Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Faustus and the Monkey Trap

One of the factors that make the crisis of industrial society so difficult to deal with is the way that crisis unfolds out of the most basic assumptions we use to make sense of the world. Albert Einstein’s famous dictum about trying to solve a problem with the same sort of thinking that created it has rarely been so relevant. Notably, many of today’s attempts to do something about peak oil rely on the same logic that got us into our present predicament, and turn out “solutions” that promise to make our situation worse than it is already.

Of the dozens of good examples in the daily news, the one that seems most worth noting right now is the economic blowback set in motion by the US government’s attempt to bolster its faltering petroleum-driven economy with ethanol. As corn and other grains get diverted from grocery stores to gas tanks, commodity prices spike, inflation ripples outward through the economic food chain, and the possibility of actual grain shortages looms on the middle-term horizon. More than twenty years ago, William Catton pointed out in his seminal classic Overshoot that the downslope of industrial society would force human beings to compete against their own machines for dwindling resource stocks. His prediction has become today’s reality.

It’s all very reminiscent of an old metaphor in cognitive psychology. Many centuries ago in southeast Asia, some clever soul figured out how to use the thinking patterns of monkeys to make a highly effective monkey trap. The trap is a gourd with a hole in one end just big enough for a monkey’s hand to fit in, and a stout rope connected to the other end, fastened to a stake in the ground. Into the gourd goes a piece of some local food prized by monkeys, large and solid enough that it can’t be shaken out of the gourd. You set the trap in a place monkeys frequent, and wait.

Sooner or later, a monkey comes along, scents the food, and puts a hand into the gourd to grab it. The hole is too small to allow the monkey to extract hand and food together, though, and the rope and stake keeps the monkey from hauling it away, so the monkey keeps trying to get the food out in its hand. Meanwhile you come out of hiding and head toward the monkey with a net, if there’s a market for live monkeys, or with something more deadly if there isn’t. Far more often than not, instead of dropping the food and scampering toward the safety of the nearest tree, the monkey will frantically keep trying to wrestle the food out of the gourd until the net snares it or the club comes whistling down.

The trap works because monkeys, like the rest of us, tend to become so focused on pursuing immediate goals by familiar means that they lose track of the wider context of priorities that make those goals and means meaningful in the first place. Once the monkey scents the food in the gourd, it defines the problem as how to get the food out, and tries to solve the problem in a familiar way, by maipulating food and gourd. When the hunter appears, that simply adds a note of urgency, and makes the problem appear to be how to get the food out before the hunter arrives. Phrased in either of these terms, the problem is impossible to solve. Only if the monkey remembers that food is of no value to a dead monkey, and redefines the problem as primarily a matter of getting away from the hunter, will it let go of the food, get its hand out of the trap, and run for the nearest tree.

The monkey trap may not look like a viable theme for great literature, but exactly the same dilemma forms the main plot engine of Christopher Marlowe’s classic play Doctor Faustus. In Marlowe’s vision, Faustus is an intellectual manqué who has mastered all the scholarship of his time and dismisses it as worthless because he can’t cash it in for power. So he conjures the devil Mephistopheles, who offers him twenty-four years of power over the world of appearances, in exchange for his immortal soul. Faustus gladly makes the bargain and proceeds to run riot for the better part of nine scenes, with the ever-obsequious Mephistopheles always ready to fulfill his every wish but one. Finally, the twenty-four years are up, and at the stroke of midnight a crew of devils swoops down on Faustus and haul him off to Hell.

All this came to Marlowe out of the folk literature that gave him the raw materials for his play. What makes Marlowe’s version of the story one of Elizabethan England’s great dramas, though, is his insight into the psychology of Faustus’ damnation. Faustus spends nearly the entire play a heartbeat away from escaping the pact that ultimately drags him to his doom. All he has to do is renounce the pact and all the powers and pleasures it brings him, and salvation is his – but this is exactly what he cannot do. He becomes so focused on his sorcerer’s powers, so used to getting what he wants by ordering Mephistopheles around, that the possibility of getting anything any other way slips out of his grasp. Even at the very end, as the devils drag him away, the last words that burst from his lips are a cry for Mephistopheles to save him.

The logic of the monkey trap underlies the entire scenario, because the monkey and Faustus trap themselves in essentially the same way. Both have a track record of solving problems using a specific method – the monkey, by manipulating things with its hands; Faustus, by summoning Mephistopheles and having him take care of it. Both encounter a problem that looks as though it can be solved in the same way, but can’t. Both keep on trying to use their familiar set of problem-solving tools even when they clearly don’t work. Even when the real shape of the problem becomes clear and breaking out of the old way of thinking becomes a question of immediate survival, they keep on struggling to make the problem fit their choice of solutions, rather than adjusting their solution to the actual problem.

