Encyclopedia of World Problems - Archived Information

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1.2 Existential challenge

Corresponding to the contextual challenge in responding to their environments, individuals are faced with an existential challenge in redefining their self-image and the mind-set with which they respond to the world. The following are some of the features of this challenge.

1. Proliferation of explanations and injunctions

The hyper-development of the ability to explain and to label has fostered the pervasive illusion that this necessarily ensures that an environment so treated is somehow under control. Much effort is devoted to this process, whether by researchers, educators, legislators, administrators or managers. There is a resemblance to the enthusiastic reliance on pesticides by the agri-business. This process does appear to freeze portions of the environment, since readily comprehensible explanations tend to be in static terms. Not only does this render invisible any dynamic relationship to other aspects of the environment, but it also defines the explainer at the same reduced level of complexity -- at least in the relationship to what has been so explained.

2. Simplistic responses

Action on the environment, perceiving and responding to problems, is then viewed primarily as a question of reordering explained categories into a more appropriate pattern -- "sustainability" being the latest criterion. "Profitability" is a competing criterion. Irrespective of the criterion, there is a resemblance to the procedures by which radioactive products are handled in laboratories through "glove-box" manipulators. The person controlling the manipulators is of a much higher order of complexity than that aspect which is manifest through the possible movements of the manipulators. And yet problems are perceived and acted on at the level of complexity of the manipulators. The glove-box delimits the reality to which society is prepared to respond and constrains the manner of that response. But above all it protects the users of the glove-box from exposure to the invisible challenge of the products therein.

3. Paradigmatic entrapment

Action on problems thus becomes a matter of shuffling categories and institutional elements, combining and recombining them in an effort to increase the effectiveness of response. New categories and institutions are invented within the same pattern. Blame for problems is reallocated in a similar manner. In this way much change is apparent, together with many explanations as to why such change is sufficient to the challenge of the times. And yet this perception tends to remain unchallenged.

4. Failure to act on knowledge

Explanations do not respond to present (or future) suffering, although they may reduce anxiety about it. A physician, fully informed of the dangers of smoking, may continue to do so, irrespective of the recognized effects on his own health or the indirect consequences for others. Similarly a factory may continue to discharge pollutants, despite the manager being fully informed of the consequences for the environment. A walker may point with complaint to a piece of rubbish in a forest but not feel called to remove it. Such examples are indicative of the protection offered by the existential glove-box. It permits those using it to feel uninvolved. The pattern of explanations and injunctions has a numbing effect by which individuals are protected from any challenge to their own pattern of behaviour.

5. Unaccountability

The professionalism of international responses to the challenges of the times also protects individuals from any need to be personally concerned whether a programme succeeds or fails (provided explanations can be found to deflect any negative consequences for career advancement). But how to distinguish between the necessary detachment of a surgeon whose skills are unable to save a patient, and the indifference of a surgeon whose inappropriate action is aggravating the condition of the patient?

6. Disempowerment

The quantity of explanations and injunctions, and the eminence of those offering them, disempowers non-specialists. Those who are not mandated to provide authorized explanations are forced into a position of dependency for the construction of the reality in which they live. Imagination is crushed by the weight of explanations and by those who are empowered to impose them. Imagination itself is only acknowledged in those who have proven their commercial worth. As such it has become a product for consumption. In the glove-box, images are generated which trap the unwary into belief in their reality.

7. Unchallenged self-image

There has been much concern voiced about the need for a new paradigm and for non-linear approaches to the complexities of the environment. This seems to address the simplistic, even mechanistic, pattern of category shuffling -- a recognition that the glove-box only permits a restricted pattern of movements. But much of that discussion still seems to be calling for what amounts to a more complex set of manipulators for the same glove-box. The relationship of the user of the glove-box to the manipulations therein is not called into question. The dualistic relationship is not challenged. However rich the paradigm, to what extent will it call for a new self-image on the part of the user of the glove-box implying a new involvement in action? To what extent do perceived problems become existential challenges rather than merely a flavour-of-the-month?

8. Unchallenged relationship to the environment

The fashion for "holographic" paradigms, with the implication that everything is reflected in everything else, is an intellectual challenge calling for a broader and richer understanding. The Gaia model is of this kind. But whilst these call for a higher degree of responsibility and accountability on the part of individuals, they fail to render explicit the challenge to the articulation of the individual's relationship to the environment. A non-dualistic framework continually questions both what it means to be and act as an individual and what is the nature of the environment in which action is taken.

9. Need for a different mode of thought

It is indeed possible to avoid this challenge. It is possible to assume that one does not need to change and that the paradigm of "development decades" and "international organizations" is sufficient for the times. It may be assumed that "win-win" solutions are possible and that there need be no losers -- gain without pain. But there is increasing recognition that unless the life-style in industrialized countries is radically changed, the current system will become increasingly unsustainable. This calls for a different mode of thought.

