Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Why Decline Matters

One of the most curious blind spots in the contemporary imagination, as I have suggested more than once in these essays, can be traced in the way that the concept of decline has vanished from our collective discourse about the future. What makes this blindness even more curious is that it is a very recent thing.

A century ago the possibility that the modern western world might reach a peak, and then retrace history’s familiar path down to the common fate of civilizations, was on many minds. The art of Aubrey Beardsley and the novels of Joséphin Péladan, to name only two leading figures of the Decadent movement, announced, and at times wallowed in, the approaching decline that Oswald Spengler detailed a few years later in his magisterial prose. The belief in decline was never universally held, or even a majority view – those who prophesied the imminence of Utopia through progress or violent revolution had at least as large an audience, and apocalyptic fantasies were never hard to find – but the idea was there, and commanded attention from serious thinkers.

Somewhere between the 1920s and the end of the Second World War, however, the entire concept of decline dropped out of the modern world’s collective imagination. Except for a brief reprise in the wake of the converging crises of the 1970s, and a few manifestations on the far edges of today’s fringe culture, it has yet to return. This odd shift in the shapes of our imagined futures demands attention from those of us who try to sense the shape of the future in advance, because if the future we get is one of decline, the results could be far more challenging than anything the more simplistic notion of sudden collapse can offer

Decline, after all, is not a linear process. Trace the decline of the dead civilizations of the past along the dimension of time, and much more often than not it follows a complex, stairstep curve that alternates periods of crisis with respites and partial recoveries. Compare the process to the sort of sudden apocalyptic collapse that occupies so much space in the collective imagination today, and a striking result emerges: the amount of population decline and cultural loss in any given generation may be much less than would result from a single sudden catastrophe, but the overall impact of decline is much greater, and the capacity for swift recovery much less.

This seems counterintuitive, but it can easily be demonstrated by historical evidence and logic alike. Consider the Black Death in Europe. As an example of dieoff, it’s hard to beat – the first terrible epidemic of 1346-1351 killed close to a third of the population of Europe, and recurring outbreaks that followed every decade or so took up to ten per cent of the survivors each time – and, in the form of the peasant revolts of the late 14th century, it even managed to produce some semblance of the marauding hordes that play so large a part in contemporary survivalist fantasies. Despite the horrific death rate, the widespread social disorder, and the huge cultural impacts of the Black Death, European civilization did not collapse, or lose cultural continuity. The survivors simply picked themselves up and went on with things much as before.

Imagine a similar dieoff, or even a much more extreme one, in America today and it’s not hard to see why. Let’s say the most extreme versions of the peak oil survivalist thesis turn out to be correct; some crisis or other causes petroleum markets to freeze up completely, and gasoline and diesel fuel become completely unavailable; panic and looting set in, governments somehow fail to do anything about the crisis, and society unravels in a general war of all against all, with marauding hordes spilling out of the cities into nearby rural regions in a desperate quest for food. Five horrific years later, the US population has plummeted by 95%. What happens next?

The single largest resource base available to the survivors, in such a case, would be the material culture and knowledge base of pre-collapse society. All over rural America, in areas more than a few hundred miles from big urban centers, small towns and villages would remain, and those in agricultural areas with steady water supplies would likely flourish; lacking gas for their cars, after all, refugees from Chicago or Los Angeles will not make it to North Dakota, or even Iowa. Libraries, schools, and local governments would either still exist, or could be readily rebuilt; abandoned buildings and technology could be dusted off and put back to use; where renewable energy sources exist, those could be reactivated if they stopped running in the first place. Almost everyone alive after the collapse will have grown up in the precollapse world, and a great many of them will have learned some of the skills needed to operate a modern society. Before very long, something very like today’s rural American culture would have reestablished itself, just as late medieval cultures across Europe reestablished themselves after the Black Death.

What makes so swift a recovery possible, though, is the short time span between collapse and aftermath. Consider the possibility of decline and a much less promising picture emerges. First, and most obviously, decline takes much longer. By the time the process is finished, the people who remember how an advanced civilization used to function are long in their graves, and anything perishable in the material culture they knew has long since perished. It’s one thing to break into an abandoned library five years after a sudden collapse, when most of the books will be dusty but readable; it’s another thing to do the same thing two hundred years after the beginning of decline, when those books not looted long ago have crumbled into sawdust because they were printed on high-acid paper, or rotted after the roof collapsed and the rains got in.

