out of balance
To bring out the angel in us, we have to change our structures.
(Maja Göpel, 2021)
My head starts to spin when I even try to begin to understand how the world works, when I gather fragments of facts that above all are pointing to one thing: Imbalance is increasing dramatically. The gap between rich and poor is yawning wide open; in the perilous working world, red lines have already been crossed. Certain tipping points in the climate crisis have already become reality: loss of biodiversity, droughts, vanishing lakes, broken nature cycles... The events and phenomena testifying to all this are more than what a single mind can take in.
Let’s start with the human body and its sense of balance. Without a sense of balance we could neither stand nor walk. Keeping your balance and orienting yourself in the world is not a simple matter, with its up and down, front and back, left and right, and much more. For this balancing act, the body needs information from its various senses: sight, the perception of the position of one’s body in space, the balance organ in the inner ear.
All this information is coordinated in the balance center in the brainstem, where commands are sent to the joints, muscles and eyes to ensure, as we walk along, that we are applying the necessary corrective movements to keep our balance. When our sense of balance is disturbed, we feel dizzy. This is caused by the central nervous system incorrectly interpreting the information it is receiving. When someone is reading a book on a heavily swaying ship, contradicting messages are being sent to their brain about whether their body is still or moving. All this is quite harmless. – Worse are psychogenic dizziness spells triggered by psychological overload, such as professional or private conflicts, or a generally bad environment. This can trigger balance problems such as an unsteady gait, a tendency to fall, even panic attacks. This often happens to people with anxiety disorders, or who are depressed. Both are common conditions (according to information internet portals for neurologists and psychiatrists).
Being aware of how finely tuned the human body must be (not to mention the elusive psyche) to be able to move with any sense of steadiness gives us an inkling of how equilibrium in the world, even a relative equilibrium, can only be reached through endless estimates and approximation.
Basically we are careening past ever greater disasters by the skin of our teeth. A planned terrorist attack exposed just in time, the reservoir dam not collapsing ... a power blackout prevented in parts of Europe, a refugee boat rescued in the Mediterranean (although for many they have become a tomb)... The risk is always there. And we find ourselves listening to constant media coverage of one crisis after the other. Mind numbing.
The fury and hardship of so many is face to face with the empty rhetoric of politicians. Debates, protests, conflicts, world conferences on all sorts of topics, climate summits in Rio, in Paris... The world we live in is more and more interdependent, whether it is growing together or colliding (wars). Humanity must pay attention, as individuals or as institutions. We are living in a “global risk society” (a term used by the sociologist Ulrich Beck already in 1985). Indeed, this is the case now more than ever, since our experience-based knowledge has increased. We live in “risk realities” (Beck). Bank failures, the corona pandemic, climate change... Nobody can withdraw completely, although wealth does offer some protection.
And young, well-informed activists like those in the Fridays For Future movement can no longer be palmed off with unfulfilled promises from politicians and big business. They know that knowledge is not enough. Tools for change are needed. They have a different time horizon and luckily they are not used to living in an endless and yet uncertain present without a future ...
Out of balance – a few examples:
Repairing appliances is more expensive than buying new ones.
Fast fashion clothing is regularly burned by the ton.
Real estate is often purely investment property, with buildings standing empty. But too often poorer people can no longer find a place to live.
The contracts of cheap temp workers hired for years by VW from temporary employment agencies are not being extended. But the company celebrated record profits for its shareholders in 2020.
On the platform www.taxmenow, around forty young European millionaires are demanding that their countries tax their inheritances! They didn’t do anything for what they have inherited, but don’t have to pay any taxes on it – quite in contrast to people in the work world. Marlene Engelhorn from Vienna, for example, wants to give up 90% of her multi-million-dollar inheritance. She finds it inacceptable that the gap between rich and poor is widening, among other reasons because there is no property tax in Austria. (An aside: US billionaire Warren Buffett likes to tell people that he pays less taxes than his secretary.)
During the pandemic it became clear that the renowned work–life balance was out of kilter: some lost their jobs, others had to work 24 hours a day ...
“Hate on the internet”: the harassment, fake news and hatred diffused through social networks can unleash violence like that seen in the storming of the US Capitol. – Initially hailed by network utopians as machines of democratization, today social media are also a force of disinformation.
