Some weeks ago I attended a lecture organised by Kenneth McLeod and the Anthropocene Project, and this raised some thoughts about the role of knowledge in society.

Despite their differences the two speakers both seemed to assume knowledge was true, cumulative, not lost and relatively easily distributed. This may arise from the shortness of presentations but, whatever the case, I’m not sure about this position. I particularly want to focus on the first speaker and suggest:

1) Knowledge is inherently limited and inaccurate.

2) As knowledge is learnt behaviour, it can be forgotten, lost, or hidden.

3) The spread, distribution and innovation of knowledge, depends on its social, political and group identity base. It is not independent of social patterns. Social survival trumps accuracy.

4) Attempts to impose socially driven orders upon the world often require a social unconsciousness about that world, and often further disorganise that world.

David Christian, who has a well known TED talk, is a professor of ‘big history’ gave the first talk. His idea seems to be that the anthropocene is the result of human evolution and that the last five hundred years have changed the world, in a ‘hockey stick’ fashion, of increasing human impacts.

This approach seems to lead to ignoring anything other than crude differences between societies. He seemed to reduce varieties of societies to a) hunting and gathering, b) agricultural, and c) industrial. This diminishes the vast differences between societies with those kinds of technologies. This of course may be an artefact of the time available for the lecture, but it may not be as he has published a book giving a history of humanity in less than 100 pages.

He also argued that knowledge accumulates. That ‘later generations’ of humans had more information and understanding of their environment. As humans moved across the globe into new niches in the early migrations, they had to learn new things. This is obviously optimistic.

However, this increase is only partially true. Knowledge is also forgotten as people move into new niches. He more or less acknowledged this by saying that indigenous people may have knowledges about ecological living that ‘we’ don’t have, but this seemed a kind of footnote/addenda not strongly incorporated into his schema.

In reality, knowledge is not a fixed thing. What counts as ‘knowledge’ is also influenced by living in a particular society. Society, and your place in it, is an ecological niche in which you have to live. Surviving in that social niche is vital; belonging is important to humans, as it is hard to live without others. This surviving is more important than any accuracy of knowing. We are given knowledge by those around us; we judge knowledge by the opinions of those around us, or those we hear of, and the opinions of those to whom we give high status. People we give high status to seem more reliable. What we call ‘knowledge’ primarily acts as justification for action and identification.

Identification is influenced by the boundaries between groups – your social sense of ingroup and outgroup, and of people’s status within a group. Even your sense of being a passionately, independent individual can come through identification with another group of people who identify as passionate and independent individuals.

The relationship between social groups is inherently political, and consequently knowledge is always caught in political disputes and dynamics. Societies, as a whole, can abandon some kinds of knowledge because it appears incompatible with power structures, group identities, morality, or other forms of ‘more important’ knowledge. This should be obvious; different political factions often have different ideas about relevant knowledge.

This seems relatively well documented as well. It is often stated, that both China and the Islamic world, were centres of knowledge, innovation and exploration, but retreated from this into a kind of social fossilisation and stagnation that benefitted certain groups and group based patterns of power. Difficult knowledge became suspect.

The same is probably happening in the capitalist world, when faced with the failure of ‘free markets’ to deliver on their official promises or to handle the challenge of climate change.

The value of free markets, the overriding capacity of business to solve all problems, and the falsity of climate change become heavily promoted by people allied with the current patterns of power and activity. These knowledges (or perhaps anti-knowledges) become parts of group belonging, acceptance and survival, irrespective of their destructiveness. Accurate knowledge (and acting on that knowledge), becomes undesirable, and partially impossible (as is discussion) given the dynamics of group belonging.

Education cannot solve this issue, because education intending greater accuracy can easily become seen as political and defunded, banned or cut back, when it challenges power relations.

What counts as ‘knowledge’ adapts to satisfy the victors of social power struggles.

Consequently, what is required to deal with the anthropocene is to recognise that knowledge does not inevitably increase, to investigate understanding of how knowledge works in society, and the nature of the ‘class based’ politics that promote more, or less, accurate knowledge. It also requires knowledge of particular societies and their social functioning, not vague general knowledge which seems to render human impact in inevitabilist evolutionary terms.

We could ask ‘What kind of social patterns can be encouraged so that knowledge and action can work?’

It is in eveyone’s interest not to pollute beyond the capacity of the Earth’s ecologies to absorb, just as it is sensible not to keep shitting in your bedroom, or blame people in general for the problem of your shit.

Making it socially possible for the fragility of knowledge to be clear is a good first step.