Rou Reynolds
A Treatise on Possibility

A Treatise on Possibility

Perspectives on Humanity Hereafter

by Rou Reynolds, 287 pages

Finished on 4th of April, 2022
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We should be realistic when we think about the future of our species. While it’s clearly getting better for most of us, it’s not looking good. For many reasons, societies are fragile and full of problems we need to address. The books says which those are and how to start.

🚀 The Book in 3 Sentences

  1. Within mostly the recent two centuries, we as a human species have with increasing speed maneuvered ourselves into what seems like a socioeconomic cul-de-sac as we have built lots of aspects of everyday life around the wrong incentives and thereby made them worse.
  2. If do not get our act together and find solutions and alternatives to the major problematic aspects resulting during the Anthropocene, like for example the climate crisis, massive income inequality, short-term political decisions, and the health system, the outlook is bleak and every possible outcome is on the table, including the very end of the species.
  3. Our way out of this mess is unclear, so everything suggests we need to employ our creativity and imagination as well as look for unity, emphasize empathy, kindness, understanding, solidarity, and get rid of the neoliberal idea of every person for themselves.

🎨 Impressions

Rou Reynolds, head of the rock band Enter Shikari, has written this excellent and expansive book explaining the state of the world by going over the songs on his band’s most recent album “Nothing Is True & Everything Is Possible”. It’s not the stereotypical angry drunk punk singer thing, the guy actually knows his stuff. He quotes the ancient Greeks and modern scientists, has all of his sources neatly researched and organized as footnotes, and gives us an evenly entertaining and informative overview of the current affairs we need to improve upon as a species.

The book certainly has some dark and frustrated undertones, but that’s because it’s the reality of the world we live in. Suffering is all around us and a huge part of that is human made and unnecessary. I left the book with a strong feeling of “we can, and must, do better!” – which was the intention of the author, so he succeeded in that regard.

🍀 How the Book Changed Me

  • Neither being pessimistic nor being optimistic about the future make any sense. We should be focused on the actual possibilities (at least as far as we can see) and how we can influence them for the better. Believing all will be good is just as pointless as believing all will be bad.
  • It is possible that humanity is close to its end and won’t be able to make it through the next few hundred years. And it’s also possible we are on the verge of solving the most looming problems and make our species multi-planetary. I think it’s clear which outcome we should focus on attaining. This must be the big picture we should all have in mind during our decisions.
  • Fear, frustration, anxiety don’t get us were we need to go. We need to take action, be bold, and use our time to take care of each other in order to unlock that unlimited human potential for problem solving which needs our full creativity and imagination to find and implement possible solutions to the world’s problems.

✍️ My Top 3 Quotes

  1. This isn’t a debate, a competition, or a fight – we simply must realign with nature, so let’s discuss what is possible. Let us look at the evidence, with a humble grasp of our own biases, and attempt to build a better world. Together.
  2. I find it discouraging to see people so hostile to new ideas; it’s the old ones we should be hostile toward.
  3. Self-interest will only ensure difficulties everywhere and will bring no escape from adversity in the long run. For our own preservation, we cannot shut ourselves off from each other. We’re foolish to even try.

📔 Summary & Notes

  • Hope is an active desire for progress. It is contagious. It is motivation. It is the fuel for change.

To believe all will turn out well because you’re an optimist is as irrational as believing that all will be well because you are an Albanian. – Terry Eagleton

  • Believing things will get better just because they have been on a general upwards trend in the past is giving us false cheerfulness.
  • Regarding the climate crisis, the “die is cast” and the point of no return in sight. The lag of our emissions taking effect takes a few decades.
  • We’re burning through our “food supplies” here on Spaceship Earth in an irrational way (George Orwell’s metaphor) and aren’t even dividing those fairly. We’re no longer passengers, we have hijacked it and hurtle towards catastrophe.
  • The Anthropocene: the era in which humankind has begun to dominate and change the planet.
  • Staying positive: We have an immense capacity for invention and meaningful change.

