Beyond the Zero Sum Game

TRAFFIC JAM ON EVEREST

This photo is likely to become one of the most famous images of 2019.  It perfectly encapsulates the zero-sum game of modern society.  Known to the Tibetan People as Chomolungma, Goddess Mother of the Universe, one of the Mountain Gods of ancient Tibet, for the modern cashed-up consumer it has become yet one more ‘must-do’ on their bucket list of selfies to impress their friends and family.

Remoteness, danger and spiritual awe no longer protect Chomolungma.  We are drawn to these places of spiritual power, yet we have no idea of how to experience what draws us to them.  We end up reducing them to something we must conquer and consume—the dominant energies of industrialised modernity that the West has exported to the world.

RUBBISH ON REMOTE BEACHES

We see the effect of this desire to conquer and consume in the amount of plastic rubbish now washing up on the most remote beaches around the Earth, and in the deepest trenches of the ocean floor.  We see it in the frightening predictions of the mass extinction of over 60 percent of species of our fellow creatures as we destroy their habitats, and in the process destroy whole ecosystems of which they have been an essential part.  Since 2017, Australia’s environmental indicators show that the global warming resulting from our ‘conquer and consumer mentality’ has created a future of increasing aridity in Australia—an increase of 10% in the amount of biomass we have burnt, while at the same time there has been a 20 per cent loss of water in our river flows, a 23 per cent loss of wetlands, a 6 per cent loss of moisture in our fragile soils, a 15 per cent reduction in annual rainfall, and an increase of 12 per cent in days over 35 degrees celsius.

When economists, bankers and politicians think about how to generate economic growth to provide employment, they talk about tax cuts to stimulate spending to drive more consumption.  They ask about costs of policies to reduce the carbon emissions and land clearing that are driving global warming and environmental destruction.  How do we move beyond this zero-sum game of modern life?

CULTURAL AND ARTISTIC RESPONSES

The Prince Claus Fund

European philanthropic entities have responded to the challenge of going beyond the zero-sum game of consumption fuelled economic growth, by turning their attention to the potential role of cultural institutions.  The Prince Claus Fund in the Netherlands is funding projects that call on cultural practitioners, artists, architects and designers in many parts of the world to initiate projects, exchange ideas and rethink responses to environmental change, while actively engaging their communities.  Noting that now, more than ever, we need the arts and culture to help us respond—to inspire and motivate us by offering new ideas that challenge our perceptions and change.  The Fund has called for proposals aimed at Africa, Latin America, Asia, the Caribbean and Eastern Europe. It seeks to support initiatives that enable local communities as well as global institutions to engage with the threatening changes of nature and our environment through contemporary artistic and cultural interventions.  Their focus includes:

  • Employ new media to re-imagine a more sustainable world, and provide space for different perspectives within the sustainability discussion
  • Promote the inclusion of women and minority groups
  • Support concrete cultural initiatives that enable local impact while encouraging a global exchange on culture of sustainability and climate justice
  • Encourage out of the box initiatives by artists and cultural practitioners looking to re-imagine conventional approaches to environmental sustainability and climate justice
  • Support the development of artistic and creative initiatives that reinforce and rethink traditional knowledge and methods as a means to promote sustainability and climate justice
  • Stimulate and inspire communities to use sustainable materials and resources within their own contexts and practice.

With this call for proposals the Prince Claus Fund would like to invite artists and cultural practitioners to envision a future for our planet that is more environmentally friendly, and to propose their cultural/artistic responses to how we can jointly get there. The Fund seeks to challenge all interested in this call to create innovative concepts that link artistic cultural engagement to environmental sustainability and climate justice.

CLIMARTE

CLIMARTE is an independent charity founded by Guy Abrahams, Fiona Armstrong and Deborah Hart, and registered with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission. CLIMARTE is an Incorporated Association governed by a Board, and operated by the management team of Chair Peter Christoff, Vice Chair Marielle Soni, and Executive Director Bronwyn Johnson.  It has brought together a broad alliance of arts organisations, practitioners, administrators, patrons and academics from across the spectrum of the arts sector, including the visual arts, music, theatre, dance, literature, architecture, and cinema.