Mephistopheles and the monkey hunter have a crucial ally here, and its name is stress. It’s one thing to step back and take stock of a situation when there seems to be plenty of time and no sign of danger. It’s quite another to do it in the presence of an imminent threat to survival. Once the true shape of the situation appears, stress reactions hardwired into the nervous systems of men and monkeys alike cut in, and make it very difficult indeed to reassess the situation and consider alternative ways of dealing with it. The final scene of Marlowe’s drama, as Faustus waits for the stroke of midnight and tries every means of escape except the one that can actually save him, expresses this dilemma with shattering intensity.

The same dilemma on a larger scale underlies current efforts to deal with the imminent decline of world oil production by finding something else to pour into our gas tanks: ethanol, biodiesel, hydrogen, you name it. Our petroleum-powered vehicles – not just cars, but the trucks, trains, ships, and aircraft that make our current way of life possible – are the food in the monkey’s hand and the pact that binds Mephistopheles to Faustus’ service. The problem of peak oil, as many people even in the peak oil community see it, is how to find some other way to keep the fuel tanks topped up. This seems like common sense, but that’s what the monkey thinks about getting the food out of the gourd, too.

Approached as a question of finding something to fill our gluttonous appetite for highly concentrated energy, the problem of peak oil is just as insoluble as the monkey trap when that’s approached as a question of getting food. The discovery and exploitation of the earth’s petroleum reserves gave human beings a fantastic windfall of essentially free energy, and we proceeded to burn through it at an astonishing pace. Now that the supply of petroleum is beginning to falter, the question before us is not how to keep burning something else at the same pace, or how to find some other way to power a civilization of a sort that can only survive by burning extravagant amounts of energy, but how to scale back our expectations and our technology drastically enough to make them fit the much more modest energy supplies available to us from renewable sources.

Expecting some other energy resource to provide energy on the same scale and level of concentration as petroleum, just because we happen to want one, is a little like responding to one huge lottery win by assuming that when that money starts running out, another equally large win can be had for the cost of a few more tickets. This is close enough to today’s consumer psychology that it’s easy to imagine somebody in this position pouring all the money he has left into lottery tickets, and throwing away his chances of avoiding bankruptcy because the only solution he can imagine is winning the lottery again. And this, again, is exactly the mentality of current attempts to fuel industrial society by pouring our food supply into our gas tanks.

Faustus may be a better model than the monkey, too, because the predicament we face, like his, is precisely the result of what we’re best at. Faustus became so dependent on his attendant devils that he lost track of the possibility that he could do something without them. Change devils to machines and the parallel is exact. We have become so used to solving problems by throwing energy-intensive technologies at them that when technologies themselves become the crux of a predicament, we have no idea what to do. If any of the achievements of the last three hundred years are to be salvaged from the approaching spiral of crises, we need to rethink this now, before the social, economic and political stresses become so pressing that clear thought becomes impossible and our fossil-fueled familiar spirits appear, on schedule, to drag us off to a tolerably close equivalent of the Hell of Marlowe’s play.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Round in Circles: A Review of David C. Korten's The Great Turning

Part Three: Apocalyptic Politics

It’s one of the commonplaces of social history that times of cultural crisis feed apocalyptic beliefs. Our time is no exception, and The Great Turning counts as one of many contemporary expressions of this sort of thinking. Compare Korten’s book to the Book of Revelations, say, and parallels leap out from the first page onward. Like John of Patmos’ mighty myth of violence and redemption, The Great Turning combines diatribes against the evils of the existing order with the promise of a new age in which the old world and all its woes will be done away with forever. Visions of a struggle to the death between the forces of good and evil, baroque portrayals of imminent catastrophe, exhortations to the faithful to stay the course -- all are present and accounted for. The one significant factor that distinguishes Korten’s book from the Book of Revelations is that John of Patmos proposed a religious answer to the world crisis of his time, while Korten’s proposed solution is political.

He’s far from alone in that, of course. The revolutionary tradition of the modern Western world, where last week’s post traced the roots of Korten’s rhetoric, has used political means to pursue millennarian ends ever since its beginnings. Apocalyptic language came to dominate political discourse in the Western world all through the 20th century, and shows no signs of slackening its grip as we move through the first decade of the 21st. This makes it hard for many people to notice just how bizarre this fusion actually is. Though it seems obvious that the political process should aim for the attainment of a perfect world, or at least a much better one than we’ve got, a look back along the roots of our political thinking may lead to a very different conclusion.

Our word “politics” comes from the Greek word politike, literally “that which pertains to the community;” “community affairs” might be a good translation of politike in modern English. The crucible of social and economic change that birthed ancient Greek democracy forced aristocratic familes to yield control over community affairs to assemblies whose membership came from the ordinary citizens. The politike, the arrangements for handling community affairs, born from this process were born of struggles and compromises in which the grubbiest human motives rubbed elbows with the highest ideals. Despite the flaws of ancient Greek democracy – some of which were drastic, and not only by the very different standards of modern thought – the concept of government by consent of the governed had its origins there.