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. (Samuel Beckett)

  • The quote is out of context and actually has a different, much harder to interpret, meaning. But we can still utilize it in this positive way. Why not?
  • Communication or violence. “War is what happens when communication fails” (Margaret Atwood)
  • Civility. We share the same planet and therefore the same problems.
  • Our online communication platforms and our wider socioeconomic system is helping facilitate miscommunication, misunderstanding, division, and hostility. Communication is failing.
  • Generalized trust has been falling since the 1960s, the percentage of people who believe their neighbors are honest and moral has been halved since the 1950s. Polarization, the two party systems in democratic countries play into that.
  • 2016 Oxford Dictionaries’ International Word of the Year: Post-truth
  • Economic motivation for self-interest is on a steep rise since at least the 1970s – Neoliberalism. Short-term profit margin maximalization, ultra-competitiveness, lead to us not trusting others anymore. Compassion and goodwill are on a downwards trend.
  • Altruistic behavior is within our genes, though. It can be triggered. Children show a cooperative focus from early age on. It’s the surroundings which lead to us not caring about others later in life because it’s not incentivized by our system.
  • We are fragile creatures who need a lot of time to develop, compared with other animals. We need kindness, friendliness for our survival. This has previously led to humans surviving for a much longer time than our current neoliberal systems which disincentivize that behavior.
  • “I want to live in a world that prioritizes compassion and altruism. A world full to the brim with brave, kind and virtuous people.” We must encourage it.
  • Anger, outrage, tribalism, disgust towards other groups won’t help.

He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. (Stuart Mills)

  • The extremes and the fake news are amplified for clicks. It takes six times as long for truthful news to spread across Twitter than for fake news. Falsehoods are 70% more likely to be retweeted than truths.
  • Polarization is unfortunately good for business. It ensues more engagement. Incivility inspires more incivility.
  • The avoidance of outrage unfortunately leads to the death of discussion and communication. But we just can’t handle being always aware of what 10,000 people think of us (which is what can happen easily when stating opinions online). This leads to withdrawal until only the extremists are left on social media.
  • Solutions: more face-to-face communication and less anonymity. Resist the temptation to exaggerate. Practice forgiveness and don’t easily ostracize others.
  • Humans with wrong incentives and low morals, focused on self-interest: 1964 US Surgeon General released 7,000 scientific published papers on how smoking kills, but the tobacco industry doubled down and continued to spread misinformation and lies for 35 more years, even though they knew that what they were doing killed people. For money.
  • Since 1997, the Koch Brothers alone spent $145 million attacking climate change science. The five largest oil companies (BP, Shell, Exxon, ..) spend $200 million every year to lobby for blocking climate change policies. Fossil fuel companies have taken out patents on electric cars and solar tech purely to block and suppress their development. For money.
  • Group loyalty makes us believe scientific falsehoods to be true, because of a primal instinct that being ostracized from our group would have dangerous consequences (in tribal times, upwards tens of thousands of years ago, it would most often basically directly lead to death).
  • “Having social support, from an evolutionary standpoint, is far more important than knowing the truth about some facts that do not directly impinge on your life” (Pascal Boyer)
  • How do we get people to see the truth? First look for the reason. Fear? Anger? Why? Be civil, ask question, listen patiently. Befriend them!
  • Practicing compassion. When someone approaches you with hostility, “practice warm-heartedness” (Dalai Lama) Try it over and over again. Compassion is contagious.
  • Kindness of interpretation: don’t jump to quick conclusions. Look for the most beneficial explanation for someone acting hostile. Stay curious and try to find out the reasons behind it.

The opposite of dignity is despair. And when there is despair, people lash out. Dignity is like air. [..] We can all restore someone’s dignity – listen empathically to people you disagree with. (Arthur C. Brooks)

  • Target the ideas, not the person.
  • We categorize people between “good” and “evil” quickly, because it’s easy. But we’re smarter than that, we are actually able to see the nuances in everyone. Even Hitler cared about animal well-being and was a vegetarian!
  • Immanuel Kant campaigned against compassion. He was wrong in that regard. “Such benevolence is called soft-heartedness and should not occur at all among human beings.” Look at Ghandi instead.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. (Martin Luther King Jr.)

