Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Culture Death

A few weeks ago, one of the readers of The Archdruid Report posted a comment asking whether I thought the white race would survive the decline and fall of industrial civilization. At the time I more or less brushed the question aside; since “the white race” doesn’t exist in the first place, after all, speculating on its long-term survival makes about as much sense as wondering whether unicorns will make the endangered species list. In retrospect, though, my reader’s question deserved a more thoughtful answer. It remains true that “the white race” is a cultural construction rather than a biological entity, and one that has been used to justify far too many crimes to pass unchallenged. Still, labels such as this one point toward critical issues of collective identity that need to be taken into account in any attempt to sense the shape of the future ahead of us.

The concept of race as a source of collective identity was itself the product of an earlier age of crisis, and really can’t be understood apart from the rise and fall of the nation-state, arguably the most distinctive social innovation of modern times. From the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 to the wave of national revolutions that swept over Europe exactly two centuries later in 1848, the great questions of European cultural politics centered on the struggle of nation-states to define themselves against local loyalties rooted in the old feudal system, on the one hand, and participation in the transnational community of Christendom on the other. People who grew up, as their grandparents’ grandparents did, thinking of themselves as Cornish or Poitevin or Westphalian, on the one hand, and members of the universal Body of Christ on the other, struggled to cope with a new social reality that demanded that they think of themselves as English or French or German.

This was anything but a fast process, and it succeeded only where certain specific circumstances fostered it. The nation-state as a source of identity depends on a deliberate blurring of categories in which a population, a culture, a language, and a system of government fuse in the imagination into a single national entity. One of the consequences of this category-blending is that very often, distinct populations, cultures, and languages become gaming pieces in the struggles of local and regional power centers to define and defend themselves against national governments. Watch debates over the Welsh language in Great Britain, for example, and you have a ringside seat for the struggle between centralizing and decentralizing forces in British political life. The notion of race had similar origins as members of multiethnic societies tried to define their nations in ways that excluded their economic or political rivals.

These issues have special relevance today, because the relative success of the nation-state in seizing control of the imagination of identity in the Western world has drawn most of its strength from the increasing economic and political integration of Western nations over the last three centuries, and this in turn has been inseparable from the rise of an industrial economy powered by fossil fuels. It’s not accidental that Britain, the first nation-state to make the breakthrough to industrialism, was also one of the first to form a coherent national identity. The transportation networks that made industrialism work in economic terms – first canals, then railroads, then highways – also made it possible for national governments to extend their reach throughout their territories in ways few previous societies ever managed.

The history of regional power in North America provides a good example of this process at work. In 1861 it was still possible for many people in the mostly agrarian South to think of themselves primarily as Virginians or Georgians or Texans, and only secondarily as citizens of the United States. Sixty years later, even the Ku Klux Klan had to define its repellent goals as “100% Americanism” in order to find an audience. In 1861, the North American railroad network was still in its infancy, mostly concentrated in portions of the Northeast and Midwest. By 1921 it blanketed the continent with one of the most successful transportation systems in history, and was already being supplemented with highways and airlanes. As transport expanded, so did the reach of the federal government, and so did the focus of most Americans’ sense of identity.

It’s been common enough for believers in the mythology of progress to argue on this basis that national governments will soon go the way of the feudal provinces and half-independent states that were swallowed up by the growth of the nation-state. They would be right, too, if we could count on an ever-increasing supply of the cheap abundant energy that makes modern transportation networks function...but we can’t. The peaking of world fossil fuel production promises exactly the opposite: a future in which energy is neither cheap nor abundant, and economic arrangements that require goods to be shipped halfway around the planet as a matter of course become too costly to survive. Those who dream of a unified world government and those who dread the prospect will both have to find new targets for their respective hopes and fears, because the sheer diseconomies of scale in a world of declining energy availability make attempts at global government an exercise in futility.

Rather, as energy becomes scarcer and more expensive, transportation networks that depend on vast amounts of inexpensive fuel will begin to unravel, starting with the most extravagant and going from there. Air travel will probably be the first to go, followed by the personal automobile, while bus and truck traffic on the deteriorating highways will likely continue long after cars have become one of the prerogatives of the very rich. Those countries that still have viable railroad systems will likely be able to maintain those long after the highways are silent, and the networks of last resort, the canal systems that made 18th century industrialism work, remain viable in some European countries and may just put a floor under the process of decline if their value is recognized in time.

The United States, by contrast, scrapped most of a world-class rail system in the third quarter of the 20th century, and only a few vestiges of its early 19th century canal system still survive today. Once the private car has become an anachronism and the energy costs of long-distance trucking make local production of most goods a better bargain, the economic glue that holds together a sprawling highway network and the many industries necessary to maintain it faces rapid dissolution. That same glue is most of what holds the United States together as a nation-state, and its breakdown will likely see the unraveling of the United States as a primary focus of our collective identity. Just as the rapid growth of transportation links turned the grandchildren of Virginians and Californians into Americans, the disintegration of those same transportation links may well turn the grandchildren of Americans into something else.

It’s unlikely to turn them back into Virginians and Californians, though, because the triumph of the nation-state in the 19th century was followed, in the United States more than anywhere else in the world, by the triumph of the market economy over culture. A faux culture designed by marketing experts, produced in factories, and sold over the newly invented mass media, elbowed aside the new and still fragile national culture of the United States and then set to work on the regional and local cultures this latter had only just begun to supplant. By the second half of the 20th century, nearly all of the functions filled by noneconomic culture in other societies were being filled by the market in America, and increasingly in other Western countries as well. The tunes people whistled, the recipes they cooked, the activities that filled their leisure hours and the self-images that shaped their thoughts and behavior no longer came out of such normal channels of cultural transmission as family and community; they came out of the market economy, with a price tag attached that was not denominated in dollars alone.

The second half of the 20th century, in fact, saw the death of anything that could reasonably be called American culture. Most examples of what anthropologists call “culture death” have seen people beaten and starved into relinquishing their traditional cultures; what the modern American experience shows is that people can also be bribed by prosperity and cajoled by advertising into doing the same thing. Granted, in a society awash in cheap abundant energy, it’s easier and cheaper to buy one’s culture ready-made from a store than to make the investments of time and energy into family and community needed to maintain a living culture in the true meaning of the word. Equally, in a society where “fashion” driven by media campaigns takes the place of any less mercenary guiding force, making traditional American cultures look as bad as possible was just another bit of marketing. Think of the movie Deliverance, with its likeably cosmopolitan heroes struggling to survive against the brutal malevolence of backwoods villains, and the banjo riff that provided the movie’s leitmotif defining traditional American culture itself as a hostile Other: that same message has flooded the American media for much of a century.