Our notion of an ideal society also has roots in the Greek experience, but in a way that makes modern revolutionary thought deeply ironic. Plato’s Republic, the first major work of Utopian thought in history and still the most influential work in the genre, was deeply reactionary, looking back fondly to the days of aristocracy when, at least in rose-colored hindsight, the common people knew their place. In Plato’s ideal state, an elite of philosophers occupied the top of the pyramid. A military caste took orders from the philosophers and kept social discipline lower down, and everyone else occupied the bottom, with no role in community decisions except obedience to dictates from above. This vision gave an authoritarian tone to utopian thought that still influences the revolutionary tradition powerfully today.

Most of two millennia later, struggles between aristocracies and rising middle classes wracked Europe and the European diaspora, with similar results. In some cases this yielded pragmatic political arrangements like the English and American constitutions, full of discord and compromise but durable and capable of gradual change for the better. In others, it produced a flurry of new proposals for ideal political systems not unlike Plato’s Republic, but with a twist. From the Diggers of the English Civil War on, a very large number of these proposals borrowed the language of apocalypse from religion, and claimed that the arrival of the perfect society would also mean the fulfillment of the entire process of human history.

Plato never claimed anything of the kind, but then he did not live in a society where a religion rooted in prophecies of apocalyptic redemption was cracking under the pressure of a newborn scientific materialism, leaving many people without an anchor for hopes of a better world. The Diggers and their many later equivalents did. As Christianity lost its hold on the imagination of the West, one common solution to the crisis of faith was to transfer the hopes of the Second Coming onto a secular apocalypse. The myth of progress took on its current importance largely because of this factor, and many other themes of contemporary thought have their roots in the same process. Yet the revolutionary tradition, which fused apocalyptic imagery onto a dream of the perfect society profoundly shaped by Plato’s reactionary utopia, represents the most direct heir of this process, the nearest thing to an exact political analogue of the Book of Revelations.

Korten’s mythic struggle between Empire and Earth Community, his elitist insistence that people of “higher developmental stages” ought to govern everyone else, and his claim that partisan political action will open the door to a new and better future, all come out of this tradition. Like his revolutionary forebears, he insists that the existing order can only be changed for the better by overturning it completely. Now one might suggest that the extraordinary expansion of civil and political rights in most Western countries over the last two centuries – the spread of voting rights from white male landowners to all adult citizens regardless of race or gender, the abolition of slavery and most legal dimensions of racial and gender discrimination, and so on – make this a hard claim to support. Still, for the sake of argument, let’s grant Korten’s claim that today’s democracies are irredeemable because they’re imperfect, and ask the next question: does his revolutionary utopianism offer anything better?

The answer of history is a resounding negative. Over the last few centuries, the world has seen quite a few revolutions, some violent and others political, and many of them shared the same aspiration toward a perfect society that underlies Korten’s book. Yet a bitter irony attends this, for the more visionary the new society proposed by revolutionaries, the more disastrous the resulting revolution has generally been. The American and French Revolutions are the classic endpoints of the spectrum – one a straightforward struggle against colonial rule that set out to found a government slightly better than its predecessors, and succeeded; the other a grand project that set out to create heaven on earth, and gave rise instead to the Terror and the Napoleonic wars. Down the history of revolutions since then, right up to the latest Third World struggles, the same pattern stands out from the data.

This pattern, it seems to me, unfolds from the nature of politics itself. As the framework where community affairs are discussed and community decisions made, politics work when they reflects the actual needs and concerns of the community, as grubby and pragmatic as those inevitably are, rather than some abstract concept of what those needs and concerns ought to be. It’s been said, and quite rightly, that all politics are local, and this reflects the broader point that all politics unfold from the issues that actually matter to people, rather that the issues that ought to matter to them. Equally, in a world of inescapable natural limits and unavoidable human disagreements, no possible political arrangements can yield satisfaction to everyone. Attempting to do so guarantees failure, and attempting to do so on the basis of some theoretical scheme of what human needs and relationships ought to be, in place of a willingness to compromise with what they are, guarantees failure on the grand scale.

The emotional power of apocalyptic politics makes this insight a difficult one nowadays. Yet it may be worth looking at how much of the rage and contempt that so many people direct toward politicians come out of the conflict between the unrealistic expectations of apocalyptic politics and the much more pedestrian possibilities available in the real world. Politicians are no better equipped to bring utopia than plumbers, after all. When they’re competent and pay attention to their jobs, both politicians and plumbers spend most of their time cleaning up messes and meeting human needs by setting up systems that are as dull as they are necessary. If the sort of utopian hopes so often imposed on politics today were placed instead on plumbing, though, plumbers would likely have the same sort of bad reputation politicians have now – and the job of plumbing would likely get done as badly as much of politics is today.

This conflict between expectations and realities, finally, is likely to be made far more extreme with the arrival of peak oil and other aspects of the crisis of industrial society. As the modern world collides with hard planetary limits and begins the long, uneven process of contraction and disintegration that lies on every civilization’s downslope, the mismatch between utopian dreams of a perfect world and the difficult realities of the deindustrial age is likely to become a major obstacle in the way of a sane response to our predicament. There will doubtless be many David Kortens insisting that all the evils of the world can be solved by tearing down an imperfect but functional political system and putting in some theoretically perfect scheme in its place, just as there will be plenty of people willing to listen to them. If history is anything to go by, the results are likely to include some pretty substantial body counts; it’s one of the ironies of the revolutionary tradition that, promising heaven on earth, it so consistently produces a good imitation of the opposite.

