily as only “tin hat nonsense.”

Unexplained observations merit resolution.