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Global Strategies Project (Explanations)

Post-crisis opportunities: Paradoxical merit of negative strategies

Global Strategies Project

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The international community has invested heavily in "positive", constructive strategies as a response to the crises of the planet. This has not prevented the continuing investment in strategies that are "negative" and destructive by contrast (see Note 3.2). These negative strategies continue to be appreciated as remarkably successful, whereas it is questionable to what degree the positive strategies constitute more than a holding function. For many people and groups whose preoccupations they are supposed to address, such strategies are increasingly irrelevant in practice and are easily labelled as dangerous exercises in wishful thinking. This is one reason why "tough love" approaches have been taken to difficult parental situations.

Just as there is a case for exploring the negative consequences of positive strategies, there is therefore also a case for exploring the positive functions of negative strategies. The fact that people and groups subscribe to them, deliberately or inadvertently, suggests that there are insights to be gained from them. The fact that any such implication would be condemned by those preoccupied with positive strategies suggests that such insights are likely to be significantly different from what can be learnt from the modest achievements of positive strategies. Is it just such significantly different insights which may be essential in this period of conceptual and strategic paralysis?

It is also useful to challenge the thinking trap of "problem-solving". The approach to problems may then be reframed by asking what a problem is "trying to tell us" -- or, better still, is the problem as understood in effect a metaphor for something we would prefer not to understand? From this perspective "institutionalized" problems may in effect be a sort of metaphorical euphemism -- a package which it is better not to unwrap. Problems are not only nasty in themselves, they are also nasty in what they imply about ourselves -- however saintly we might wish to appear as disinterested change agents, victims or innocent bystanders.

Perhaps the role of the "four horsemen" of the Apocalypse needs to be more clearly understood as a manifestation of the collective shadow that humanity is increasingly forced to encounter and integrate.

1. Accepting the arms trade and militarization

Arms manufacture and trade is the principal category of economic and industrial activity. As noted by the Secretary-General of the United Nations in 1990: "It is a sad comment on the state of mankind at the end of the twentieth century that the bulk of our vast productive energies is devoted to manufacturing our own destruction." The USA in 1995 removed tax disincentives to the export of armaments to foreign countries in order to encourage such trade.

Humans as a species have however failed to constrain their explosive population growth and their irreversible damage to the environment. Although extremely regrettable, it could be argued that through disseminating destructive weaponry, whether deliberately or unconsciously, humanity is providing itself with the means to constrain its population. In the absence of self-discipline, or an external ecosystemic constraint on its destructive effect on the planet, humanity has configured its own productive energies to achieve that end.

Strategies are required that provide more subtle means of constraining humanity. The interest in violence, if only in the media and entertainment, suggests that strategies of violence must be significantly more enthralling than what is offered by advocates of peace. In the absence of alternative strategies, violence must be understood as serving an important function.

2. Accepting substance abuse

The manufacture, marketing and distribution of drugs and alcoholic beverages, whether illicit or not, is an economic activity second only to the arms trade in global importance. In the opinion of many responsible for suppressing the illegal drug trade, it can be partiallycurtailed but it is impossible to suppress. Addiction is increasing dramatically, especially among the young and the privileged.

Is it too trite to suggest that substance abuse is signalling a desperate need for different modes of thinking, feeling and experience than those sanctioned by a society governed by antiquated thinking patterns which have been only too effectively institutionalized in "acceptable" modes of work and leisure? Again, since many in key positions in such institutions (or their children) also use drugs or alcohol "to relax", what should be learnt from the level of stress -- and schizophrenia -- at which the prevailing mode of thought is requiring them to function? Is substance abuse not effectively offering a remedy for the imaginal deficiency and mechanistic patterning characteristic of "acceptable" individual and collective behaviour? And consequently would not substance abuse become less necessary if society acknowledged more imaginative opportunities? What is the incidence of substance abuse in cultures whose languages make very extensive use of metaphor? Too what extent is it useful to perceive our relation to the prevailing thinking pattern as a form of "addiction" -- a habit we cannot kick?

Substance abuse compensates for the imaginal deficiency and mechanistic patterning, characteristic of "acceptable" individual and collective behaviour, which is not being effectively addressed by other strategies. The institutionalized resistance to other modes of operating is evident in the simplistic responses to sects and cults with alternative perspectives on reality. Ironically it is the ineffectiveness of official religions in this respect which renders them acceptable -- in contrast to sects that encourage alternative lifestyles, however inappropriately.

In the absence of more meaningful challenges to the imagination, accepting substance abuse therefore serves both to contain increasing levels of social stress (for which there are few other remedies) and to undermine approaches which are no longer adequate.

3. Accepting other negative strategies

It is useful to recognize the constraining features represented by deliberately or inadvertently allowing problems such as illness, hunger, homelessness, unemployment, ignorance, wastage, and corruption to grow. Unless the strategies that counteract such problems integrate measures that take account of the vital constraining features provided by the problems, the long-term effects of the "positive" strategies are likely to prove even more disastrous and even less containable.

It is therefore useful to challenge conventional strategies by the implications of:

  • accepting illness, given its positive consequences for the health industry and the constraint on human population, and the questions it rapidly raises about the nature of non-physical health and quality of life;
  • accepting hunger, given its role in constraining population growth and the questions it rapidly raises about the level and nature and distribution of nourishment appropriate to future human development;
  • accepting unemployment, given the questions it rapidly raises about the nature of employment appropriate to future human development and social organization;
  • accepting environmental degradation, as a more effective means of evoking a necessary response to unsustainable relationship to nature;
  • accepting ignorance, given the questions it rapidly raises about social organization in the absence of adequate education;
  • accepting intolerance, given the questions it raises about cultural homogenization and loss of identity.

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential


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