Sunday, September 27, 2020

Why am I feeling so anxious? The end of modernism arrives

A friend of mine quipped that it is one thing to talk about the end of modernism—as the two of us have been doing for over 25 years—and quite another to live through it. It might seem that such notions are far too abstract to account for the anxiety of our fraught times. But underneath all the disorder we see in our pandemic-plagued economic, social and political lives is the crumbling of key assumptions about what we call modernity, a period of "enlightenment" that has supposedly freed us from the past.

First, let me recount what I regard as four key assumptions of modernism—I've written about them before—which are being demolished every day right before our eyes with the help of an invisible virus.

  1. Humans are in one category and nature is in another.
  2. Scale doesn't matter.
  3. History can be safely ignored since modern society has seen through the delusions of the past.
  4. Science is a unified, coherent field that explains the rational principles by which we can manage the physical world.

The next thing I need to remind you is that modernism is as much a religion as any other. In the not-too-distant past, whenever anyone raised questions about its basic tenets—directly or indirectly in one form or another—that person was quickly shushed. If the person persisted, he or she was then shamed. If shaming didn't work, then that person was shunned or even unceremoniously ejected from the party.

Enter COVID-19.

The very first thing COVID-19 reminded us is that humans and nature are both in the same category, whatever you want to call it. (My favorite living French thinker Bruno Latour proposed the compound term "nature-culture" in his seminal book We Have Never Been Modern.) We are in this dance of existence together, forever part of one continuum that I sometimes call "the all" (a term that, not surprisingly, has gotten zero traction). The universe we live in is seamless. No one has been able to show me where the universe stops, has a gap, and then starts up again.

From an ecological viewpoint this realization has enormous implications. Climate change is yet another phenomenon which cannot be explained unless we collapse the two categories of humans and nature into one.

As for the second tenet, scale doesn't matter, the pandemic has shown all too well that the scale of our transportation system and the scale of our cities and the scope of their connections took COVID-19 around the world in just a few months. No place has been untouched. And once again, climate change demonstrates that the scale of our industry does matter. That scale is leading to profound changes in the Earth's climate.

The techno-uptopians and their economist allies imagine that the global economy in 2050 will be more than twice the size it was as of 2016. They do not imagine for a minute that it could be smaller or the same. They do not believe that successfully doubling the scale of our current intrusion on natural systems, or at least trying to, will destabilize those systems to such an extent that economic growth will not be possible and may even reverse. In short, they cannot imagine limits on the scale of human endeavors. And yet, those limits are being manifested all around us.

As for history being ignored, we have done that particularly well during the pandemic, but at great cost. The same fights over wearing masks took place in the 1918-19 Spanish flu pandemic. And, some officials thought it best to downplay the seriousness of the epidemic. Back then each of the warring powers in the First World War thought publicly acknowledging the pandemic would undermine their own war effort by sapping morale and alerting enemies to a vulnerability.

The health commissioner of New York City, Royal Copeland, threaded the needle with an approach that called for such measures as social distancing, masks and staggering starting times for public events such as Broadway shows to reduce crowding in the streets. So long as theaters refused to allow admittance to obviously ill patrons, their productions were allowed and afforded an opportunity for Copeland and his team of public health workers and volunteers to educate the audiences through brief lectures before performances about how the flu was spread and how to stop that spread. Workplace hours were staggered as well to prevent crowding on public transit.

Copeland even kept schools open, reasoning that because better public health measures could be afforded children in schools, they would be far better off than in the conditions that prevailed in most of the residences in a city filled with poorly maintained tenement houses.

The result of Copeland's approach was far fewer deaths per thousand population than Philadelphia and Boston.

Whatever your view of the current measures adopted to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, the lessons of history have not been studied and seem lost on us. Many countries have wagered everything on a vaccine instead of preparing for the long and possibly yearly seasonal confrontation with this virus.

Finally, we have learned at our peril that science is anything but unified. Generally, fights within the medical profession about treatment for various diseases have been little noticed by the public—until now. Suddenly, these fights have broken out into the public eye and are reported on a daily basis. In that reporting we find that COVID-19 is like no virus we have seen: It's a respiratory virus. No, it can also affect the internal organs including the heart. Wait! It can affect the brain, too. No wait, it is also a vascular disease. And this does not count the psychological toll of the pandemic that is leading to increased mental illness.

One thing is certain. The modern medical establishment has conflicting and sparse ideas about how to help someone who has a severe case of COVID-19 infection.

And yet, alternatives are ridiculed; some, of course, with good reason. But certainly the idea of a unified science that can give us definitive and rational answers for every problem has been shattered. Science, it turns outs, is a process not an answer. And, it usually has many answers from various sciences, each having their own methods and standards. When someone tells you, "the science says," be skeptical. They are usually being paid to say what they are about to say or at least have been thoroughly indoctrinated by others who are paid. There is never just one answer to any supposedly scientific question.

