Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Nothing Like Us Ever Was

Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) is one of the more neglected American poets these days. He drew much of his inspiration from the American experience, and that's very nearly a guarantee of obscurity at a time when conservatives try to force-fit our past onto the Procrustean bed of an imaginary fundamentalist Utopia, and liberals insist that America is somehow uniquely evil among the cultures of the world. Still, Sandburg has another strike against him. Like his contemporary Robinson Jeffers and a few others of their generation, Sandburg brought a powerful sense of historical irony to his poetic work. His 1920 poem Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind threw a challenge square in the face of the civil religion of the industrial age and its monomyth of perpetual progress:

The doors are twisted on broken hinges.
Sheets of rain swish through on the wind
where the golden girls ran and the panels read:
We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation,
nothing like us ever was.

In Sandburg's time, just as in ours, "nothing like us ever was" summed up the American credo. From the first years of European settlement, the faith that the New World would avoid the mistakes and follies of the old helped drive a dizzying range of social and political experiments, including the one many of us will be celebrating on July 4. What Jacques Chirac mocked as America's "almost messianic sense of national mission" has deep roots in the national psyche, and one of the most crucial of those roots is the rarely expressed but powerful conviction that America is exempt from the historical process. The idea that America's gleaming cities might someday be abandoned ruins where "the doors are twisted on broken hinges," in Sandburg's words, is close to unthinkable -- close enough that people struggling to think it often end up thinking that only a vast global catastrophe could possibly be up to the job.

A glance at earlier civilizations on this same continent offers a useful corrective to this sort of simplistic thinking. Huge urban centers existed here long before the first European settlers arrived on the Atlantic coast -- and yes, I'm thinking of Leif Ericsson here, not just Columbus. From Copan in the Yucatan jungles to Cahokia on the plains of the Midwest, urban civilizations in America rose, flourished, and fell in the same slow rhythm that defines the history of the Old World. Archeologists still quarrel about the exact reasons why these cities and the civilizations that built them fell into ruin, but the usual culprits -- unresolved social discords, attempts to meet long-term problems with short-term fixes, and failures to recognize or abide by the reality of environmental limits -- show up again and again in the evidence, while the vast catastrophes beloved of today's alternative thinkers are notable by their absence.

The fact of the matter is that civilizations don't last forever; they have a life cycle like that of other living things, and when it's over, they die. That doesn't make the project of civilization pointless, as some of today's neoprimitivist thinkers suggest, any more than the fact that every one of us will die someday makes life not worth living. The latter fact does mean, of course, that someone who insists he's going to live forever, and makes plans for his future based on that premise, may not be quite as clever as he thinks he is. The same thing, of course, is true of civilizations -- including our own.

Of course it's this last point around which all the controversy gathers. Plenty of people are willing to concede that everyone else's civilizations follow a common path to a common destiny, but not ours.

This conviction has a long and murky history, reaching back to the last few centuries before the Common Era, when religious traditions across much of the Old World started offering believers the promise of a way out of the cycles of time into a timeless realm of perfection. For the most part, the escape hatch from time was sized only for individuals; the Buddhist pursuit of Nirvana and the Gnostic quest to return to the aeonic world of light are good examples of the theme. In a handful of traditions, though, this mutated into the idea that the whole world would enter eternity at a specific point in the future: ordinary history would stop, and be replaced by something wholly other. The Jewish vision of the coming Messianic age is among the oldest of these. Adapted by Christianity, it became the prophecy of the Second Coming, and in this latter form it remains a potent myth through much of the western world.

But the scientific revolution of the 17th century put a new wrinkle in the old myth. To the founders and ideologues of industrial society, human beings didn't need to wait on God to bring on the New Jerusalem; it could be built here and now by harnessing the power of human reason. As the mythology of progress redefined the past as a tale of the slow triumph of reason over nature, the western world embraced a paradoxical vision in which history itself brought about an end to history. Focused through thinkers as different as Hegel and Terence McKenna, this concept still remains part of the conventional wisdom. For people at all points on the cultural spectrum, as a result, the perfect society remains firmly parked in the near future, accessible once the right set of political, social, or spiritual policies are put into place.