The stairstep process found in most historical examples of decline, though, is a far more potent force. Periods of crisis, in which urgent needs absorb all available resources, can go on for decades. During that time, anything not immediately relevant to the needs of the moment will likely go begging for maintenance and upkeep, if it isn’t stripped for spare parts, burned as heating fuel, or destroyed in war, rioting, or any of the other common disasters that punctuate the downward arc of a civilization’s lifespan. Periods of respite offer some recovery time, but then another period of crisis comes and another sorting process hits the surviving legacy of the civilization. Each period of crisis thus becomes a bottleneck through which only a fraction of a civilization’s material culture and knowledge base will survive. Repeat the process often enough and very little remains. Thus, if we admit the possibility of decline, we face the possibility of a future more difficult and impoverished than a future of sudden collapse, not less so.

The cultural conserver concept I have proposed in recent weeks on this blog attempts to address that possibility. Alongside the dismal record of cultural loss during ages of decline, history also shows that a motivated minority concerned with the long view can have a disproportionate impact on the survival of cultural heritage in hard times.

Consider the survival of the Jewish people and their cultural heritage after the destruction of the Third Temple in 70 CE, and the obliteration of most of the Jewish presence in Israel over the following century. Faced with the very real risk of cultural extinction, surviving religious leaders drew on memories of the Babylonian captivity to launch one of history’s most magnificently successful programs of cultural conservation. As rabbinic Judaism took shape, a very large percentage of its traditions focused explicitly on preserving Jewish religious and cultural continuity. “Why is this night different from all other nights?” asks the Passover ritual; the answer, freely interpreted, is that it embodies one of the distinctive historical experiences of the Jewish people, using potent tools of symbol and ceremony to counter the pressures toward assimilation and absorption.

Equally, the Catholic church after Rome’s fall set in motion a massive salvage program that kept much of classical culture alive right through the Dark Ages. Its motives differed from those that drove the founders of rabbinic Judaism; an expanding church needed clergy literate enough to know their way around scripture, the church fathers, canon law, and the philosophical theology the Church had borrowed from Greek Neoplatonism, and this mandated the survival of the Latin literary culture that informed so much early Christian literature in the West. Thus generations of Christian schoolboys learned Latin prosody from Vergil, and acquired a taste for learning that blossomed in the great age of Christian monasticism and preserved countless cultural treasures for the future.

There are plenty of other examples, from the Sanskrit academies of India to the bardic schools of early modern Scotland, but they share a crucial feature in common with these. For a cultural tradition to survive in an age of decline, it needs to find a constituency that values it enough to put the survival of the tradition ahead of more immediate needs. In traditional Judaism, keeping the commandments isn’t something to file away for future reference whenever times get hard; it comes first, even ahead of personal survival. Similarly, the Benedictine monks who spent their time copying manuscripts by hand in unheated scriptoria through the worst years of the Dark Ages could have led much easier lives outside the bare walls of their monasteries, if the glory of God had not, in their eyes, outshone all the treasures of the world.

Thus the survival of cultural heritage must draw on emotional drives potent enough to override the tyranny of immediate needs and drive the modest but unremitting daily efforts needed to keep cultural heritage intact. This is especially true of the traditions of elite culture, which typically lack any short term survival value and often require a sizeable investment of time and resources. It is above all true of modern elite culture, which has specialized in the mass production of information to such a degree that the ability to maintain adequate storage for all the knowledge our culture has amassed is already very much in doubt.

One of my readers thus responded to last week’s post by asking me how her field, mathematics, might preserve some of its knowledge base for the future. That’s a daunting question, for which I know no easy answers. Right now mathematicians in the more abstract and less practical branches of their field can draw a salary to pursue their researches only because a longstanding social habit encourages governments and donors to cover the costs. The same thing is true of many other branches of scholarship, and of those fine arts that haven’t quite finished the process of devolving into the manufacture of high-end collectibles for the rich. Outside of university mathematics departments, it’s hard to find anyone who has even heard of most of today’s hot topics in math, much less anyone who would be willing to study and teach them in their off hours, for no pay, out of the sheer love of the subject.

That sort of constituency will be hard for any part of today’s elite culture to find, and without it, there’s a minimal chance that anything more than fragments of that culture will reach the future. Still, there is a wild card in the deck, and its name is religion. Nearly all the classic examples of cultural conservation have drawn their motivating force from religious beliefs. Is it possible that some of today’s scientific and cultural heritage will find a welcome within the ambit of a present or future religious movement? Next week’s post will explore these options.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Cultural Conservers

A few years back the American middle class indulged in another of the periodic orgies of self-congratulation in which it proclaims its opinion of its own historical importance. The inspiration for this particular outburst was a 2000 book entitled Cultural Creatives by Paul H. Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson, which announced that the spread of certain fashionable ideas through the middle class meant nothing less than the imminent transformation of American society.

