The Existential Precarity of Civilization
2 November 2014
The word “precarity” is quite recent, and does not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary, but has appeared in the titles of several books. The term mostly derives from left-leaning organized labor, and has come into use to describe the lives of workers in precarious circumstances. Wikipedia defines precarity as “a condition of existence without predictability or security, affecting material or psychological welfare.”
Dorothy Day, writing in The Catholic Worker (coming from a context of both Catholic monasticism and labor activism), May 1952 (“Poverty and Precarity”), cites a certain “saintly priest… from Martinique,” now known to be Léonce Crenier, who is quoted as saying:
“True poverty is rare… Nowadays communities are good, I am sure, but they are mistaken about poverty. They accept, admit on principle, poverty, but everything must be good and strong, buildings must be fireproof, Precarity is rejected everywhere, and precarity is an essential element of poverty. That has been forgotten. Here we want precarity in everything except the church.”
Crenier had so absorbed and accepted the ideal of monastic poverty, like the Franciscans and the Poor Clares (or their modern equivalents such as Simone Weil and Christopher McCandless), that he didn’t merely tolerate poverty, he embraced and celebrated poverty. Elsewhere Father Crenier wrote, “I noticed that real poverty, where one misses so many things, attracts singular graces amongst the monks, and in particular spiritual peace and joy.” Given the ideal of poverty and its salutary effect upon the spiritual life, Crenier not only celebrated poverty, but also the condition in which the impoverished live, and this is precarity.
Recently studies have retained this leftist interest in the existential precarity of the lives of marginalized workers, but the monastic interest in poverty for the sake of an enhanced spiritual life has fallen away, and only the misery of precarity remains. Not only has the spiritual virtue of poverty been abandoned as an ideal, but it has, in a sense, been turned on its head, as the spiritual focus of poverty turns from its cultivation to its eradication. In this tradition, the recent sociology of Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart is especially interesting, as they have bucked the contemporary trend and given a new argument for secularization, which was once in vogue but has been very much out of favor since the rise of Islamic militancy as a political force in global politics. (I have myself argued that secularization had been too readily and quickly abandoned, and discussed the problem of secularization in relation to the confirmation and disconfirmation of ideas in history.)
Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart are perhaps best known for their book Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. Their paper, Are high levels of existential security conducive to secularization? A response to our critics, is available online. They make the case that, despite the apparent rise of fundamentalist religious belief in the past several deacades, and the anomalous instance of the US, which is wealthy and highly religious, it is not wealth itself that is a predictor of secularization, but rather what they call existential security (which may be considered the economic aspect of ontological security).
While Norris and Inglehart do not use the term “precarity,” clearly their argument is that existential precarity pushes individuals and communities toward the comforts of religion in the face of a hostile and unforgiving world: “…the public’s demand for transcendent religion varies systematically with levels of vulnerabilities to societal and personal risks and threats.” This really isn’t a novel thesis, as Marx pointed out long ago that societies created ideal worlds of justice when justice was denied them in this world, implying that when conditions in this world improve, there would be no need for imagined worlds of perfect justice. Being comfortably well off in the real world means there is little need to imagine comforts in another world.
Speaking on a purely personal (and anecdotal basis), Norris and Inglehart’s thesis rings true in my experience. I have relatives in Scandinavia and have visited the region many times. Here where secularization has gone the furthest, and the greater proportion of the population enjoys a high level of existential security, you can quite literally see the difference in people’s faces. In the US, people are hard-driving and always seemingly on the edge; there is an underlying anxiety that I find very off-putting. But there is a good reason for this: people know that if they lose their jobs, they will possibly lose their homes and end up on the street. In Scandinavia, people look much more relaxed in their facial expressions, and they are not continually on the verge of flying into a rage. People are generally very confident about their lives and don’t worry much about the future.
One might think of the existential precarity of individuals as an ontogenic precarity, and this suggests the possibility of what might be called phylogenic precarity, or the existential precarity of social wholes. Fragile states exist in a condition of existential precarity. In such cases, there is a clear linkage between social precarity and individual precarity. In same cases, there may be no such linkage. It is possible that great individual precarity coexists with social stability, and social precarity may coexist with individual security. An example of the former is the contemporary US; an example of the latter would be some future society in which people are wealthy and comfortable but fail to see that their society is on the verge of collapse — like the Romans, say, in the second and third centuries AD.
The ultimate form of social precarity is the existential precarity of civilization. In some contexts it might be better to discuss the vulnerability and fragility of civilization in terms of existential precarity rather than existential risk or existential threat. I have previously observed that every existential risk is at the same time an existential opportunity, and vice versa (cf. Existential Risk and Existential Opportunity), so that the attempt to limit and contain existential risk may have the unintended consequence of limiting and containing existential opportunity. Thus the selfsame policies instituted for the sake of mitigating existential risk may contribute to the stagnation of civilization and therefore become a source of existential risk. The idea of existential precarity stands outside the dialectic of risk and opportunity, and therefore can provide us with an alternative formulation of existential risk.