Culture death is a traumatic experience, and I suspect that a great deal of the shrill anger and maudlin self-pity that fills American society these days has its roots in our unwillingness to face up to a trauma that, in the final analysis, we have brought on ourselves. As the age of cheap energy comes to an end, though, I suspect there are worse traumas in store. A nation that has sold its own culture for a shiny plastic counterfeit risks a double loss if that counterfeit pops like a soap bubble in its collective hands. Equally, a people that has come to see its role as that of passive consumer of culture, rather than active maker and transmitter of culture, may have very few options left when the supply of manufactured culture to consume runs out.

The impact of these dilemmas on our collective imagination of identity is likely to be drastic as the manufactured culture of the present comes apart. We are already seeing people in contemporary American society turn to almost any resource you care to imagine in the search for some anchor of group identity less transient than the whims of marketers; religion has often filled its time-honored role in this regard, but so have racial fantasies, sexual habits, apocalyptic social theories, and much more. Nor is it hard to find Americans who are trying to redefine themselves as members of some other culture, past, present, or imaginary – speakers of Klingon or J.R.R. Tolkien’s Elvish languages, for example, outnumber speakers of quite a few real languages. This is still a fringe phenomenon, though much less so than it was twenty years ago; twenty years from now, as the deindustrial age opens around us, they may impact the social mainstream in ways impossible to predict in detail today.


Loveandlight said...
but so have racial fantasies, sexual habits,

While I think it's ultimately a dead-end to build an entire identity around one's sexual orientation, there was a real need to for homosexuals to stand up for their human rights and dignity at the time that we chose to do so. That being said, I reject most of the dominant gay subculture's ideas of what "being gay" is, including anal copulation [cue the Deliverance banjo riff], and you should probably ban me if I ever refer to anybody as "Missy" or "Mary" if that is not their actual screenname.

The irony does often occur to me that so many homosexuals risked so much for future generations of our kind to be free to be who they are and live their lives, but a whole new repressive regime in the form of "the gay scene" was instituted as a result. I shouldn't complain too much, though. Important progress which is nothing at which to sneeze has been made in the past forty years.

7/18/07, 8:06 PM

Justin said...
you didnt mention music, but you did cover the more visceral keypoints. in my generation (the x,y,xy,mtv generations) music has been the largest factor in our consumer identity. personally the microcosms and cliques this seems to produce, to me, is the most plastic in nature.... i dont think i'll be too sorry to see it go....

7/19/07, 2:56 AM

Angelo said...

Firstly I would like to thank the Archdruid for such oft inspiring and thought provoking pieces.

I found it fascinating that one would consider the idea of race, or the subdivision of humanity, an imaginary construct along similar lines of say nation building. Considering this angle I'm reminded of the argument that all things outside of unity are fabrications of the human mind, though a nagging question remains - what is differentiation and does it serve any useful function at all? What differentiates one from another? More intimately, should this supposed differentiation have any place in human thinking?

Living in the age of acute scientific specialization and narrow differentiation we as a now communication based global culture have been readily moving towards a monoculture of market identity. Underneath the monoculture premise however can be found older social constructs of group identity based on religion, locality, tribal knowledge and so forth, which leads me to give heavy consideration to the faculty of memory.

Memory, however one would choose to define it, is what allows social cohesion to form in the first place . Shared memory is the most salient feature of any group identity, for as we remember in 'relatively' the same fashion so we consider ourselves alike. As kin even. This identity based on shared memory has various levels of depth, the most short lived and recent is the memory of national boundary and national belonging. A fairly new construct within the human memory matrix. Underneath this more vague memory matrix based on centrally concocted and politicized ideals is group identity based on locality. A local remembrance which encompasses regional agricultural and thus regional plant knowledge, including regional weather patterns and regional topographies in general. This conglomerate of localized memory which is itself based on human sustenance and provision is a strong cohesive force, for in this layer of remembrance group memory serves group survival in the truest and most fundamental sense.

What we have in national identities is an echo of survival based group identity, where the threat is not so much based on immediate biological survival but much more so on identity survival. The nation protects its people much less than it protects the ideas of the nation which live within the people. I believe there is a vast difference between the two. The nation state layer is much more ethereal for it functions within the realm of mental fabrication whereas the locality based or regional based layer is rooted less in ideas and much more so in basic survival.

Underneath the regional memory layer is the biological layer, the most complicated to discuss in an age disoriented by any real attempt toward racial understanding. If we suppose that the idea of race is imaginary we must discount the inherent biological memory seated within all peoples. Is the biological memory of what we call a Chinese man or woman the same as that of an African man or women. Within the actual physical makeup of the Northern European there perhaps lies an understanding of the northern sea that may be non-existent in the African desert dweller who has intimate understanding of the desert and its complexities. Who is to say that the northern sea has not, within its very breeze and movement, spoken very different mythologies and messages than that of the desert sands? Does the desert influence the man? Does the sea influence the man? Does the natural world influence the belief structure and hence disposition of a people, garnering differentiated forms of thinking and understanding?

Why is there slight variation in the biological disposition of human groups, all the way from disease immunity to greater tolerance of heat and sun? Are these subtle biological variations within the human 'family' dare I use the term, synonymous with subtle variations within the mental fabric of a people? I do believe so. Much like plants carry forth differentiated forms and substances, capturing different light spectrums and minerals in proportion and ratio to others, we humans have biological precursors that 'message' us in different ways, regardless of how uniform we are formed to be in the marketplace. One need look at the level of anxiety, depression, violence and overall dysfunction within multicultural societies to truly grasp and understand the detriment of racial ignorance, or more euphemistically - biological variance illiteracy.

In the larger context the variation between humans is much smaller than the similarities, much in the same way that all plants utilize the sun to varying degrees, the difference however lies in the subtle and interwoven reality of regional memory. Memories are slow to transform in most cases, breeding has proved the most feasible way of evolutionary adaptability. Breeding outside the tribe or group has always allowed the development of new abilities for adaptation, though I feel that the more varied the biological form becomes the harder it may be to find a new place without careful consideration of ones biological roots.

Take the analogy of a human being who is transported to another planet, a planet that contains 20% less atmospheric oxygen. Without great physical and mental effort the human body may not be able to cope, the answer may lie in breeding. Would it not make sense to interbreed with a native of this reduced oxygen planet to ensure survival?

The variations found on our planet alone are vast and subtle, including such fluctuations as magnetic and 'auric' differences. Though less extreme than those of an alien planet, the earths zone variations are themselves tributaries of earth knowledge that should, I feel, be more completely understood if we are to develop a more respectful appreciation of the intricacies of planetary stewardship.


