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General · 16th November 2012
Ray Grigg
The present concern about humanity's future can no longer be dismissed as millennialism, that foreboding chime of sober predictions which seems to occur whenever history's clock strikes the arrival of some significant hour. Something else is bothering people. Perhaps it's the speed of change, the reckless way we've launched ourselves into the unknown aboard the unforgiving complexities of technology and globalization. Perhaps it's the speed of this mammoth enterprise combined with the dubious character reference we bring from our past. Or perhaps it's the insights we've recently gleaned about ourselves, the intricate psychological mechanisms we use to repeat our past mistakes in novel variations. Zygmunt Bauman seems to know something important about all these concerns.

Professor Bauman is an honoured member of the sociology department at the University of Leeds, England, a World War II Jewish refugee from Poland who is now an internationally recognized scholar, the author of 57 books and hundreds of academic articles. He thinks at sociology's intersection with psychology and philosophy, a location that gives him incredibly insightful perspectives. His principle concerns are globalization, modernity, consumerism and morality.

He argues that modern societies, until about the middle of the 20th century, gave priority to security over freedom. This meant removing unknowns and uncertainties from the hectic and chaotic character of life by controlling nature, establishing bureaucracies, building structure, and entrenching rules, regulations, uniformity and familiarity. Then it inverted this process by exchanging security for the freedom to consume.

Professor. Bauman's ideas are illuminating when applied to environmental issues. The structures of business and corporations, the power of industry and technology, the juggernaut of production and distribution, and the momentum of resource extraction in its many forms, all continue unabated. But the attention of the public — whose focus has shifted from security to consumerism — leaves these exploitive forces unsupervised. The result is environmental deterioration at an unprecedented scale, without a public outcry even remotely proportional to the unfolding problems.

The environmental deterioration is difficult to stop because people, as committed consumers, think they are making the correct choices. In Professor Bauman's chilling words, “Rational people will quietly, meekly go into gas chambers if only you allow them to believe they’re bathrooms.” The Jewish victims of the Holocaust made a succession of perfectly logical decisions on their journey to death. “At every step of the way,” notes Derrick Jensen in his elaboration on Bauman's thinking (see the documentary, Blind Spot), “it was in the Jews' rational best interests not to resist. Would you rather get an ID card or resist and possibly get killed? Would you rather move to a ghetto or resist and possibly get killed? Do you want to get on a cattle car or resist and possibly get killed? At every step of the way it was in their rational best interests to not resist. But that's all based on this whole system of make believe. You have to make believe that what you know is going to happen to you, is not going to happen... . So I'll say that rational people will quietly, meekly go to the end of the world if only you allow them to believe that buying energy-saving bulbs is going to save the day.”

In expanding on Bauman's ideas, Jensen equates our environmental situation to the dynamics in an abusive relationship. The victim takes the smallest sign of improvement as an indication that everything is going to be better. But it never is. Similarly, he says, “We have to make believe the planet isn't being killed. We have to make believe that money brings happiness, that the age of oil can go on forever, that we can have infinite growth on a finite planet.” These are ideas he pursues further in his book, The Culture of Make Believe.

Jensen's thinking alone should provoke some fundamental and disturbing questions. Do we live in a culture of make believe? Do we believe that we can continue to emit billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere without impairing the habitability of our planet? Do we believe we can continue to convert ever more of nature to our purposes without wrecking the entire ecological structure of the biosphere? Do we believe we can continue to use the air and oceans as sewers for our wastes without causing irreparable harm? Do we believe that resources are infinite on a finite planet? Do we believe in a future? Is it possible we are making a succession of critically important decisions all based on make believe?

These questions combine with Professor Bauman's insights to create even more searching questions. Has the freedom to be consumers displaced our larger responsibilities to each other, to the community, to the planet, to sustainability and a secure future? Have the “rational best interests” of the moment overlooked the circumstances which define our actual situation? If the atmosphere cannot safely absorb any more carbon dioxide without inducing global warming, destructive weather extremes and dead oceans, then why are we considering the safest way to find, move and use fossil fuels such as gas, oil and coal? If the toxic effects of our chemical ingenuity are causing cancers, hormonal disruptions and mental disabilities, why are we not purging the source of these toxins and devising only harmless alternatives? If we know we are on our way to the metaphorical gas chambers, why doesn't this change our measure of “rational best interests”?

For Professor Bauman, the real question is whether or not we take “responsibility for our responsibility”, an issue that is not social, economic, political or even environmental, but personal and moral.