We live on a planet that has become a global society, a society totally interconnected by its capacity of intervening on its environment and on social life itself, and yet still dependent on its natural home, the planet Earth. This twofold relation to the Earth, as the global field for social action and its physical boundary, defines the ‘planetary society’ in which personal life takes place.
-Alberto Melucci, The Playing Self: Person and Meaning in the Planetary Society
[Pureingu Serufu: Wakusei Shakai ni okeru Ningen to Imi]
(A Japanese translation by Michinobu Niihara et al., Harvest-sha in 2008)
1 Think Planetary!!
Whenever the months of March and April roll around, and we see off our departing students and welcome the new batch of students to the university, it makes me wonder what advice I can impart to these young people who will be building our future society with their own hands. Words like “internationalization,” “informatization” and “globalization” have emerged to help us understand our ever-changing modern society, which is becoming increasingly complex, fragmented, and fluid. Amassing research on international relations, including diplomacy, trade and military systems, as well as research on regional communities within and outside Japan is certainly important for understanding the various aspects of these changes. But how do we gain a comprehensive view of these different aspects—the meaning behind this multifaceted change? When I consider this problem, the late Italian sociologist Alberto Melucci comes to mind. He would have probably said something like, “Think planetary!! Starting where you are right now, think about the fate of the planet as a whole and act with passion, diligence and a multiplex/multi-layered/multifaceted approach.” So why must we think about our complex modern society from a “planetary” perspective now, when it has become so difficult to imagine the big picture?
2 Living in a Planetary Society
Living amid the mass consumption and mass disposal of megacities, we have intervened in the natural environment and in social life itself, greatly enhanced our productivity, and created a “comfortable and affluent industrial society.” At first, we didn’t need to worry that much about things like the “physical boundary” of “the planet Earth.” We thought of the planet Earth as a “global field” with limitless possibilities, where there was always some new frontier or no-man’s-land waiting to be discovered and developed. Now, in our “totally interconnected” society, the instant ramen and conbini bentō (convenience-store boxed meals) we eat in Japan contain ingredients from China, the U.S. and Southeast Asia. The rare metals in our cell phones come from places as far away as the Congo. High consumption of shrimp has led to a loss of mangrove forests and the spread of infectious diseases in shrimp farms where large amounts of antibiotics are administered. Meanwhile, the constant purchase of new cell phone models has led to the deforestation of gorilla habitat and civil wars over Africa’s natural resources.
Our mass-consumption lifestyle has generated vast amounts of waste at all (front-end and back-end) stages of the “resource procurement for production → processing → distribution → use → post-use” process. Large amounts of plastic have accumulated in the depths of the Pacific Ocean, and after being transported by the wind and combining with rain and snow, radioactive and chemical substances make their way back to us and the earth through ecological cycles. The rivers and soil of Japan’s rural villages, once rich in flora and fauna like wild sweetfish and yamame trout, have turned into receptacles of radioactivity, and “foreign substances” have been accumulating in our bodies. The things our society produces have started to endanger the habitats (sites of existence) that make the society (the site of our lifestyle) possible.
Nuclear energy has brought our odds of survival into question, and technologies like genetic engineering, sex selection, and cloning have pushed the boundaries of human life. We can no longer dispel our fears about the future by searching for new dumping grounds now that our garbage dumps are full, looking to nuclear power generation or the mining of new underground resources like oil shale and methane clathrate to address the squandering of fossil fuels and global warming caused by carbon dioxide emissions, or any other coping techniques that ignore the “physical boundary” of the Earth.
In other words, the “outer world” (or the “frontier” or “wilderness”) has disappeared due to globalization, and we are now living on the planet Earth, which is not as wide or limitless as we thought. Once our resources have been mined or pollution has occurred beyond the tolerance level of the land, our society will readily trigger a state of autotoxemia (self-poisoning), and the foundation of our existence will be threatened. We have no other choice but to be aware of the fact that we are all part of the same local community, if you will, living in a “planetary society” with no place to run.
3 Our Future from This Point Forward
At this point, some of you may be thinking that “the future does not look bright.” However, Melucci thought that in a planetary society where the possibilities and limits are interconnected and we all share the same fate, not only presidents and prime ministers, but ordinary people will have the chance to imagine a society that departs from the idea of a “future of limitless expansion and growth,” and will be able to contribute to efforts to construct a new social system. I share his view. Surely this crisis holds both danger and opportunity. I hope I can share the journey with young people who try to “shake up and transcend” the existing framework in a spirit of “playing and challenging,” and pass on the following words Melucci left us just before he passed away:
In the past, changes, reforms, and challenges to prevailing trends were translated into quantity… In the interdependent and interactive world where we now live, things that are limited or marginal are all the more effective… In our present society, even small acts have great significance. For these small things constitute the fundamental resources of the interdependent network that makes experiences, events and phenomena multiplex/multi-layered/multifaceted throughout every corner of the Earth. (From “Reflections on the People of Rimini,” a symposium in Melucci’s hometown of Rimini, Italy in 2000)
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Regional sociology, international fieldwork, planetary society theory
Professor Niihara was born in 1959. He has studied at various universities, such as Nagoya University, the University of Tokyo, Hitotsubashi University and the University of Sassari in Italy. After working as an Assistant at Chiba University and an Associate Professor at Yokohama City University, he took up his current position in 2003. He has given lectures and seminars at universities in Japan and places all over the world, such as Italy, France, Germany, Brazil, Portugal, Sweden, Finland, Cape Verde, Slovenia and Macau. He writes primarily in Japanese and Italian, and his publications include Homo Movens: The Sociology of Learning/Unlearning in the Field [Homo Mōbensu: Tabisuru Shakaigaku] (Mado-sha); Exploring “Liminal” Territories [Kyōkai Ryōiki he no Tabi] (Otsuki Shoten); and Exploring, Encountering, and Thinking Together [Tabi wo Shite, Deai, Tomo ni Kangaeru] (Chuo University Press). His work with Alberto Melucci includes Playing Self [Pureingu Serufu] (Harvest-sha).