We are now living through a transition from fossil capitalism, hyperconsumption and overpopulation to a world where human presence to the planet Earth will be radically transformed – whether we like it (or survive it) or not.
My ongoing revision of Turning Signs now includes the first 12 chapters. Along the way, it’s persuaded me that the book contains some important ideas relevant to the personal and systemic transformations we are all living through these days. Later on, I’m hoping to make some of those ideas more accessible through this blog. (More visually oriented, for one thing.)
In the meantime I’m looking forward to a couple of forthcoming books that have been recently announced. One of them is by Jeremy Lent, who’s been quoted here before: it’s called The Web of Meaning and will probably explore some of the same territory as Turning Signs. I expect his approach to it will be different from mine, which focusses on core ideas drawn from Charles Peirce’s philosophy of signs. So it will be interesting to see how much the two approaches agree on scientific, cultural and ethical issues.
Another forthcoming book of great interest is Richard Heinberg’s Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival. If you follow that link and pre-order it, as i did, you get online access to a pre-release version. Based on my reading of it so far, it’s another wide-ranging interdisciplinary book about the biological and cultural evolution of power among humans. By studying the uses and abuses of power, it will draw some conclusions about how we might deal with the economic/ecological mess we humans have gotten ourselves into.
I’m happy to see that both Lent and Heinberg seem to honor the roles of both scientific and religious (or “spiritual”) experience in shaping human habits. There have always been people who were more science-minded than religious, and religious people who tended to distrust scientific thinking, and dogmatically driven people on both sides, but i’ve always found this mutual animosity lacking in common sense. Turning Signs delves fairly deeply into both scientific and religious experience, and the differences between them (see Chapter 8). My own research leaves me with no doubt that both are vital to human guidance systems, as i call them. That’s one example of an affinity i see between Jeremy Lent’s work and Richard Heinberg’s, and my own. But i trust that i’ll learn something new from them too.
I’m back to the blog after spending the entire month of March researching, rethinking and revising Chapter 8 of Turning Signs (and welcoming the spring of 2021). The chapter isn’t completely done yet, but in the meantime i want to share this excerpt from Free, Fair, and Alive (pp. 204-205), a book on Commoning by David Bollier and Silke Helfrich (New Society Publishers, 2019):
Geographer Dina Hestad of the University of Oxford has studied what characteristics must be present for actions and strategies to be socially transformative. She has provisionally identified the following criteria:
Work towards a vision which reflects the need to live in balance with the carrying capacity of the earth
Consider that change in a complex system cannot be controlled due to uncertainty
Avoid displacing problems to other locations or times, which could prevent wider system change
Tackle the root causes of acceleration and growth — the feedback loops that cause most of today’s ecological and social crises
Work towards systems that avoid unchecked imbalances of power and help avoid triggering humans’ (destructive) ancient tribal circuits
Promote understanding that humans are part of a much larger whole, and create possibilities for resonance and meaningful, affective relationships between people and nature
Develop healthy human agency at individual and collective levels for transforming and co-creating our future
Open up new possibilities for acting rather than shrinking our opportunities to act
Communicate a compelling and inspiring story of system change that names the problems and identifies commensurate leverage points and resonates with people from all walks of life and across ideologies
Promote social cohesion and a sense of togetherness at different levels, which includes trust, a sense of belonging, and a willingness to participate and help
Promote critical thinking, generosity of spirit, and openness to learn from diverse ideas and perspectives
Commoning has a rich potential to meet all of these criteria. Of course, implementation is critical! That is to say, strengthening and expanding commoning from within a market/state polity will be really difficult. But it is entirely feasible.
Once again Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute has given us a concise overview of the situation we’re in (“we” being the whole Earth community) and what we could do to improve it. He outlines four broadly defined approaches to the transformation – choose one (or more) that appeals to you. I recommend it highly as a contribution to the global conversation.
As for my own contribution, i’m now revisiting Chapter 8, on Consensus and Community; Chapters 1 through 7 of Turning Signs 2 are complete as far as they go, and are available both online and in the downloadable version. Comments welcome as always.
My slow revision of Turning Signs has now reached the beginning of Chapter 6. Chapter 5 took longer than expected, but the good news is that it’s not only better but a bit shorter than it was before. The downloadable version of the complete book has been updated as of yesterday.
