Sunday, October 11, 2009

Thesis question articulation II: Societal unsustainability

Societal unsustainability: part two
Series begins back here.
We shall refer particularly to contemporary industrial societies, rather than to all societies globally or historically. There are of course various kinds of industrial societies. Western societies have a long established tradition of industrialisation and only distant cultural memories of any other kind of social organization. For some other societies, industrialisation is rapidly becoming the dominant pattern of social and economic activity. Again, this project will focus more on the former than the latter. Although many of the challenges just mentioned are global in scope and threaten all societies, there is a particular shape to the issue in those societies whose historical and present activities are principally to blame, since at stake is not simply survival, but also the moral, spiritual and legal problem of guilt.

Industrialism is a complex cultural phenomenon involving shared beliefs, narratives, and moral judgements, a set of habitual practices and various social structures and institutions. From a physical viewpoint, it is the historically unprecedented exercise of human power through harnessing non-human energy (particularly fossil fuels) in the rationally-governed pursuit of maximal production of material goods. And the very ‘success’ and increasingly global reach of this way of life is a or the primary cause of the present ecological crises. Pre-industrial societies have undermined the conditions of their own possibility before and collapsed as a result. But the activities of contemporary industrial societies threaten not only their own continued existence, but that of nearly all human societies.

This line of analysis and critique is well worn amongst ecologists and eco-theologians. Although there are significant disputes within this field, the precise account of the cause and extent of the problem is not crucial to this project. It is enough to note that there is an increasingly widespread perception based on coherent evidence that the present pursuit of relentless industrial growth will continue to have increasingly disastrous consequences both for human societies and much of the rest of the biosphere too. Put another way, continuing ‘business as usual’ is not simply a moral impossibility, but an ecological impossibility.

For this reason, I considered using the term societal decline rather than societal unsustainability since the force of threat in the latter has been diluted through overuse. Nonetheless, I have retained it because although serious decline is the likely fate of an unsustainable society, the societal threat from lack of sustainability has a particular shape not shared by other potential causes of societal instability and degradation.

Also, I am deliberately using societal rather than social. Although almost synonymous, the latter has a broader semantic range, including ‘interpersonal’ as well as ‘society as a whole’. Therefore, using social leaves open the possibility that the threat in question could simply mean this or that aspect of society being altered, rather than the entire present social order in danger.

Notice too that our topic speaks of society rather than politics. There are, of course, specifically political implications of ecologically-driven decline, and various political regimes may be more or less sustainable under the conditions of late modernity. But the focus here will be more broadly societal than specifically political.

This perception of grave societal vulnerability is the background, not the focus of this project. Let us continue backwards through the sub-title to see how it is important for the question I wish to pursue.
This post is part of a series in which I am outlining my current research question. My present working title, which this series seeks to explain, is "Anxious about tomorrow": The possibility of Christian moral attentiveness in the predicament of societal unsustainability.
A. Societal unsustainability: part one; part two
B. Predicament: part one; part two
C. Moral attentiveness: part one; part two
D. Christian: part one
E. Possibility: part one
F. Summary: part one
Image by CAC.