CLIMARTE seeks to harness the creative power of the arts to inform, engage and inspire action on climate change for the arts can not only show but indeed they can make us feel the very problems that we are facing. They can inspire us to acknowledge that we are part of nature and not separate from it. Creative thinking and expression help us to communicate and understand the rich relationships which exist between all things; for these relationships are what make our world the dynamic, intriguing, challenging and wondrous experience that it is. As key interpreters of this wondrous experience, we believe the arts has a major role and responsibility to encourage the transformational thinking required to move us away from our current destructive practices, and towards the environmental sustainability that we need to protect life on our planet.

Putting this aim into action, CLIMARTE has organised a socially engaging festival of over 30 exhibitions, forums, events and activities across Melbourne and Regional Victoria across April to June 2019.  The festival is exploring ideas and concepts around art and activism, community engagement, transition and accelerated action on climate change.

EMBRACE

Challenged by the zero-sum conquer and consumption game of the modern ‘industrial state’ and inspired by CLIMARTE and the Prince Claus Fund, BMCAN, through the Wild Mountain Collective is seeking to establish an EMBRACE Alliance of arts, environmental, community, education and business organisations to undertake EMBRACE as a socially engaging festival of ideas, exhibitions, events and forums across the Greater Blue Mountains, Lithgow and Bathurst region of New South Wales.

EMBRACE will provide an opportunity for engagement with the First Nations people of this area—the Wiradjuri, Gundungura and Darug peoples around what it means to ‘care for country’, linking environmental, spiritual and wellbeing issues that draw from the intrinsically holistic approach of the 60,000+ years of Aboriginal cultural heritage that reaches back into the last ice age.  It is a heritage that has been kept alive through the deep and enduring strength of a culture that prioritised connection to country as a source of spiritual and mental wellbeing, and deep ecological knowledge about how to live sustainably across changing environmental conditions.  It is a culture whose understanding of time is not the linearity of literate cultures and the modern idea of ‘progress’.  Rather it is the circular time of interconnected ecological systems—birth, fruition, death and rebirth, of the continuing presence of the Dreamtime Creation Ancestors celebrated along the Songlines of encoded knowledge through dance, music, painting and story telling.  Of initiation ceremonies that conferred sacred moral responsibilities to the LAW, the rules of how reality works as complex ecological systems for both the natural environment and human societies.  Where country is not merely a resource to be owned or used for economic production or leisure, but where country is ‘family’ with all that entails, where country is ‘alive’ and where its lifeforce must be attended to through ceremonial caring so that it continues to nourish us.  And this country is both soil, mountains and rivers; it is oceans and it is sky, and all the creatures and plants who call country their ‘home’.  Its power is celebrated in paintings that now adorn the major art galleries of the world and the private art collections of the rich and famous, so powerful is the pull of this vision.

EMBRACE not only addresses the issue of community engagement with climate change and economic transition in the energy and agricultural sectors, but also addresses the importance of cultural and nature-based tourism for the Greater Blue Mountains area, particularly for Lithgow and environs, as outlined in the recently launched Destination Pagoda Strategy by the Gardens of Stones Alliance (Colong Foundaiton, Blue Mountains Conservation Society, Lithgow Environment Group). It also builds on the important work of Lithgow’s IronFest, the Cementa Festival and to the Kandos School of Cultural Adaptation (KSCA), which are responding to the need for cultural transformation away from mining, coal-based energy production and traditional forms of ‘industrial’ agriculture to new forms responsive to the challenges and opportunities of climate change. Bathurst Regional Council has also released its Cultural Vision 2036, which seeks to position Bathurst as an inland centre for cultural education.

Ontology and Epistemology

In the natural history of the living human being, ontology and epistemology cannot be separated. His [commonly unconscious] beliefs about what sort of world it is [ontology] will determine how he sees it [epistemology] and acts within it, and his ways of perceiving and acting will determine his beliefs about its epistemological and ontological premises which—regardless of ultimate truth or falsity—become partially self-validating for him.

Gregory Bateson, Steps to An Ecology of Mind, 2000, page 314, from ‘The Social Matrix of Psychiatry’, 1951.

