September 18th, 2005


One world, one operating system

It's Sunday, so here's a sermon. My message today is something very big and simple. Something about what I perceive to be the general situation in the world today, and how I therefore define my idea of what's "evil". Sorry to sound so theological, but it is a Sunday. Okay, here it is:

The real problem today is not what a few people do, but what everybody does. Evil is not to be found in the "extremist" behaviour of a minority, but deep in the habitus of the majority.

The backdrop to this idea—and we'll see later what huge consequences it has—is the general picture. It's so big we sometimes miss it. There are too many human beings on the planet—6 billion, expected to rise to 9 billion within the next 50 years—and our "success" in sustaining ourselves may in fact turn out to be our biggest failure, destroying not only ourselves but everything on the planet. Half of the earth's land mass has been changed by human activity, and when global warming really hits that figure will rise rapidly towards 100%. Thanks to human "success" 25% of all bird species have been lost, and two-thirds of the major fisheries around the world have been fully exploited or depleted. Almost 1100 species of birds and mammals are currently facing extinction.

Success is failure in the current situation for the same reason it is in economics: unrestrained "success" leads to monopolies. Humans are monopolizing this planet, stripping it of the diversity it needs to survive. It isn't just other species which suffer, it's also human ways of living which are less ruthlessly "efficient". "Success" leads to monoculture. Just as other species of creatures are disappearing thanks to human activity, other less "efficient" ways of being human are being wiped out too. Speciecide is matched by linguicide and culturcide, the erasure of distinctive languages and cultures. The United Nations estimates that half of the world’s current 6,000 languages will disappear in less than a century, while half of the world’s people now use one of just eight languages: Chinese, English, Hindi, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Portuguese and French.

I visit zoos and museums a lot, and love them as places where difference and diversity are displayed. But both experiences are laced with distinct sadness: museums are the object-records of "failed" cultures wiped out by "successful" ones, and zoos are places where "failed" species are corralled for the one successful species (ourselves) to ogle at. Almost every sign at a modern zoo has a "status" section where the degree of endangerment of the animal we're looking at is rated. All too often that level is "high". And the thing doing the endangering is invariably ourselves, our human monoculture.

In such a context, we need a new definition of "evil". Our politicians tell us that "evil" is summed up best by the behaviour of a small minority of deviants — terrorists, insurgents, extremists, rogue states... those, in short, who think, act, look and live differently from the great majority of us. According to these authorities, one would be more likely to find "evil" in a person dressed in robes and a veil, motivated by religion, than a person dressed in sports shoes, jeans and a black jacket, motivated by money. A sure sign of "evil", to these politicians, is the stubborn resistance to the standards and norms of "the international community". The "axis of evil" is always out there in what they do, never in here in what we do.

But if my assessment of the overall picture is correct, this is completely the wrong message. "Evil" is not divergence but convergence. "Evil" is not difference but unity. "Evil" is monoculture. "Evil" is success and economic growth without thought for the massive erasures it causes, the environmental havoc it wreaks, the biological and cultural diversity it reduces. Evil is, in short, the thing we all do because it's right, efficient and successful. Having children, speaking one of the eight "killer" languages, driving a car, using the dominant computer software (computing too is a culture; Windows currently has 93% of the desktop OS market; Apple, the next biggest, has 2.9%), converging and conforming until our habits of life resemble those of the majority. Want to look "evil"? Dress like everybody else in the monoculture: mesh cap, black jacket, jeans, white shoes.

In the circumstances, virtue also needs to be redefined. In view of the overall picture of monoculture—one world, one operating system—it's a virtue to act, dress, think and feel differently from the "successful", to learn and speak a minority language, to own no car, to have no children, to earn and spend less this year than your earned and spent last year. It's a virtue to try to reverse speciecide, linguicide, culturcide. It's a virtue to immerse yourself in the worlds and ways of thinking of the kind of "failed cultures" you find in museums, to preserve and investigate ways of life currently on the cusp of disappearance. Our "success" may be leading to the mother of all failures, but if we find the courage to embrace and investigate all the ways different peoples and animals have "got it wrong" (in other words, preserved a diversity of co-existing rightnesses) over the millenia, we may still be able to succeed... and survive.