Bio-piracy: we “import” expanses of land from other countries by devouring their resources.
“Meanwhile there is less and less planet for more and more people.” Our economic system has been called into question by the sustainability researcher Maja Göpel. A system geared towards permanent growth will lead to humanity destroying the planet and asset relations regressing to a form of feudalism – a small group of wealthy persons, with increasingly precarious conditions for everyone else. Maja Göpel and other researchers are looking for a sustainable development model. Ecological change cannot be managed by the current economic system. Our system must give way and another must be created. It will be a step-by-step transformation process.
Some of their thoughts, which by no means are all new:
The climate crisis is the question of justice, which in turn is a question of distribution. Distributive justice and a return to human proportions are essential. The tale of eternal growth bringing benefits to everyone has not come true, either ecologically or socially.
Far too much money is circulating in the world, but since it has no purchasing power, it is not meeting the real needs of people.
We need a system where environmental protection is profitable, not environmental destruction. Because CO2 emissions, the exploitation of cheap labor, and similar things are not taken into account, we don’t pay “real” prices. If considered cyclically, everything has an “environmental backpack”. For example, a gold ring has a 2,000 kg backpack, because of its material, the water and energy consumed in its production, the waste created....
Nature is a great “service provider”, but only if we let it do its own thing and don’t interfere so much. It is absurd to try to make nature adapt to our structures; we humans should rather change what we ourselves have caused.
A bizarre example used by Maja Göpel is the “robot bee”, a drone for pollinating plants instead of bees. Wouldn’t it be smarter to prevent bees being killed by pesticides?
For a sustainable economy, what we need are the three Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.
Creating value goes hand in hand with appreciating value, such as appreciating those things that serve the greater well-being of society. The question is: what is good for us? Just pointing out what is “bad” – driving cars, travelling by plane, eating meat – is not what we need. Maybe “Maya the Bee” has some solutions to offer ...
After this “bee excursion” I have a bit of hope again. The imbalances can be put into balance if we all want it to happen. But we have some work to do!
Karin Ruprechter-Prenn 09/2021
[Translation from the German: Cynthia Peck]
Out of Balance
The crises currently being faced around the world are symptomatic of extreme ecological, social and economic imbalances. Heat waves, wildfires, floods, and tornadoes are manifestations of the global warming that has been caused by human beings, exposing the disruptions in the balance between human beings and nature. Moreover, inequality is increasing between the rich and the poor, and the economy continues to overshadow our lives to an extent that cannot be justified. Also the pandemic can be seen as a symptom of extreme capitalism and global inequality. That these crises are occurring simultaneously is linked to the increasing callousness of capitalism and its effects, with biodiversity and living conditions becoming ever more endangered and radical behavior becoming the norm – all in the name of optimization, efficiency, and growth.
In the neoliberal understanding, equilibrium is achieved through a work–life balance, whereby performance is optimized and expenditures due to ill health are as low as possible. Here, balance is defined as a lifestyle product that guarantees optimal functioning, whether organized by oneself or by someone else. To stand out from what is average or standard, marketing phrases and self-promotion resort to an alleged need for superlatives. Emotional extremes and attention ratings are what count. Reason and ethical behavior, part of Aristotle’s definition of the mean (μεσότης, mesotes), do not.
“In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle declares that the main goal of a successful and good life is happiness (εὐδαιμονία, eudaimonia), which can be achieved through virtuous actions. In turn, he defines virtue as the mean between too much and too little, whereby the mean is not defined arithmetically, but by the subject. Bliss lies in virtuous action, which is characterized by prudent decisions that are balanced and based on reason.”  Aristotle’s concept of a good life, decisions oriented toward a middle value balanced between two opposing extremes, includes an understanding of the mean as an extreme with regard to good actions and the call for implementing them.
“For Aristotle, the mean did not represent the masses of society likened to mediocrity (Friedrich Nietzsche), but those in the middle – those who, in the difficult pursuit of a goal, were able to decide between too much and too little. In this sense, the mean did not represent a condition for Aristotle” , but the art of weighing between extremes when making decisions. Here the mean does not mean mediocrity, but rather the ability to make balanced, reason-based decisions and thus to act virtuously.
