European School of Governance, position paper #76 by Doris Bergmann
“Our future depends on how we understand the past,” once said the Argentinian singer-songwriter Gustavo Cerati. To put this in other words, we project our future very much in the way we see our past. Until today, whenever we think about the future, there mainly seems to be two directions that would be able to solve the environmental challenges we are facing: On the one hand, there is the idea of de-growth where renunciation and deprivation is the center of focus; on the other hand, we see the possibility of rapid technological progress that could have the possibility of keeping the status quo and, at the same time, solve environmental challenges. We are running out of ideas.
In modern times, we try to find solutions by orientating ourselves on developing the outside world. In doing so, we have created amazing progress and wealth: industrialization, technological revolutions, democracy, individualization, the rule of law and a lot more. Certainly, these are things we can be proud of and thankful for. Without rationality, the belief in reason and rational considerations, we would not be where we are at now. However, with all of the progress we have made, our head (including rational consideration) is the center of attention. Along with these developments, we have lost our connection to the most powerful and complex tool we own: our body.
In a way, our body has been relegated to a lower hierarchy and has become something we are capable of but also need to keep under control. René Descartes’ phrase “I think, therefore I am” says it all. Of course, the body is important today. We have learned to present ourselves through our body: the body on stage – self-disciplined, styled and dressed. In a way, we are exploiting the body in the same way that we are exploiting our planet. Simply because we regard it as a resource which follows the logic of increase. It has become a body we are not listening to – an ignored body. Increasing numbers of stress and burnout disorders as well as inexplicable health complaints are evidence of us not listening to it. This mode of being disconnected from our body is biologically speaking a state of emergency for survival, regarding the “fight-flight-freeze response.” This is the body’s automatic, built-in system designed to protect us from threat or danger and therefore also reduces our sense of pain. But what if we are almost continually cutting ourselves off from our senses? Aren’t we then blocking out any emotion, thus rendering ourselves numb and dull? And wouldn’t we be in danger of losing our emotional compass which would definitely be very unhealthy for us and destructive for the world? Thinking without the body holds the risk of thinking without feeling, thinking without being in touch, doing things without listening and without being in resonance with the world.
Once we have accomplished such progress focusing on the outside world, it is time to look towards the inside, for we are all human beings – sensing bodies enclosed in social systems. Maybe it is time to think out of the box which modernism has put us in or even to get rid of the box completely and start very simple by looking at “us” and who we are. It is not about forcing ourselves to be and act differently, it is more about gaining our body back as an instrument. The only way to get an idea about governing the Anthropocene in a sustainable way which will be worthwhile for us, is if we are able to focus on gaining something new that doesn’t feel like giving something up.
Unlike in times of hunting and gathering, our survival today does not depend on having the right intuition if there is a lion waiting for us behind the next bush or having the feeling for the right direction to the closest spring which prevents us from dying of thirst. We might not need to connect to the world for our immediate survival, but we can use the capability to feel ourselves, others and the world; to open up the space for actions and finding further ways of evaluating our past and the decisions we would like to make. Maybe our survival does not depend on our body in the short-term, but rather in the mid- and long-term.
Let us, on an individual level, become aware of António Damásio’s phrase “I feel, therefore I am.” Feeling ourselves might be a possible way to solve the many challenges we are facing in the Anthropocene – and ‘ourself’ is our body. This may sound easy and trivial at the same time – maybe even absurd. Yet, it is quite the contrary, for it would mean a shift in awareness, a paradigm shift. By including our body we gain space to see more of what there is. We widen our perception to gain more choices of action. And opening up our choices of action has the capacity of opening up the space for new ideas on what a sustainable future for our planet could look like.
I’m sure we can learn a lot by putting our body back into the focus and regarding it as a complementary part to our rational mind, an instrument we can re-discover in order to connect. The body is an instrument which can be used to shape relationships, it is a medium for ourselves and a medium for being in resonance with others and the world. It is an instrument for our degree of openness and connectedness, an instrument for listening to the response of our actions, an instrument that challenges our level of empathy and an instrument that would prevent us from doing harmful things to ourselves and to the world. There is an urgent need for societies to apply the quality of resonance as a normative standard for our actions. To be in resonance implies our degree of connectedness and openness towards other people and things, our relationship to the world. Being in resonance would support us tremendously to focus on the response to the actions we take, on the relationship to other people and things, on making ourselves heard, on collectively shaping and on our search for collective self-efficacy. And it will give us humans the feeling of being integrated in a bigger context – meaningful and vital for our societies.
Managing the Anthropocene can only be successful if the way we relate to each other in our society and to the world integrates the quality of resonance in society’s deep structures. And to do so, we need to re-discover our body on an individual level. It is time to loosen up and grow beyond ourselves. Rediscovering our body could be the complementary medium to numerous progressive and tremendous developments in the modern world. And we don’t have to wait for anything – everybody can start now – no matter what the circumstances.