Apparently none of its more enthusiastic reviewers remembered that the same imminent transformation had been announced just as confidently in the pages of Marilyn Ferguson’s The Aquarian Conspiracy (1980), Charles Reich’s The Greening of America (1970), and a long line of predecessors reaching back well into the nineteenth century. Like so many of today’s new ideas, in other words, this one has been around for a good long time, just as the “new” attitudes Ray and Anderson identified as hallmarks of their “cultural creatives” have been widely accepted among a sizeable sector of the American intelligentsia since the heyday of the Transcendentalists in the 1820s.

Yet there’s more going on here than the simple failure of memory discussed in last week’s Archdruid Report post. What is at issue here touches on the meaning and value of culture itself.

Mind you, it’s difficult to talk meaningfully about that topic in America today, after decades of “culture wars” in which all sides redefined the very concept of culture to fit their own Utopian fantasies and political objectives. It’s doubly difficult because the last half century or so has witnessed the systematic destruction of America’s own national and regional cultures, their replacement with a manufactured pseudoculture based on the values of the American urban intelligentsia, and the consequent revolt of many working class Americans against the concept of culture altogether.

Culture is memory. An authentic culture roots into the collective experience of a community’s past, and from this source draws meaning for the present and tools for the future. Thus culture, like memory, is a constant negotiation between the living and the dead, as new conditions call for reinterpretation of past experience and redefine the meanings that are relevant and the tools that are useful. When a society gives up on these negotiations and abandons the link with its past, as last week’s post suggested, what remains is not originality but stasis, in which a persistent set of common assumptions and popular narratives are rediscovered and rehashed endlessly under a veneer of apparent novelty.

Woven into this process is the social schism Arnold Toynbee traced in his magisterial A Study of History. As each civilization enters its imperial stage, he showed, a split opens up between its privileged classes and the rest of the population. The latter becomes what Toynbee called an “internal proletariat,” expected to perform the work that maintains the civilization but deprived of participation in its benefits and, as the schism in society unfolds, increasingly alienated from its values. The internal proletariat is deprived of its folk cultures by the destruction of the economic basis of traditional lifeways, and barred from participation in elite culture by class and income barriers that grow steadily higher as the imperial stage proceeds.

In the bare ground that results, any number of strange seeds can sprout. Eventually, Toynbee suggests, what fills the cultural vacuum is religion – not the traditional religion of the imperial culture, but some exotic faith dissonant enough from the values of that culture to express the alienation felt by the internal proletariat. As the imperial stage ends in collapse and the privileged classes find themselves stripped of wealth and power by the upwardly mobile warlords of the ensuing dark age, the imperial society’s own cultural resources generally hit the scrap heap. The result is a curious feedback loop amplifying the process of catabolic collapse; pious hands tore down the temples of the Roman gods and recycled the mathematical papers of Archimedes to provide parchment for Christian homilies, for example, because most people in the postclassical world no longer felt any loyalty to the culture of their ancestors.

We are already well into that process in modern America. The schism in society outlined by Toynbee was clearly visible in his lifetime, and has widened since then. A parallel chasm now gapes down the center of American culture, and most other industrial cultures as well. It bears remembering that in the nineteenth century, opera counted as popular entertainment, and women in the privileged classes practiced most of the same handicrafts as their poorer sisters; nowadays very few such common factors connect, say, the university-educated middle classes of an east coast suburb with the rural poor of a Midwestern farm state. Folk cultures have guttered out or survive only as museum pieces, while elite culture withdraws behind walls of obscurantism – compare the accessible and deservedly popular fine art of the late nineteenth century with the deliberately unwelcoming and often offensive product served up by today’s art scene.

In a world lurching through economic crisis and the first wave of impacts from peak oil, it’s easy to dismiss the continuing implosion of American culture as a minor issue, but such a dismissal is as much a symptom of cultural collapse as anything I’ve cited already. Again, culture is memory, and among the things it holds in store are the tools, insights, and lifeways that served people well in the days before our civilization started chasing the suicidally addictive rush of empire. Again, Rome offers a useful example; by the time the Roman empire began coming apart at the seams and the grain ships no longer sailed from North African wheat fields to Ostia’s wharves, nobody remembered how things had worked in the days when the classical world consisted of independent city-states producing most of their own necessities at home.