  • Human connection and sociality is essential to our species. Neglect will even harm our cognitive development in early years as well as our physical growth.
  • Pick your targets, though. Don’t waste your energy on causes which require too much of it.
  • Our evolutionary superpower as a species is observing and understanding other’s emotions. This leads to increased trust, cooperation, and a better chance of survival. Chimps (and all other hominins) don’t do that. They act purely in self-interest.
  • In the days before agriculture and civilization, bullies and dictators were actually quite rare, and when they did arise, they were dealt with swiftly. Survival of the friendliest.
  • Yuval Noah Harari: One human on a lonely island vs. one chimp on another lonely island; the chimp would win. 1,000 humans on a lonely island vs. 1,000 chimps on another lonely island; the humans would win. Because of cooperation and communication.
  • Empathy (Greek empatheia means affection, passion, but also prejudice, malice, hatred) is a two way street we should be aware of: Obviously an important trait, it can lead to hate for others when focusing empathy on our tribe. Our empathy must be kept leashed by rationality.
  • Empathy with our own tribes led to Britain’s Brexit from the EU and Trump’s demonization of Mexicans (trying to build a wall). We should be smarter than that and we are. Exercise empathy, practice it.
  • Watching theater dramas helps us empathize with the characters and is practice! Has been used by the ancient Greeks and had that same beneficial outcome.
  • Revenge is an amplifying feedback loop of retaliation. A bloody death spiral of revenge.
  • Back-facing vs. Forward-facing Anger: concentrate on preventing similar horrible events from occurring in the future instead of looking for payback or destruction.

If it’s revenge you seek, then be sure to dig two graves. (Japanese proverb)

  • The whole prison system is built on revenge. And doesn’t work. Positive example: Norway changed its system from a similarly weak and punishing system to the US in the 1990s towards a compassionate system where the guards act as mentors and the goal is not to punish but to help the prisoners become “good neighbors” again. They do Yoga and learn together, for example. Results: From 60-70% of the released prisoners before the change committing new crimes on the outside, down to 20% after the change. US: 83%.
  • Beating the revenge drive, best example: Nelson Mandela. 27 years in prison, didn’t seek revenge, forgave instantly (read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations in prison a lot), united the divided black and white population of South Africa afterwards in a spectacular way which received worldwide recognition and admiration.
  • Practice empathy: many groups need it, for example the LGBT+ communities. Be an ally. They have suffered so much.
  • Anxiety and excitement are fueled by the same hormones and are closely related emotions. Try anxious reappraisal: reframe your anxious sensations in a positive light. Slow breathing techniques help. Just stating “I am excited” instead of “I am anxious” right before a task will change the outcome measurably.
  • Replace “Keep Calm and Carry On” with “Get Amped and Don’t Screw Up” would be more beneficial (Wood Brooks)
  • Religion has a fundamental flaw: it’s stuck and has no capacity for revision or development. Moral progress like the inclusion and acceptance of LGBT+ people is outlawed in most religions / religion-based states.
  • “It’s unnatural behavior”: To use the human body in a different way than “God intended”. But evolution has no purpose. Organs have not evolved with a purpose, and the way they are used is in constant flux. (Yuval Noah Harari) – Example: insect wings used to be little useless body protrusions (”bumps”) until over thousands of generations they grew and became useful, eventually making longer jumps and then flight possible, a huge evolutionary advantage. Is using these changed bumps for flight unnatural, then? Not as God intended?
  • Homophobia, in addition to being a religious idea, evokes an amount of anxiety in men because it triggers awareness of their own feminine qualities, seen as a sign of weakness (Dr. Richard Isay), which is related to men’s inability to accept their own vulnerability as human beings. We should now know better and realize these qualities are actually beneficial to us. We are all vulnerable.
  • Big picture. Look at Voyager’s last picture taken of Earth, called “Pale blue dot” surrounded by an infinity of black nothingness – it puts all our struggles and quarrels into perspective. Remember it.
  • Civilization diseases: If we look at present-day hunter-gatherer societies like the Kaluli people (New Guinea), there is practically no mental illness at all. They keep their fitness and a healthy balanced diet (for obvious reasons), they have direct and secure social bond. No diseases of civilization.
  • We have evolved for a hunter-gatherer lifestyle but since just a few thousand years (start of permanent settlement and agriculture), which is nothing in evolutionary terms, we have stopped. This is not how we are supposed to live and it’s making us sick.
  • The younger generations are reportedly the most lonely of all (61-75% of all people in the US report loneliness, similar in Europe).
  • We lack the connection to nature. The effects which being in nature has on our body, our mental wellbeing and mood, are astoundingly impactful.
  • Responsibility has shifted from its focus on a group to the individual. We’re supposed to be responsible for just ourselves now (”it’s your own fault, pull yourself out”) in Neoliberalism. Cult of personal culpability. Just back in the 1950s it was healthier, JFK’s speech “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” – responsibility should again be something beyond the self. Directed at the whole world.
  • Economic support and safety nets have been continuously slashed, education is increasingly expensive and hard to get, secure jobs with livable wages rarer. Social mobility diminishes.
  • How can we be responsible for our own failings if we are not responsible for our own genes, upbringing, environmental influences? Not everyone is born equal. Personal responsibility ignores reality.