7/19/07, 5:21 AM

tRB said...

This is a very interesting series of observations, which I'd like to understand in a little more detail. You mention that a "new and still fragile national culture of the United States" was "elbowed aside". But I'm not clear about what that nascent culture was. Was it vaudeville, or early blues, or what?

You also write that the former consumers of mass culture "may have very few options left when the supply of manufactured culture to consume runs out". But wouldn't they just consume the local culture that they never paid attention to before (and which develops anew)?

And if the culture is less market-oriented, will the new local cultures be more the creation of the artists than of the mass of consumers' whims? Talent could end up having more influence than money.

7/19/07, 6:25 AM

shadowfoot said...
Hm. I guess one of the reasons I like to read your posts is that you look at overall, general trends, and I know what you're talking about in reference to the artificial culture that's easily seen on tv, in stores, etc.

But I have a hard time accepting that the older culture of my area is a dead one, when our towns have their local festivals, the county (that I'll be moving to soon) has a county-wide event to celebrate and bring attention to the fiber producers and artisans, the annual Eastern States Exposition Fair (runs for 2-3 weeks every fall), Local Growers/CSA programs, etc. On the modern scene, we have the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), where a number of the northeastern states are working together to try to improve things for our region. There's also an increasing drive in our area to learn older skills, like open hearth cooking, working with draft horses or oxen, various handcrafts, etc.

I don't know anything about how other parts of the country define their identity, but the fact that most of our states existed before there was a United States might have something to do with the persistence of the older culture. Or maybe we're just too ornery...

Myself, I'm actually only half-New Englander, since my mom is an American-born Chinese from California and I was born there also. But I've chosen to live here, getting back into weaving, learning old skills, etc. Oh, and learning some of the old recipes too, like the ginger water recipe (switchell) that's an excellent tonic and goes back at least to the early 1800s.

I never belonged to a racial group, being half English (mostly) and half Chinese. Never got into that type of group scene of Us vs Them.

In our family we preferred to celebrate being American by observing Thanksgiving and Independence Day, but also Chinese New Year, the Lantern Festival, etc. And happily my husband, who is not a bit Chinese, also enjoys celebrating the Chinese holidays.

What I see around our area right now is a dual culture, people living in two worlds as it were, that overlap. As time goes on and rising fuel costs make long-distance travel more difficult, the local, primarily agricultural culture, is starting to win out again. It won't be the same as it was before the industrial revolution of course -- people are more concerned with raising healthy foods in healthier ways -- nobody was talking about permaculture and organic foods back then. But the movement away from a plastic society and back toward New England's older identity (albeit primarily the European one) is definitely underway.

7/19/07, 7:54 AM

Warnwood said...
JMG wrote: ". . .I suspect that a great deal of the shrill anger and maudlin self-pity that fills American society . . ."

I'm wondering if you could provide an example or two of what you're referring to here? Are these cultural expressions of some sort, or just a general kind of societal noise you're describing?

7/19/07, 2:23 PM

Roy Smith said...
Shadowfoot, I think the problem that JMG is describing with regards to lack of authentic culture, particularly authentic local culture, is most pronounced in the area of the country that he and I hail from, the Pacific Northwest. This arises because: a) the native culture was almost completely obliterated by white settlement and other immigrants; b) non-native history in this area is very short (less than two centuries); and c) even now, most people who live here were born somewhere else (often a very long way away).

These factors together make it almost impossible to find any real sense of shared culture in this part of the United States. What little culture many of the people of these parts share is almost exclusively the manufactured product described by JMG.

New England and the Atlantic coast in general (where I have lived from time to time) have a historical memory of a shared culture that might be resuscitated with a lot of effort, though it is far from certain that such an effort will be successful. Nothing similar to that exists out here on the west coast.

The two greatest hopes that I see for re-creation of authentic local cultures in the United States are, first, among enclaves of Spanish-speaking immigrants, who generally are present in large enough numbers and have kept enough of their culture and language to be able to provide a real alternative to American style mass-produced culture, and second, in Hawai'i, which features the one native culture in the United States that retains enough viability to carry on through the coming hard times.

7/19/07, 3:01 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Loveandlight, I'm not about to criticize anybody's desire for equal rights when the Druid community is still trying to get the government to allow Druid vets to have the symbol of our faith on their headstones in military cemeteries. (And yes, there are quite a few Druid vets.) The point I hoped to make is that, as you've suggested, it may not be too productive to treat one's sexual behavior as the core of one's collective identity.

Justin, no, I didn't mention music, and I should have -- if only because the transformation of music from something people make to something that they consume is a great example of what I'm talking about.

Angelo, I'd suggest that the fallacy of race is precisely the notion that something so complex as the rich biological variability of our species can be understood using the blunt instrument of concepts such as "the white race." Nor have I seen any evidence that leads me to think, as you seem to be arguing, that it's biological rather than cultural variability that underlies differences in human thought and behavior. Linguistic factors, among others, seem much more powerful than any biological factor -- and any human being can learn any language, after all. As for "biological memory," I'm far from convinced that this exists at all outside the individual body.

TRB, the national culture of the United States I mentioned is a good deal more complex than specific forms of music or entertainment! From roughly the end of the Civil War to the 1920s, you can trace the emergence of a range of literary, artistic, and musical forms, distinctive social institutions, and much more, which were found all over the US but only sporadically beyond it. To cite only two examples of many, look at the way that barbershop quartets and fraternal orders spread nationwide over that period. Those (along with many others) are elements of the national culture that was born out of the Civil War era and died at the hands of the consumer economy.

As for consumers of culture turning to new regional cultures as the media pseudoculture falls apart, er, who's going to make the new regional cultures when everyone's used to taking their culture off the rack ready-made? I'll be discussing this in more detail when we talk about the failure of cultural mimesis next week.

Shadowfoot, of course you're right that there are still some regional cultures left in corners of the US, though most of the examples you cite (such as the greenhouse gas initiative) show the recognition of regional political and economic interests, rather than a distinctive regional culture. Still, it's very good to hear that there are moves afoot to revive New England's once very distinctive regional culture, and the local economy that once supported it.

Warnwood, tune in any talk radio station -- from any point on the political spectrum -- and you'll have more examples than you want to hear within fifteen minutes or so.

7/19/07, 3:36 PM

MawKernewek said...
You mention Britain being the first to form a coherent national identity.

I think it's actually slowly falling apart even now. Scotland has the Scottish National Party in coalition, although not a majority, and the same in Wales with Plaid Cymru. It's not unthinkable that given the right conditions, Britain might not be long for this world.
I also see more English St. George's flag stickers on cars than I used to.

