Hospicing Modernity by Vanessa Machado de Olivera
The claim at the heart of this book is that modernity is an all-embracing mindset that dominates the contemporary world. It is fitting that the author is someone who genuinely has a foot outside of the tent of modernity and can bring a unique perspective to its study.
Vanessa Machado de Olivera is a professor at the University of British Columbia in Canada researching Race, Inequalities and Global Change. She has a German father and an indigenous Brazilian mother. She enthusiastically embraces her complex heritage by making a career in conventional academia, whilst bringing the perspectives of her indigenous background to examine the values that underpin the world she inhabits. This produces a unique intellectual practice, full of fresh insight and ideas with the power to challenge her readers.
Modernity, she claims, is not about being contemporary or cutting edge, nor is it about technology or science. It is the state humans adopt when they believe they are separate from nature and not reliant on each other. It is when we view the planet as a storehouse of resources, rather than an organism. It is about viewing non-human animals as livestock, rather than brothers and sisters. It is thinking that polluting a river is okay because the human concept of profit is more important than the life of a waterway. It is about regarding a forest as timber rather than a complex web of life. It is the Slave Triangle, it is using Agent Orange in Vietnam, and it is the lies of the oil companies to defer action on climate change. It is the story of separation, of how humans have cut themselves off from the rest of life on planet Earth by believing that we can do precisely as we wish without repercussions.
Tragically, we were wrong. A destabilised climate, pollution, inequality and endless war are all testimony to the failings of modernity. More chilling still is that modernity is not a philosophical abstract that we can dip into or opt-out of. Generations of modernity as the driving force of the Western world mean that it is everywhere. It is the story we hear whilst growing up and finding our place in the world. It shapes our education and what we do with the things we learn. It reaches deep inside us, filtering our view of the world, deciding what is possible and what is not, severing links with ancient wisdom and the diversity of human experience. It is a restrictive template for how we experience our own lives.
Surely something as toxic as modernity should be dispatched as rapidly as possible? We certainly need to escape its clutches and discover a kinder, more connected way of living in the world. But can we simply slay this dragon and move on after hundreds of years of entanglement? It’s a tall order.
Rather, we should recognise that modernity is expiring, that it no longer has anything to offer and that we must move it to the hospice where it can gracefully die. A hospice is a place of kindness, not only for those about to die but also for those who will survive them. The hospice is a place of transition. The dying can prepare for the end and those close to them can prepare for life without their loved one. Modernity is deeply ingrained in all of us who have been brought up in “developed” societies. We may not love it, but we live in intimate proximity to it. We know we must let it go. By allowing modernity to expire gracefully within us, without judgement for its manifest failings, we halt its programme of violence and separation and open the space to reclaim a deeper understanding of what it is to be human.
This is the journey that the author takes us on. Firstly, she asks if we are ready for the journey of reading this book. Do you believe that everything is going well and life is better than it’s ever been? She is clear, this book isn’t for you. Do you see the world as terribly broken and in need of love and repair? This book is most certainly for you, and although the ideas may be new, they will resonate with the deep disquiet within you.
We are taken along a path of discovery. Modernity is named as the cause of our disconnection from the world and each other. We are invited to participate in exercises that expose how we think and respond the way that we do. This book is not simply a text, it demands reflection and interaction, providing tools and stories that help each of us understand our relationship with modernity. We are all affected differently by modernity. For some people, modernity has provided material affluence but a spiritual drought. Others, especially those defending indigenous ways of life, find themselves in a constant, high-intensity struggle for survival. These differences are acknowledged and explored.
Hospicing Modernity is not a book about solutions. It does not suggest that we become Buddhists or socialists or Scientologists or indeed any type of “ism” to solve our problems. The author exposes the nature of a fundamental error that much of humanity has deliberately or unwittingly adopted. Then she juxtaposes that practice with practices and wisdom from cultures that have lived more lightly upon the Earth. She asks us to imagine a future that is free of the cruel constraints of modernity and then pass through modernity’s death to embrace that future.
If you are searching for a path out of the steel and glass emptiness of modernity, this book may be one of the guides to take you back to the forests and riverbanks where we first became human. The future for humanity is uncertain, but knowing who we really are and where we came from at least gives us a chance to build a kinder, more beautiful world.