This revision has been sparked by the continuing dialogue between some ancient scriptures and recent reflections on the transition. I’ve been studying Robert Thurman’s book on the Bardo Thödol (known in the West as the “Tibetan Book of the Dead”) – and hearing Laurie Anderson’s beautiful rendition of Songs from the Bardo as well. Thurman explains that the root meaning of bardo in Tibetan is “the between,” and the vast bardo literature reflects a conceptual scheme which ‘is used to create in the practitioner a sense that all moments of existence are “between” moments, unstable, fluid, and transformable into liberated enlightenment experience’ (Thurman 1994, 34). So wherever we are in spacetime, we are in the between.
I’ve also been reading a collection of very recent essays called The New Possible, and to give a taste of it, here’s an excerpt from Jeremy Lent’s contribution:
As long as government policies emphasize GDP growth and transnational corporations relentlessly pursue shareholder returns, we will continue accelerating toward global catastrophe. These practices ransack the Earth without regard to long-term effects. If we are truly to “shift course away from our failing trajectory,” the new era must be defined, at its deepest level, not merely by the political or economic choices we make, but by a transformation in the very way we make sense of the world, and by a concomitant revolution in our predominant values.
The depiction of humans as selfish individuals, the view of nature as a resource to be exploited, and the idea that technology alone can fix our biggest problems are all profound misconceptions that have collectively led our civilization down this madcap path to disaster. We must recognize the destructive nature of the dominant mainstream culture and reject it for one that is life-affirming, embracing values that emphasize growth in the quality of life rather than in the consumption of goods and services. We must emphasize core human values of fairness, justice, and compassion as paramount—extending them through local neighborhoods to state and national government, to the global community of humans, and ultimately to the community of all life.
In short, we need to change the basis of our global civilization. We must move from a civilization based on wealth accumulation to one based on the health of living systems: an ecological civilization. A change of such magnitude would be an epochal event. There have only been two occasions in history when radical dislocations led to a transformation of virtually every aspect of the human experience: the Agricultural Revolution that began about twelve thousand years ago, and the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century. If our civilization is to survive and prosper through the looming crises of this century, we will need a transformation of our values, goals, and collective behavior on a similar scale.
The New Possible: Visions of Our World beyond Crisis (p. 5-6). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
The aggregation of complex systems in contemporary networked applications means that no single person ever sees the whole picture.
— Bridle, James. New Dark Age (p. 43). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
The trouble … is that we are terrifyingly ignorant. The most learned of us are ignorant.… The acquisition of knowledge always involves the revelation of ignorance— almost is the revelation of ignorance. Our knowledge of the world instructs us first of all that the world is greater than our knowledge of it.
— Wendell Berry, writer and Kentucky farmer, as quoted by Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems (p. 86). Chelsea Green Publishing. Kindle Edition.
We denizens of the World Wide Web have access to more information than ever. The trouble is that we often try to read it faster, hoping to take in more of it, or worrying that the next thing could be more worthy of our attention than what we’re reading now, so we should get through it as fast as possible. It takes a conscious effort to slow down and give the symbols a chance to connect with the time you’re living. But i think the effort also increases the humbling awareness that the world is greater than our knowledge of it.
I’ve noticed this especially while returning my attention to the early chapters of Turning Signs. It’s been over five years since i first published it, long enough to enable me to read it again for the first time (to steal a phrase from Marcus Borg). I’ve forgotten my authorial intentions well enough to be surprised by it, for instance by how much it’s perfused with systems thinking, which i consider crucial to the transition we are living in 2021. But i’m also surprised at the number of changes (improvements, i hope) that seem to be called for. (I’ve learned a few things since 2015 and have a better sense of how ignorant i am.) I’ve now revised the first four chapters. I might have to call it a second edition, or Turning Signs 2.0.
The online chapers are always up to date, of course, but it’s also occurred to me that some people might prefer to read TS offline. I’ve made it possible now to download the whole thing as a Zip file (a little over 3 MB) which you can extract to a folder on your computer or tablet and read with your browser, regardless of platform. You’ll find the download link near the top of the Table of Contents page. I’ll have to periodically update that Zip file on my site as revision continues, but it will always be the whole book, Obverse, Reverse, Universe and all. If anyone reading this wants to try it out, let me know (by comment or email) how well it works. Especially if you run into any problems.