Perhaps, a British identity rather than an English, Scottish, Welsh, or even Cornish is only something that could be stable when there was a British Empire to give it a focus. Is it a coincidence that devolution got underway around the same time as Hong Kong was handed over?

7/19/07, 5:17 PM

Angelo said...
Thank you for your response. You said:

Nor have I seen any evidence that leads me to think, as you seem to be arguing, that it's biological rather than cultural variability that underlies differences in human thought and behavior. Linguistic factors, among others, seem much more powerful than any biological factor -- and any human being can learn any language, after all. - JMG

I'm suggesting that the underpinning of language is indeed biological. The fact that the human brain can capture the nuances of language as an interface for consciousness is entirely a biological feat. Your right, human beings can learn any language and therefor adapt to any culture, depending of course upon the personal flexibility of the mind in question and the age within which one is immersed.

You seem to be saying that 'culture' exists aside from the natural cycles of the earth which has little or no impact upon the creation of culture itself. I intuit that cultural remnants actually live in the blood and are thus stored biologically. There have been racial studies carried out by a few brave scientists that suggest particular 'races' or subdivisions of humanity are more inclined toward mental tasking. It has been suggested that these variations are entirely cultural and influenced by home and extended family. Though there is quite an astonishing list of examples that refute this cultural argument. To this day it proves a heated topic rife with declarations of inviolable truth on both sides. In any case, I feel sure that the land and the people birth culture in a symbiotic way, for culture cannot arise within a vacuum.

I do also intuit that the biological vessel is as a storehouse of memory, capturing like a recorder the minutiae of life's events and passing these on within the blood to progeny. Research with elephants is quite revealing in this aspect, for elephant descendants generations removed can remember the exact locations of grave sites, watering holes and feeding grounds even if these areas were not visited as an actual physical remembrance.

The fact that humans can master any language simply informs us that language as we know it is based upon general constructs that we all share. Such as - we all have hearts and thus feel a beat, and thus enjoy music. We share this in common. This does not infer generalities across the board. For example:

The physical legs of a 'tribe' that have culturally developed jumping as an art form and show of skill for thousands of years cannot be rightly said to be 'equal' in jumping power to the legs of a 'tribe' that have instead enshrined running and long distance messenging as a cultural skill.

In relation, it is has been repeatedly suggested based upon sporting evidence that slavic genotypes are pound for pound the strongest bodies in the world. There are definite differences in the bodies of various 'races'. One would need to deny quite fervently the obviousness of this observation in order to rationalize an alternative view.

Who would reasonably suggest that the differences go only muscle deep when one tissue is as another, a bundle of memories unfolded from a set of commands inherited.

I'm not suggesting predestination based on biology, though I am suggesting a symbiotic congruence between consciousness and the actual environmental and cultural constructs within which the consciousness finds itself. The body does not have to be a limitation to adaptation, though it does have inherent tendencies (ratios) that incline it in particular ways.

These tendencies are referred to as biological diversity, and I do strongly believe that each 'race' brings qualities that another may not have or perhaps lacks in comparison. Or do we seek a monoculture specie that may not have the capacity to deal with world complexities as they arise?

I agree with you that bluntness can be a disservice but so too can vagaries be a disservice. Are we to be oh so vague in our understanding of racial qualities, or are we to believe that we are all disposed in the exact same way, which is what you seem to be suggesting.

What is a 'white race'? What is a 'black race'? And so on. I understand the broadness and inaccuracy of these labels. We are dealing with complexities that cannot be rightly understood if we do not first acknowledge that as in every other aspect of the natural world, human beings are diverse and varied.

We can see the cultural turbulence of our times, as artificial market forces tear at the fabric of religious and cultural beliefs. The disassociation of this situation lies in the idea that adaptation can be forced, that it can be impelled externally. It is only the consciousness, through understanding, that can initiate the necessary change.

It is our misunderstanding of the concept of culture and race that propels us into a world heated by the friction of forced adaptation. There is a concept that our worldview is the engine which drives the earth, and that when our engine sputters so to does the world. This concept endangers us all. We speak of the 'collapse', but at what point in a free fall does one define it as a 'collapse'. Is it when only the rubble remains in a burning heap?

We are already a collapsed society. We are a collapsed society precisely because we, the western intelligentsia, have blurred beyond all recognition the differences that make us unique, individually and racially. We are the only group on earth that espouses a particular view of pseudo equality - other cultures and races do not share the same illusions.

The multicultural society is a forced program of adaptation that is bound to fail precisely because it denies natural law and logic. What is a peak oil collapse but the collapse of western man. The Indians will manage, the Chinese will manage, even the Russians will manage, it is us, the multicultural proponents of the West that will suffer most. Why? Because we are divided, we are not unified no matter how unified we are made to seem via our televisions and radios. The Arabs know this, the Latinos know this, though we deny it. We are cultural disassociative, a dysfunction borne of a fundamental flaw in our basic assumptions. Our fantasy construct of 'equality' is but a fictitious interpretation of an enshrined document written by aristocrats of largely english descent. Their was no native elder at that meeting I assure you, yet we pretend that the ideal has value in the face a tsunami called reality.

As for "biological memory," I'm far from convinced that this exists at all outside the individual body. - JMG

You are in a human body, we are all in a human body. We can't escape this basic fact no matter how hard we deny it.


7/19/07, 6:02 PM

yooper said...
Thanks John, for the carefully constructed answer. So, it's to be cycles, within cycles onward to upward mobility, eh? All in the name of progress. Yes, I agree the so-called, white race is more of cultural construction rather than biological entity, and one that was used to justify far too many crimes. For one, I was always mystified when I came across on many forms, White? Black? Hispanic? Native American?,(please check one). Suppose, it was collective identities that eventually formed the American ideology onward to the moon!The sky is the limit! Better go along....or else........

I'm quite sure you knew where I was going with this, when I first posed the question. At that, I'm satisfied, no need to discuss it.

Speaking of idealogoies, I'm having a hard time divorcing myself of linear thinking and thinking more on terms from a cyclic prespective. This sure does put a whole new slant, on theories, that I thought I understood. Perhaps, I've misinterpreted what is actually being conveyed. I have you, to thank for this John, I'm forever grateful. Who says you can't teach an old dog, new tricks?

I will begin to prepare myself better for the long decline. More picture pumps, pipe, points, chicken wire, hand tools, etc. Perhaps, now is the time to strike deals with the little farms, my neighbors. To raise livestock for my family, as I'd never be able to afford the time it would take to care for them, as of now. My family did this 40 years ago....cycle back, eh, John? Teach me how to pedal backwards!

Thanks, yooper.