Does this mean that politics have nothing to offer the world as it begins to stumble down the far side of Hubbert’s peak? Not at all. What it means is that the constructive resources politics might provide to the difficult future ahead are precisely those foreclosed by Korten’s apocalyptic politics, with its demonization of his opponents and its insistence on the unique rightness of his own political stance. More than at any time in modern history, the politics of the near future will demand that all of us – politicians along with everyone else – turn aside from the fantasy that we can have whatever we want, and embrace compromise, pragmatism, and the willingness to build consensus among people with radically different interests and ideals for the sake of survival. To that very modest but necessary turning, Korten’s dream of a Great Turning offers no positive contribution at all.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Round in Circles: a review of David C. Korten’s The Great Turning

Part Two: The Amphetamine of the Intellectuals

As the first part of this review suggested, David Korten’s widely praised book The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community proposes what amounts to a political solution for the predicament of industrial society. Korten argues that replacing current “developmentally challenged” politicians with new leadership drawn from the upper ranks of today’s progressive social change movements will foster a shift from a society based on the old ideology of Empire to one based on his preferred ideology of Earth Community. This shift, he claims, is the only effective response we can make to the crisis of industrial civilization he surveys so eloquently in the third chapter of the book. Yet it’s only fair to ask just how Korten anticipates that a society guided by his “emerging values consensus” will deal with, say, the immense practical challenges of coping with peak oil

You can read The Great Turning from cover to cover without finding an answer to that question. Look up “peak oil” in the index, and you’ll find that the only places in The Great Turning that mention it at all belong to the section of the book dedicated to showing just how awful Empire is. Like global warming, terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the likely implosion of an unstable economy founded on the smoke and mirrors of hallucinated wealth, peak oil appears only as one of the “sorrows of Empire” for which Earth Community is Korten’s solution. The sections of his book devoted to describing Earth Community never stoop to mention these troubles at all, much less propose solutions to them.

The nearest approach Korten makes to a discussion of such practicalities is a claim that once Empire is replaced by Earth Community, people will no longer want possessions they don’t need, and this will free up enough resources that everyone will be able to have their needs met. As a response to our current predicament, of course, this isn’t even remotely adequate. One of the most inescapable dimensions of the crisis of industrial society is the hard fact that six and a half billion people now live on a planet that can support, at most, two billion sustainably. While today’s wildly skewed distribution of wealth and access to resources certainly won’t help, no amount of redistribution can change the harsh realities that a species in overshoot faces as its resource base falls out from under it.

At the same time, Korten’s suggestion that everything will work out if we just learn to share is more than he has to offer for most of the other dimensions of our contemporary crisis. Quite a bit of his vision of Earth Community, in fact, has an uncomfortable resemblance to sound bites from a political stump speech. His response to the bitter poverty that burdens more than half of our species, for instance, amounts to proclaiming that every human being has the right to a worthwhile means of livelihood, backed up by unemployment, retirement, and health care plans, irrespective of their ability to pay. It’s a fine slogan, but without an awareness of the massive challenges that need to be faced to provide these things to six and a half billion people in a deindustrializing economy – an awareness Korten nowhere displays – a slogan is all it is.

Those of my readers who know their way around the visionary politics of the last half century will likely find these habits of thought extremely familiar. Every decade or so, we’ve had some new book announce the imminent arrival of utopia via a grand transformation of consciousness that will solve the world’s problems, irrespective of the practical details. Charles Reich’s The Greening of America and Marilyn Ferguson’s The Aquarian Conspiracy are two of the most famous of these works, and of course there have been plenty of others. They owe much of their market to the Baby Boom generation’s fondness for seeing its own arrival on the scene as the most important event in history – a habit of thought that crosses party lines, as shown by Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 masterpiece of unintentional comedy, “An End to History?” – and of course The Great Turning draws heavily on this same vein of thought. It’s probably not an accident that the criteria Korten uses to define the natural leaders of Earth Community include an age barrier that rules out anyone significantly younger than the Baby Boomers.

Still, unlike the books just cited and nearly all their equivalents, Korten doesn’t argue that the enlightened can bring utopia about simply by being enlightened, and here his book breaks free of the pack to embrace an older and much more dynamic tradition, one that shares most of his assumptions and nearly all of his rhetorical flourishes. This tradition has been responsible for a great deal of radical social transformation over the last three hundred fifty years, though it must be admitted that very little of that succeeded in accomplishing the good its proponents intended. I’m talking, of course, about the revolutionary tradition of the modern Western world.

