French sociologist, Edgar Morin is emeritus director of research with the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). His most recent work published in English is Towards a Study of Humankind. Vol 1: The Nature of nature (1992).
Our common home
We should abandon the Promethean dream of dominating the universe and aspire instead to live together on earth.
by Edgar Morin
The preamble to UNESCO's Constitution makes the correct diagnosis that, "since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed".
Today, although the illusions and enthusiasms of 1945 are gone, we are again confronted, in an acute form, with the same fundamental problems that led to the establishment of UNESCO, the problems of peace and war, the problems of material, technological and economic underdevelopment facing the countries of the South and the East and the problem of psychological, moral and intellectual underdevelopment, which is universal.
As we look back over our millennium, the three questions raised by Kant two centuries ago come again to mind: "What can I know? What must I do? What can I hope for?"
A world in disarray
The planet is in turmoil: the crisis of progress affects all of mankind, everywhere creating disarray, causing old bonds to break and communities to turn in upon themselves; the fires of war are again being stoked; and the world is losing hold of the global outlook and the sense of the common good. Faith in science, technology and industry is everywhere running up against the problems that science, technology and industry are themselves causing. Science is not only a source of enlightenment, it is itself blind as to where the scientific adventure is leading, an adventure that is slipping beyond its control and beyond the reach of its conscience. Like the biblical tree of life, science is a tree of knowledge whose fruit contains both good and evil.
The vast apparatus we call science and technology produces not only knowledge and insight but also ignorance and blindness. Progress in the various branches of science has produced advantages arising from the division of labour but also the drawbacks of over-specialization, compartmentalization and the fragmentation of knowledge.
With so many dramatically interrelated problems, the world would seem to be not just in crisis but on its last legs, in that violent condition where the forces of death grapple with those of life. Despite all our common interests, we are still one another's enemies, and the unleashing of racial, religious and ideological antagonisms continues to generate wars, massacres, torture, and humiliation. Humanity cannot overcome man's inhumanity to man. What we do not know yet is whether this is merely the death rattle of an old world, heralding a new birth, or whether these are really the world's death throes.
We had already lost sight of the principles that anchored us in the past; now we have lost sight of the certainties that guided our steps into the future. There is no law of history that automatically guarantees progress.
We are simultaneously experiencing the crisis of the past, the crisis of the future, and the crisis of transition. Contained within these crises are the crisis of development and the crisis of our era of planet-wide consciousness, comprising such increasingly grave problems as the urbanization of the world, economic and demographic disorder, lack of progress or reverses in the development of democracy, and the uncontrolled onward march of science and technology. Inherent in all this is the danger that civilization will become homogenized and cultural diversity will be destroyed, a risk inseparable from the equal and opposite danger that the nations will split up into small, conflicting communities, rendering a shared human civilization impossible.
Our planet is indeed, in keeping with the etymology of the word, a "wandering star". We are embarked upon a great adventure into the unknown.
Living together on earth
The earth itself has lost its old familiar universe: the sun has shrunk to the size of a Lilliputian star among billions of others in an expanding universe; the earth is lost in the cosmos, its surface a small, tepid patch of living mould in a glacial expanse where stars and black holes devour one another with incredible violence. As far as we know at present, this small planet is the only place where life and consciousness exist. It is the common home of all human beings. We need to acknowledge our consubstantial link with it, relinquish the Promethean dream of becoming masters of the universe and aspire instead to living together on earth.
Instead of seeing "the universal" and our various "homelands" as opposites, we should link our homelands family, region, nation into a concentric pattern and integrate them into the concrete reality of our earthly home¬ land. We must stop contrasting a radiant future with a past of servitude and superstition. All cultures have their own virtues, their own store of experience and their own wisdom, as well as their shortcomings and areas of ignorance. It is in its past that a community finds the energy to confront its present and prepare for its future.
Since all humans are children of life and of the earth, "rootless cosmopolitanism", which is something abstract, must be discarded in favour of "carthling cosmopolitanism", citizenship of our extraordinary little planet. The re-establishment of ethnic or national roots is justifiable as long as it goes hand-in-hand with a deeper rerooting in our human identity as citizens of earth.
The distinguishing feature of mankind is unitas multiplex, unity in diversity, the genetic, cerebral, intellectual and affective unity of our species, whose numberless potentialities find expression through the diversity of cultures. Diversity is the jewel in the crown of human unity and, conversely, unity is the jewel in the crown of human diversity.