This faith has provided motive power to many worthy causes, to be sure, though it can point in less positive directions as well; Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot both believed they were leading their respective societies through the door to Utopia. It can also provide such triumphs of unintentional comedy as Francis Fukuyama's premature announcement of "The End of History". Yet in many ways this belief is just as blinding as the notion that one will live forever, and it suffers from the same drawbacks as a basis for making sense of the future.

The conviction that history's cycles don't apply to us is especially counterproductive in our present circumstances. Someone confronted with a diagnosis of some life-threatening illness, who believed he would live forever, and for this reason refused either to treat the illness or make sure his family would have some means of support in the event of his death, would be considered completely irresponsible by most people -- and for good reason. Yet this is exactly the collective situation we're in right now. For more than fifty years we've known exactly what factors are pushing industrial society toward its own collapse, and it's no secret what has to be done to make the transition to sustainability, but the vast majority of people in the industrial world remain utterly unwilling to embrace the necessary changes -- and they're no more interested in thinking about the generations in the future who will grow up in the ruins of our society.

This has to change if anything is going to be salvaged from the present crisis. It's probably too late to manage a transition to sustainability on a global or national scale, even if the political will to attempt it existed -- which it clearly does not. It's not too late, though, for individuals, groups, and communities to make that transition themselves, and to do what they can to preserve essential cultural and practical knowledge for the future. Taking this step, however, will require us to abandon the fantasy that "nothing like us ever was" and the great cycles of history have been suspended for our benefit.

Our civilization is well along the same curve of decline and fall that so many others have followed before it, and the crises of the present -- peak oil, global warming, and the like -- are simply the current versions of patterns of ecological dysfunction that can be traced over and over again in the past. What's waiting for us in the near future, to judge by the experience of past civilizations, isn't the attainment of a more perfect society, much less business as usual; it's a long uneven decline into a new dark age from which, centuries from now, the new civilizations of the future will gradually emerge.

That realization leaves little room for the triumphalist mythology of progress or the insistence that our technological toys somehow exempt us from the common fate. What it provides instead is a perspective that makes sense of our situation, and opportunities for effective action. I plan on talking about these latter at some length over the next few weeks. For now, though, Sandburg deserves the final word:

And the wind shifts
and the dust on a door sill shifts
and even the writing of the rat footprints
tells us nothing, nothing at all
about the greatest city, the greatest nation
where the strong men listened
and the women warbled: Nothing like us ever was.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Conspiracy Theories

For the last couple of weeks I've been trying to sketch out the mental barriers that make it so hard for Americans to come to grips with the predicament we're in and the hard steps that will have to be taken to resolve it. These barriers are all interwoven with one another; whether we're talking about the unwillingness of the American middle class to let go or even acknowledge its position of privilege, or the universal insistence that the future has to be better than the present (even, or especially, when everyone knows it won't be), or the notion that our current problems are the result of someone's deliberate malice -- the theme of this week's post -- you can't talk about one for very long before others come into play. Every link in what William Blake called "the mind-forg'd manacles" of modern consciousness is tightly welded to the others.

One of the most interesting things about the set of ideas I want to discuss today is that it almost grasps this. Conspiracy theories start from the recognition that connections aren't always visible, that what looks random and disconnected often has a thread of purpose and meaning tying it together beneath the surface. That recognition's a crucial tool for making sense of today's global predicament, not to mention a necessary first step toward the ecological awareness that's our best hope of moving toward a more sustainable way of life. It's also a fundamental element in spirituality. Mystics and poets have been pointing out for thousands of years that everything is connected to everything else -- "thou canst not pluck a flower without troubling of a star" -- and the same realization has been central to the modern Druid tradition since its 18th-century origins.