7/19/07, 6:43 PM

RAS said...
Great point JMG. As an example of how culturally constructed race is, I'd like to mention that many African countries, whom we consider to be uniformly "black" consider themselves to have multiple races. In one country for instance, everyone is what Americans would consider "black" but they have 3 distinct races. The Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda aren't just ethnic groups -they're considered to be separate races. In all cases, "race" is nothing more than a cultural construct.

As far as American culture death goes, the South has not (unfortunately) changed much since the founding of Jamestown. It is and has always been a fuedal culture. The is a ruling class, and a serving class. And the serving class is further divided between whites and other races. The first servants came over on the first ship to land at Jamestown, then came the indenturded servants, then the slaves. Post civil war there was sharecropping, and post Civil Rights era we still have groups of affluent people and the rest of us are servants. Religion is still scary strong in the south, and I expect an outright theocracy to form (at least for a short while) if and when the national government falters on the downside of Hubbert's Peak. I also expect a return to outright obvious fuedalism, complete with sharecropping. (After all, the big landowners are still the big landowners, but right now they farm with tractors. But soon they'll have to switch to more labor intensive methods -and people have to eat.)

7/20/07, 7:38 AM

shadowfoot said...
Hi Roy, thanks for posting about culture in your area. Always good to have some understanding/knowledge of different places.

JMG, yes, true that a number of things I listed for my area are new things -- they were sort of a reference to efforts to regain a sense of regional identity vs. national identity.

We definitely have our work cut out for us as far as truly regaining the old New England, but I see the increased interest in old skills as a good sign. Also, younger/middling aged people are trying to reach out to the older generation more now, to learn more about how things used to be done, in case it's needed again. Even people who don't know much about peak oil and such are doing this (talked to one last week). We're working on using and preserving the knowledge against an uncertain future.

There are increasing numbers of people going back into farming, on a small scale. Really, it's pretty hard to do large-scale farming here, because of the terrain. So people have to choose what makes sense for them and for the area they live in -- the land will only permit certain types of production with certain tools/equipment. We have an institute that started up some years ago that promotes small farms and is there to help train people so that they can succeed. Farming is hard work, not just physically but you have to be creative in how you meet the challenges, and it's a business as well. We're very lucky to have forward thinking people who are working to help farmers and artisans to connect with each other and with the markets for their products, working on building communities of people who know each other and are responsible toward one another.

FYI, some more info on the old skills -- there's a couple of places near us - Historic Deerfield and Old Sturbridge Village. The latter has received new funding recently and is working on improving the village, garden, demos (including raising/training oxen and using them to farm), and Historic Deerfield has been adding more and more cooking classes. A bunch of us checked out the kitchen a couple of weeks ago and everyone who went has serious kitchen envy.

L and I talked some years ago about eventually having a school where people can come learn different skills... we've halfway joked about a 'dude' farm even. From what I've been finding out this past year, it looks like we'll fit right in with the existing farms and stables who are providing all the kinds of training we don't have or won't be able to provide. For a more sustainable community, we need to have as wide a variety of teachers and skills as possible.

I can't speak for the cities really, but the towns still have their town meetings, festivals, local markets, multi-generation farms and small businesses, and aren't ready to give that up. It may be that we have a few things to teach to the city folks, at that.

I'm wondering though if in the Northwest there might a way to promote some similar 'schools' -- some way to encourage learning agricultural, crafting, and manufacturing skills that tread more lightly on the earth, and work on building closer-knit communities out of these 'schools'? Maybe think of it as being the new 'pioneers'? Or maybe something that's more inclusive of both native and non-native people? Start a new mythology that people can come together on.

I got annoyed the other day, reading about progress and how new is always better, and while there have been many great things like penicillin, we all know that new _isn't_ always better. So I thought maybe we ought to re-define progress, and that perhaps a new term was needed, to distinguish it from what people commonly think of when they think of progress -- "retro-progress". Well, maybe, maybe not. I think I'll try it out on some folks I know.

7/20/07, 9:29 AM

interdisciplinary John said...
great body of thought and very skilled use of English - I really enjoy the rigour of your historical analysis and how you bridge observational detail to weave a narrative with a credible rhythm pace and scope.

I'm looking forward to next week's post and also thought I'd pitch in some of my own observations on cultural give and take for what that's worth, as that's my own area of involvement.

I'm very familiar with the passive consumption of culture, especially in more consumer-focussed lifestyles, but I'm increasingly aware of a diy aesthetic among a growing swathe of mainstream-media-skeptics. This divergent cloud of creators overlap with international prestige markets of contemporary art; with the hacker movement and other activists; with web 2.0 and perhaps run as a vein through the escapist conventionists you mention.

In our current resource situation this babble of creativity does work against the mall culture you rightly deride, although to differing levels of 'success' however you want to define such a metric. The very patchiness and diversity of this constellation of self-authored expressions is part of it's vibrancy. And equally, there's plenty of ways that big bucks constantly absorb such willful spirit. Kind of a defining balance of our time as I see it.

This is not to disagree with you though. You're sketching out post peak scenarios and I am talking about 'our time'. Perhaps my post just wants to restate the question that brings many readers to your blog (how will now look then?), but focussing on a detail that gives me hope right now.

There are some useful behaviours going on right now - but how can you see if they're flexible and resilient enough to survive different economic, material and time constraints?

7/20/07, 2:38 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Maw Kernewek, gonn meur ras dhis! Yes, as the economic and political basis for national unity wears thin in Britain, the distinct cultures on the island are beginning to pursue their own destiny. Nor is it the only European nation-state doing the centrifugal dance just now.

Angelo, it's precisely because human existence is somatically rooted that your argument falls flat. The texture of human biological variation is far too rich, subtle, and polyvalent to fit the Procrustean bed of crude political inventions such as the modern concept of race. Still, all this is peripheral to the point of this essay (and this blog), and further comments on racial issues will not be posted. As for your claim that ours is a collapsed society, that's a very colorful way of expressing the fact that most people in the Western world don't agree with your ideology...and for very good reason. 'Nuf said.

Yooper, yes, cyclical thinking is a challenge for almost everyone these days!

Ras, one of the repeated details of history is that the ruling class of a civilization doesn't survive its decline and fall. Ruling classes depend for their ascendancy and their very survival on patterns of exchange and behavior that break down very quickly. The skills that make somebody a successful member of the political class during a period of high civilization simply aren't the skills that make somebody an effective warlord, and the effective warlords figure out very quickly that they can walk in and take what the old political class has. The fall of the Roman Empire in the west is a good example -- look at the way Roman elites imploded and barbarian rulers took over. Thus the South is probably in for some drastic political change over the next century or so.