Ambiguous Nature

How then do we escape the prison of our own cultural ontology and epistemology? Interestingly when the western physicist, David Bohm, identified the mysterious quantum discovery that matter may behave like a solid particle in one context, like a wave of energy in another, and like both together in yet a third context – the wave-particle duality, and the possibility for the non-local connection between particles, he challenged the dominance of western technical rationality that informed the pervasive logical positivism of western social sciences. As noted, the essence of the mechanistic position lies in its assumption of fixed basic qualities, which means that the laws themselves will finally reduce to purely quantitative relationships—one of the major projects of the discipline of economics in search of being a ‘science’.

Instead it is proposed that nature may have an infinite capacity for variation and that any given set of qualities and properties of matter and categories of laws that are expressed in terms of these qualities and properties is, in general, applicable only within limited contexts, over limited ranges of conditions, and to limited degrees of approximation. Because of the fundamental principle of interdependence, not only do the quantitative properties in it continually change but the basic qualities that define its mode of being can also undergo fundamental transformations when conditions alter sufficiently.

—Nichol, L. (ed) (2003) The Essential David Bohm, Routledge, p. 13-18

The Colonisation of Consciousness

Even when technical rationality is modified by phenomenological rationality, to press the reset button requires the Western philosophical inheritance of binary opposites and theoretical abstraction to be modified by other modes of thought drawn from the cultures of new geo-political powers such as China and India, and from pre-industrial cultures such as Aboriginal Australia. As has been noted by scholars of ‘orientalism’, globalisation dominated by EuroAmerican economic and political hegemony, is matched by intellectual neo-colonialism.

The colonial expansion of Europe was an exercise in domination, and while military and economic control was paramount, epistemic control was a full partner in keeping the colonial subjects docile and subservient… The European [EuroAmerican] intellect is committed to the world of representation. Its truth does not lie in experience but in words, in the logos, and in formally validated logic… Is not rationality in the West always instrumental rationality… the value-free theory of European rationality is only a myth? (Liberman, 2004: 7-19)

Through the Lens of Daoist Thought

Bohm’s insights were well understood in Chinese thought dating back over 2,3000 years ago to the Daoist philosophies of China.

In his comparative analysis of Western and ancient Daoist strategic conceptions of efficacy, the French sinologist, Francois Jullien, maintains that while the key to Chinese strategy is to rely on the inherent potential of the situation and to be carried along by it as it evolves, European thought has consisted of developing a model (often a mathematical model), determined on a theoretical basis, which is then projected upon the world to test its efficacy. This latter approach we can see all too active in the role of economic modelling where inconvenient ‘effects’ are hived off as externalities to the model, so as not to threaten its efficacy.

Furthermore, Jullien points out that whereas European languages are predominantly noun (thing) based – subjects and objects linked by verbs, binary, and with a lineal view of history, the Chinese language retains an infinitive verbal function.

Drawing on Laozi’s Tao Te Ching [Dao De Jing], (Shambala, 2007), Jullien illustrates how Chinese thought tends to strategy rather than moral positioning because the focus is on ‘process’ rather than ‘being’ with its correlative of ‘presence’ and ‘absence’—which has been the ground of European thought since the Greeks. Based on his ethnology of our conceptual frameworks, Jullien proposes that ancient Chinese thought is a way out of our ‘rut’

—Jullien, F. (2016) The Philosophy of Living, translated by Krysziof Fijalkowski and Michael Richardson, Seagull, p. 42-43

It never constructed a world of ideal forms, archetypes, or pure essences that are separate from reality but inform it. It regards the whole of reality as a regulated and continuous process that stems purely from the interaction of the factors in play (which are at once opposed and complementary: the famous yin and yang)…Therefore such Chinese thought overcame the conflict/separation between theory and practice.

—Jullien, F. (1995) The Propensity of Things: Toward a history of Efficacy in China, Zone Books, NY, p.15

The idea of flow is core to Daoism and being in tune with the Dao, the flow of things. The Daoist world was seen as consisting not of solid ‘things’ but of flows or forces, or movements of energy or shifting configurations of shih. The chief impediment to knowing the Dao was seen as fixation, which prevents us being able to see the whole of changing patterns and the way flows work in space and time—creating openness for the consideration of whatever arises, rather than the projection of assumptions onto such arising phenomena.

— Sun Tzu (2001) The Art of War: The Denma Tranlsation, Shambala, p.77-85