Here as so often, though, the devil's in the details. While everything's connected to everything else, in any given context some connections are more relevant than others. Some series of subtle links connects the peanut butter sandwich you made last Tuesday with the state of your career, no doubt, but if you got turned down for a promotion on Friday, that peanut butter sandwich probably doesn't belong very high up on the list of the reasons why. If you don't want to discuss the more important reasons, though, the sandwich might just make a good way to talk about your career troubles but not about the factors you'd rather not mention.

Quite a bit of the conversation about fossil fuel depletion, global warming, and other aspects of our current predicament uses exactly this strategy. Recently, while checking the peak oil blogosphere, I ran into one article claiming that peak oil is a conspiracy being perpetrated by left-wing extremists who are trying to bring down the status quo. A few minutes further on, I ran across another article claiming that peak oil is a conspiracy being perpetrated by financiers who are trying to shore up the status quo. Now it's certainly true that some political activists have done their level best to hijack the oil depletion issue for partisan purposes, and it may be possible that the recent run-up in oil prices was pushed in an attempt to pump more financial liquidity into a faltering world economy. But those are secondary factors at most. The driving forces behind peak oil are these:
  • the world's oil reserves are finite
  • we've already used close to half the total recoverable oil on the planet
  • we've pumped more oil than we've discovered every year since 1964
  • production at most currently producing oil fields is declining
  • new fields and alternative sources such as tar sands are barely filling the gap
  • the situation is more likely to get worse than better in coming decades
These hard physical realities provide the context within which activists, financiers, and everyone else make their decisions and pursue their goals. If liberals are manipulating peak oil to support a partisan agenda, or if the big investment banks are encouraging speculation in the oil markets, that's worth noting, and arguably worth criticizing as well. Neither of these change that fact that the world is running out of cheap oil and worldwide demand for oil is outrunning the available supply. Still, if you don't want to talk about the reasons that you got passed over for promotion, that peanut butter sandwich makes a good distraction.

You can often make sense of a phenomenon by watching it in an extreme form, and I've had the opportunity to do that with this sort of thinking over the last few years. In the small southern Oregon town where I live, we've got quite a few residents more-or-less associated with the New Age movement, and a fair number of them are into the baroque conspiracy theory launched a few years back by a soccer player turned New Age guru named David Icke. Icke claims that our planet is controlled by malign, shapeshifting extraterrestrial reptiles, who are personally responsible for everything bad in the world. The conjunction between this bit of cosmic paranoia and the New Age movement always seemed odd to me, since the core of the New Age credo is "you create your own reality." If you believe that you create your own reality, I wondered, why would you want to create one in which the world is ruled by evil reptiles from outer space?

Like most questions, this one contains its own answer, because there are at least three reasons why a world ruled by evil reptiles is more comforting than the one we actually inhabit.

First, it's not your fault. If space reptiles rule the world, it doesn't matter that your comfortable lifestyle depends on Third World sweatshops and environmental devastation, or that the choices you make are helping to guarantee your grandchildren a poorer life on a more barren world. Since space reptiles run the world and you don't, they're to blame, not you.

Second, the world does what it's told. If space reptiles control the world, that means the world is under control, and thus at least potentially under your control. The world around you loses its independence, and becomes an object to be pushed around at will. You don't have to confront a universe governed by its own laws and momentum, in which you, your desires, and your opinions aren't actually that important.

Third, you don't have to change your life. If space reptiles are responsible for all the world's problems, then opposing the reptiles is far more important than solving the problems. It's also much easier, since it doesn't require you to give up unsustainable lifestyle choices.

These advantages go a long way toward explaining why Icke's reptile mythology has become so popular on the far edges of today's zeitgeist. The same three factors, though, play at least as large a role in the far less exotic versions of conspiracy theory that surround the current predicament of industrial society. Far too often, talk about the various manifestations of that predicament focuses exclusively on who to blame, and whether the target du jour is liberal activists, financiers, oil companies, George W. Bush, or Gilgamesh, the assumption seems to be that if only the right scapegoat can be found and punished, the problem will be solved.

