Left and Right

“The older tension in human affairs between conservative and liberal based on social orientation is being replaced with the tension between developers and ecologists based on orientation toward the natural world. This new tension is becoming the primary tension in human affairs.” — Thomas Berry, The Great Work (p. 107).

I know there will be (and even is) a temptation to associate left and right, or liberal and conservative orientations, with the divided brain. There is even some of this evident in McGilchrist, largely owing to his intellectual commitment to Hegelian dialectics, which I critiqued in an earlier review of aspects of The Master and his Emissary. But if you watch Jill Bolte-Taylor’s TED talk closely, you will see that “left” and “right” are interpretations of the left-hemisphere alone and are not really all that relevant to brain bilateralism.

On the other hand, I do think that Berry is quite right, and that the political tension between “developers” (or those more broadly that Nietzsche contemptuously dismissed as “the Improvers of mankind”) and “ecologists” is related to brain bilateralism.

Although “left” and “right” are actually spatially relative terms, which ostensibly go back to the seating arrangements in Popular Assembly after the French Revolution in which the Jacobins sat to the left, and the conservatives to the right, of the Speaker, they are, in fact, temporal orientations as “progressive” or “conservative” respectively, and therefore oriented towards the future or towards the past. These polarities of loyalties to time future (destiny, the new) or to time past (origins, the familiar) belong to the systematising functions of the left-hemisphere, and not to hemispheric bilateralism. This becomes quite evident when Jill Bolte-Taylor describes the role of the left-hemisphere as picking out “details and more details about those details” from the perceptual field of energy of the right-hemisphere and then relating these details and more details (and “the devil is in the details”) to what is known from the past or expectations about the future. On the other hand, the right-hemisphere’s mode of attention does not deal with time, but with “presence” and what is timeless — the Eternal Now. Nor does it “think” dialectically, but metaphorically. The separative and segregative processes — the analytical attitude — is completely alien to the predilections of the right hemisphere’s mode of attention. Left and right belong to the dualistic logic of the left-hemisphere, not to brain bilateralism.

(If you missed that part in her great TED talk, you can review it again here).

Berry, on the other hand, has got it precisely right in my opinion. The present socio-political tension is less now between “left” and “right” and more between the “developers” and “ecologists”. And this does strike me as being related to brain bilateralism. “Developers” is actually a more recent term for those formerly called “Improvers“, who came to prominence as legal thieves during the Highland Clearances (from which I am descended) or the Enclosures of the Commons. “Improvement” was also the basic ideology and rationale used to justify the appropriation of lands from the North American Indians and their assimilation through the disastrous Residential School System (which was first experimented with in Scotland to break down the clans before being imported to North America). It’s this whole attitude that Nietzsche finds contemptible in the “Improvers of Mankind”. This rationale of “improvement” (or latterly, “development”) is clearly associated with the mechanics of the left-hemisphere’s mode of functioning.

In the name of “improvement”, human beings, says Berry, have moved “from suicide, homicide, and genocide to biocide and geocide under the illusion that they are improving the human situation”. And this is, I hold, also involved in Nietzsche’s overall objection to “the Improvers of Mankind” (and if it’s not, then Nietzsche will have to be improved upon and have his forehead broadened).

Against these “improvers” have now emerged a potent counterforce — the ecologists, particularly since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) but especially after the Club of Rome’s publication of The Limits to Growth in 1972, which really got under the skin of the “improvers” who wanted to believe in limitless growth and expansion. The Limits to Growth really struck a nerve with these “improvers” and they haven’t really stopped howling since. Much of that was still involved in the militia takeover of the wildlife refuge in Oregon, which was really only the attempt to seize reserved wilderness areas for commercial exploitation and “development”.  Less it was about high-flying constitutional principles than about crass commericalism.

