Project Petrichor

March 28, 2021

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In many things, humans are no more insightful than the other animals. For all our attempts at prediction, it’s not the weather report that warns us of the approaching thunderstorm, it’s the silence of the birds. People are not special in the way we fall down. We are special only in the way we get up again. Unlike the birds, we can turn to each other and marvel at the squall. If one quality could be said to characterise the human condition, it would be this. Like petrichor, after the storm, we make ourselves known again.

In many things, humans are no more insightful than the other animals. For all our attempts at prediction, it’s not the weather report that warns us of the approaching thunderstorm, it’s the silence of the birds.

People are not special in the way we fall down. We are special only in the way we get up again. Unlike the birds, we can turn to each other and marvel at the squall. If one quality could be said to characterise the human condition, it would be this. Like petrichor, after the storm, we make ourselves known again.

Humans possess this kind of extraordinary flexibility to thrive. We are the dominant force in almost every biosphere on the planet. We create communities and cultures that outlast catastrophe to span thousands of years. And we are each maps of the scars that brought us to where we are. Human stories invariably speak to our capacity to endure the changing fortunes of time.

This quality is borne of one thing: humans, of all the animals, have the greatest capacity for nurture. Our capacity to thrive is due to our ability to adapt, and our ability to adapt is merely a reflection of our ability to come together and share ideas.

Yet there is no doubt that much is wrong with the world. The map of our scars only grows with the passing of time, and the storms are more frequently created by us. There is an old story that is told to explain why.

This story tells of a people who, despite their best efforts, are deeply flawed: prideful, jealous, greedy, destructive. Think of Pandora’s fateful curiosity; the Buddists’ concept of Taṇhā; the ever-present stain of biblical sin. Consider the selfishness of the baby boomers and the entitlement of the millenials. In all cases it would seem that we are fated to take more than we deserve.

This story is laced into our allegories of the many and the few, the in-group and the out-group, the weak and the strong. Caesar’s slaughter of the Gauls; Hobbes’ war of all against all; today’s reflections on the myriad relationships between the oppressed and the oppressors. And no modern story is complete without lamenting the state of the capitalist system: the opulence of the rich, the misery of the poor, and our ceaseless yearning to join the caste of the unjust, laying waste to our forests, our oceans, and our fellow travellers to that end. Our nature is one of survival and competition and thus, for all our strength in coming together, we are destined to be alone; at war.

These narratives trend toward indictment. They condemn us to failure while simultaneously condemning us for failing. For our weaknesses, we are doomed to walk this perpetual cycle, “the halt, the lame, half-made creatures that we are”.

But there is another narrative.

William James called us “half awake. Our fires are damped, our rafts are checked… the human individual lives usually far within his limits”. It is this: the peculiar deadening of the human capacity that is the true source of our struggle. Our ability to cultivate our limits—to nurture ourselves and each other—these things are stifled by the very shelters we built to protect us from the storms we created.

Today, our culture slots us increasingly into narrow bands of opportunity, even as our ability to communicate and explore ideas grows. We spend our formative years in a primary education system that systematically fails to develop our potential. We go on to invest time and debt into tertiary institutions that are increasingly ill-suited to the needs of the world-at-large. The successful outcome of this process leads us to occupations that require only the tiniest sliver of our capacities, but, as technology intrudes into every quiet space, the maximum amount of our attention. What little attention remains is routinely directed towards the economy of shame, outrage, yearning, and terror that floods our media streams and away from any form of real connection or meaningful pursuit. And all along this hectic path we find our friends, our families, and our mentors have been pushed to the margins.

We are assigned roles that we never signed up for, surrounded by people who don’t understand us, encouraged to engage with issues that don’t concern us, and left no choice but to vote for leaders who misrepresent us. We are made automata, built to serve the needs of a system we never agreed to contribute to and unable to reach out or grow because we were never granted the tools. As such, we are perpetually caught unawares by the storm.

Storms are weathered by the prepared. We, more than any creature, have the capacity to prepare. We can be more than that which we have been told we should be. Not alone and at war, but together, on the heels of those who came before and in the arms of those around us.

But first we must rise from our lethargy, and embrace our capacity to nurture ideas and in doing so, nurture each other. We must uncheck our rafts, stoke our fires, and cultivate the domains of our capacities that have lain dormant. We each pay a price to live with ourselves on the terms that we will. When those terms are spelled out clearly, that price doesn’t have to be so costly. This project is about waking up, so that, like petrichor, after the storm we can rise again.

This article is the introduction of a longer manifesto which details the motivations behind The Armchair Collective's credenda. The full thing is available here.

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