Culture. It’s a rather overused word these days, bandied around as a way of assessing our social behaviour and human achievements — contemporary culture, national culture, corporate culture, popular culture, arts & culture, café culture — but what does it actually mean?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines culture as ‘the customs, ideas, and social behaviour of a particular people or group.’ So it’s our group identity, the glue that binds us together, defining us and giving us a sense of belonging. This, in turn, drives the way that we all tick — our values, goals, views, beliefs and actions. It locks us into ways of thinking, underpinning our inner narrative and influencing everything from what we eat to whom we trust.
In his impressive recent book, The Patterning Instinct, Jeremy Lent explores the influence of culture on the history of humanity with the thesis that ‘culture shapes values, and those values shape history.’ Those values will also shape the future, so the nature and power of culture is something that should concern us all, especially at a time of such existential threats. Lent argues that the dominant ‘Western’ culture that has now pervaded much of the world is founded on ideas such as Reason, Progress and Truth which have developed over centuries from Plato to Descartes to Hayek. The result is a global society that sees humans as superorganisms and nature as a machine. Consequently the only possible scenarios for the future of humanity are:
- A reconnection and reintegration with nature
- The destruction of the natural world with salvation for humans through technological advance
- Total annihilation
Personally, I’d favour the first of these outcomes, but in order to avert climate catastrophe, avoid exhausting the Earth’s natural resources and prevent our social systems from breaking down into anarchy, we will need a fundamental change in the underlying culture of the majority of people on this planet. The current paradigm is based on limitless consumption and never ending growth and we need to replace this with a way of life that operates within our global means.
But can we change? Is it possible to transform the collective mindset of enough people to ensure that we don’t end up with one of the scenarios for the future that involves large scale destruction and misery? I believe it is (although I am irrepressibly optimistic!). The coronavirus pandemic has shown us that we are capable of dramatic changes in behaviour if we really think it’s necessary. Many writers and journalists have declared that the old system is now dying and we find ourselves at the dawn of a new age. However, much as I would love that to be true, I’m not completely convinced that this is the case. Certainly, the coronavirus has had a significant impact on almost every human being on the planet, and many things will have changed in its wake, but it feels like too many people are desperate to get back to their old ways and return to a slightly adapted version of business as usual.
In order for meaningful changes to endure, we need enough people who can take a leap of imagination to a different way of doing things. This is happening in pockets - for example, the decision of Amsterdam and other cities to use Doughnut Economics as a sustainable blueprint for the future is phenomenal. The ideas are there, we just need people to embrace and adopt them. The trouble is, we’ve not been conditioned to use our imaginations in this way. Our culture encourages conformity and to fit in with the machinery of a system that is leading us towards disaster.
My recent experience of homeschooling during the lockdown has only gone to emphasise how much we are guided from a very young age to ‘learn the rules,’ ‘work hard,’ and ‘get the job done’ (to paraphrase Boris Johnson) at the expense of exploration, wonder and creative imagination. My daughter’s school is full of exceptional teachers and has handled the pandemic brilliantly but the experience has given me a closer insight into a curriculum which, in my opinion, is a very long way from providing my daughter with the skills that she will need in order to take on the challenges of the future. As George Monbiot recently pointed out, we should be putting the most important elements of life at the centre of education, not tagging them onto a Friday afternoon.
We need to seize this moment, when people are in a culturally-altered state in the wake of the pandemic, to inspire change from policy makers, change in the way ordinary people live their lives and change in the way we educate our children. But how can we do this? Maybe this is a time when we need writers, artists, musicians and thinkers to help us to creatively imagine potential blueprints for the future. As Ursula Le Guin put it in 2014, we need ‘the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope.’ And, of course, we need to ensure that the next generations are equipped with the skills and attributes to deal with the challenges coming their way, and that means putting cooperation, communication and creative thinking at the heart of education.
We have been shown that we can change. Now we need to imagine what direction that change should take. And then make it happen.