Ecologics on the other hand (and this is somewhat different from “environmentalism”) is associated with the “first attention” of the brain’s right-hemisphere because of its holistic orientation, very aptly described by Bolte-Taylor. “Environmentalism” is more the mirror reflection of ecologics within the framework logic of the left-hemisphere of the brain, as an “-ism”, and, as such, environmentalism is somewhat reductionistic in that it becomes another form of determinism. There is a subtle, but very important distinction to be made between ecologics and environmentalism, and that distinction pertains also to the different modes of functioning of the right and left-hemispheres of the brain, or “the first attention” and “the second attention”. This relation between ecologics and environmentalism also bears on my insistence that, at root, we must learn to appreciate the difference in meaning — the distinction that obtains — between the whole and the mere totality or sum aggregate, and correspondingly, therefore between “the awareness” and “the consciousness” as such.

This shift from “left-right” tension to “developer-ecologist” tension is pretty significant, in that respect. And I think that, perhaps, Mr. McGilchrist missed something important about this in his assessment of the sociopolitical implications of brain bilateralism and asymmetry. Berry, on the other hand, has already announced the coming of the “Ecozoic Era” (and not the finality of the “Anthropocene”), so there’s little doubt who he thinks will ultimately prevail in this duel between development and ecology.


5 responses to “Left and Right”

  1. Dwig says :

    This post puts me in mind of the fairly new discipline of permaculture, which could be considered the ecologic response to the “developmental” engineering mindset. It can be looked at in terms of the “whole-part” focus, where (to oversimplify to make the point) an engineer only considers the immediate goal, and the most immediately effective means to reach it, while the permaculturalist starts by considering all factors at play in the situation, and looks for the change that will work over time for the entire ecosystem.

    I think the best exposition of the permaculture principles and practice that I’ve seen is Toby Hemenway’s recent book “The Pernaculture City”, where he applies its principles to just about all human endeavors.

    • Scott Preston says :

      “The Permaculture City” sounds like it might be of interest. I would recommend also, in relation to your own interests, Berry’s “The Great Work” as well. Oddly enough, I’ve made very few notes during my reading of it, not because it’s uninteresting, but because it already feels familiar, already like the new “common sense” so that, while reading, you think “yeah, how can anyone understand it differently?”

  2. alex jay says :

    “Much of that was still involved in the militia takeover of the wildlife refuge in Oregon, which was really only the attempt to seize reserved wilderness areas for commercial exploitation and “development”. Less it was about high-flying constitutional principles than about crass commericalism.”

    Crass commericalism no doubt. However, I think you may be pointing the finger at the wrong culprits:


    Whatever the case might be, the only certainty is that the usual victims are the indigenous occupants who are getting shafted yet again.

    “Clowns to the left, jokers to the right, here again stuck in the middle [between public and private exploitation].”

  3. alex jay says :

    Quite! Though: what’s a “jes’ saying” (i.e. what follows the “s” in “jes” – apologise for my ignorance).- just curious, as I’ve not heard that expression before? Also, it goes to show that even an anti-establishment figure like Rappoport quotes the propaganda “paper of record” (skips like an old warped 45 rpm record and equally offensive to any mind that has still not succumbed to the onslaught of Orwellian double-speak). Even that corporatist rag occasionally bites its lip and comes up with something truthful. The editor must have been on his lunch-break; or the Clinton crime syndicate enforcers were too busy fund-raising for the family foundation to notice any danger to the “Lady of Chaos” and her philandering spouse. Maybe, they were in a rush to beat Tony Blair to the punch, as there seems to be a turf war going on between these creeps in attracting all the nastiest dictators, oligarchs and low-lives for their “hard-earned” billions?

    Yeah … Trump is an asshole, but how refreshing to see someone stick the middle finger to this pathetic system and call it out; conversely, Bernie Sanders is doing it from another direction. We’re halfway through this two year soap opera – aka as the American presidential campaign – and it gets crazier by the day. If you want proof that reality is an illusion, you need venture no further.

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