Jonathan Rowson


Part 6: Goal - Survival of Open Societies. Philosophical and strategic reflections on Emerge.



Rogue One is the Star Wars film that made the deepest impression on me. The film was released in 2016 but sits in a narrative chronology just before the original Star Wars in 1977. The plot of Rogue One is about the gradual formation of a rebel alliance which, against the odds, succeeds in preventing The Empire from using its monstrous planet-destroying weapon, The Death Star. The heroism is entirely defensive, about avoiding annihilation, not thereby winning, but just keeping the game of life alive. When the film ended, it felt to me like something was missing. It appeared that the only victory was to have bought some time. I was initially confused, but then deeply touched. Heroic effort on a galactic scale and all for the sake of preserving possibility.
The Director Gareth Edwards said of Rogue One: "It comes down to a group of individuals who don't have magical powers that have to somehow bring hope to the galaxy." Sounds like a familiar challenge.
In the previous post I suggested that because we are in a time between worlds, we need to become undertakers, bouncers, artists and widwives. It’s a serious joke, and we can now reinforce the point technically. The big question of this series is “Now that you’ve found the others, what are you going to do?” To answer that it helps to distinguish the needs of triage, transition and post-transition (Daniel Schmachtenberger’s triptych, and a version of McKinsey's Three Horizons Model).
Triage is a version of the medical advice primum non nocere – first do no harm. It’s about time sensitivity, focussing and prioritising action in the next (let’s say) fifteen years or so such that things don’t collapse any more than they need to and protecting whatever is of greatest value. Triage is what informs the case for disabling the Death Star, but also the case for arming Ukraine to defend its homeland. Transition is about working with existing institutions and helping them adapt and transform to a different kind of world while making good use of their skill and capacity over the next thirty years or so. Transition is, for instance, about the economic case for ‘degrowth’ and attempts to turn fossil fuel companies into alternative energy companies. Post-transition is the new world we hope to be able to get to at some point in the second half of the century if we start now – the kinds of world ‘Post-Growth’, ‘Game B’ or ‘Ecological civilisation’ seek to describe. These challenges – minimise harm, adapt and transform, reimagine the world – are connected, but different. Many in our field talk at cross purposes when we fail to distinguish them. Often the undertaker is arguing with the midwife, needlessly, and sometimes the bouncer won’t let the artist join the party.
One thing that falls out of this analysis is that the goal of our field – what it’s trying to do – is distinct from what I am calling its entelechy – it’s ultimate realisation. The goal of the Emerge field is successful triage informed by the needs of transition and inspired by the vision of a post-transition world – its entelechy. The challenge is to specify what that means today and figure out the working relationship between these very different kinds of aims. 
Ursula K. Le Guin writes the following in A Wizard of Earthsea:
“But you must not change one thing, one pebble, one grain of sand, until you know what good and evil will follow on that act. The world is in balance, in Equilibrium. A wizard's power of Changing and Summoning can shake the balance of the world. It is dangerous, that power...It must follow knowledge, and serve need.”
Alas we are not wizards, and the world is out of equilibrium. But the idea that we need to act with a keener sense of “what good and evil will follow” and “to follow knowledge and serve need” seems wise. The goal and the entelechy are deeply intertwined – that we need at least some feeling or vision for where we’re trying to get to in order to understand what wise action in the present looks like. My Twitter exchange with Joe Brewer in January speaks volumes in this regard:

