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Humanity’s hollow delusions punctured

Clinging to an economic order that depends on laying waste to our planet has us facing a catastrophe

By Rod Amner

“When we allow self-evident truths to percolate past our defences and into our consciousness, they are treated like so many hand grenades rolling across the dance floor of an improbably macabre party. We try to stay out of harm’s way, afraid they will go off, shatter our delusions, and leave us exposed to what we have done to the world and to ourselves, exposed as the hollow people we have become. And, so, we avoid these … self-evident truths and continue the dance of world destruction.” – Derrick Jensen, A Language Older Than Words (2004).

At the end of Julian Cobbing’s Growth, Growth, Growth: Human History and the Planetary Catastrophe, a cyclonic tour of humanity’s rapacious and murderous relationship with itself and “everything else”, the author admits that the implications of his book may be somewhat “dispiriting”. Indeed, it is impossible to binge-read the book without feeling overpowered by the force of his carefully choreographed, delusion-shattering grenade rolls. But, after plucking some of the shrapnel from one’s thin skin, one is surprisingly – possibly masochistically – grateful for the bracing clarity afforded by the onslaught.

Cobbing’s book is based on a now-legendary 50-lecture Rhodes University undergraduate history course he first taught in 1997 and refined over 15 years before retiring. His lectures drew so many students – many of them not even formally registered for the course – that there would be hardly any sitting room in the lecture theatre. For one of his former students, Nomalanga Mkhize, now a history professor at Nelson Mandela University, the course asked: “Can we imagine the future and our place in it?”

At the heart of the course was the idea that human history could be understood as a series of crises linked to economic growth. In the more distant past, technical solutions – like alphabets and clocks – were devised to help fix these crises. But the self-evident truth is that our current ultra-corporatised capitalist system is dependent on unchecked growth, while the resources that our economic system consumes are finite.

This is not a new insight (Cobbing quotes striking passages from Clive Ponting’s A Green History of the World, Jared Diamond’s Collapse and many others for corroboration), but we are continually reminded there is no technical solution to our current predicament. The central theme of Cobbing’s overview of history is the unnerving idea that the stability of our current economic order depends on our trashing the planet.

Some may want to sweep Cobbing’s grenades off the dance floor, dismiss him as an alarmist, loony leftist and pray for technical magic bullets, like nuclear fusion. But his sketch of what will happen in the probable lifetime of a young person reading his book is rooted in overwhelming evidence and it is, for someone like me with young-adult children, heartbreaking.

The hundreds of students who attended Cobbing’s course did not shy away from these truths, shoot the messenger or collapse into nihilistic despair. They were instead receptive to the explanatory power of “big picture” insights. For Cobbing, the floods of fragmented information (not to mention “fake news”, greenwashing soundbites, corporate PR and state propaganda) on our smartphones make impossible an introspective life – “complex ideas get reduced to bullet points, abbreviations and oversimplifications” or reality is deliberately, malevolently distorted.

Cobbing argues that the European and American education systems – after which our own decrepit system is still modelled – were subdivided into disciplines that were increasingly sealed off from each other: “As information became nearly infinite, it became impossible for a single human to have an overview of the whole, and narrower specialisation became unavoidable.” For Cobbing, the inability to see the big picture has contributed to contemporary political paralysis.

If to be “educated” is to think critically, evaluate facts and arguments rigorously, imagine creatively, articulate interesting questions, explore alternative viewpoints, maintain intellectual curiosity and speak and act meaningfully in the world, then it indeed requires a familiarity with the broad arc of planetary history and the forces that shape(d) us, individually and collectively. Especially if, as Cobbing warns, it is certain there will be future – potentially genocidal – conflicts as environments collapse.

Politically charged

Cobbing’s “big picture” is a broadly materialist outlook on history, resonating with Eric Hobsbawm’s Marxist historiography rather than the 21st century proponents of Big History, who place human history in the broader context of the universe from the Big Bang to the present. Like Cobbing, Big Historians examine long time frames using a multidisciplinary approach. But, as historian Dipesh Chakrabarty remarks, most Big History of this kind tends to be “depoliticised”; Cobbing’s histories – like Hobsbawm’s – are politically charged.

Cobbing quotes Hobsbawm: “We live in a world captured, uprooted and transformed by the titanic economic and techno-scientific process of the development of capitalism. The forces generated by [it] are now great enough to destroy the environment, the material foundations of human life … If humanity is to have a recognisable future, it cannot be by prolonging the past or the present. The alternative to a changed society is darkness.”

But, whereas Hobsbawm wrote three long books on the rise of industrial capitalism, socialism and nationalism in the 19th century alone, Cobbing’s relatively short text (261 pages) touches lightly on that epoch, confronting instead the grand arc of history accessibly and concisely.

Given that capitalism originated in Europe, that arc is necessarily somewhat Eurocentric. Cobbing mentions examples related to his location in the Eastern Cape several times. Yet, these anecdotes illustrate how South Africa’s cultures and ecosystems – on the periphery of global history – were colonised, exploited, denigrated and disfigured through pan-national global forces.

What is not explored in Growth, Growth, Growth is whether there are still ways of being (socially, philosophically, economically) derived from indigenous knowledge systems and communitarian values (in Africa and other parts of the Earth) that might help us to learn to walk more lightly on the planet. South Africa’s comprador bourgeoisie along with its “our-time-to-eat” comrades have long since forsaken their cultural and intellectual roots – but what of the wisdom of ordinary people?

Cobbing leaves the final word of “hope” to the radical voice of Derrick Jensen: “We are, of course, already dead. There is no hope. The machine is too powerful, the damage too severe. There are too many child abusers, too many rapists, too many corporations, too many tanks and guns and airplanes. And I’m just one person; I can’t do anything. You’re dead right, so what the hell are you waiting for? … Give up. Capitulate. Realise there is no hope, then have it. If you’re dead, you have nothing to lose and a world to gain.” Pessimistic, perhaps – but also realistic.

What a privilege to have been invited back into Cobbing’s lecture halls through the publication of this book. Its insights are a distillation of a lifetime of teaching, researching, reading and thinking, and they underline the incalculable value of public intellectuals who dare to challenge our personal and collective delusions. 

This book review was first published in Grocott’s Mail.

Growth, Growth, Growth: Human History and the Planetary Catastrophe by Julian Cobbing is published by Mvusi Books.