Historian James Billington, whose Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith remains one of the classic historical studies of the tradition, suggested wryly that if Marx was right to call religion the opiate of the masses, then revolutionary ideology is the amphetamine of the intellectuals. The moniker fits, and for more than the obvious reasons. The revolutionary tradition emerged at the same place and time as the modern intelligentsia, in 17th century England, and expanded around the world in lockstep with the spread of secular culture and modern education over the three centuries that followed. While the ideological banners brandished at the barricades have varied all over the conceptual map, the core narrative of the revolutionary tradition has remained fixed in place since the Diggers and Levellers first started proclaiming it in the aftermath of the English Civil War.

In its basic form, that narrative claims that all of humanity stands at a decisive turning point of history, facing the choice between the horrors of an utterly corrupt past and the shining possibilities of a future on the verge of being born. The existing order of society, the primary source of human misery, is beyond redemption and teeters on the edge of collapse, and a new social and political system that will bring out the best that humanity is capable of achieving stands ready to replace it. The existence of an ideal society in the distant past shows that a better world is possible, and that society’s destruction by the first forerunners of the present rulers of the world will soon be avenged. The old order is paving the way for its own demise by bringing about social changes that foster the emergence of its own replacement, while it makes its downfall necessary by pushing the world to the edge of ruin. All that is needed is the spread of the new system’s ideology, followed by one great effort on the part of people of good will, and a Great Turning will take place, ushering in a happy future for all of humanity.

You’ll find this same narrative laid out in detail in The Great Turning, of course, but you’ll also find it the writings of every revolutionary of the last three centuries or so. Gerrard Winstanley, the chief theoretician of the English Diggers, told the same story; so did the philosophes whose ideas laid the foundation for the French Revolution and the Jacobins who put those ideas into practice; so did Karl Marx and such 20th century Jacobins as Lenin and Mao, who played the same parts in a more recent remake of the same drama. For that matter, the same narrative crosses party lines just as effectively as the rhetoric of a transformation of consciousness mentioned earlier in this post; you can find exactly the same myth, for example, woven all through the repellent ideology of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

It may be worth noting that Korten’s disavowal of violence as a way to accomplish his Great Turning does not set him outside the revolutionary tradition. Some of the most influential figures in the tradition have also rejected violence and insisted, as Korten does, that peaceful political action is the right way to bring about the transformation of society. What defines a narrative as part of the revolutionary tradition are the claims that the old order of society is the mainspring of human suffering, that it cannot be fixed but can only be overthrown, and that the new order of society will by definition be free from the troubles of the old. Underlying these claims is the fundamental thesis of the tradition, the claim that human behavior is defined by social forms, and that replacing evil forms with good ones will thus cause wicked behavior to yield to virtue.

After more than three centuries of experience, though, we have some idea how these narratives work out in practice. The short version is “not very well.” As a way of reducing human misery, revolutions – peaceful or otherwise – just aren’t very effective. Time and again, once the new revolutionary leadership settles into the seats of power, all the problems faced by the old system still remain to bedevil the new one, and the moral renewal revolutionaries expect as the natural result of their triumph somehow never quite happens. The results are as varied as the richly human complexities of politics and culture can make them, but the one thing that has never happened yet as a result of political revolution – be it peaceful, violent, or any of the subtle shades in between – is the arrival of a utopian society like Korten’s Earth Community.

Doubtless Korten and his supporters will argue that it’s different this time. Never before in human history, they might claim, has the choice between utopia and oblivion been more stark, the need for a Great Turning more urgent, or the possibilities open to a worldwide progressive movement more real. Maybe so. Yet this same claim has been made by every other prophet of revolution. Furthermore, treating the contemporary crisis of industrial society as something that can be solved by replacing one set of politicians with another, or one ideology with another, completely misses the hard material realities that make that crisis an inescapable part of our future. To deal with our predicament as a political problem is to fail to deal with it at all. As I hope to show in the final section of this review, politics can play a constructive role in helping today’s societies cope with the coming of deindustrial society, but the way there leads in a direction almost precisely the opposite of the one Korten proposes, and requires a hard look at the ways that today’s mythic narratives influence Korten’s view of politics – and ours.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Round in Circles: a review of David C. Korten’s The Great Turning

Part One: Politics By Another Name

Over the last few months, as my posts on this blog have strayed from the brass tacks of dealing with peak oil’s consequences, and wandered deeper into the murky territory of mythic narratives and cultural history underlying the predicament of industrial society, quite a few people online and off have asked about my opinion of David Korten’s 2006 book The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community. The questions come naturally, since Korten deals with many of the same issues I’ve tried to address in The Archdruid Report – the centrality of the stories we tell about the world, for example, and the role of history in defining the choices we face in the present – but proposes a different and, to many people, more appealing response than the hard road of personal responsibility and acceptance of natural limits I’ve advocated.

Still, most often up to now I’ve ducked questions about Korten’s book. My initial take on it – based, I freely admit, on nothing more solid than a few minutes spent flipping through its pages at a local progressive bookstore – was that it was just one more naive utopian fantasy projecting its author’s dream of a world he likes onto the inkblot patterns of the deindustrial future. But I finally made time to read it, and it turns out I was quite wrong. The Great Turning is anything but naive, and though it uses the rhetoric of Utopian fantasy it does so in pursuit of a far more pragmatic agenda.