JR: If I had money to invest I’d invest in fake meat. It looks, smells and tastes more and more like the real thing. And it only has to taste about 70-90% as good as the real thing for people to switch to it for the eco&health and (later when demand goes up) financial benefits.
JB: Hmm... I think I would take more care to step away from industrial monoculture agriculture. "Plant-based" still means this system in the current configuration.
JR: I realise it's industrial agriculture that's closer to the socio-ecological heart of the matter, and not meat as such. I also see the invest-return model has limitations. But aren't you at least a little excited by a product that could drastically reduce meat consumption?
JB: No, I'm not excited about anything that perpetuates the entrenchment of machine metaphors or the extractive economy. ;-)
JR: Touché. So your view is that backing ‘plant-based meat’ is unwise because it distracts from and delays the more profound and urgent changes in perception, process and practice that are essential? (It’s related to the problems of ‘green growth’- somehow laced with delusion?)
JB: Yep, pretty much. ;-) I've found the most powerful way to invest is in land trusts that enable communities to grow their capacities for regenerative economics locally. And in the lives of Earth Regenerators too!
JR: I understand and suspect I even agree. But life looks different in London to how I imagine it looks in Barichara. For the millions living in cities who still need to eat, I’m assuming, ceteris paribus, that it’s still ecologically & ethically better to eat plant-based, than meat?
JB: This is why I say we are "flying below the radar of civilization" with the regenerative movement... those of us who see beyond the population crash who are investing in the survival of humanity. It's a bitter medicine to take but the benefits are profound.
JR: Well as you know I wish you all the best and find your work inspiring. I guess the subtext of your original tweet is that if you are going to suggest that people invest in anything, advise them to do it in something that might actually work in the long term.
You can see the difference between goal and entelechy in that exchange. ‘Reduce meat consumption’ appears to be a legitimate goal, while “investing in the survival of humanity’ requires a bigger vision that calls the legitimacy of a particular attempt to achieve the goal into question.
We will get deeper into entelechy (our desired post-transitional outcome) in our final post, which is about orienting ourselves at a larger scale towards whatever seems to be good, beautiful and true. However, I believe it’s a mistake to confuse that with our goal, which must be informed by a vision of the entelechy as well as the urgency of converging pressures (triage and transition). What follows is therefore a set of principles that speak to triage, transition and post-transition. Whatever the precise model or terminology, it seems clear that the desirable destination is less like a new place and more like a renewing and regenerative process that will unfold over decades. My sketch of that process is derived from Tasting the Pickle: 
·     A relatively balanced picture of self in society, free from the alienation of excessive individualism and the coercion of collectivism, with autonomy grounded in commons resources and ecological interdependence.
·     A more refined perception of the nature of the world, in which discrete things are seen for what they have always been – evolving processes.
·     A dynamic appreciation of our minds, which are not blank slates that magically become ‘rational’ but constantly evolving living systems that are embodied, encultured, extended and deep.
·     An experience of ‘society’ that is not merely given, but willingly received or co-constructed through the interplay of evolving imaginative capacity.
·     A perspective on the purpose of life that is less about status through material success and more about the intrinsic rewards of learning, beauty and meaning.
·     An understanding of our relationship with nature that is less about extraction of resources for short-term profit and more about wise ecological stewardship (some would add, for the benefit of all beings).
·     Patterns of governance that are less about power being centralised, corrupt and unaccountable and more ‘glocal’, polycentric, transparent and responsive.
·     A relationship to technology in which we are not beholden to addictive gadgets and platforms but truly sovereign over our behaviour, and properly compensated for the use of our data. (And where, in Frankfurt’s terms, we ‘want what we want to want’.)
·     An economy designed not to create aggregate profit for the richest, but the requisite health and education required for everyone to live meaningful lives free of coercion on an ecologically sound planet.
·     A world with a rebalancing of power and resources from developed to developing worlds, and men to women, and present to future generations (including reparations where necessary).
These sketches feel too conventional to be the answer, given the extent of the weirding of the world, but they describe the patterning we appear to need based on our current historical sensibilities; transitions that are of sufficient scope and concern to speak to the interconnected nature of our predicament. Many questions remain, for instance for the technological nature of the money supply or the provision, storage and transportation of energy; it is likely to mean a very different kind of world, and getting there is unlikely to be costless for everyone. 
The point of this kind of sketch (and there are many) is well articulated by Jeremy Lent in a recent advert for an event on Ecological Civilisation: “As we face the existential meta-crisis, I believe what’s fundamentally important is a coherent vision of a life-affirming future that can amplify and attract diverse movements into a self-reinforcing trajectory.” In a personal exchange Jeremy made the further astute point that in a world of symbiotic whole-part relationships, the articulation of the whole is essential for the parts to start working together.
While the vision of the new world awaiting us is an important motivating factor in the present, it will need to be much better than some look-at-me bullet points. We will need more enchantment, more mythopoetic seduction, more metaphoric flights of fancy. And yet, mythos needs logos. The world where such creative play is possible is a free world of free people, and that’s not a minor point. 
Envisioning the promised land(post-transition) is important work, but we have no chance of even doing that work adequately, never mind getting there, unless we can prevent widespread systemic collapse (failed triage) and, more precisely, preventing it in a way that doesn’t entail excessive authoritarian control (failed transition). The more unstable and threatening the world appears, the more the one strong leader and the one clear enemy will appeal. That, I believe, is a near and present danger in almost every democracy in the world. 
The struggle for our possible futures might be between ecological civilisation versus techno-feudalism, which carry a metamodern and hypermodern spirit respectively, but the near-term battle between open and closed societies will strongly load the dice. That is why I feel the goal of the Emerge network might be the modest but entirely essential one: the survival of open societies. That doesn’t mean all effort goes there, and it doesn’t mean doubling down on the failed status quo. It means recognising that in a profound sense we are already blessed with what we need to create a viable and desirable future, but we have to protect it and better appreciate what it affords. Democracy is losing the battle to authoritarianism around the world, and the USA is especially vulnerable. To put it more bluntly. Take the threat of fascism seriously and see where that takes you.
Open Society can mean many things, and not all of them are positive. It is a term made famous by Karl Popper in Open Society and its Enemies (1945) and can be used almost interchangeably with liberal democracy and it’s capacious enough for ideological diversity including liberalism, socialism and conservativism; at its heart is the principle that the state exists to enable the rights of individual people to live free lives rather than people serving the desires of the state. Open societies have their problems and I wrote about them when I was anopen society fellow. Although open society often manifests in neoliberal and technocratic form, it is helpful to reimagine the term broadly and generously today in a way that ecologically informed and technologically wise. As civilisational collapse starts to quicken, the desire for authoritarian control will strengthen. The principles and freedoms represented by the idea of open society are an absolute prerequisite for most of the discussions and activities of the Emerge field. Primum non nocere.
Ukraine is now a frontline of the battle between open and closed societies around the world and Emerge has a special connection with Ukraine since we hosted our 2019 gathering in Kyiv and we’ve had weekly online meet-up discussions since the Russian invasion in February. What Ukrainians are fighting and dying for is not just their home, but principles of collective life that the jaded west wrongly takes for granted. In that fight, they are showing the character of free spirits: post-tragic beauty, care for non-human species, serious humour, technological ingenuity, networked intelligence, and an explosion of social trust.
Open societies are worth fighting for, not as an end in themselves, but the means without which the evolving discussion we need to have about ends and means will not even be possible.


Links to all the articles in this series:

Part 1. Introduction: Field-Creation.
Part 2. Epoch: Time between worlds.
Part 3. Method: Third order change.
Part 4. Ethos: Post-conventional.
Part 5. Resolve: Getting real.
Part 6. Goal: Survival of open societies.
Part 7. Entelechy: The future within us.
Words by Jonathan Rowson
Jonathan Rowson is Director of Perspectiva and author of The Moves That Matter: A Chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life.