All of our institutions are being called into question. In part, that's because they operate based on the four tenets listed above. Now that those tenets can no longer be sustained, we are at sea as a society. What can we believe in? What bedrock principles can we find for the world that is emerging around us?

I believe we must start by trusting our experience over the reductionist concepts we are fed by our leaders in practically every field. These concepts are often characterized by the notion that "the world is nothing but" and then the speaker fills in the blank with such phrases as "atoms and molecules" or "a competitive arena where only the fittest survive" or some other reductive nonsense.

It is true that our experience can be misinterpreted. But we can soon correct that misinterpretation as experience teaches us more. And, if we include a principle that says we have to honor the experiences of others, we have a beginning. Of course, we need to keep in mind that to honor others' experience we are obliged NOT to usurp their autonomy.

Broad concepts that are forced on whole societies can have hugely negative effects precisely because experience tells us that one size NEVER fits all and often very badly fits many. I need only cite the four tenets of modernism above.

Modernism is dying. More and more people are losing faith in it because it was always a faith. We can choose to replace it with more concepts, new or old, or we can fashion an open-ended system that focuses closely on our experience and adjusts as our experience tells us—all without seeking some ideological straitjacket that once again divorces us from our essential human reality, experience.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Naked Capitalism, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at


Lucid said...

Kurt: It is with a sense of privilege and gratitude that I read these insightful posts each Sunday morning. They make up for the nonsense of what tends to be issued from within the MSM in the intervening time between your posts. All of what has been written above ought to be self-evident, and yet somehow it is not. Is this state of affairs Tragedy or Comedy or both?

Joe said...

I agree with everything except your panning of science. Science can't help but be messy, fractious and combative. It is indeed a process, but that doesn't mean it doesn't eventually produce knowledge about the universe, "the all".

You point out that, "It is true that our experience can be misinterpreted. But we can soon correct that misinterpretation as experience teaches us more." What is this but science? But science by individuals is more prone to error than science by groups, where misinterpretations can more easily be exposed. Science is just a method of learning that is as exact as we can make it. If you say that science has been "demolished", you are saying that learning is useless.

Kurt Cobb said...

First, thanks to Lucid for your very kind words.

Now, let me respond to Joe who makes a very interesting point: He says "science by individuals is more prone to error than science by groups, where misinterpretations can more easily be exposed." This is true, in my view, only if we are proceeding empirically. If we are talking about the hypothesis and experiment model, then we start with a concept about the world instead of inquiring about the world around us, what we see, what we hear, even taste, smell and feel, both literally with our hands and subjectively with our emotions. The more we get into conceptual forms of scientific inquiry where we assume various "laws" and "principles" and say that they are necessarily true and apply in all cases, the further we get from empirical investigation. If we assume "atoms and molecules," then all we'll get in our investigation is atoms and molecules. We are assuming the conclusion as we do so often in what passes for modern scientific inquiry.

I'm not saying concepts aren't useful. I'm saying they limit what we can experience by pre-determining what is "real." The conceptual type of scientific inquiry is the norm and it leads to groupthink that paralyzes intuitive and creative thought and perception. If there are observations by an individual that differ from the group, then those observations are disallowed.

This is why so much clinical evidence is discarded in medicine. A practitioner's experience of patients' progress and response simply doesn't count. Instead, we invent conceptual forms and say they "prove" things to be true or false. This is a very pernicious claim for it depends very heavily on who is controlling and administering the conceptual form, such as a double-blind study. Once you make that the only way to "prove" something in medicine, you rule out vast swathes of experience and clinical observation and, of course, you prevent competitors from seeking the attention and dollars of patients if you can get the government to enforce your notions of what is "true".

For those who think the FDA is protecting us I point to the opioid addition crisis which they let balloon over many years without doing anything. I point to the antibiotic resistance crisis which they have done very little to address. I assure you that the drugs which caused these crises were all approved by the FDA. Approval by itself is virtually meaningless if it leads to this kind of widespread damage.

I'm not suggesting that empiricism is being demolished, quite the opposite. I am suggesting that the conceptually based "assume the conclusion" type of science is being demolished, in part because its limits were never realized and in part because it has been hijacked by industry to inflict its own poisonous products on humans and the environment. We poor citizens are obliged to "prove" that all the crap industry is putting out is endangering our health and killing us BY INDUSTRY'S SO-CALLED SCIENTIFIC STANDARDS. Industry ought to be obliged to demonstrate that what it proposes to unleash on the public is safe. Industry loves to say "there is no evidence that such and such is harmful" and so until you provide that evidence we get to keep poisoning you. If I march 500 people who have been examined and shown to have been exposed to a toxic substance and suffering similar debilitating results before a judge, the industry will say that that's not proof. It's just anecdotal. But anecdotal evidence is precisely empirical. We can argue over what exactly it means, but we should not be arguing over whether it constitutes evidence. This kind of thinking is what's got us where we are today.

