Newsletter: A new enlightenment…or a new Dark Ages?

Are we heading for a a new Enlightenment or a new Dark Ages? On the one hand, there are signs that climate change is beginning to have serious impacts on our civilisation. As Bill McKibben writes today in Rolling Stone magazine, May was the hottest month on record for the northern hemisphere, and it was the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the globe exceeded the 20th century average. In the Arctic, scientists report that an iceberg the size of Manhattan has broken off the Greenland glacier.

Our political leaders are still no closer to agreeing on CO2 cuts which might limit global warming to two degrees celsius – which is already an extremely risky amount of warming. We can’t just blame our leaders either. McKibben writes: “Since all of us are in some way the beneficiaries of cheap fossil fuel, tackling climate change has been like trying to build a movement against yourself – it’s as if the gay-rights movement had to be constructed entirely from evangelical preachers, or the abolition movement from slaveholders.”

McKibben thinks that if the environmental movement is really going to gain traction, it needs enemies. So he wants to turn fossil fuel companies and its CEOs into the sort of public hate figures that investment bankers have been for the Occupy movement. In other words, the green movement needs to switch sentiments, and hope that hate for enemies will succeed where love for our planet has failed.

Meanwhile, pessimistic philosopher John Gray reads Cormac McCarthy’s bloody western Blood Meridien, and uses it to consider the roots of violence. He suggests that humans often commit violence out of a desire for safety and security rather than some inherent blood-lust. Once civilisation breaks down, membership of gangs and participation in gang violence offer, paradoxically, a form of security and belonging. And eras without basic law and order can last for several centuries: ‘Civilisation is natural for human beings’ he writes. ‘But so is barbarism.’

German philosopher Jurgen Habermas suggested back in 2010 that the European Union could collapse. He has warned that democracy is always in tension with capitalism, and that the Eurozone seems to have chosen technocratic managerialism over democratic deliberation and consent. But in his new book, The Crisis of the European Union (reviewed here in The Nation), he thinks the European project could still triumph and lead to a supranational cosmopolitianism. We don’t need the emotional consolation of ethnic nationalism, he says, as long as we have common institutions of deliberation and consent. Well…maybe.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. In some ways, things are getting better. In the UK, crime rates have fallen to their lowest level for two decades, and homicide is at its lowest for 30 years. Why does crime keep falling, despite the worsening economic climate? The BBC’s Home Affairs editor, Mark Easton, ponders the question, and decides that it’s not just about better policing or improved car security – we’re all simply behaving better. We’ve become less tolerant of violence, and Easton thinks it may be because levels of education have risen over the last 30 years. Now there’s an optimistic idea.

I’ve written before about the rise of informal learning and the new ‘mass intelligentsia’. Here’s some great examples of it I came across recently. Firstly, young mums want to keep their minds active, so we’re seeing the rise of new ‘mum clubs’ to hear talks, discuss books, visit galleries and so on. Last month saw the launch of Mumsnet Academy, a partnership between Mumsnet, the Faber Academy and the School of Life. Lucky mums can, for example, take a weekend course studying Roman history with Mary Beard.

For my money, the great champion of the mass intelligentsia is Jamie Oliver – I’m serious, I think Oliver and Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall have done more to promote learning and shift ethical attitudes in our culture than 99% of academics. Chefs have become the philosophers of our society. Anyway, the latest addition to the Oliver empire is a new drop-in cookery school in Notting Hill Gate. Good idea.

And one final example of the mass intelligentsia – check out this cool online book club, BOOKD, complete with starter videos of experts giving their view of a new book. Part of the THNKR YouTube channel.

In China, an article on the French Baccalaure’s philosophy section sparked a nation-wide debate on whether the Chinese exam system should incorporate more philosophy and open-ended critical reflection. Yes!

In Italy, my uncle John Hooper reports on the mayor of a town in the south of Italy, who has created the new post of ‘municipal philosopher’, who is available for public consultations between 3pm and 7pm on Fridays. The head of the local psychologists’ association has condemned the move as “utterly perilous”. Why??

In the UK, Wellington College headmaster Anthony Seldon suggested public schools have lost their moral compass. Maybe…or did they lose their bearings from the start, based on their elitist economic model?  Will Hutton puts the case against them, noting how they have frozen social mobility and kept a small class in power.

In the LA Times, a columnist provoked the ire of psychologists by suggesting that psychology is not a science, because it deals with nebulous and hard-to-define things like emotions. What an idiot.

A couple of stigma-busting stories. Firstly, Channel 4 in the UK has a whole series of programmes challenging mental health stigma next week, called…er…’4 Goes Mad‘. Fingers crossed it’s not 4′s usual freak show. Meanwhile, one of the biggest stigmas of all – being gay in the homophobic world of hip-hop – took a hit when R&B singer Frank Ocean announced he was bisexual, shortly before launching his excellent new album. I bet Kanye West jumps on the bandwagon now – his next hit will be called ‘I snogged a dude (and I liked it).’

Finally, what happens when all the fireworks for a major fire-work show accidentally go off at once? Over in San Diego, they found out. Kaboom! Wait…is that it?

See you next week,

Jules

Comments:

  • Olly says:

    Hi Jules.

    One of the postulated criteria that the LA journalist gives for a science is ‘highly controlled experimental conditions’. You can only have those in laboratories. A lot of natural science operates outside of the laboratory, including cosmology, astronomy (you just can’t squeeze planets into labs) and lots of the life sciences such as ecology and evolutionary biology. Sciences of the past like paleontology also don’t use experiments much. Evolution is a theory that is a central tenet of the scientific paradigm, but that has never been submitted to experimental testing, because you can’t experimentally induce species change over millions of years.

    So by his criteria, quite a few natural sciences aren’t sciences either. The science = controlled experiment thing is oft repeated, but its just not the case.

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