Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.
As I interact with folks who are wide awake to climate catastrophe and the likelihood that near-term human extinction is breathing down our necks, I often hear the notion that nothing is more important than preparing for climate apocalypse—not politics, not economics, not civil liberties or human rights. Because the demise of the planet is, after all, the planet, all other issues, they say, are dwarfed by the magnitude of its destruction. While clearly recognizing that the ecological crisis is directly driven by economic, political, social, and cultural factors, eco-activists often behave as if we should ignore those as we focus only on environmental cataclysm. We’re just wasting precious time, they argue, and rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship if we are concerned with the upsurge of authoritarianism and the global drift toward neo-fascist ideology.
While I have written and taught about the collapse of industrial civilization for nearly two decades, and while I firmly believe in the interconnectedness of the collapse of systems and ecological collapse, and while I know that climate catastrophe compels us to alter our perspective regarding other issues, I believe we must not become myopic about those other issues since they both influence climate catastrophe and are influenced by it. We cannot control how civilization and the ecosystems unravel, but the manner in which they do so, matters. How draconian political and other systems become should be as relevant to us as the statistics regarding sea level rise or the amount of pollutants contaminating the oceans and the air. I’m not arguing for a “kinder, gentler” apocalypse, but I’m endeavoring to strengthen my own autonomy and the autonomy of my local community so that we might resist and live resiliently in a milieu that may become authoritarian beyond anything we can now imagine.
Let us be clear: Authoritarianism doesn’t always look like a dictator in a military uniform who creates a police state which devises massive surveillance systems, house-to-house searches, fills so many prisons with dissidents that new ones have to be built, and passes laws by executive order that fiercely oppress ethnicities, women, the disabled, and LGBTQ individuals.
Fundamental to all authoritarian governments is the intentional demolition of whatever administrative state stands in its way. Whether a federation, confederation, social democracy, or liberal democracy, the internal and external workings of the institution must be dismantled so that authority resides in the hands of one person or a small group of individuals whose authority generally is based on wealth or power. Representative legislative bodies which can exercise oversight, are typically made impotent or are ignored.
An authoritarian society is inherently unequal and rooted in privilege. The privileged view themselves as the only individuals entitled to power, and those outside the privileged class are deemed “the others.” In the early stages of authoritarian rule, the non-privileged may be called “less fortunate,” “low-income,” or “poorly educated,” as well as a host of other patronizing terms. Eventually, “the others” become “the deplorables” and in real economic terms, “the disposables.”
Authoritarian heads of state usually come to power by way of corruption or deception of the citizenry. Often he or she rises to power with the assistance of an oligarchy. With the passage of time, less and less value is placed on human life or human rights. Ultimately, an atmosphere of distrust, cynicism, and despair prevails. Authoritarian societies are usually characterized by few women in significant roles of power, blatant male domination, racism and ethnic rivalries, discrimination against or oppression of people whose sexual orientations are not heterosexual. Animals are generally valued only as resources to be exploited rather than living beings who perform invaluable ecological functions as well as companions of humans.
What Is Authority?
The most fundamental meaning of authority is “the power to enforce obedience.” It is related to the word author which is someone who makes or creates something. Authoritarian means going beyond the power to create, into the domination and control of others. An author does not inherently control but merely creates. Authority is a necessary requirement in a liberal democracy and indeed any society living under the rule of law. Theoretically, laws are made by representatives of the citizenry and enforced by a justice and court system. The original intention, however, is not control, but the stability of the society and the safety of the citizenry. On the other hand, the more authoritarian a society becomes, the more it attempts to control its members. Citizens are then faced with the choice of resisting, leaving the society, or obeying authority.
As many oppressed people throughout human history have argued, there is another kind of authority besides the external one. Many have pointed to a “higher law” or an internal law that does not permit them to capitulate to external authority. This essay series will explore our “inner authority as human beings—an authority based on experience and wisdom as opposed to arbitrary external authority. In fact, we cannot consider internal or external authority without delving deeply into our humanity by addressing such questions as: How does our humanity relate to authority? How does external authority reinforce it or violate it? How does familiarity with our internal authority serve us in the face of abuses of external authority?