Since my last post, i’ve decided that a virtual reboot of the whole Turning Signs enterprise was in order. The result, so far, is a radical revision of Chapter One. It begins:
January 2021, Little Current, Ontario, Planet Earth. January, month of Janus, is a traditional time for looking back and looking ahead. For over a year now i’ve been blogging about the transition. Some have called this time ‘the Great Unravelling,’ which is less forward-looking, and indeed the future seems less predictable than ever. I had vaguely foreseen this in the first chapter of Turning Signs as published in 2015 …
The rest is here, and i’d appreciate any comments, especially about its relevance to what we’re all living through at this time. It’s a bit shorter than it was before, so it shouldn’t take too much of your time – which, as we all know, is not a renewable resource. It might even be a welcome break from news about Covid and Trump. Thanks for even considering it, and thanks to you all for subscribing to this humble blog!
In Peircean terminology, Turning Signs could be described as a hybrid of cenoscopy and synthetic philosophy. Cenoscopy, as opposed to the idioscopic or specialized sciences such as physics and psychology, investigates
phenomena that are perfectly familiar to all mankind. Because these are founded on common observation, Bentham gave them the collective designation Cenoscopy, which I adopt as expressive of my own opinion of the basis on which these sciences, which are otherwise called Philosophy, rest.
— Peirce, MS 601 (c. 1906)
Cenoscopy then ‘embraces all that positive science which rests upon familiar experience and does not search out occult or rare phenomena’; for Peirce this, rather than metaphysics, is the real “first philosophy,” or at least ‘is better entitled (except by usage) to being distinguished as philosophia prima than ontology’ (EP2:372). Synthetic philosophy, on the other hand, ‘has been called philosophia ultima’ because it ‘embraces all that truth which is derivable by collating the results of different special sciences, but which is too broad to be established by any one of them’ (EP2:372).
In other words, the philosophical inquiry reflected in Turning Signs aims at both the primary (or primal?) and the ultimate – the alpha and the omega. This makes it doubly useful in these apocalyptic or transitional times. Actually only the cenoscopic part should be called “inquiry,” or heuretic science as Peirce called it. He placed synthetic philosophy ‘at the head of the Retrospective Sciences’ (EP2:373), i.e. those which find new connections among observations previously made rather than making new observations of their own. But the reliance of cenoscopic inquiry on ‘familiar experience’ does not make it easier to practice, because it requires critical common sense.
The method of cenoscopic research presents a certain difficulty. In commencing it we are confronted with the fact that we already believe a great many things. These beliefs, or at least the more general of them, ought to be reconsidered with deliberation. This implies that it should be conducted according to a deliberate plan adopted only after the severest criticism. Indeed, nothing in cenoscopy should be embraced without criticism. Each criticism should wait to be planned, and each plan should wait for criticism. Clearly, if we are to get on at all, we must put up with imperfect procedure.
It’s pretty clear by now that a transformation of agricultural practices will be a necessary part of any just transition to a healthy Earth community. Several people and organizations engaged in this transformation have recently posted articles on resilience.org. One of them, the Land Institute, has published an open-access book called The Perennial Turn: Contemporary Essays from the Field. (You can download the free e-book from that site.)
The first article (by Wes Jackson, Aubrey Streit Krug, Bill Vitek, and Robert Jensen) takes a look at the global situation in which this ‘Perennial Turn’ is taking place. One paragraph strikes me as especially cogent:
Revolutionary change in theory and practice, not minor course corrections, are needed; we cannot assume that modifying the existing trajectory of the human species is adequate. If there is to be an ongoing large-scale human presence on Earth, the energy/resource consumption that most affluent humans take for granted—and which many non-affluent humans aspire to—cannot continue.
The time we are living makes it increasingly risky to take things for granted – even things like a steady supply of energy, food, water, clean air, health care, mobility, employment and so on. If philosophers are those who don’t take things for granted that people commonly think they know, as Merleau-Ponty says, maybe this is a good time for open-access philosophical essays like Turning Signs. —That’s about as close to self-advertising as this blog ever gets … but we can all use a bit of ‘beginner’s mind,’ whatever the time.
We are living in transformative times. The title of this blog post is the title of an essay by Richard Heinberg which is exactly what the title says. I can’t think of anything else i’ve read that says so much that is so important right now in so few words. This is truly essential reading.
The assembly of students in the hall should blend like milk and water to support the activity of the way. Although now for some period you are either guest or host, later you will be buddha ancestors equally throughout time. Therefore, you should not forget the feeling of gratitude. It is rare to meet one another and practice what is rare to practice. This is called the body and mind of buddha dharma; you will certainly become a buddha ancestor.
— Dogen, ‘Regulations for the Auxiliary Cloud Hall at the Kannondori Kosho Gokoku Monastery’ (Tanahashi 2010, 39-40)