This may be less of a ringing endorsement than it sounds, because that agenda actually has nothing constructive to offer the world as we approach the difficult years in the twilight of the industrial age. Still, it answers a question of some importance to the peak oil movement. For several years now I have been wondering when the first significant figures on the edge of the political mainstream would start trying to coopt peak oil as a weapon in the quest for political power. With the publication of The Great Turning, that moment has arrived.

You have to read The Great Turning carefully to make sense of its political dimension, because the basic narrative that provides its structure obscures that dimension very effectively. The narrative starts by defining two organizing principles for human culture, leading to two possible futures. The first principle Korten calls “Empire.” He spends many pages defining exactly what Empire is and what it does, but those can be summed up readily by describing it as an early 21st century progressive Democrat’s version of evil incarnate. Thus it predictably includes every policy supported by the current US administration. The inevitable future of Empire is what Korten calls the “Great Unraveling,” something not too different from the model of catabolic collapse I’ve proposed here and elsewhere.

Korten’s second principle is Earth Community, which can be summed up with equal facility as everything an early 21st century progressive Democrat considers good. The future toward which Earth Community moves, in Korten’s view is the “Great Turning,” a worldwide change of heart in which people everywhere up and abandon all their Empire-derived bad habits and create a peaceful, just, and sustainable society for all. While Empire has had things pretty much all its own way since before the beginning of recorded history, Earth Community is inherently stronger because, well, it’s so much nicer than Empire, not to mention the Great Unraveling. And this, Korten says, is why believers in Earth Community need to adopt the tactics lately used by the neoconservative movement, seize control of the cultural dialogue, and convince the masses to follow their lead into the brave new world of the Great Turning.

It’s a remarkable scheme, though not an especially original one, and some of its features deserve attention. Notably, it defines the world with a level of moral dualism strident enough to make a third-century Gnostic blush. In place of the sloppy and richly human realities of politics and culture in the world we actually inhabit, The Great Turning offers up a one-dimensional morality play in which Empire and Earth Community are the only options, and the choice between them is a choice between absolute evil leading to planetary suicide, on the one hand, and radiant goodness leading straight on to utopia on the other. Third options and moral ambiguity apparently do not exist in Korten’s cosmos.

His scheme also has a problem, a massive one, with reification. (Those of my readers who aren’t philosophy geeks may want to know that this is the logical mistake of treating an abstraction as a concrete reality.) The concept of “Empire” is a textbook example. In effect, Korten’s simply taken everything he doesn’t like about contemporary industrial society, piled it in a heap, and dressed up the resulting mass in a Snidely Whiplash costume, as though it’s an active and villainous presence in its own right rather than an abstract label for one end of a complex spectrum of human social behavior. Granted, reification is one of the most widespread bad habits in current political discourse, and so it’s not surprising to see it here, but The Great Turning relies on it to an extent few other recent books can match.

Yet the point that seems most important to me about all this is the way it moves at once into what, to students of history, is an uncomfortably familiar kind of doublespeak. In Korten’s view, what makes the tactics of today’s neoconservatives wrong is not that these tactics are morally despicable in themselves; they’re bad solely because the neoconservatives are using them on behalf of Empire, and they become good when proponents of Earth Community take up the same tactics and use them instead. In the same way, a belief system that belongs to Empire is an ideology while a belief system that belongs to Earth Community is an “emerging values consensus,” and when one group of people tell another group of people what to do, it’s the domination of an imperial elite if they speak for Empire, but inspired leadership helping to birth a better world if it serves the interests of Earth Community.

That Earth Community will have leaders, by the way, is something Korten states explicitly. He even sets out exactly who those leaders will be, by way of a political redefinition of developmental psychology that takes up a substantial portion of The Great Turning. The short form is that there are five stages of human psychological and spiritual development. The first, Magical Consciousness, is normal for children from two to six, and focuses on a belief in powerful, magical beings, some benevolent and others malevolent. The second, Imperial Consciousness, is normal from six to twelve and focuses on the ability to control one’s surroundings without any regard for others. The third, Socialized Consciousness, is normal from twelve to sometime after thirty, and focuses on the values and mores of the prevailing culture. The fourth, Cultural Consciousness, can (but does not always) emerge after thirty, and focuses on an inclusive world view founded on liberal political principles. The fifth, Spiritual Consciousness, is only achieved in old age by those whose sense of the oneness of all creation leads them into an even greater commitment to liberal ideals.

What turns this scheme into a political weapon is Korten’s argument that under Empire, most adults remain stuck in immature developmental stages. The more someone’s values and opinions differ from Korten’s, the more firmly he labels them “developmentally challenged” – not exactly a value-free term, given that it’s currently an accepted euphemism for what, in my school days, was called mental retardation. Now the astonishing arrogance implicit in the claim that anyone’s level of psychological and spiritual development can be measured by the extent to which they agree with some particular ideology – excuse me, an “emerging values consensus” – is one thing, but the political implications of a scheme that assumes that some people are naturally suited to lead, and others ought by rights to follow them, is something else again.