Still, the Roman world lacked the extraordinary sense of historical time and change that, as John Lukács has pointed out, is one of modern industrial civilization’s most distinctive traits. Roman writers in the declining phase of the empire apparently never noticed that their experiences mirrored, say, the implosion of the Mycenean world in the 13th century BCE, nor did such Roman historians as Livy treat Rome’s own past as a guide to the future. Thus it seems never to have occurred to the Romans of the late Empire that their civilization might need to be handed on to a very different future. The task of salvage was left to Irish monks some centuries later, and by the time they got to work, a huge amount of material had already vanished forever. Nor did the monasteries preserve everything that came to them; the immense musical heritage of ancient Rome, for example, was not of interest to monastic scribes, and as a result, all that survives of it is one fragment of a single haunting melody, taking some 25 seconds to play.

Our situation differs from theirs only because the contemporary sense of history makes it possible to place our own experience beside that of the Romans, and any number of other fallen civilizations as well, and draw conclusions about the likely shape of our own future. We are arguably in much the same case as the Romans of the late Empire; we have, as they had, an immense cultural heritage, nearly all of which is disastrously vulnerable to the impacts of collapse; we have done our level best to abandon the heritage of local folk cultures at home and elsewhere in our empire, just as they did, and thus risk losing precious knowledge that might make it easier to weather the descent from today’s vertiginous imperial heights. The one difference is that it’s possible to talk in these terms today, and to propose concrete responses to what will be one of the most challenging features of the decline and fall of the industrial world.

In an ironic way, the “cultural creatives” whose specter I evoked at the beginning of this essay offer a glimpse at one of the most promising of these potential responses. Behind the inevitable rhetoric of innovation and originality was a very different reality: a sector of America’s middle-class intelligentsia discovered a set of ideas their parents, grandparents, and great-great-grandparents had valued in their time, and applied those ideas to the present day. True, most of the people involved in this rediscovery had no idea that this was what they were doing, and thus never made use of the rich heritage of the Transcendentalists, the Theosophists, the Beat generation, or any other expression of the same current of thought. Still, what they did half-unconsciously can be done in a more deliberate and conscious way.

Thus I’d like to suggest that one crucial need of our present predicament is the rise of a movement of cultural conservers – individuals who choose, for one reason or another, to take personal responsibility for the preservation of some part of the modern world’s cultural heritage. That’s a tall order, not least because the crises inseparable from the decline and fall of a civilization will leave many of us scrambling for bare survival in the face of soaring death rates and increasingly harsh conditions. Still, it’s not an insurmountable challenge.

Three themes, it seems to me, sketch out a basic frame on which cultural conservers can weave the individual patterns of their own work:

  • Focus. The cultural heritage of the modern world is far too vast for any one person even to encounter it all, much less to know enough about it to preserve significant elements of it in any meaningful way. Thus each cultural conserver will need to choose a handful of traditions at most, and focus his or her efforts on those. Since a consensus on what is worth saving is almost certainly impossible to reach, and might not even be a good idea, it seems to me that the best guide to the prospective cultural conserver in choosing a focus is sheer personal passion. The tradition that speaks to you most deeply – be it tablet weaving or Wordsworth’s poetry, mountain dulcimers or handbuilt radio technology, classical philosophy or the great American novels – is the one that will inspire you to the efforts necessary to pass it on to the future.
  • Simplicity. As the requirements needed to maintain a cultural tradition go up, the likelihood of its survival in a time of scarcity go down. Musical forms you can play yourself on an instrument of your own construction are thus more likely to survive as living traditions than musical forms that require a symphony orchestra and an opera company trained to today’s exacting vocal standards. More complex traditions can sometimes be stored in easily maintained forms; the intricate reasonings of Greek philosophers, for example, made it to the Renaissance because they were written down on durable parchment and left to gather dust in monastic libraries through the intervening centuries. In many cases, though, it’s possible to choose between simple and complex options for preserving a technology; if you want to preserve the technology of printing, for example, a hand-operated letterpress is much simpler to use, maintain, and build with hand tools and locally available resources than a computer and a laser printer. Technologies that are less efficient in the abstract, as this example suggests, may be more durable in the deindustrial future ahead of us.
  • Transmission. It takes more than one lifetime for a civilization to decline and fall, and so the flip side of preserving some bit of cultural heritage is the challenge of passing it on to a younger generation. Those traditions that will have obvious economic value in an age of decline and disintegration have a huge head start here; it’s unlikely in the extreme, for example, that today’s advances in intensive organic food production will be lost anytime soon, since the skills in question grant a huge survival advantage to those who know them and have the opportunity to put them to use. Still, cultural transmission does not always follow the economic line of least resistance. Those who know must be prepared to teach, and also to use their knowledge in ways that meet community needs.
These three themes sketch out only the first rough lines on a very broad canvas. In posts to come, I hope to develop these ideas in more detail. It’s worth noting that a significant number of people have already taken on some elements of the sort of project I am outlining here, some quite consciously, and I propose to draw on their experience as much as I can. Just as the “cultural creatives” could have benefited by placing their own projects in a historical context, too, I intend to offer some historical context to the mission of the cultural conservers, in the hope that a sense of what worked (and what didn’t work) in the past will help shape constructive responses to the immense challenges of our future.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Same New Ideas