How precarious is the life of civilized society? In some cases, social order seems to be balanced on a knife edge. During the 1981 Toxteth riots in Liverpool, which occurred in the wake of recession and high unemployment, as well as tension between the police and residents, Margaret Thatcher memorably said that, “The veneer of civilization is very thin.” But this is misleading. Urban riots are not a sign of the weakness of civilization, but are intrinsic to civilization itself, in the same way that war is intrinsic to civilization: it is not possible to have an urban riot without large-scale urban communities in the same way that it is not possible to have a war without the large-scale organizational resources of a state. Riots even occur in societies as stable as Sweden.
We can distinguish between the superficial precarity of a tense city that might erupt in riots at any time, which is the sort of precarity to which Margaret Thatcher referred, and a deeper, underlying precarity that does not manifest itself in terms of riots, overturned cars, and burned buildings, but in the sudden and inexplicable collapse of a social order that is not followed by immediate recovery. In considering the possibility of the existential precarity of civilization, what we really want to know is whether there is a social equivalent of the passenger pigeon population collapse and then extinction.
In the 19th century, the passenger pigeon was the most common bird in North America. Following hunting and habitat loss, the species experienced a catastrophic population collapse between 1870 and 1890, finally going extinct in 1914. Less than fifty years before the species went extinct, there was no reason to suspect that the species was endangered, or even seriously reduced in numbers. When the end came, it came quickly; somehow the entire species reached a tipping point and could not recover from its collapse. Could this happen to our own species? Could this happen to our civilization? Despite our numbers and our apparent resilience, might we have some existential Achilles’ heel, some essential precarity, incorporated into the human condition of which we are blissfully unaware? And, if we do have some essential vulnerability, is there a way to address this?
I have argued elsewhere that civilization is becoming more robust over time, and I have not changed my mind about this, but neither is it the entire story about the existential security of civilization. In comparison to the precarity of the individual life, civilization is robust in the extreme. Civilization only betrays its existential precarity on time scales several orders of magnitude beyond the human experience of time, which at most encompasses several decades. As we ascend in temporal comprehensiveness, civilization steadily diminishes until it appears as a mere anomaly in the vast stretches of time contemplated in cosmology. At this scale, the longevity of civilization is no longer in question only because its brevity is all too obvious.
At the human time scale, civilization is as certain as the ground beneath our feet; at the cosmological time scale, civilization is as irrelevant as a mayfly. An appraisal of the existential precarity of civilization must take place at some time scale between the human and the cosmological. This brings me to an insight that I had after attending the 2014 IBHA conference last summer. On day 3 of the conference I attended a talk by futurist Joseph Voros that provided much food for thought, and while driving home I thought about a device he employed to discuss future forecasts, the future cone.
This was my first exposure to the future cone, and I immediately recognized the possibility for conceptual clarification that this offers in thinking about the future. If we depict the future as an extension of a timeline indefinitely, the line itself is the most likely future, while progressively larger cones concentric with the line, radiating out from the present, become increasingly less likely forecasts. Within the classes of forecasts defined by the spaces included within progressively larger cones, preferred or unwelcome futures can be identified by further subdivisions of the space defined by the cones. Voros offered an alliterative mnemonic device to differentiate the conceptual spaces defined by the future cone, from the center outward: the projected future, the probable future, the plausible future, the possible future, and the preposterous future.
When I was reflecting on this on the drive home, I realized that, in the short term, the projected future is almost always correct. We can say within a high degree of accuracy what tomorrow will be like. Yet in the long term future, the projected future is almost always wrong. Here when I speak of the projected future I mean the human future. We can project future events in cosmology with a high degree of accuracy — for example, the coming collision of the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies — but we cannot say anything of significance of what human civilization will be like at this time, or indeed whether there will be any human civilization or any successor institution to human civilization. Futurism forecasting, in other words, goes off the rails in the mid-term future, though exactly where it does so is difficult to say. And it is precisely in this mid-term future — somewhere between human time scales and cosmological time scales — that the existential precarity of civilization becomes clear. Sometime between tomorrow and four billion years from now when a swollen sun swallows up Earth, human civilization will be subject to unpredictable and unprecedented selection pressures that will either mean the permanent ruination of that civilization, or its transformation into something utterly unexpected.
With this in mind, we can focus our conceptual exploration of the existential precarity, existential security, existential threat, and existential risk that bears upon civilization in the period of the mid-term future. How far can we narrow the historico-temporal window of the mid-term future of precarity? What are the selection pressures to which civilization will be subject during this period? What new selection pressures might emerge? Is it more important to focus on existential risk mitigation, or to focus on our civilization making the transition to a post-civilizational institution that will carry with it the memory of its human ancestry? These and many other related questions must assume the central place in our research.
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