It won't, though. Criticism has its place in any healthy society, but when it turns into a replacement for constructive action, it becomes wasted breath -- and when it becomes a way for people to avoid dealing with their own complicity in the situation, it can easily become part of the problem it claims to address. That's true even if some of the potential scapegoats helped make the situation worse than it had to be, by the way.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Farewell to Utopia

Our contemporary obsession with the future is a curious thing. Older cultures had their own ways of trying to pierce the veil of time, to be sure; astrologers and diviners commanded at least as much respect in many other societies as today's economists, futurists, and social critics expect in ours. Our modern pundits dismiss these ancient arts as useless because they relied on intuiting mythic patterns, rather than the objective observation of facts. Yet there's a deep irony here, because nearly all modern thinking about the future is hobbled by our obsession with a pair of rigidly defined mythic narratives -- the myth of progress on the one hand, and the myth of apocalypse on the other -- far more limiting than anything the old diviners and their clients would have tolerated.

I've argued elsewhere that it's impossible to understand the impacts of peak oil, global warming, and the other outward manifestations of the crisis of industrial society, so long as we're stuck in this mindset. Continuing with business as usual isn't going to lead us onward and upward to a Star Trek future among the stars, that much is certain, but it's no more likely to end in the sort of overnight megadeath luridly portrayed in so much survivalist literature. Yet many people can only see the future in one or the other of these terms.

Both these visions of the future, while they take secular forms nowadays much more often than not, have their roots in Christian apocalyptic theology. A little over four centuries ago, at the time of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, mainstream Christianity capitulated to rational-materialist philosophy and redefined the deeply mythic narratives of the Bible as secular history. Before then, theologians discussed what the events described in Book of Revelations meant as mystical symbols and analogies; afterwards, they argued instead about when and how they would happen as historical events in the everyday world. Out of that came two main schools of thought. The premillennialist position was that Jesus would return and bring about the Millennium, a thousand year period when Christians would rule the world. The postmilleniallists argued instead that Christians would rule the world for a thousand years, and then Jesus would return.

The difference may seem about as relevant as the number of angels who can dance on the head of Jerry Falwell, but sweeping implications unfold from each viewpoint. If the postmillennialists are right, history is on their side, since they're destined to rule the world for a thousand years before Jesus gets here. Thus postmillennialists believe that things will get better over time until the Millennium arrived. If the premillennialists are right, on the other hand, history is on the devil's side, since it will take nothing less than the personal intervention of Jesus to give the Christians their thousand years of world rule. Accordingly, premillennialists believe that things will get worse over time until, when everything is as bad as it can get, Jesus shows up, beats the stuffing out of the devil and his minions, and brings on the Millennium.

Drop the theological language from these two viewpoints and you've got the myth of progress and the myth of apocalypse in their contemporary forms. Believers in progress argue that industrial civilization is better than any other in history, and its present difficulties will be solved if we just put enough money into scientific research, or get government out of the way of industry, or whatever else their single story presents as the solution to all problems. Believers in apocalypse argue that industrial civilization is worse than any other in history, and its present difficulties will end in a sudden catastrophe that will destroy it and usher in whatever better world their single story promises them -- a better world in which they will inevitably have the privileged place denied them in this one.

Both these mythic narratives, in other words, are myths of Utopia. Both promise that the future will bring a much better world than the present; their only disagreements are about how to get there, and how closely the Utopia to come resembles the society we've got now. Thus it's not surprising that believers in progress tend to be those who feel they benefit from the current social order, and believers in apocalypse tend to be those who feel marginalized by the current social order and excluded from its benefits. Either way, the lure of Utopia is a potent force, and one that has deep roots in our culture and our collective psyche.