Robert Brown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robert Brown said...

As a scientist, I can safely say that no scientist I have encountered in over 40 years of practice believes any of the 4 ideas you presented as "Modernism". I have seen others act as if one or more of them were true. I believe that scientists know better, and so do most engineers, for at least some of the ideas laid out.

Science never has the answers. It is indeed a process, but which we iterate towards answers that make logical sense, can be explained via an underlying mechanism, borne out by observation, and prediction. The process is relentless, even if it is often unpredictable, slow, expensive, and prone to mistakes along the way. Some very important things have been determined by people over a period of 150 years, who never met each other, but each continued to apply and refine ideas of predecessors. Where we can see far today, we must acknowledge that we often stand on the shoulders of giants.

Any real scientist will tell you that we, as a species, are part of nature, and in fact how we originated was by some natural process, itself a matter of investigation. We're no different in this regard that any other species on the planet. People are treated as special by others, for certain specific roles. Markets and investors are both aggregations of people, so business folk assign them special importance, since they are the targets of their efforts.

A fair amount of effort in technology and engineering is all about scale. A process discovered or perfected on a laboratory bench is only useful is it can be scaled up, with all that implies (good or bad). Sometimes scaling makes a particular solution unfeasible, and technologists have to recognize that.

In this sense, if nothing else, history is of great importance to scientists. It gives us many clues to past events and effects, and tells how conditions were back then. It contains many valuable lessons, which we ignore at our peril.

Finally, the only people I know who think science moves forward uniformly have never really seen scientists investigating a real problem. There may be some people who want you to believe this, but they're not scientists, or acting as scientists, but something else. I know some organizations developed propaganda, primarily for stakeholders that has packaged and presented scientific efforts this way, perhaps to assure the audience some kind of research is in progress as a sober, reasoned course for product development. In practice, this is done more for engineering efforts. I would also note than people often confuse science and engineering, they are not the same.

Einstein is credited with saying "If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn't be research." I don't know if he ever actually said that, but there's more than a grain of truth to it. Often, scientists spend as much time debating the validity of a finding as they do the method by which it is found, and once something is found, alternate methods of detecting it are frequently developed to verify our understanding of the original observation. In many fields, that's part of proving that an idea is valid.

My view is that you often point to science when you really want to point to engineering, or technology in general. These disciplines, applied at scale by large organizations with finite budgets, have caused enormous harm to the environment as a result of creating systems that are only as complete as the organizations see their needs being fulfilled, and as little more as may be required by regulation. This will continue to be true as long as we permit profit to be privatized, while allowing risk to fall to the public to remediate.

Anonymous said...

Science (or man) doesn't manage nature - nature manages us. It may not appear to be so, but over the long term, it is definitely true. The environmental conditions we have today are the direct results of natural forces at work, responding to human impacts. This is true for all of biology and fauna, including the present pandemic. Our hubris is to assume that we are in charge and capable, but it is nature which is actually in charge and capable. Our efforts are incremental, accumulative and yet still minuscule, but not without effects, which nature invariably, effectively responds to. It will mankind that disappears in time, not nature, and it will be by our own hand, through self-poisoning, suicide or our inability to adapt to what changes nature brought. We may "trigger" this speciescide, but climate change is a natural force that will eradicate the species responsible. ~Survival Acres~

Christine Dann said...

I am writing from a (relatively) safe place from Covid-19 (New Zealand) but it is not safe from climate change events, synthetic chemical pollution, etc., etc. All those things which are part of the modernist/capitalist economics/colonialist faith which denies and destroys what Kurt calls 'the all' and I call (with equal lack of traction) 'reality'. I recently watched David Graeber and David Wengrow giving a talk on 'The Myth of the Stupid Savage', which explains how the modernist/economistic ideology was developed with reference to and refutation of the ideas and practices of people (mainly from North America) who had been living lives in touch with reality for thousands of years before modernist Europeans arrived and destroyed most of what they had built.
It is the descendants of those people (in the Americas and around the world - Maori in New Zealand, Aboriginal Australians, etc.) who have retained or are recovering this understanding of reality, and supplementing or complementing it where and as necessary using non-reductionist scientific methods who I find most inspiring, realistic and anxiety-reducing to read and listen to as modernism whimpers towards its hideous end.

Pierre said...

Thoughtful and clear. Thanks for writing this.