The individual is the topmost invention of modernity. Over the centuries the idea of the individual (enlightenment) gave birth to science, democracy, the free market economy, and human rights. The understanding that “all men and women are created equal” is an enlightened idea born with lots of labor pain. However, this child was never allowed to grow up and mature into reality. Our world has never seen the realization of “all men and women are equal”.
Now planet Earth and humankind are in serious trouble. Sea levels are rising, the Arctic ice is melting, storms are getting stronger, extreme heat and cold, extreme rain and extreme drought. Basically, everything Al Gore predicted 12 years ago is coming to fruition. Yet we are further away from working together to find sustainable solutions than we have been 12 years ago and we are running out of time fast.
We live in a time of free-market liberalism which promotes the individual as the best agent for social change and politics that put deregulation and the unrestricted free market at the center of political decision making and then hope for the best. Communal problems and social welfare – to speak nothing of environmental policies — are not at the center of political decision making.
This thinking is completely useless when it comes to finding a solution to a global problem. The unrestricted global economy does not care about planet Earth but cares about the bottom line and the wealth of shareholders. It does not care that local communities run out of resources, people become homeless and stateless, and the poor drown in the oceans.
This individualistic and anti-social thinking has created a sense of anxiety among citizens of rich nations who paradoxically support nationalistic and exclusionary anti-global politics (sometimes in the form of right-wing populism or authoritarianism). This thinking has polarized not only societies but nations and the globe. It has turned poor and displaced humans into “manipulative gold-diggers” in the eyes of those who have much to lose and no time to stop and think. The “haves” are blindsided by the fear of losing everything to the “have-nots” fueled by such individualistic ideology and materialistic ways of living, or rather, ways of getting by.
Can we learn from identity politics?
The idea of the individual as a free and equal agent has brought to light inequality, racism, sexism, genderism, and other genuine heartaches and pains.
The feminist movement, the civil rights movement, the LGBTQI rights movement, Black Lives Matter, the # Me Too movement, to just name some of the most prominent in the US and the West, are about acknowledging the individual rights of “all lives” and “all identities.” They also create communities and solidarity.
However, research has shown (e.g. Arlie Russell Hochschild, Justin Gest, and Katherine J. Cramer) that such identity policies are perceived as threat by those who used to get all the attention and perks because they create perceived and real shifts in resources, both political and material, which in turn create divisions and polarizations.
All forces that play out one over the other be it conservative versus liberal, poor versus rich, gay versus straight, are ill-conceived even though they are born out of the ideal of the individual as the sovereign entity.
If the world does not make a paradigm shift and truly and sustainably make the enlightened idea of “all humans are equal” a reality we will not be able to solve the global crises at hand. Because only then will our minds be set for “we are all in it together”-politics and planet Earth and sustainability will finally become natural priorities.
I call upon scholars, civil society leaders, politicians, and all of us to support human rights and equality for all and stand up against divisions, polarizations, and hatred. If we can see each other as equals, we will see the connectedness of all humans and the connectedness of humans to nature and we will find plant Earth the home worth saving.