How can any man who has lived through the last half of the twentieth century and into the first quarter of the twenty-first avoid reflection about the stresses posed by the plethora of existential threats facing humanity?
Growing up in a town, the bedroom of workers in a arms-production facility in war, and then transformed into a nitroglycerin production facility, later morphed into a development laboratory for the futuristic, if fatally terminated by Diefenbaker, Avro Arrow, the notion of militarized conflict was never far from home. How can one born in the middle of WWII not wonder how the confluence of birth and war might have shaped a psyche? Stocking up on flour and sugar and coal and garden preserves in preparation for and resistance to another “depression” whose cloud still hung over my parents’ generation, our family shared the spectre of engagement in events and affairs that far exceeded the local culture and mind-set. Into this mix of geography, history, economics and family, inject a disciplined “religious” participation that proferred a link to the eternal, the beyond, the supernatural and how one might relate to that dimension.
In the spirit and context of that small-town mid-century culture and ethos, this piece purports to look at the several studied prospective “apocalyptic” and existential threats facing humanity, through the lens of Arnold Toynbee’s clinical diagnosis of the demise of civilizations. A second filter will include the masculine perspective on how to adapt to such threats.
From the website, WIRED, a piece based on the work of a team of highly educated academics, lawyers, scholars and philosophers, working under the title, The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk ( CESR, commonly referred to as ‘caesar’) and the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence here is their list of ten existential threats and the probability and prospective date of their occurrence:
1. Artificial Intelligence takes over the world…likely date: 2075
X-risk priority: very high
2. Pandemic diseases threaten humanity….likely date: today
Priority: very high
3. AI-powered weapons seize control and form a militia…likely date: any time
4. Nuclear conflict brings about the end of civilization…likely date: any time
Priority: low to medium
5. Extreme climate change triggers collapse in
infrastructure.. likely date: Any time
Priority: Low to medium
6. An asteroid impact destroys all traces of life…
likely date: 50 to 100 million years
Priority (in 2017): Low
7. Life as we know it proves a complex simulation….likely date: unknowable
Priority: very low
8. Food shortages cause mass starvation……..likely date: 2050
9. A true vacuum sucks up the universe at the speed of light…
Likely date: technically now
Priority: Very low
10. A tyrannical leader undermines global stability:…likely date: Now
British historian Arnold Toynbee…
‘argues that the breakdown of civilizations is not caused by loss of control over the environment, over the human environment, or attacks from the outside. Rather, societies that develop at expertise in problem solving become incapable of solving new problems by overdeveloping their structures for solving old ones. The fixation of the old methods of the “creative minority leads it eventually to cease to be creative and degenerates into merely a dominant minority. He argues that creative minorities deteriorate due to a worship of their “former self” by which they become prideful and fail adequately to address the next challenge they face…The final breakdown results in ‘positive acts of creation,’ whereby the dominant minority seeks to create a Universal state to preserve its power and influence, and the internal proletariat seeks to create a Universal church to preserve its spiritual values and cultural norms. He argues that the ultimate sign a civilization has broken down is when the dominant minority forms a ‘Universal state’ which stifles political creativity within the existing social order….As this process of decay proceeds, Toynbee argues there is a ‘schism’ within. In this environment of discord, people resort to archaism (idealization of the past), futurism (idealization of the future) detachment (removal of oneself from the realities of a decaying world) and transcendence (meeting the challenges of the decaying civilization with new insight, e.g. by following a new religion) (Wikipedia)
First, the difference between the list of existential threats, as studied contemporarily, and the Toynbee analysis of the contextual process of a coherent dynamic is dramatic. More like a literary critical analysis of the plot of a civilization’s biography, Toynbee’s analysis incarnates a perspective that details the cognitive and existential dissonance between old solutions to old problems and old solutions to new problems and the resulting divide between what we would today call the “elite” or the “establishment” and the mass, Toynbee’s proletariat (another dated word, evocative of the communist state). We are left with a basic question: Does a civilization fall as a result of an external “impact” or more likely from an internal collapse?
Of course, none of the listed “causes” are or could be exclusive of internal elements. Disease, weapons, Artificial Intelligence, food shortages, asteroids, climate change, and a tyrannical leader all emerge from a human petrie dish. Only a true vacuum seems to remain outside of human “prevention” and “influence.” The concept of “power” and its control and manipulation, as the single informing imperative of the Toynbee analysis, seen through the lens of the ‘historian’ poses a central question for each of us students of both history and the history of power.
