Environment, Society, Institutions. Thinking at Totality to Understand and Change the World

Giampiero Bordino
Professor in Contemporary History and Political Analyst. President of the Einstein Center for International Studies

The crises of various kinds and of an evidently planetary dimension in which we find ourselves (environmental (the more or less recent pandemics, for example), economic, social, political) offer particularly significant opportunities for reflection. Crises, as all our historical experience shows, certainly do not teach or guarantee anything for the future (just think of wars, which are stupidly repeated over the millennia despite their inevitably and literally suicidal, as well as obviously murderous, character), but equally certainly they suggest and nurture fresh views of the world.

In an interview published by Le Monde in April 2020, the French sociologist and philosopher Edgar Morin, known as the theorist of “complexity” as an interpretative key of the contemporary world, denounces the prevalence of a “disjoining and reductive thinking” in European and Western culture. A thought that too often does not adequately grasp the relationships that connect the different parts of reality to each other and, in addition, focuses and exalts specialization and the separation of branches of knowledge. “Science – observes Morin – is devastated by hyper-specialization, which is the closure and compartmentalization of specialized knowledge, instead of the communication of the same”. Disjoining thinking appears powerless to grasp, or at least attempt to grasp, totality. In this way, reality escapes and cannot be, literally, “comprehended” (from Latin comprehendere, com-’together’+prehendere ‘grasp’).

In conclusion, according to Morin, “the shortcomings of that way of thinking, combined with the unquestionable dominance of a frenzied thirst for profit, are responsible for countless human disasters, including those occurring since February 2020”.

The prevalence of the disjoining and reductive thinking has two fundamental and serious consequences, which are to be briefly highlighted right away.

On the cognitive plane, it prevents to comprehend the complexity of the world, that is, to adequately grasp the multiple relationships that connect the parts with each other and with the whole, to seek totality and try to observe it beyond the separations and dualisms. The Covid-19 pandemic, for example, arises to a large extent from the lack of understanding, generated also by interests and opportunisms, the connections that bind the human world, the animal world and the vegetal world.

Secondly, on the practical level, it is essential to observe that the lack of a global perception of reality causes a serious weakening of the sense of responsibility on the ethical and political level. Everyone feels responsible only for “his own” part, or rather for what he perceives, practicing the dominant disjoining and reductive thought, as his own, whether a scientist, or a politician or an ordinary citizen.

Totality, a complex perception built by a multiplicity of relationships, must therefore be, if we want to save ourselves, the horizon of cognitive research and ethical and political practice. Totality is obviously, to put it in the language of Kant, a “limit concept”, a horizon to be pursued, a path that one never ceases to travel, because inevitably, no matter how far one walks, there is always something “farther on” to reach. Totality, in other words, is not an “entity” one can definitively appropriate, but a complex and ever-changing system of relationships which is necessary to explore on a daily basis.

Thinking about totality in the world we live in is particularly necessary with respect to two major types of problems that challenge our ability to know and act, which increasingly put the very survival of the human species at stake, and which have an increasingly evident global dimension. Firstly, the environmental problems, relating to all the different contexts (geological, vegetal, animal, and even cosmic) in which human life on earth is placed since time immemorial. Secondly, the social, political, institutional problems relating to men’s coexistence, and the ability to face and resolve in a peaceful way and through consent, as far as possible not by force (which as we know inevitably produces homicides and suicides), common issues.

On the environmental level, it is useful first of all to reunite a first totality, that begins to be considered, regarding human history and geological history. The history of the earth is measured in billions of years, that of the plant world and living matter in millions of years; the human one in hundreds of thousands of years, and the one regarding more specifically human civilization in tens of thousands of years. As we can see, these are completely different time scales, which give the idea of the relativity and limits of human history and, at the same time, of the anthropocentric presumption that characterizes our dominant cultural tradition. In this very long period of time, millions of living species appeared and then became extinct.

The human species is to be placed in this context, and like all the others it has no guarantee of eternity. And what is it actually doing to ensure its own survival? First of all, it is useful to remember, to outline the general picture, that 97.3% of the living matter (biomass) is made up of plants, 2.7% of the animal world and only 0.01% of the “homo sapiens” species to which we belong. It is evident that the role of the vegetal and animal worlds is crucial for the life and survival of the human species. It is, in fact, one of the main “political” problems, decisive for human life, that men are confronted with. Another “reductive disjunction” between problems of the nature and politics, and between their related and traditionally consolidated fields of knowledge, i.e. political and social sciences, and natural sciences, which it is necessary to urgently understand and overcome.

