10 Jan 2020
In this first of two blogs for the new decade, Director of Research Chris Baker reflects on what comes next with the help of Ulrich Beck’s understanding of metamorphosis.
Happy New Year and—it being the first year of a new Decade—Happy New Decade!
Of course, the national media have been making much of this fact, with several commentators and leader writers confidently predicting a post-Brexit sunny upland of economic growth and prosperity—a return, no less, to the ‘Roaring 20s’. Am I the only one feeling somewhat disturbed at this parallel?
The current revival of the stage version of The Great Gatsby in London captures the quintessentially dark paradox at the heart of the 1920s. The eponymous hero, Jay Gatsby, a self-made millionaire from illegal drug stores, is portrayed as a moral and ethical dark star, corrupting and ruining those who yearn to be in his ‘court’ of summer evening parties on Long Island. Beneath the undoubted glamour and elegance of the age—art deco, travel, fashion, jazz, urban and architectural design, all of which represented a yearning for human optimism after the nihilist horrors of the First World War—a deep narcissism and fatalism was festering. The glittering excess of this decade ended in the global financial crash of 1929, the Great Depression and the subsequent rise of political totalitarianism which ultimately led to renewed global conflict and holocaust. There is, I am afraid, every reason for seeing grim, not happy, parallels.
In the days leading up to this new decade we have seen: the return of anti-Semitic graffiti daubed on London streets; continued public attacks on Jewish and Muslims citizens; and the horrendous bushfire infernos claiming lives in Australia. All these events should serve as adrenal jolts to the body politic to fundamentally change its direction and rhetoric. But will the jolts be too little and too late to convulse us into effective and decisive action? It is easy to be fatalistic and pessimistic on this point.
This Christmas I received a copy of Ulrich Beck’s last book, The Metamorphosis of the World, an incomplete manuscript due to his sudden and untimely death in 2015. Beck was a highly original sociologist and political theorist whose work speculates on the future of human societies in light of high impact events such as climate change and globalisation.
His prescient thinking and research in the late 1980s unerringly predicts our current ecological and political crises with his concept of the ‘world risk society’. This describes how the increasingly interconnected nature of global systems means that global ‘bads’ such as climate catastrophe, disease epidemics and financial collapse are more likely to happen as ‘good’ intentions get lost within chaotic and unaccountable feedback loops that can no longer be regulated or controlled.
Despite this prognosis there remains a fundamental optimism to his work. Metamorphosis is no exception. The sheer speed and magnitude of the challenges facing us in the current zeitgeist means that traditional and linear ideas of change such as ‘evolution’ or ‘revolution’ are no longer adequate. Rather, ‘metamorphosis’ describes an era in which the old order has catastrophically failed and something totally new is emerging—what Beck describes as ‘a different reality and a different mode of being in the world, seeing the world and doing politics’.
All modern institutions are failing in the face of climate risk, as are categories such as ‘progress’, ‘control’ or positive and negative side effects. In this situation two things become necessary. The first, says Beck, is to insist on failure, a move that creates a new point of reference for a better world. The second is to adopt what he calls a ‘cosmopolitan outlook’ which involves moving from a nation-centric to a global-centric perspective, and an ethical and political willingness to open up new spaces and cultures of cross-border co-operation and civic responsibility. The good news, as far as he is concerned, is that this metamorphosis is already underway as a lived, personal and local reality as people radically adapt their cognitive and spiritual resources in line with a cosmopolitan outlook—what he calls a ‘declaration of interdependence’. His visionary conclusion is that climate catastrophe is a metamorphosis that is good for the world, since it contains within it the very ‘navigation system’ by which the earth’s human and non-human inhabitants may secure a new and hitherto unimagined co-existence.
Of course, nothing is certain. Yet, this prophetically grounded view of change should profoundly influence our political, economic and spiritual agendas, and the extent to which this decade can be won or lost for future generations.
In a previous volume, A God of One’s Own (2011), Beck identifies the huge impact global religion and belief can play in this metamorphosis. He argues that the future of the planet now hinges on the extent to which religions can marshal their billions of followers, as well as their material and financial resources, to act as cosmopolitan global actors. The evidence to date is mixed to say the least. In the second part of this blog, I will outline the missional and political challenges for theology and religion in the light of Beck’s radical call to arms.
More blogs on religion and public life…
Artificial Intelligece in the Image of God? by Ryan Haecker
Review of ‘The Church of Us vs. Them’ by David E. Fitch by Greg Smith
Ordinary people: telling a story of worth and hope by Val Barron