Go through The Great Turning with an eye to Korten’s comments about leadership, and a very clear picture emerges of the people he thinks ought to be running the world. They belong to the upper two levels of consciousness, of course, which means that they agree with the “emerging values consensus” of The Great Turning, and also means that all of them are of middle age or older – people below thirty, remember, are by definition stuck in a lower level of consciousness. They have spent time with people of many different cultures, and thus – in terms of today’s world – belong to the middle and upper classes, the people who have the opportunity to travel widely. They do not have influential positions in current economic and political systems; rather, they are attracted to leadership roles in social movements opposed to Empire. Compare each of these points to the details of David Korten’s own biography and it’s hard to miss the conclusion that he thinks the world basically ought to be run by David Korten.

Now as it happens, I fill pretty much all the qualifications Korten outlines for leaders of Earth Community. I was raised in a multicultural family, I’ve traveled abroad, I’m well past thirty, I don’t have a high-ranking or –paying position in business or government, and I serve without salary as the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA), a church of Druid nature spirituality with a strong environmental focus. My social and political views, for that matter, are a good deal closer to Korten’s than the above critique might suggest. With all this in mind, I have to say that Korten’s claim that people like me are uniquely suited to lead the world would likely scare me silly if it didn’t make me laugh so hard.

Intellectual idealists like the two of us are, if anything, uniquely unsuited to leadership roles in political life. Politics, as the saying goes, is the art of the possible; it demands a facility for compromise, a readiness to find common ground with people of radically divergent ideals and interests, and a willingness to make room for moral complexity and human fallibility. Idealists are notoriously bad at all these things because they get caught up in the play of abstractions, and too often fail to notice that the real world doesn’t necessarily follow the abstract models we define for it. The results, as a glance at history shows, range from comic-opera ineptitude to Hell on earth.

Yet the seductive notion that the intelligentsia ought to run the world has a long history behind it. In next week’s post, I plan on exploring that history as a way to put Korten’s project into perspective and see how such projects promise to play out as the deindustrial age dawns.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Failure of Reason

Around once a month, since I first started this blog, I get plans in the mail for saving the world. I don’t mean this last phrase derisively; the plans come from people who are deeply concerned about the consequences of peak oil, global warming, and other manifestations of the predicament of industrial society, and set out to find a solution. Many of them are extremely well crafted and, if put into place, would accomplish much. Every one of them, even the loopiest, would likely have better results than the industrial world’s current policy of sleepwalking toward the abyss.

The most recent example arrived a couple of days ago, courtesy of Tom Wayburn, a Texas engineer and a reader of this blog; you’ll find his plan online at http://www.dematerialism.net and http://dematerialism.blogspot.com. He’s far from alone in his efforts. M. King Hubbert himself proposed a scheme of social and economic reorganization to deal with peak oil back in the 1970s; you can find it at http://www.energybulletin.net/3800.html. These two are only a drop in the oil bucket, of course. Go looking for peak oil solutions online or in bookstores and you can find them by the dozen.

The best publicized of them, and indeed one of the best in practical terms, is the oil depletion protocol originally crafted by the Hydrocarbon Depletion Study Group at the University of Uppsala in Sweden. Richard Heinberg’s latest book The Oil Depletion Protocol does a fine job of explaining the protocol and showing how it could manage the transition to a sustainable society. It’s an extremely well thought out plan, and if implemented, would almost certainly make the coming of the deindustrial age a good deal less ugly than it will otherwise be. The only criticism it merits is that its chances of actually being put into effect make a snowball in hell look like a safe investment.

Unfortunately, the same sort of criticism can be leveled at the entire genre of peak oil solutions, from Tom Wayburn’s project to such highly publicized plans as the oil depletion protocol or the one presented in Lester Brown’s much-discussed book Plan B. There has never been a shortage of good ideas for dealing with peak oil or, for that matter, any other aspect of the predicament of industrial society. What has been lacking consistently is the collective will to put any of those ideas into practice.

It bears noticing that between 1956, when Hubbert originally announced the approach of peak oil, and the present moment, a remarkable paradox has unfolded. On the one hand, the evidence for the imminence and catastrophic potential of peak oil has grown steadily more convincing. On the other hand, the prospect that any constructive response to peak oil will actually be implemented has grown steadily more distant. Despite occasional bursts of lip service, every major political party in every major nation in the industrial world supports pro-growth economic policies that move the world further away from a transition to sustainability with each passing day, and the more imminent and obvious the dangers become, the more stubbornly the world’s political and economic systems cling to exactly the policies that guarantee the worst possible outcome in the not very long run.

Now a good part of this astonishing failure of will and vision can be traced to familiar factors. Many peak oil authors have talked about the way that today’s political and economic systems have perpetual growth hardwired into them, and malfunction or break down completely when the rate of growth even starts to approach zero. Many of them, myself among them, have also discussed the way that people’s ability to weigh benefits against risks breaks down just as spectacularly when the benefits are immediate and the risks lie somewhere in the indefinite future. Still, there’s more to the issue than this. The same underground realm of mythic narratives and magical symbols I’ve been trying to explore in recent posts has a major role in setting the stage for the paradox just outlined.