To achieve balance – in the sense of social and ecological equilibrium, parity and justice – are radical measures needed? When considering the current crises of social disparity and environmental collapse, this seems to be one of the most pressing questions. If the current state of affairs is regarded with common sense and regard for the future, extreme measures are indeed needed to counteract the social and ecological imbalances.
Is balance a myth?
Is the notion of balance and order in nature just a human-created projection, an illusion with no correspondence in reality? Is nature merely being idealized? In the anthropocentric notion of natural balance, nature is seen as a harmonious, self-regulating mechanism. But what if reality unfolds in other ways, not only as an ordered system of life as people usually see it, but also one of destruction? Natural processes are based on certain regular sequences and mechanisms, but while these do have an inherent potential for chaos, it cannot be disputed that human interference is usually what damages them. But with ecosystems disrupted to the extent they are today and natural self-regeneration ever more difficult, to prevent the worst isn’t human intervention what is needed? Paradoxically, in addition to restricting and limiting doctrines of growth, it is likely that human involvement will be required to stop the current progressive destruction of the environment.
To eliminate hierarchical imbalances, will we manage to live in symbiosis with other living beings, as Donna Haraway has suggested we should? Can the relationships between species be reorganized to create, at least temporarily, something similar to equilibrium? Can more than just human life continue to exist? If we don’t radically change our views and lifestyle, the struggle for survival will increasingly be characterized by inequality. It is certainly uncomfortable to think that the concept of the balance of nature is indeed a myth linked to how nature is used. How can one move away from this imbalance and develop more equitable and sustainable solutions for its care?
The imbalance of balance
Is balance a short-lived and fleeting state, a capricious object of desire? Or is it the result of action based on reason? Our notions of balance, a good life, and equilibrium with nature are shaped by culture and ideologies. The assumption that equilibrium already exists often disguises inequalities and dynamics that are inherently uneven, as for example, the assertion that markets are self-regulating. In the midst of extremes of inequality, it is being claimed that equality exists. The supposed equilibrium of financial markets consists in individual speculative instability whose functioning is determined by positions that are extreme. In the name of (market) freedom, extremes are often touted as balanced potential. Usually overlooked is any information about who is bearing the risks, or how risks are being outsourced. The higher the risk, the greater the gain or loss, and thus the greater the inequality.
Most political parties take the middle ground, claiming that they represent moderate positions. This usually means they want to appear electable by all segments of the population. But their policies are not really moderate if one recognizes, for example, how neoliberal politics intensify extreme inequalities.
This brings us to the question of how equilibrium or balance within social structures is defined. What today seems extreme will tomorrow be normal; what today is normal will tomorrow be extreme. The boundaries are fluid and ideologically disputed. Extremes often represent changes, whereas balance stands for focusing on the past, or for things that promise a better future with stable living conditions. Balance can happen naturally, it can be found by accident, or it can be created artificially.
The law of the exceptional
Is balance or equilibrium still important in a day and age shaped by digital media? At a time when extremes and radical viewpoints are booming, at least on social media, balance is tedious, it means nothing special is happening, that the general order is ordinary. Floods of data demand attention, attention that is constantly being fought over through emotional stimuli and staged excitement. It is not reflection that counts, but rapid and continuous stimuli aimed at extreme reactions, the generation of moods and, as a result, user data profits. Balance for users means getting the desired likes and feedback, being digitally active without interruptions, free of shitstorms, and best, with a 5G connection. The speed of data flow allows no room for being average. Being exceptional is compulsory.
The converse of this is the old notion of the petit-bourgeoisie, which not only symbolized mediocrity, ordinary and average, but also the compulsive demand for and use of standardized norms. Indeed, under the law of the exceptional, that which is merely special has already slipped into mediocrity. This is where the behavior of the erstwhile bourgeoisie meets that of new social media users: the compulsion to conform to role models, the relentless staging of optimized appearances and the self-assurance that brings.
[Translation from the German: Cynthia Peck-Kubaczek]
 Cf. Die Nikomachische Ethik, www.getabstract.com/de/zusammenfassung/die-nikomachische-ethik/4316
 Cf. Herfried Münkler, Die Entstehung des Mitte-Paradigmas in Politik und Gesellschaft, www.bpb.de/apuz/196717/die-entstehung-des-mitte-paradigmas-in-politik-und-gesellschaft