It's also one of the primary obstacles that stand in the way of a constructive response to the crisis of industrial society. The lesson of the limits to growth -- a lesson most people have been trying not to learn, with increasing desperation, since the early 1970s -- is that the Age of Exuberance is passing and nothing will keep it here or bring it back. The future isn't bringing us a better world. It's bringing us instead a world of hard limits, restricted opportunities, and lowered expectations, in which many of our fondest dreams will have to be let go of for the foreseeable future, or forever. It's a world where hopes can still be realized, dreams can still be pursued, and the experience of being human can still be contemplated and celebrated, but all these things will have to take place on a much more modest scale than the experience of the recent past or the Utopian dreams of a better future have prepared us to consider.

During the Age of Exuberance, Utopian thinking was adaptive, to use ecologists' jargon: it encouraged people to think big at a time when imperial expansion, technological progress, and soaring availability of fossil fuel energy made explosive growth pay off. As the Age of Exuberance ends around us, the equation is reversing. In a world of political and economic regionalization, technological stasis or regression, and dwindling supplies of all nonrenewable resources, those who move with the curve of industrial decline will be just as successful in the future as those who rode the waves of industrial growth were in the past. It's time, and past time, to learn again how to think small -- and that process will be much easier if we say farewell to Utopia and focus on the things we can actually achieve in the stark limits of time and resources that we still have left.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Blame it on Gilgamesh

I've been looking for a couple of weeks now for a way to talk about some of the core obstacles that stand in the way of a constructive response to the predicament of industrial society. It's a complicated task, because the obstacles I have in mind are rooted in many of the ideas most often used to explore that predicament, and point in directions many people find acutely uncomfortable.

So I was glad when a friend forwarded an essay titled "The Lost People," by a radio talk-show host and author named Thom Hartmann, that makes it a good deal easier to start the conversation I'm convinced needs to happen in our society. I doubt Hartmann would be pleased to hear this, since the points that most need making are exactly the ones he didn't make in his essay. The value of "The Lost People" isn't that it offers useful insights into our predicament; it doesn't. On the contrary, it's valuable because it showcases the attitudes that keep modern Americans from responding effectively to that predicament. If there's an elephant in our collective living room -- and there is -- Hartmann may just be the one who slaps its gray flank and says "This isn't an elephant!" so loudly, and so many times, that eventually nobody can keep pretending the elephant's not there.

The essay presents itself as what Hartmann intended to say to a group of mostly Native American elders at a harvest festival in New England a few years back. He didn't get a chance to speak, which is probably just as well. He meant to tell the Native elders -- members of the most economically and socially disadvantaged group in modern America -- that they ought to feel sorry for white middle-class Americans, because these latter are far more terribly deprived than Native peoples are.

You have to follow Hartmann's logic to make sense of this remarkable claim. According to his version of history, the ancient tribal cultures of Europe were completely destroyed by three waves of conquerors -- first, the ancient Celts (well, actually the Celts weren't conquerors and belonged to tribal cultures themselves, but we'll let that pass); second, the Roman Empire; and third and most completely, the Roman Catholic Church. Supposedly not one scrap of folklore, not one fragment of language, not one sacred place, and not one iota of spiritual teaching from the tribal cultures of ancient Europe survived this process. As a result, according to Hartmann, the historic and modern cultures of Europe aren't real cultures at all -- they're worthless "dominator cultures" completely corrupted by the imperial ambitions of ruling classes. As for American folk culture, Hartmann never mentions it at all.

The whole process of decline, according to Hartmann, was set in motion by Gilgamesh, king of Ur (well, actually, if he lived at all he was king of Erech, a different city-state, but we'll let that pass), who invented the first "dominator culture" and, by a kind of domino theory of history, caused the entire western world to go insane. And this, Hartmann concludes, is why Native American elders shouldn't be offended when white interlopers claim the right to walk off with Native spirituality. First, whites ought to be forgiven because they're so much more deprived than the people they're victimizing, and second, since white American culture dominates the planet, it's up to white Americans to save the world, and if they steal Native American traditions to do it, well, hey, it's for the greater good and all that.