While the milieu of industrial civilization with its worship of technology, has always sent us engraved invitations to regard external forces as the final authority and minimize or disparage our inner authority, I believe that not since the 1930s in Europe have we seen such blatant burgeoning of capitulation to external authority as we are currently witnessing.
In terms of climate catastrophe and all related factors, I believe is it possible to attend to it and at the same time, address other issues that directly influence the wellbeing of our humanity? In fact, I do not see how it is possible to attend to the climate crisis and ignore human rights, social justice, and all forces that violate or seek to constrict our humanity. Thus I would implore the eco-activist to consider that he or she can walk and chew gum at the same time. While the activist might argue that extinction isn’t just about humans but about millions of other species who are rapidly disappearing from Earth, I would contend that we would not be in the current predicament had we valued our humanity enough to relate to the planet as a “Thou” and not an “it.” I would further argue that in the face of all loss, even in the face of death itself, our deepest humanity, which for me is our truest inner authority, is all that we have left. Moreover, if there is any inherent value in climate catastrophe, it may be that planetary cataclysm compels us to confront existential questions such as: What does it mean to be human and why does that matter?
The irony of the situation is that in the face of extinction, our humanity is what matters most. We have plundered the planet because we became estranged from our humanity and have created a crisis that may not be survivable but which is compelling us to zealously treasure and reclaim our humanity—or even embrace a more evolved form of humanity than we have previously known.
In his 2010 book Fate And Destiny: The Two Agreements of the Soul, Michael Meade writes:
People are continually surprised that those who rise to power tend to abuse it rather than learn how it can be used to enhance justice or produce genuine beauty. Yet outer power that is not rooted in the genuine nobility of the soul will always lead to cheating and manipulating in order to retain a false order in the world.
It is most common in this world for people to rise to the top who have not done the work of inner transformation. This causes those who become subject to the abuses of power to believe that all power is abusive and all authority must be unjust. Authority is a big word that troubles most people, especially in the form of “the authorities.” Yet, the roots of authority go back to words like “author, augment and authentic.” There can be forms of “genuine authority” that develop from authoring things and being truly creative when faced with the inevitable inequities of life.
When people draw from the root of their deeper self, they become authentic and able to act with true originality; for the deep self is secretly connected to the origins of life. Authenticity involves acting from one’s deepest essence, so that the “uniqueness” of one’s soul awakens and can be “brought to life.” Such an inner awakening is the deeper purpose of initiation; a self-revelation that allows a person to be truly authentic and act with first-hand knowledge and inherent creative force. When in touch with the authentic essence of the soul, a person can draw on the threads of being that can alter the darker aspects of fate. Authentic authority is rooted, not in the common world, but in something deeper that is both more creative and original.
In fact, the inner authority of which Meade writes is what the current ecological crisis may be begging us to reclaim and embellish. This task is made more challenging in a time when external authority seeks to exert control over every aspect of our lives, especially our attention, directing it ever-outward to an infinite array of shiny objects which temporarily distract us from the inward existential crisis that an external climate crisis inexorably riles.
(Going forward in this essay series, we will more deeply explore Meade’s phrase, nobility of soul.)
It is imperative that we attend to both the climate crisis and the existential crisis, but not at the expense of recognizing and resisting the external authoritarian trajectory being both wildly embraced and timidly capitulated to by millions of humans globally. The rise of authoritarian governments is a natural outcome of societies and ecosystems in collapse. Control is the last resort of those who lack imagination.
Many of us will not survive the climate crisis, and likewise, many will not survive the oppression and deprivation of authoritarian rule. But we need not choose which crisis we pledge allegiance to confront. We can walk and chew gum at the same time—and must because both crises bombard our inner authority and assail the human soul.