According to a recent report by WWF, the most important international organization for the conservation of nature, in the last 30 years 420 million hectares of land have been deforested in the world, more or less the area of the European Union. This is a process that destroys biodiversity, given that 80% of plant and animal species, according to estimates, live in forests, mostly in tropical areas. On average, 10 million hectares are deforested every year in order to create pastures for livestock and meat production, soybean crops, palm oil, etc., mainly requested by the developed countries of the western world. 97% of soybean meal, for example, is destined for intensive animal farming. All this, as is known and is now recognized by all, is also one of the main factors of climate change, of the currently underway global warming. According to a FAO estimate, 18% of greenhouse gas emissions depend on intensive animal farming, and only 13.59% on transport.

All this also produces significant health consequences, increasingly evident and recognized. According to estimates, 73% of the world production of antibiotics is destined for intensive animal farming, and thus enters the food cycle, causing the phenomenon of antibiotic resistance and the development of super-bacteria, one of the main and growing causes of death worldwide. At the current trends, according to some forecasts, in 2050 there will be 10 million deaths a year due to these reasons, compared to 8.2 million due to cancer and 1.2 million to road accidents.

With these premises, it is now possible to better understand the phenomenon of pandemics. That of Covid-19, still in progress, is the sixth since the “Spanish” flu in 1918. It is unlikely to be the last, given that, according to the analysis of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the body set up by the United Nations to monitor biodiversity and ecosystems, over 1.7 million unknown viruses reside in mammals and birds alone, half of which may have the ability to spill over to humans. Deforestation, the progressive destruction of many ecosystems (also due to large fires, arson and otherwise, such as those that devastated Australia and California in 2020), pushes entire animal species out of their habitat, bringing them closer to environments inhabited by humans, thus multiplying the possibilities for spilling over in infectious processes, in contexts ever more densely altered by man. The world population today is about 7 billion and 800 million people, of which 4 billion and 300 million are concentrated in urban agglomerations destined to grow further in the coming decades.

As the aforementioned WWF report observes, man has significantly altered, especially since the first industrial revolution, three quarters of the planet’s dry land and two thirds of the oceans, giving rise to a new era called “Anthropocene”, which the French scientist and botanist Gilles Clément recently renamed, ironically but not unfoundedly, “stupidocene”. Stupidity, that is the ability to hurt oneself without realizing it, is typical of the human species, and this determines, among other things, the need for politics, meant in short as the “art of governing”, to avoid and control the consequences of it, instead of using it for the sake of power, as too often happens today with populist and opportunistic leaderships (see Bolsonaro’s policy in Brazil with regard to environmental problems, to give just one significant example). Many other phenomena, in addition to those outlined above, justify the definition of “stupidocene” given by Clément: consumption models based on the waste of resources, the inability to give life to new forms of “circular economy” capable of reducing this waste, and so on. There is no doubt, however, to conclude on environmental issues, that the human species is doing nothing at all to guarantee its own future and survival. The generations to come should know and understand it first, because they will have to pay the consequences.

As for the economic, social, political and institutional problems relating to coexistence between men and the art of government, thinking of the whole is equally necessary and decisive. Given that humans cannot live isolated from the rest of the world and given the technological revolution in communications and transport and economic globalization (even in the form of an “archipelago” that could emerge from the current crisis), all the relevant problems facing humanity have by now a global character, and can therefore be thought of and faced only from the point of view of “totality” and of the systems of relations that constitute it. Local and global are always interconnected and no one can really say to be “master in my house”, given the structural interconnection between the “houses”.

At any level, it is now necessary to “think at the world”, that is to say, the totality, because everyone has, for various aspects and to varying degrees, “the world at home”, in the form of goods, capital, information, images, people, etc., that come from outside and imbue every place. A small but influential minority of people, the globalized, are also “at home in the world”. Having the world at home without being able to be at home in the world, the most widespread condition so far in all societies, is evidently an unpleasant situation, also perceived as unjust, and is the contradiction at the origin of many social, political and even cultural conflicts of our age. It can help us understand the roots and reasons for these conflicts. If we add to this the growing economic and social inequalities, in particular those in income and wealth and more generally in life opportunities, an overall picture emerges that explains the crisis of representative democracy and the emergence all over the world, by contrast, of neo-nationalist, populist and anti-elite movements.

On the political and institutional level, thinking at the totality means designing and building multilevel institutions and policies, from local and national to continental and global, which in a coordinated way (therefore guaranteed by “foedera”, pacts of a constitutional nature) allow us to address our common problems in the different dimensions and at the different levels at which they arise. In this direction, the thought and experience of federalism can make a significant contribution, above all in relation to the problem, confronting which the federalist reflection was historically born, of peace between states, which is the precondition for every other value or public good.

Beyond the “disjoining and reductive thought” denounced by Morin, here is another possible horizon that is worth trying to pursue together.

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