Mankind and Mother Earth

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  • Book: Mankind and Mother Earth.



Daniel Ross:

"Mankind and Mother Earth, by the British historian Arnold Toynbee, written in 1973 but published posthumously in 1976. The life of Arnold Toynbee, from 14 April 1889 to 22 October 1975, occupies an almost identical stretch of time as that of Martin Heidegger, from 26 September 1889 to 26 May 1976.

This span stretches from:

(1) a youth that coincided with the industrialization of production and faith in ‘progress’ characteristic of the world prior to the unprecedented destruction of the First World War; to

(2) a major period of work, a period that also saw the industrialization of consumption and the withering of faith in progress that accompanied the catastrophic convulsions of the twentieth century; and eventually to

(3) late reflections, occurring at a moment when the ‘glorious’ post-War years were at an end, and the world was entering a new age of computational technology which by the 1970s had only begun to unfold into the vast process of transformation still underway in 2020.

In the third of these periods, Toynbee, like Lotka after the Second World War, had become highly conscious of the fact that humankind was now confronted with the reality of this curtailment, and the fact that the preservation of life had turned to destruction: Man is the first species of living being in our biosphere that has acquired the power to wreck the biosphere and, in wrecking it, to liquidate himself.

Toynbee does not discuss the second law of thermodynamics, and nor therefore does he discuss life in terms of the struggle against it, let alone exosomatic evolution. Nevertheless, the conception of the character of the ‘mankind’ of the title resonates with Stiegler’s Promethean and Epimethean description of neotenic man in Technics and Time.

Toynbee writes about the process of hominization as follows:

- By the time that Man had become human, he had been stripped of all built-in physical weapons and armour, but he had acquired a conscious intellect which could think and plan, and two physical organs, his brain and his hands, which were the material instruments for his thinking, his planning, and his attempt to achieve his purposes by physical action."

Furthermore, just as Friedrich Engels had said as early as 1883 that the hand ‘implies the tool’, just as Stiegler will argue in 1994 that the evolution of this brain and this hand are co-constitutive with the evolution of the tool, so too Toynbee argues in 1973 that ‘tools are coeval with human consciousness’. Hence the situation with which we are confronted today, the power if not the likelihood that we will wreck the biosphere, is one whose roots lie so far back in time as to precede the appearance of Homo sapiens itself, in that coeval unfolding of hominization and technicization, of brain and hand, that gave rise to an exosomatic being who slowly but surely began to encroach further upon the biosphere, in the competition for available energy.

Yet even if these roots lie far back, it is a transformation in the conditions of this competition that has produced a decisive turn from preservation to destruction:

  • "Since the beginning of the Upper Palaeolithic Age, perhaps

against the rest of the biosphere; but it is only since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, no more than two hundred years ago, that Man has become decisively dominant. Within the last two centuries, Man has increased his material power to a degree at which he has become a menace to the biosphere’s survival…"

Like Lotka, Toynbee sees this in terms of a lag in the adjustors, that is, a failure of knowledge, wisdom and care to keep up with this acceleration:

- "… he has become a menace to the biosphere’s survival; but he has not increased his spiritual potentiality; the gap between this and his material power has consequently been widening; and this growing discrepancy is disconcerting; for an increase in Man’s spiritual potentiality is now the only conceivable change in the constitution of the biosphere that can insure the biosphere – and, in the biosphere, Man himself – against being destroyed by a greed that is now armed with the ability to defeat its own intentions."

Only an increase in spiritual potentiality can save us.

If we do not wish to take this as a mystical invocation, then we must hear it as a diagnosis of current pathologies and a call to address them by changing the conditions of our psychic and collective formation.

The exosomatic being may be in possession of a noetic soul, but there is no guarantee it will not be lost, in gaining the world (and it is for this reason that Stiegler will refer, in invoking and updating Weber’s account, to the lost spirit of capitalism).

What then is the pathology? It is a recklessness, a carelessness that Toynbee identifies as a kind of civilizational suicidal tendency:

- "Mankind’s material power has now increased to a degree at which it could make the biosphere uninhabitable and will, in fact, produce this suicidal result within a foreseeable period of time if the human population of the globe does not now take prompt and vigorous concerted action."

Forty-five years later, this prompt and vigorous concerted action has utterly failed to materialize, and we cannot discount that the moment may already have passed, that we have already slipped the hangman’s noose we have fashioned for ourselves around our neck, climbed atop the chair and are now teetering on the edge of the precipice and staring down into an abyss that can no longer be avoided."

Source: Source: Daniel Ross. PSYCHOPOLITICAL ANAPHYLAXIS: STEPS TOWARDS A METACOSMICS. Open Humanities Press, 2021.