Just as living, ongoing communication needs to be established between past, present and future, so living, ongoing communication needs to be established between distinctive cultural, ethnic and national characteristics on the one hand, and, on the other, the concrete reality of one world, the homeland of all humanity.
Civilizing the earth
And so we must civilize the earth. This means not only creating a confederation of humanity, while respecting existing cultures and homelands, but also promoting democracy and solidarity.
Democracy presupposes and also fosters diversity of social interests and groups and diversity of ideas. In other words it must not only cause the will of the majority to prevail but it must also acknowledge the right of minorities and protest movements to exist and express themselves, and allow heretical and deviationist ideas to be expressed. It requires consensus about respect for democratic institutions and rules, but also needs conflicts of ideas and opinions to make it lively and fruitful. Conflicts can, however, only fulfil that function if they comply with the democratic rules of conduct, which keep antagonisms in check by substituting the combat of ideas for physical combat and which decide the provisional victor among the contestants by means of debates and elections.
As to solidarity, a society cannot increase in complexity without an accompanying increase in solidarity, since more complexity means more freedoms, more opportunities for initiative and more possibilities of disorder, which can be both fruitful and destructive. Carried to extremes, disorder ceases to be fruitful and becomes mainly destructive; carried to extremes, complexity deteriorates into disintegration, the breakdown of a whole into its constituent parts. The cohesion of the whole can, of course, be maintained by reverting to coercion, but to the detriment of complexity; an integrative solution conducive to complexity can only be achieved by developing true solidarity, a solidarity that is not imposed upon people but that they feel within themselves and experience as fraternity. What is valid for any homeland, is now valid for the whole human community.
This brings us to the problem of reforming our thinking and of rethinking education. Awareness of all these issues can only be achieved when our thinking is capable of reconnecting concepts that have become disconnected and areas of knowledge that have been compartmentalized. The new areas of knowledge whereby we discover the place in the cosmos of the earth as humanity's homeland are meaningless as long as they remain separated from one another. The earth is not the sum of the planet, the biosphere and humanity. It is a complex physical, biological and anthropological totality wherein life springs forth from the history of the planet and humanity springs forth from the history of life on earth.
Piecemeal ways of thinking that split what is global into fragments naturally ignore the anthropological complex and the planet-wide context. But waving the global flag is not enough; the component parts of the global whole must be joined together in a complex, organized system of linkages, and the global whole itself must be put in context. The reform of thinking that is required is one which will generate attitudes that take account of the context and of complexity.
Multidimensional way of thinking
As regards the context, we need to think in planet-wide terms when considering politics, economics, population questions, ecology, the preservation of biological and cultural diversities. It is not enough, however, to set all objects and events within a planet-wide "framework". What is needed is always to seek out the relationship of inseparability, interaction and feedback between any phenomenon and its context, and between any context and the planet-wide context.
As to complexity, there is a need for a way of thinking that brings together again that which has been put asunder and compartmentalized, that respects diversity whilst recognizing individuality, and that tries to discern interdependences. In other words, we need a multidimensional way of thinking, an
organizing approach that takes account of the two-way relationship between the whole and its constituent parts, an approach that, instead of studying an object in isolation, examines it in and through its self-organizing relationship with its cultural, social, economic, political and natural environment, a way of thinking that acknowledges its own incompleteness and knows how to deal with uncertainty, particularly where action is involved, since action can only take place where there is uncertainty.
In the course of history we have often seen the possible become impossible, but we have also seen hopeless dreams come true and improbable events occur.
We now know that the potential of the human brain is still very largely under-exploited. Since the possibilities of social development are related to the brain's potential, no-one can say for certain that our societies' capacities for improvement and change are exhausted and that we have reached the end of history.
The anthropological and sociological possibility of progress re-establishes the principle of hope for the future, but without "scientific" certainty and without "historical" promises. It is an unsure possibility, greatly reliant upon raised awareness, willpower, courage and luck; the raising of awareness is therefore an urgent task.
We are engaged, on a world-wide scale, in life's essential undertaking, that of resisting death. Civilizing the earth and promoting solidarity, converting the human race to humanity, such is the basic, all-embracing aim of any project that aspires not only to progress for mankind but to its very survival. An awareness of our common mortality should lead us towards solidarity and reciprocal commiseration one with another, by all.