10. Existential sacrifice

The prevailing mode of thought makes no explicit call for existential sacrifice, since sacrificing a category within the glove-box is not an existential operation. And yet in the larger reality people are indeed sacrificed through the imposition of austerity programmes -- structural adjustment with an "inhuman" face. A non-dualistic approach sees winning and losing as complementary phases in necessary learning cycles. Like inspiration and expiration, they are both necessary processes in a growing organism. To what sacrifice do administrators of programmes expose themselves in order to comprehend more subtle approaches to the environment?

11. Change vs pseudo-change

It is ironic that it is only those who are least appreciated who consciously expose themselves to being sacrificed in contemporary society. The dramatic examples are terrorists on suicide missions, self-immolating protesters, and soldiers in a jihad. However society also requires human sacrifices before legislative changes are considered necessary: children have to die before dangerous foodstuffs are prohibited by law, and demonstrators have to be willing to suffer, or lose their lives, before their cause receives attention. Real change is accomplished when people expose themselves to an existential challenge, thus becoming agents of change. Pseudo-change occurs when the initiators engage in manipulations within the glove-box which leave them totally untouched (other than through any loss of status or pride, as in losing a wager).

12. Distorted value of life

Again it is ironic that there is less and less in modern society that people are prepared to die for, or to allow others to die for. Whole societies can now be held to ransom for a single known hostage. Millions can be spent to maintain a comatose, brain-damaged patient on life-support for decades. Euthanasia is illegal, no matter what the desire of the person concerned. Exposure to risk is progressively designed out of society, to be replaced by vicarious experiences through videos or with the protection of required safety devices. The paradox is that unknown numbers are however sacrificed through carcinogenic products, abortion, structural violence, massacres, gang murders, cult rituals, "snuff" movies and associated perversions, or a failure of food and medical supplies.

13. Value sacrifice

The attitude to life has become as immature as that to death. Millions are spent on efforts to maintain youthfulness, whether through cosmetics, cosmetic surgery or attempts to reverse the ageing process. Every other value is sacrificed to save lives in industrialized societies, whilst allowing others to die elsewhere. Individuals in industrialized societies are prosecuted for life-endangering neglect. But these same societies fail to apply the same standards in their policies towards other societies. Reproduction is tacitly encouraged without any provision for the resulting population growth or the effects on the environment. Society evokes problems to provide solutions for its own irresponsibility -- a control mechanism for the immature lacking the insight for a healthy relationship to cycles.

14. Personal transformation

The challenge of the times would seem to involve a call for personal transformation through which social and conceptual frameworks can be viewed anew. Willingness to sacrifice inherited perspectives is an indication of the dimension of the challenge -- most dramatically illustrated by willingness to risk death. However physical death is not the issue, and may easily be a simplistic, deluded impulse lending itself to manipulation. Destruction of frameworks valued by others is equally suspect. Such dramatics provide rewards within the very frameworks whose nature the individual needs to question, but by which he may need to choose to be constrained.

15. Existential discipline

What are the existential disciplines by which an individual can progressively redefine what he or she is in relationship to the environment -- at present and in response to the emerging future? What does this imply for the organizations through which individuals may work or for the conceptual frameworks appropriate to that work? How does this understanding affect the individual's relationship to the piece of rubbish at his feet? The many spiritual traditions provide clues for further exploration. But their advocates are often dangerously enthusiastic about their own insights and disparaging of others. Insight is buried in dogma. The letter obscures the spirit and denies the awareness by which they may be distinguished. Instant faith is demanded to avoid the long-term challenge of disciplined acquisition of insight. This suggests that any such disciplines must also be applied in response to the purveyors of insights and to their products. But where there is no exposure to risk and the possibility of error, there is no learning or possibility of meaningful change.

16. Transformation of perspective

There is an irony in the call to ensure humanity's continued existence on the planet. It is a challenge to our existence, but it has not yet been recognized as an existential challenge. As with suppositions about the life hereafter, it is assumed that no change is implied for our understanding of ourselves. And yet it may be that such transformation of perspective is the key which the nature of the crisis will force us to recognize. As the Sufis suggest, the trick of insight required may be to remove the point from which we currently view. There is an illusion of who we are that needs to be sacrificed to give birth to a sustainable future.

17. Persistent personal egotism

There are many admirable advocates of change, whether involving social transformation or personal transformation. The most eminent, whether in the world of science, art, politics, or religion, have made striking contributions to this process and will continue to do so. And yet the level of egotism among those with most insight remains a major challenge, as illustrated by the following comment made by Richard Gardner and quoted by Michael Marien (Societal Directions and Alternatives, 1976): "We are afflicted not only by national but by personal egoism. That is what could eventually destroy us. Many of these eminent people have such big egos that their principal preoccupation in life is to establish a piece of intellectual turf and preserve it against all comers, whatever the consequences. They're prepared to sacrifice truth -- perhaps not consciously, but sub-consciously -- to the pursuit of ideology and the pursuit of ego."

18. Unacknowledged circumstances

As stated by Donald Michael: "Arguably, the most profound threat to the development of planetary civilization is the inability of leaders to admit that there are fundamental circumstances with which we must deal that cannot be acknowledged." (Leadership's shadow: the dilemma of denial, 1994).