Shadowfoot, good to hear that things are moving in such productive directions in your end of the country! As for redefining progress, though, it may work better to confront the concept head on and say "progress isn't inevitable and it isn't always good; when you go down a blind alley, maybe it's time to look at going back to where you started."

Interdisciplinary, the cultural ferment going on in some corners of the avant-garde scene is one of the few hopeful signs I can think of that Americans, at least here and there, may manage to pull out of their comfortable passivity. But we'll see.

7/21/07, 12:56 AM

RS said...
The question about whether the white race will survive the deindustrial age I think is a valid one in a racial sense and not just a cultural sense. In Ronald Wright's novel "A Scientific Romance" (one of the best books I've read in the past few years) he paints a picture of a deindustrialized Britain 500 years in the future ravaged by global warming, industrial pollution, genetic engineering gone bad and various other environmental catastrophes. The island is inhabited by a small number of "Scots" who appear to be Scotish in culture, language and religion, but are black. It becomes evident that these black Scots are descendants of white Scots who had undergone some genetic engineering in order to darken their skin colour in order to protect them from some of the man-made environmental problems; especially the destruction of the ozone layer. A similar situation could occur in our deindustrial future as people will be spending more time outdoors and sunscreen will be less available, as will most other consumer products. In a natural selection/survival-of-the-fittest scenario, people with white skin will be especially vulnerable to the sun's damaging UV rays, living shorter lives and having fewer children as a result. Meanwhile those with black, brown and red skin will live longer lives and will have more children. In such a scenario, within a few centuries the light skinned people may have all died out...

7/21/07, 12:19 PM

Robin said...
A very rational perspective. Seems obvious but only when pointed out. Coming UnGlued would perhaps have been an appropriate subtitle.

With reference to the canals, Global Warming and the Great IceMelt may be a blessing in disguise, helping to expand and improve the canal system.

And perhaps the "Nine Nations of North America" may indeed come to pass - the BreadBasket, the Foundry, Ecotopia, MexAmerica, etc.

7/21/07, 10:21 PM

Danby said...
C.S. Lewis wrote, in an entirely different context, on a substantially different subject:
"The very word progress implies a goal, and hence a direction. If you are going in the wrong direction, the first to tun about and go in the opposite direction is the most progressive."

7/22/07, 12:19 AM

Thomas said...

Quite an illuminating essay but I have to take issue with one assertion. While the age of fossil fuels will, undoubtably come to an uncomfortable end, soon, I see no reason why energy should not continue to be cheap and abundant. I see it more likely that the world will become more energy intensive as the population and the trappings of industry and post-industry expand.

In terms of physics, energy is the single most abundant thing in the universe. It's right in front of us in quantities that vastly outstrip our abilities to harvest it. As new energy technologies, in the form of alternative fuels, solar, nuclear, geothermal and a myriad of other forms we have only begun to engineer, become more practical and as our use of energy becomes more efficient, I can only foresee the expansion of the current order.

Will the weaning from fossil fuels be uncomfortable, socially and economically, of course it will be. Will it spell the end of the culture (for better or worse) that emerged from the industrial era, I doubt it.

7/22/07, 1:08 PM

John Michael Greer said...
RS, if you want to argue that the distribution of skin colors among human beings may change in the aftermath of global warming, no argument there. My point, though, is that skin color -- one of tens of thousands of complex variables in the human genome -- is not the same thing as the social construction called "the white race."

Robin, I expect a good many more than nine nations to emerge in what is now the United States; still, a good point.

Danby, very good! Lewis spent enough time studying the thoughtways of medieval and Renaissance culture -- his book The Discarded Image is to my mind the best summary of the premodern Western worldview ever written -- and I think that's one of the reasons he had the ability to see through a great deal of the cant that in his time, as in ours, surrounds notions such as "progress."

Thomas, you're quite right that the abundance of energy in the universe outstrips our ability to harvest it -- the problem is that this ability is constrained by physical laws. It takes energy to harvest, concentrate, store, and move energy, and most of the energy in the universe is very, very diffuse. Think of the difference between the warmth of sunlight on the palm of your hand, and the heat of a chunk of burning coal on the palm of your hand; that's the difference between diffuse and concentrated energy.

Of course you can concentrate diffuse energy, but it takes energy to do that. The more concentrated it needs to be, the more energy has to go into the process. Fossil fuels are as concentrated as they are because tens of millions of years of photosynthesis, followed by more tens of millions of years of heat and pressure, went into concentrating them. In effect, we got an energy subsidy for free -- but the subsidy is running out.

Our industrial society depends on having huge and ever-growing quantities of highly concentrated energy. As fossil fuels run out, there are no other energy resources available in the same quantity and concentration, and we can't support an industrial system on the diffuse energy sources we've got left. That's our predicament. I'm quite aware that many people refuse to accept that; as I've argued elsewhere, belief in endless technological progress is the religion of the modern industrial world. But I have yet to see an argument against it that amounts to more than handwaving.

(Yooper, many thanks for the personal note -- agreed, there's not much else that can be said about that issue.)

7/22/07, 2:08 PM

Joe said...
I'd like to drop a few counter-comments into the discussion.

First, I've become extremely distrustful of anything based on fear. I grew up in the shadow of The Bomb That Never Fell, The Communist Threat That Never Materialized, and most recently, the Terrorist Threat That Has Been Silent For Six Years. In short, a world full of boys crying "wolf."

We could argue as to whether the wolf actually exists or has become extinct, but I think it's become pretty obvious that there is an immediate payoff in power, money, and attention for anyone who cries wolf, that is quite irrespective of any real danger. Fear sells, often even better than sex sells.

So I am distrustful.

People have been crying about the end of civilization since the beginning of civilization. And various civilizations have, in fact, ended, but only rarely in predicted or predictable ways. Hitler's "thousand-year reich" lasted twelve years, start-to-finish. Rome took centuries to die, and still controls us in many ways. Historians make a full-time profession of trying to tell the stories of rise and fall in anything even approximating a sensible narrative with obvious causal elements. They have no easy task, and tread perilously near pure fiction in most cases.

This latest fear of collapse is being built around "peak oil." I have a few contrary observations.

There are three separate issues involved with "peak oil." The first is production levels, the second is profit levels, and the third is the complex industrial infrastructure built on oil.

The current "peak oil" crisis involves production levels. Big Oil has already decided to stop looking for more oil, having decided that there is no more long-term profit potential in any new finds - any remaining oil reserves are too hard (meaning too unprofitable) to recover in our current oil economy.

However, the next "peak oil" crisis, involving a peak in profits, is still quite a long way away. The reason for this is that there is still a huge production capacity and plenty of oil to be burned, and by slowly raising prices and then obtaining government subsidies (paid by taxes) for price support of the "essential energy industries," there's still a vast amount of profit to be made for years to come. And oil companies are not about to just give up those potential profits.