The notion of “power” however, cannot be contained within a political process. It arises inevitably and irrefutably from the nature of “power” that attends every individual person whether s/he is a overt, participating actor in the political process or a mere spectator/student of that official process. Like a wave pool, power is a wave generated by some in pursuit of their particular value system and ideology, only to be followed by another wave of energy in response to the original wave. Time, as the linear arbiter of how these respective waves behave, dictates the length and to some degree the strength of each wave of political thrust. If the waves proceed in sequence, people generally watch, are somewhat entertained, and to a degree determined by each, engaged or detached in a single wave.
If the waves collide, one in regression another in forward movement, there is a crisis. And whether or not such a crisis is mediated, or refereed, monitored and controlled or not will signal a dystopic prospect.
History shows that men, especially as the generals, the historians, the judges, the politicians and the philosophers setting the “frameworks” of civilizations, pay more than a perfunctory notice to “ideals” as their benchmarks for leadership, and for the administration of “power”. Through their ideals, naturally they have been attempting to pay homage to a deity of their conception, belief and imagination. Gothic cathedrals, symphonies, oratorios, masterpieces, historic pieces of rhetoric…these are some of the devices by which power is conceptualized and delivered and even worshipped. And, whether by nature or by habit, through official or unofficial and more casual discipline, in order to incarnate the deployment of power, human nature is and has been historically enmeshed in its own paradox: observing and paying homage to titular and official power, and preferring a more private, silent, inconspicuous and more personal integral exercise of one’s identity and person. While they are not exclusive, the public “power” symbols become cultural heroes, whereas the private persons who ‘hold their own counsel’ are less visible, far less influential and far less idolized.
Men, throughout history, have attempted to navigate this public/private energy, and have been perceived by their contemporaries primarily by their public images, and much less by their private lives. Not surprisingly, men have also enforced this “appearance” and definition, by our own hard-wired resistance to publicly emoting and seeking attention, except for those few whose lives depend on their public adulation. And within this dichotomy, men have also attempted to balance their private pursuits with their capacity for the care of others.
It is this latter division, between the private “profession” and “income-earner” and the “public conscience” of empathy and compassion that divides many men in the past, as well as into the future. We are, or seem to be, hard wired, as world citizens, more resistant to the domestic duties and rigors of house cleaning, meal prep. and child wardrobes than to the latest stock ratings, the latest sports scores, and the office politics of promotions and demotions. As a consequence, at least partially, of this gender identity, our political issues have tended to exclude issues of shared classrooms. So long as there were no criminal or dangerous rumours puffing from the school smokestacks, men who were not official board members, paid little or no attention to the school system.
Whether we can now attribute “neglect” or “irresponsibility” to the vast majority of men for abandoning their education systems, the teachers of their children, and the ethos, including costs, of those systems, remains mute. Women, however, do not warrant either the notion of “neglect” or “irresponsibility” given their much more intense observance of the daily stories of their/our children about their “day at school”.
In both the list of existential threats, and in the Toynbee analysis of civilization’s demise, the question of the origins, and the developmental process of the children of those cultures that have atrophied is omitted. It says here that such an omission, both in fact and in scholarship and political action and policy development, has paid and will continue to pay negative dividends on whatever threats impact the future of humankind.
In the immediate scan of North American culture, with the unprecedented explosion of social media and the anonymous bullying it fosters and exposes, linked to the existential threats of cyber-crime-and-war, global warming and climate change, ebola outbreaks, and the entropy of agreed facts, men and women around the globe share both the immediacy of new “threats” without appropriate and concomitant answers and solutions and the original “patriarchial” attitudes and philosophies that undergird our public discourse, political processes and structures and a neurotic pursuit of perceived emasculation. It is this emasculation, inflicted on men by both men and women, through both an incomplete understanding and repressed expression of masculinity, rendering each man in North America a mere symbol, an image, and a kind of cultural ghost.
Through claiming responsibility and the promise of a new and confident, an engaged and sensitive, an emotional and imaginative, as well as a warrior/wanderer identity, so long forgotten or denied, men can and will take their honoured place in the way our culture confronts its many existential threats. Women, as the current dominant cultural warriors, leaving men to their “fighting fields and boxing rings,” whether they acknowledge it or not, need and want a healthy masculinity to dance with, especially when storm clouds are forming on the horizon.