If you're feeling overwhelmed in the face of the worrisome changes to our economic and ecological environments, you may want to listen to Kevin MacKay. The Hamilton-based professor and activist has written a book that is not only a clear-eyed, unapologetic picture of where we are and how we got here; it also contains practical and inspiring possibilities for how to combat the mistakes we are making as a society.
Radical Transformation: Oligarchy, Collapse, and the Crisis of Civilization (Between the Lines Books) is described by environmentalist Thomas Homer-Dixon as a "wonderfully lucid yet thoroughly uncompromising account" of both "the marvels of human civilization [and] its dark tendency towards oligarchic structures of power and exploitation". The book recognizes an approaching collapse, but also the opportunities to avert such a fate if we work in focus, collaborative strategies.
We're excited to have Kevin on Open Book today to talk to us about Radical Transformation and its timely, essential message of how social equality and ecological sustainability must go hand in hand. He tells us about the 20 years of activism that spurred this book to life, why oligarchical government is the most deadly driver of ecological harm and social inequality, and he shares the simple (and excellent) two-word maxim that keeps him focused as a writer.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.
Radical Transformation: Oligarchy, Collapse, and the Crisis of Civilization is about the existential crisis that faces industrial, capitalist civilization. Along with an expanding community of authors and researchers, I argue that our society is heading toward collapse due to ecological overshoot and growing political and economic instability. In order to avert the crisis we need to first understand its genesis, and then to create a political movement capable of re-directing the trajectory of human development from collapse to sustainability.
The impetus for writing the book came from over 20 years of involvement in various political movements encompassing environmentalism, organized labour, social justice, and human rights. After a few years of such engagement I began to see common causes behind seemingly disparate societal dysfunctions. As well, through research and activism I began to appreciate how serious our society’s challenges truly are, and how pressing is the need to confront them with strategic, effective action.
I intend my book to help people understand the complex and dangerous situation we now find ourselves in, and also to think about how they, as both individuals and collective actors, can best be a part of the solution.
Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?
The central question of what led to our current state of crisis was something I started out with. A related question is what our civilization’s dysfunction says about human nature. Is the historical tendency for complex civilizations to collapse caused by our innate characteristics, or is it due to political and economic structures? I argue that the fundamental driver of civilization collapse is oligarchic government. Control over societal decision-making by a small, self-interested elite makes it incredibly difficult for us to make correct decisions in the face of existential threats.
I think the identification of social institutions as the locus of crisis presents us with some hope. Institutions can be changed, and we can envision different ways of organizing our societies, our economies, and our relationship to the ecological systems that sustain us.
Ultimately, I argue that the crisis of modern civilization represents an evolutionary crossroads for the human race. Our choice is stark. Either we evolve beyond oligarchy’s ecocidal and inhumane cycle of domination, inequality, and warfare, or we risk a dark future in which we face a global civilization collapse, massive population die-off, and a biosphere damaged beyond repair.
Did this project change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?
Research and writing of Radical Transformation took six years, and the project started as a much more in-depth exploration of human pre-history and evolution. During the editing process I realized that much of this material needed to be removed and included in a subsequent book. There were deeper philosophical and scientific questions related to human nature that need a more thorough treatment than I could provide in the current project. Instead, this book needed a more immediate focus on describing the crisis we face, understanding how it developed, and thinking about how we can resolve it.
What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
I’m the kind of writer who needs long periods of focused time in order to be productive. I found that I had to block off several hours, or preferably an entire day, in order to get the more intensive research and writing done. Some authors I know can write in an hour here and there, but it takes me a certain amount of time to “re-immerse” myself in the narrative and the arguments. I would love to become more efficient at this process, and better able to write quickly. I’m not there yet, and it’s is a work in progress.
What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?
One of the most important things I learned when working on Radical Transformation is to adhere to the simple maxim: “Writer’s write.” Like most people, my life is busy with a full time job, important relationships, and involvement in several different organizations and activities. Given this complexity, there is always an excuse to not sit down and write, and it is important to be disciplined and to carve out the time. To me the ultimate cure for being discouraged is to force yourself to write when you’re not feeling inspired. From my experience, you then realize that inspiration often follows doing.
What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.
I think a great book is one that has a life-changing impact. It leads to fundamental shifts in the way we view ourselves and our world. The deep knowledge that a great book provides is, I would argue, inherently liberating. It challenges us to grow and inspires us to create.
For me, a great non-fiction book opens up exciting new ways to think about the intellectual concerns I find most pressing. An example would be the archaeological collection Pathways to Power: New Perspectives on the Emergence of Social Inequality (2010), edited by Douglas Price and Gary Feinman. The insights this book shed on the question of how simple, egalitarian societies transitioned into complex, oligarchic societies were invaluable in writing Radical Transformation.
A great work of fiction also offers new knowledge, but has a power drawn equally from its creativity, emotional impact, and inventiveness. For me, Frank Herbert’s Dune is an excellent example – a book that I will continually re-read, and be re-inspired by, over the course of my life.
What are you working on now?
Right now I am finishing a chapter in an edited volume about downtown gentrification in Hamilton, Ontario. The article reflects on experiences I’ve had as executive director of a non-profit sustainable development organization – the Sky Dragon Co-operative. I am also working on a series of short articles that highlight the main themes in Radical Transformation, in the hopes of exposing more readers to the book. Finally, I am working on the follow-up to Radical Transformation. The working title of this next book is Human / Nature, and it will explore in much greater depth the question of whether or not human beings are innately aggressive and destructive of their environment. I hope to complete this project by the end of 2018.
Kevin MacKay is a social science professor, union activist, and executive director of a sustainable community development cooperative. He lives in Hamilton, Ontario, and when not thinking, reading or writing about social change, can most likely be found in the woods.