Scholars’ Warning co-founder Professor Jem Bendell gave a short presentation to attendees of ‘Free Cultural Spaces’ in Paradiso Amsterdam, where he shared some of the ideas behind his art project Kintsugi World, which accompanies his new book ‘Breaking Together’. Below you can see the video of his talk, or read a rough transcript of the first part.
Jem’s explained there is evidence that the creeping collapse of modern societies has already begun and that the modernist and conformist beliefs in 'hope' can hold us back from our creative responses to that predicament. His book is free to download from the University and there is an online interactive course in November on ‘leading through collapse’. The venue he spoke in hosted #Leftfield's first ever gig in 1996 (one of Jem's favourite bands).Check against delivery on 25th July 2023. References to all statistics and claims are available in the endnotes of ‘Breaking Together’ (published by Good Works, 2023).
I’m happy to be joining you remotely in the venue that saw the band Leftfield’s first ever gig back in 1996. It’s a reminder, if we needed one, of the importance of free cultural spaces to creativity. And it’s another reminder of why we need a great reclamation of our power from the corporations, banks and remote state institutions. A great reclamation that we can all take part in, as normal life crumbles around us.
I’d like to take this short time together to invite you to consider three things. First, that a process of the collapse of industrial consumer societies has already begun. Second, instead of believing in the delusion of a managed transition to a sustainable consumer way of life, many people have a different motivation for engaging for the good of us all. We don’t need wishful thinking to act positively today. In that sense, we don’t actually need hope to be creative, but, instead, a faith in ourselves and in life itself. Third, I see that the creative arts can help more of us recognise that reality and discover new aims in life. That’s why I am really pleased to contribute to your event today.
My new book, called Breaking Together, explains how a process of the creeping collapse of modern societies is already underway. Modern conveniences look like they are still functioning, so it’s normal to be sceptical. But the data indicates the general situation. For instance, the Human Development Index is a basic indicator. It has been declining each year since 2019 in 80% of countries, in all regions of the world. Some of that data is collected 2 years before release. So it's a decline that began pre-pandemic. Previously it had been rising, always, in richer countries since 1990.
Data on our quality of life shows a global plateauing since 2016 and that 90% of countries have a declining quality of life. In the rich OECD countries this fall has been consistent since 2016. And some of that data was also collected a few years prior. So that suggests a persistent decline starting in 2015 or earlier.
In the book, I connect these cracks on the surface of modern societies with the crumbling foundations in our economic, energy, environmental, and food systems. Climate change is an accelerator of all these fractures, as well as being a problem in itself. Although specific societies have been disrupted terribly for centuries both by natural disasters and political violence, the evidence I present in the book ‘Breaking Together’ supports a different view. Simply, we have reached a point where most modern societies, while continuing to function on the surface, are already in the early stages of their collapse.
In the book I explain how we have not been told about this process of collapse, as experts, politicians and the media hold the microphone, and they are all incentivised to believe a myth of perpetual progress. I also provide the evidence that the reason we no longer see content about this breakdown going viral, is that the bigtech executives own the mixing board that is social media and are curating what we see and don’t see. We now know they do that in league with national security agencies of the US and perhaps other countries.
When people hear the bad news about society and the environment, some react by thinking that perhaps it’s not helpful to focus so much on the bad news. That means they aren’t facing the information, and instead switching to the topic of how we relate to that information. Which is when we hear the story that hope is essential. What is meant by the word ‘hope’ and what psychology says about the topic are not often considered.
Psychological research finds that whether people act pro-socially or not has very little to do with their perception of the future. Research finds that even catastrophic imaginaries can be more motivating than not. Instead, being attached to consequentialist ethics is the Achilles heel of activism and pro-social action. That is the idea that we do something only because we know it will have a positive impact or we think it is likely. I say it is the Achilles heel, because it can lead to people giving up when they sense they can’t achieve their goals, or even turning towards violent extremism and support for authoritarianism.
The teachings of Buddhism are relevant here. They regard hope as a thought pattern that takes us away from meeting reality as we find it. The Buddha commented there are three kinds of people in the world: “The hopeful, the hopeless, and the one who has done away with hope.”
A member of the Spirit Rock Teachers Council, Oren Jay Sofer explains that hoping can, I quote, “direct our longing for happiness in an unskillful way. It places our well-being on an uncertain, imagined future beyond our control, thereby feeding craving and fixation. When the wished-for outcome isn’t realized, we are crushed.”
Let’s remember that we choose neither the circumstances of our life, nor the results of our actions. What we can choose is how we relate to each other, and how we respond.
When doing that, we can tune into our intuitive sense that there is something worthwhile about being alive and keep living from our hearts, no matter what happens.
There is some similarity here in the more mystical understandings of Christian teachings. The invitation for believers to have hope, as often summarized in the statement “faith, hope and charity,” does not need to suggest that a pain free world will come to exist on Earth. Rather, it can be an invitation to expect that the ultimate rightness of existence will be experienced by each of us in the end, whether that is in this life or after death. That kind of hope is closer to a faith or trust in the universe, whatever may occur in future.
It is also important we ask what it is that people are hoping for. Is it for our way of life to continue? Despite that relying on the exploitation of the world’s resources?
As Leftfield sang back in 1996: “how many visions must they burn, until we learn?” It’s time for a wholescale rejection of what I call in my book Imperial Modernity.
Because a collapsing of industrial consumer societies and the ideologies they uphold will provide opportunities for significant change which might reduce some forms of suffering in some parts of the world. Given the cumulative failure of myriad forms of past social change strategies to deliver a peaceful, equitable and sustainable world, the cracking of old systems could be regarded as a painful opportunity as well as a crisis. That is a darker hope, but it is also a practical one. My view is that we will be collapsing into communities, and the thing to play for is what we will find in community when it becomes all we have.
In Chapter 12 of my book, I profile a range of people who have allowed their acceptance of future or unfolding societal collapse to transform them. Some have become activists, some have become permaculture farmers, some have become spiritual teachers, some have become community leaders, some have become innovators of local exchange and local currency systems. Seeing what they do, inspires me with a broader hope that these disruptive times will bring more of us back to fuller attention to life itself.
In the book, I call this an ‘evotopia’ where more of us are witnessing and being with reality in all its dimensions.
So I am talking about a massive shift in our assumptions about life. How might that be helped? Art can help us see our situation and stories in new ways. It can involve a warping or mixing of old descriptions of reality. It is that intention and impact that makes something artistic, rather than the tools used in the art. That is why I was happy to work with a digital artist to create the cover of my book. It’s part of a Kintsugi World art project which I will show you in a minute.
[Professor Bendell then went on to describe the reflection invited in the art on the cover of the book, made by himself and Darinka Montico, and showed the other images in the collection. You can view them in the video of the presentation. More information on the event is at https://fcsamsterdam.nl/].