The state of men without civil society [..] is nothing else but a mere war of all against all. (Thomas Hobbes, 17th century; but today that war of all against all behavior is actively encouraged, so we have reached incivility)

  • Every man for themselves is the core of all our major problems today. It’s the nucleus of social destabilization and root of our heartless existence.
  • Demonization of immigrants “We can’t afford to look after our own, let alone them!” – We can, of course, look after everyone.
  • The end goal of individualism is personal wealth. But personal wealth doesn’t lead to happiness. Robert A. Kenny: “Sometimes I think that the only people who worry more about money than the poor, are the very wealthy”
  • “There is no alternative” (Margaret Thatcher) is a horrible view to hold. It’s the opinion of the self-appointed guardians of the status quo. There always is an alternative. We just need to look for it.

The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt. (Bertrand Russell in 1933, about the rise of Nazism in Germany)

  • Ask yourself regarding your believes: “What would it take for me to concede that I’m wrong?” and if the answer is “Nothing! I know I’m right”, then you’re probably an idiot. Ask this questions others who hold incorrect believes and listen openly.
  • Curiosity opens up your world. Conviction closes it off.

We have a finite environment – the planet. Anyone who thinks that you can have infinite growth in a finite environment is either a madman or an economist. (David Attenborough)

Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell. (Edward Abbey)

  • There is $80 trillion circulating in the world, but there is $200 trillion in debt.
  • The word “economy” comes from the Greek “management of a household”. How would smart management of the global household look like? We are curious, creative, problem-solving creatures. We can come up with solutions.
  • Imagination and IQ rose together until the mid-1990s, at which point imagination went into a steady decline. Why? The Hippocampus (two of them) in our brain is linked to creativity. Prolonged stress makes it become smaller. Increasingly, our world is full of stressors: negative news at all times in our pockets.
  • What helps our creativity and imagination grow again: Spending time in nature. Unstructured play (yes, also as an adult). Play fights depression and narcissism. Help your Hippocampi by doing things which are pleasurable, voluntary, imaginative. People who say “there is no alternative” clearly have severely shrunk hippocampi and need help!
  • We can utilize our impatience for betterment. It’s a strong motivator.

You trust in the present order of society without imagining that this order is subject to inevitable revolutions. (Jean-Jacques Rousseau)

  • Humanity’s long-term potential is virtually infinite. And infinitely beautiful.
  • We must, whenever possible, utilize compassion, cooperation, and consideration. And spread contagious kindness. Exercise our creative and empathic muscles. Be curious and forgiving.
  • Systems look mighty and fixed, until they break. Afterwards, historians always say: “it was obvious, all the signs were there!” – All the signs are here now.

Because things are the way they are, things will not remain the way they are. (Berthold Brecht)

How do you feel after reading this?

This helps me assess the quality of my writing and improve it.

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