One way of seeing how this works more clearly is to view the automobile as primarily a gasoline-burning device, not as a mode of transportation. The only reason it even has wheels is as a marketing ploy - it's simply the most effective way to get people to burn huge quantities of gasoline, which is what the oil economy is based on: burning gasoline. Not energy, not food, not transportation - but burning gasoline. Think of it as a giant system of potlatch, where we burn our oil as a symbol of wealth and power. In this view, hummers and gas-guzzling recreational vehicles make perfect sense. The uniformly disappointing gas mileage of the new hybrids makes perfect sense. The sudden death of the electric car makes perfect sense.

Only when enough of the remaining oil has been burned that profits begin to decline, will you actually see any changes in the fundamental oil economy. This will happen when the price of oil (even with direct government subsidies) goes so high that the marketing ploy of selling "transportation" no longer works - basically, when people in very large numbers start changing their lifestyles to avoid the use of gasoline.

At that point, what happens?

What is being gloomily predicted here and elsewhere (yet with an odd undertone of glee) is the end of civilization as we know it.

I flatly disbelieve this, just as I flatly disbelieved in the Y2K crisis. It isn't because I think people are so noble and intelligent that they'll come around. It's that people - of our culture in particular - are inventive and greedy and really not quite bright or moral enough to understand that we are a threat to the world and should simply lie down and die.

There is a great underestimation of technology taking place in these discussions, and a great misunderstanding of how technological innovation actually happens. While there's a lot of talk about "alternative energy," all of the focus is on things already developed that we know don't work, or won't work well enough to support our needs. Wind. Solar. Geothermal. There's perhaps some hope - barely - that all of these together could match our current energy use. No one talks about using these resources to double or triple our energy capacity, much less obtain an order of magnitude increase. But no one talks about any other alternatives, though there are plenty.

There's an underlying reason for this silent collusion: it's because there is no economic incentive (yet) to develop any real alternatives.

Let me give you a specific example. There's a net-positive energy lithium fission reaction that that's been known since the 1920's. You bombard lithium with hydrogen in a simple cyclotron, producing an unstable isotope of beryllium. The beryllium breaks down into two (charged) heliums with more energy than you put into the system. With magnetic braking, you draw off the extra energy as electricity. There are a number of variants on this process, any of which could be used to build radically-scalable nuclear power plants - even home or vehicle-sized power plants (and maybe even fuel-cell sized) - that "burn" hydrogen and lithium and produce helium as a waste product.

What's curious about this is not that we don't already have lithium fission power plants - perhaps this process really cannot be made to work in a practical way - but instead that, so far as I know, no substantial research has ever gone into finding out if it can be made to work. Now that's peculiar.

It isn't so peculiar if you understand how technological innovation really works. Let's say I were to do an Edison and perfect this lithium fission reaction in my basement. Could I sell it to anyone?

At present, no. There simply is no market for such a product. I'd be competing against cheap oil and a massive in-place infrastructure consisting not merely of equipment, but of trained people and long-evolved business relationships and processes. The cost of switching technologies is almost unthinkable - and until oil prices rise high enough, absolutely no reason to consider that cost.

What holds true for me as a basement tinker, holds true for large corporations with research divisions (in which I've worked). No corporation is going to waste serious money trying to develop something to compete against cheap oil. Were it to be accidentally developed in a corporate laboratory, it would be filed in a bottom drawer until a market did appear.

But when the incentive appears, and only then, will we start to see true energy innovation take place. There are dozens of fundamentally different and physically plausible approaches that could ultimately result in a thousand times the energy output of burning oil, for a thousandth the cost.

So what I think is going to happen is that gasoline prices will rise until they cause severe inconvenience, which will trigger a wave of intense technological innovation, followed by a solution that lets civilization lurch forward more or less intact. The solution we choose will not be optimal - instead, it will perpetuate the cycle of wealth we currently have, though there may be a few faces changed.

7/22/07, 2:17 PM

Asturchale y Chulo said...
Funny that you bring up this subject, JMG. My very nickname, "Asturchale", is sort of Spanish slang for "Asturian nationalist", Asturias being (at the moment) a little known historical region of the kingdon of Spain.
The breaking up of Spain is far more advanced than the decentralization of the UK, as you surely know. Not only Basques and Catalans keep demanding increasingly more self-government, but also Galicians, Andalusians and even Canarians. Basques today enjoy as much autonomy as an American state, more or less, and want to go even further.
Little nationalisms in Europe have only but thrived and grown ever stronger since 1918 and the end of the Austrian and Otoman empires. The last nationalistic outburst took place during the war of Yugoslavia, but more changes may come if eventually Spain, Belgium or (more unlikely) the UK split up.
Personally, I have many reasons to reject Spain in its current form, not the least the fact that I find it silly to support a nation where separatist regions get political advantage while "loyalists" lose autonomy and, eventually, freedom. Once you start to tear the cloth, you see, it only can go further.
However, more to the point here is the growing perception that the nation-state has stolen little nations their identity. As a Spanish you are supposed to fit a row of cliches, a certain idea of "Spanishness" centered on things such as bullfights and the mixture of Islamic and Christian heritage. Well, this self-image was forged during the emergence of the nation-state, in the XIXth century, in a time when little peripheral regions such as Asturias just didn`t have the power as to oppose a self-perception of their own. Today, when literacy has reached everybody and a cultivated, self-conscious class exists in Asturias as much as in Madrid, a moment comes when inevitably a new national self-image arises from local elites.
I have especially enjoyed in your post the fragment about industrial culture. The global leveling down has reached such a ludicrious point that you eventually don`t feel an individual anymore. I guess little nationalisms in Europe, with our insistence in folklore and traditional culture, just try to fight back the process.

7/23/07, 1:47 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Joe, yes, I thought we'd be hearing from believers in the free market next. Most of the arguments you've made have already been addressed in earlier posts to this blog, so I'll limit myself to two points.

You comment that people have been predicting the collapse of civilization since civilization began. That's quite correct, of course, but on the whole, they've been right. The vast majority of civilizations known to history are extinct today. It's sheer arrogance to assume that ours is exempt from the common fate.

You also comment, as of course many people do, that the market economy will inevitably save us by way of entrepreneurs who will come forward with the inventions we need when we need them. Now it's relevant that the demand for an invention does not necessarily produce the supply; there's been quite a demand for a cure for cancer over the last half century, for example, and only limited response to it. It's also relevant that entrepreneurship can't overturn physical laws, and quite a large percentage of our predicament is a function of the laws of thermodynamics -- a point I plan on discussing more in a future post.