It's an astonishing document, in more ways than one. Though it's couched in terms of respect for Native traditions, it's profoundly ethnocentric; it defines the white American experience as unique and central to the history of the world, flattens the contested conceptual terrain of a multipolar world into the usual rhetoric of American global dominance, and manages to find room in an apparently inclusive stance for familiar biases against Roman Catholicism and people from the Middle East. Though its argument is based on history, nearly all the historical "facts" Hartmann cites to support his claims are wildly inaccurate. He comments, for instance, that "all but two of the 'modern European' languages are based on the official language of Rome — Latin"; well, actually, modern European languages not descended from Latin include Welsh, Irish, Scots Gaelic, Breton, Basque, English, Dutch, Frisian, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, Lapp, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, German, Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, Slovenian, Croatian, Bosnian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Polish, Byelorussian, Ukrainian, Russian, Greek, Albanian, and Romany, just for starters, which is a few more than two. But we'll let that pass, too, because there's something much more complex going on here than simple misinformation.

There's a history, in fact, to Hartmann's version of history. For the last half century or so, when people in the American middle class have said they don't have a culture, what they've meant is that they're trying to turn their backs on the culture they inherited, whether it's the one their grandparents brought over from the old country or the rich and vibrant folk culture of America itself. Middle-class Americans feel cut off from a living folk culture, in other words, because they've cut themselves off. That's part of the price you pay for upward mobility. Under the circumstances, though, Hartmann's self-pitying account sounds a bit like the old joke about the guy who killed his father and mother, and then threw himself on the mercy of the court because he's an orphan.

Still, Hartmann's essay is no joke; he's playing for high stakes, and his forthcoming book Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class will apparently push the same agenda further. What he's trying to justify with his rhetoric and his garbled history is the elephant in the living room of our culture today, the reality of middle-class privilege. By objective standards, remember, members of America's middle class may just be the most pampered group of people in the history of the planet. They enjoy luxuries and opportunities Roman emperors and ancien regime aristocrats could only dream of having, and earn on average more money in a day than most people on earth make in a year. Of course most members of this privileged class believe that this state of affairs is inevitable and just; the privileged always do. The hard fact remains that in an industrial civilization stressed by the growing mismatch between unlimited demand for goods and services, on the one hand, and ever more limited resources on the other, the lifestyle of the American middle class and its equivalents in other industrial countries is among the most potent factors dragging the world to ruin.

The problem we face today is that there isn't enough real wealth in the world -- enough available resources, goods, and services -- to support the members of the industrial world's privileged classes in the style to which they've become accustomed, and at the same time rebuild industrial civilization from the ground up to enable it to weather the transition from exponential fossil-fueled growth to a sustainable society based on renewable resources. The political, cultural, and spiritual crises that surrounded the oil shocks of the 1970s had the conflict over these two choices as their (usually) unstated subtext. The beginning of the 1980s saw the middle classes in America and several other countries put the maintenance of their own privilege decisively ahead of the needs of the future. That choice, not the imagined misdeeds of Gilgamesh et al., has created today's most pressing problems. To accept that and act on the knowledge, though, is to hear the words the statue of Apollo said to Rainier Maria Rilke: Du muss dein leben andern, "You must change your life."

I suspect that this awareness is at the root of Hartmann's insistance that the folk cultures of Europe and America aren't real cultures at all, and the efforts so many middle-class Americans make these days to ignore their own cultural roots, here in America as well as overseas. Traditional American folk culture in particular takes a very dim view of the notion that if you're rich enough, you don't have to concern yourself with the well-being of your neighbors, the quality of your community, or the fate of your world. Like folk cultures around the planet, it evolved in close interaction with the unyielding natural limits of a preindustrial economy, and its insistence on core values such as thrift, self-discipline, and mutual responsibility grew out of this context. In the future looming up ahead of us just now, those values will again be crucial, but to people used to the very different values of today's middle class, they pose drastic challenges and require the surrender of a great many comforts and perquisites. It's a good deal less difficult to blame it all on Gilgamesh instead.