The crux of the matter, I suggest, is that attempts to change the course of industrial civilization without changing the narratives and symbols that guide it on its way are doomed to failure, and those narratives and symbols cannot be changed effectively with the toolkit that peak oil advocates have used up to this point. Behind this specific technical problem lies a much vaster predicament – the failure of the Enlightenment project of rebuilding human civilization on the foundations of reason.

The Enlightenment, for those of my readers who received an American public school education – which in matters of history, at least, amounts to no real education at all – was an 18th century movement of European thought that laid most of the intellectual foundations of the modern world. The leading lights of the movement argued that the transformation that Galileo, Newton, and their peers accomplished in the sciences needed to happen in the realms of social, political, and economic life as well. To them, the traditional ideologies that framed European society in their time amounted to one vast festering mass of medieval superstition that belonged in the compost heap of history. Voltaire’s famous outburst against the Catholic church – Ecrasez l’infame! (“Chuck the wretched thing!”) – gave voice to a generation’s revulsion against a worldview that in their minds had become all too closely bound to bigotry and autocracy.

Mind you, there was quite a bit of truth to the charge. The upper classes of 18th century Europe had been as strongly affected by the scientific revolution’s disenchantment of the world as anyone else, and in their hands, traditional ways of thinking that once wove a bond of common interest among people of different classes turned into abstractions veiling brutal injustice. Like so many social critics, though, the thinkers of the Enlightenment combined a clear if one-sided view of the problem with unworkably Utopian proposals for its solution. They argued that once superstition was dethroned and public education became universal, rational self-interest and dispassionate scientific analysis would take charge, leading society progressively toward ever better social conditions.

If this sounds familiar, it should. The ideology of the Enlightenment swept all before it, forcing even the most diehard reactionaries to phrase their dissent in the terms of an argument the Enlightenment itself defined, and it remains the common currency of social, economic, and political thought in the Western world to this day. One of its consequences is exactly the habit of producing rational plans for social improvement that spawned the torrent of peak oil solutions we’re discussing in this post. Since Voltaire’s time, the idea that building a better social mousetrap will cause the world to beat a path to one’s door has pervaded our civilization.

The irony, of course, is that neither in Voltaire’s time nor in ours has social change actually happened that way. The triumph of the Enlightenment itself did not happen because the social ideas circulated by its proponents were that much better than those of their rivals; it happened because the core mythic narrative of the Enlightenment proved to be more emotionally powerful than its rivals. That narrative, of course, is the myth of progress, the core element of the worldview that has made, and now threatens to destroy, the modern world.

This irony defines a faultline running through the middle of the modern mind. On the one hand, our economists treat human beings as rational actors making choices to maximize their own economic benefit. On the other hand, the same companies that hire those economists also pay for advertising campaigns that use the raw materials of myth and magic to encourage people to act against their own best interests, whether it’s a matter of buying overpriced fizzy sugar water or the much more serious matter of continuing to support the unthinking pursuit of business as usual in the teeth of approaching disaster. The language of rational self-interest and dispassionate scientific analysis is itself part of a mythic narrative of the sort it attempts to dismiss from serious consideration.

The crux of the problem, as suggested in an earlier post in this blog, is that human thought is mythic by its very nature. We think with myths, as inevitably as we see with eyes and eat with mouths. Thus any attempt to bring about significant social change must start from the mythic level, with an emotionally powerful and symbolically meaningful narrative, or it will go nowhere. The founders of the Enlightenment recognized this, and accomplished one of the great intellectual revolutions of history by harnessing the power of myth in the service of their project. The very nature of their legacy, though, has made it much harder for others to recognize the role of myth in social change.

Thus it’s not accidental that the great storytellers of recent history, the figures who catalyzed massive changes by the creative use of myth, have mostly come from the fringes of the Western cultural mainstream. Two examples are particularly worth citing here. Mohandas Gandhi, who broke the grip of the British Empire on India by retelling the myth of European colonialism so powerfully that even the colonial powers fell under the spell of his story, drew on his own Third World culture as well as his Western education to pose a challenge to the reigning narratives of the West that they had no way to counter. On the other side of the scale, but no less powerfully, Adolf Hitler came out of the crawlspaces of Vienna’s urban underclass with a corrupted version of Central European occult traditions, and turned them into a myth that mesmerized an entire nation and plunged the planet into the most catastrophic war in its history. In rational terms, the story of either man’s achievements seems preposterous – another measure of the limits of reason, and its failure to plumb the depths of human motivation.

If something constructive is to be done about peak oil and the rest of the predicament of industrial society, in other words, yet another round of reasonable plans will not do the trick. The powers that must be harnessed are those of myth, magic, and the irrational. What remains to be seen is whether these will be harnessed by a new Gandhi...or a new Hitler.