The regular failure of politicians and bureaucrats to satisfy public expectations of accessibility, transparency and accountability has alarmed large numbers of voters in many countries. For whatever reasons, there are today many people who feel abandoned, betrayed and angered in their disconnection from political representation, from government, and from public service bureaucracies.
And they are seeking revenge through the ballot box. Thus Donald Trump got elected because working people in America’s ‘rust belt’ felt abandoned and betrayed by establishment politicians; President Macron and members of his new political party got elected because French electors similarly felt abandoned and betrayed by establishment politicians; Theresa May got re-elected into a hung parliament for very similar reasons. The circumstances may be different in each case, but everywhere it seems, the citizens of wealthy countries are expressing their frustrations by voting differently, or by not voting at all. This is in effect a global political shakeup.
The negative emotions expressed in all these events may be valid but, as I argue here, they do not extend far enough. There is far more at stake in the poor management of Earth’s resources than careers and profitability. Humanity’s ecological disconnection threatens the survival and quality of all life. Today, we need to step beyond frustration and anger with politicians and bureaucrats, however well deserved these feelings may be. Political and social disconnections caused by abandonment and betrayal may be popular media themes, but they really only point towards the magnitude of the cruelty and ignorance humanity inflicts on itself, and on most other non-human life forms.
The universal failure of humans to get along, and the great disturbances that human events can cause, should not blind us to the most fundamental condition of human survival, and bedrock for any definition of ‘the common good’ in any society: humanity is part of life on Earth. We need to identify with all life on Earth. Disconnection from civil society is only the tip of the iceberg of human disconnection.
Arguably, abandonment and betrayal are all types of disconnection. There is a good reason for emphasising disconnection in these very common acts and feelings, because the antidote of connection (or re-connection) can extend far beyond politicians and bureaucrats who can be so irritating and even criminal in their behaviour. In the broader context, connection and re-connection is critically important to the future of life on Earth. Somehow we need to connect with a non-human world while enduring the bad behaviour of our fellow humans. Whatever emotional bonds may or may not be involved, we all need to recognise our connection with, and dependence on, our planet’s ecosystems.
Broadly speaking, feeling disconnected is a perennial problem of the human condition. Marx wrote about ‘alienation’; modern sociologists used to write about similar feelings: for Durkheim it was ‘anomie’; for Weber and others it was ‘disenchantment’. Indeed, sociology depends on finding the circumstances of various kinds of disconnection – politics, economics, religion, even ‘well being’, are all just different ways of discussing the institutionalisation of disconnection. For sociologists, the re-connections caused by social changes, such as more social and economic equality, or more social justice, are antidotes guaranteeing more human well being, however defined. For all that intellectual work, disconnection remains fundamental in the human condition.
One of the best cultural expressions of this alienation is religion, because it is so widely (but mistakenly) endorsed as positive in its role as a social institution.
Sadly, it is still contentious to surmise that all religion is founded on mass feelings of disconnection. Certainly, all religions promise ‘reconnection’ in the hereafter as a benefit of faith in God or Gods. Faith can even provide a sense of reconnection in the here and now: reconnection with God and fellow humans. Well, at least, that’s the promising allure of being religious.
This is sad not simply because Donald Trump spoke of sadness. The sad fact is that the reconnection the planet needs is not with God but with all the living worlds on Earth. Religion is still a major obstacle to any sense of being part of a living community because it enables people to defer hope and appropriate action indefinitely. The same can be said of most human activity, but it is religion that continues to disconnect huge numbers from the here and now of a declining planet. Even recognising God in a blade of grass does not make for reconnection with nature; in religious terms this act only points to a beyond, or perhaps even a here and now, but the assumption that God is involved only bolsters faith and belief.
Today we need more. We may need to understand that, as Clive Hamilton, for one, has pointed out in his latest book, Defiant Earth, Earth is a living system best described by scientifically based Earth System theory, but that need is only part of the problem. We need to feel connected; understanding how Earth and all who live on her are connected is one thing; identifying with Earth and all its ecologies – including our local ecologies – is another matter entirely. That goes beyond conventional science and religion.