But the point I'd like to make more specifically here is that bringing an innovation online requires time and resources; you can't do it overnight, or without using energy and raw materials. As scientists have been pointing out since the 1970s, the problem with exponential growth in a finite environment is precisely that by the time a society realizes it's in trouble, it has already backed itself into a situation where it has the resources to meet current needs or provide for the future...but not both. It's the classic Easter Island dilemma; do you cut down the last tree to make a canoe, and starve next year, or do you leave it standing and starve now?

Since the market distributes resources based on the immediate needs and interests of its participants, it's very poorly suited to situations like this one. It's not economical to do as the Hirsch report recommends, and sink hundreds of billions of dollars into an alternative energy system twenty years before world oil production declines -- but if we don't, we've got two decades of air time before the replacement comes on line.

More generally, the story of the boy who cried wolf has two details not often remembered. The first is that the wolves were real. The second is that, in the end, they ate the sheep. And while of course you're right that fear sells, so does complacency.

Asturchale, I'd heard a little about the situation in Spain, but obviously not enough! Most interesting. I wonder how many other European countries are going through the same decentralizing process.

7/23/07, 6:13 PM

Roy Smith said...
trb said . . . You mention that a "new and still fragile national culture of the United States" was "elbowed aside". But I'm not clear about what that nascent culture was. Was it vaudeville, or early blues, or what?

The framing of this question seems to assume that culture is expressed primarily through such things as the arts, forms of entertainment, or cuisine. To be fair, this is how most people conceptualize culture, but I think that it misses a significant point.

I would submit that these outward manifestations are the least important part of what makes a culture distinctive or worthwhile. The core elements of culture, IMHO, are 1) how the essentials of life (mainly food, water, clothing, shelter, and transportation) are produced and distributed; 2) core religious and spiritual values; 3) how political power is distributed and exercised; and 4) how labor is distributed, controlled, and compensated.

The triumph (if you can call it that) of industrial civilization has been to take most of these questions and remove them from serious debate. Although there are variations in degree, the ways in which these four elements are addressed are very similar throughout much of the world, and in particular throughout most of the industrialized world. From this point of view, it is easy to recognize that in some important aspects, there is truly one dominant culture worldwide.

By defining "culture" as merely the province of various sorts of artists, it is clear how "culture" can be turned into consumer goods (indeed these aspects of culture have been turned into consumer goods, as JMG so eloquently argues). We are still participants, or sometimes victims, however, in our larger culture, even if this larger culture (corporations, popular democracy, industrial production of almost everything, etc.) is not regarded as an expression of culture. I think it is, but that it is invisible as such to most of us.

7/24/07, 12:26 PM

Dwig said...
I just ran across a fascinating example of a culture refusing to die, and at the same time illustrating JMG's migration theme: A Different Kind of Immigrant. (By the way, is a useful resource for keeping track of events in the rest of the Americas.)

7/24/07, 4:51 PM

FARfetched said...
Back from vacation. In some ways, it could well have been a harbinger of the future, with little to no cell phone access & only dialup Internet (with a firewall that made most of my destinations, including this one, impossible to reach). But that's off-topic.

In many more remote parts of the country, there are still distinct vestiges of a regional culture (hi Yooper!). Even here on Planet Georgia, there's a divide between the northern and southern parts, much as there is (was?) a cultural division between northern & southern Italy. Fortunately, the toxic "Dixie" culture has been on the wane in the south in the last 20 years, although I suspect it lurch out of its uneasy grave in a big hurry.

But I have to disagree with the statement, "a people that has come to see its role as that of passive consumer of culture, rather than active maker and transmitter of culture, may have very few options left when the supply of manufactured culture to consume runs out." Cultures are like that Roma tomato vine that sprung up in my herb bed: they grow (seemingly spontaneously), spread, perhaps even bear fruit, and eventually die.

A consciously-created culture would have about as much viability as the plastic flowers that represent our current culture — real plants (true cultures) would overgrow it unless they were regularly weeded out. When the "free" market stops uprooting cultures, they will take over quickly.

7/25/07, 2:20 PM

Joe said...

I'd not like to be mis-read as saying that the free market is going to save anything, or even as being a terribly ardent supporter of civilization. I'm merely putting in the contrary view that the "peak oil crisis" is not going to be The End, any more than the "Y2K crisis" was The End.

In my youth, I flirted with Apocalyptic Christianity. There is something appealing about the idea that I might not have to take that final exam in electrodynamics if Jesus' return is imminent. Like, really imminent. Like, maybe before next Tuesday....

There is a third choice, apart from fear and complacency - hope. Vision. A dream for the future.

It seems to me that this is what is actually dying in the American culture. It isn't about peak oil, or global warming, or declining family values on television. We've become the generation that is convinced things are going to get worse. We're just not sure which crisis is going to get us first. We all believe the wolves are real, and that in the end, they get the sheep, and there is simply nothing to be done about it. Entropy and thermodynamics. We might as well slaughter and eat all the sheep ourselves, tell scary stories around the campfire to pass the time, and then lie down and die of an inevitable starvation as the sea levels rise around us.

Except I really doubt it will play out like that. Like the Great Disappointment of 1844, when thousands of Millerites set up camp on mountainsides to wait for Jesus' return, the appointed time will come and go, and then we'll be left looking at the rising sun the next, saying, "Ok, now what?"

What is a future worth living for?

7/29/07, 8:59 AM

ljarvi said...
"A consciously-created culture would have about as much viability as the plastic flowers that represent our current culture — real plants (true cultures) would overgrow it unless they were regularly weeded out. When the "free" market stops uprooting cultures, they will take over quickly."

"Culture" is the long form of "cult". The vast majority of people in this country have become comfortable with remaking themselves anew each morning in the image of their subculture's (cult's) ever-changing consumption/behavior/language/en-
tertainment paradigms. They have no sense of history and have let their sense of personal authority atrophy. It takes work, and determination, to become an independent-minded adult in these times, and many people are just not up to the challenge. Being essentially children in adult bodies, they are dependent, and therefore fearful.

What happens to these people when the sources of their identity fall away? They frantically look for someone or something to replace it. An army self-promoters with one or another offering of pre-packaged meaning will be volunteering their services as the center of a personality cult. The North American land mass, I believe, will be crawling with them.

It's pleasant to imagine the level-headed dude sitting outside the city gates collecting weapons and communicating the down-to-earth, practical, work-hard-and-get-along rules of citizenship within. However, I expect to see, before the end of my lifetime, the beginnings of a neo-feudalism, based on personality cults, that will reach a fever pitch within my children's lifetimes, as the world once again becomes large, diverse and localized.

8/25/07, 12:28 AM