As I write these words, a week before their publication, The Archdruid Report is starting its third year. It’s been a long strange trip, to borrow a phrase from the Grateful Dead. Perhaps the strangest thing about it, and certainly the most interesting, has been the chance to watch the way that ideas rise and sink through the collective imagination of the modern world.

This isn’t simply entertainment, though it certainly has its entertaining aspects. Behind the obvious challenges posed by peak oil lies a struggle among basic assumptions about the nature of reality. Underlying the cornucopian position, for example, is a worldview in which all meaning and value center on humanity’s upward climb to a modern society, and nature is merely a source of raw materials and a place to dump waste. Go to the apocalyptic true believers at the other end of the spectrum and you enter a worldview in which humanity has fallen from grace by usurping nature’s power, and only the purifying force of total catastrophe can admit a righteous remnant back into its proper subservience.

These worldviews, like others in the peak oil debate, have ancient roots, and the belief systems that cluster around them faithfully copy equivalents from past centuries. One of the interesting things about the play of ideas around peak oil is the way that an unfamiliar predicament has been redefined in such familiar terms. What adds irony to the interest, though, is the consistency with which those who present these common notions insist on describing them as new and innovative ideas unlike anything anyone has thought before.

Circumstances give me something of a front row seat to this odd spectacle. It happens that, as a function of my training and temperament alike, my ideas about the future of industrial society differ sharply from many of the popular views on the subject. I hasten to say that my ideas are no more original than those of the other sides in the debate. Everything I’ve said about the future here and elsewhere comes out of one thread of what Mortimer Adler used to call the Great Conversation, the play of ideas down the years that traces the cultural history of our world, and they root down into a worldview at least as archaic as those I mentioned a moment ago. What interests me is the number of people who are just as dependent on secondhand ideas as I am, but have apparently never noticed that fact.

Consider the widely circulated theories that the end of industrial society will be sudden, total, and imminent. There’s nothing particularly new about this claim, which has been being made regularly since the mid-19th century. There’s rarely anything new in the arguments supporting modern versions of the claim, either; most of them were well aged before such durable classics as Roberto Vacca’s The Coming Dark Age dusted them off for a new audience in the 1970s. For that matter, the shark-fin theory of history, in which societies rise over time to a peak of wealth, power, and corruption, and then suffer total destruction, can be found in the Old Testament, and underlies the religious rhetoric of apocalypse that coined most of the ideas now being retailed by today’s prophets of fast collapse.

The persistence of the shark-fin theory in apocalyptic rhetoric, it has to be said, is not matched by a similar presence in actual history. It’s vanishingly rare for a society to collapse at the peak of its wealth and power, for the simple reason that wealth and power are two of the most effective means for staving off collapse. As a rhetorical reality, however, the sudden collapse of unjust power has immense cultural resonance throughout the western world, and people are duly lining up for the chance to say “How art the mighty fallen!” over the corpse of industrialism. What fascinates me most, though, is that each of them seems to think they thought of those words by themselves, and for the very first time.

For amother example, take the confident announcements that the current troubles of industrial society are the harbingers of an evolutionary breakthrough to a higher mode of being, where the problems that beset us today will have lost their relevance. Few claims about the future are so insistently described by their proponents as new and innovative thinking; even fewer have less right to that title. Glance through the pages of such classics of Victorian thought as Joseph Le Conte’s Evolution, published in 1888, and you’ll find the same claims of imminent evolutionary transformation that fill so many popular books today.

The idea of an evolutionary breakthrough was necessarily a bit of a latecomer on the cultural scene, since a theory of evolution had to be invented first. Once Charles Darwin took care of this detail, each subsequent generation has duly identified whatever crisis made the headlines as the birth-pangs of the new humanity. Their equivalents today insist that this time, it’s for real, since the current crisis is so much more dire than those of the past. In making that argument, they’re on familiar ground, since the same thing has been claimed about many crises in the past, and doubtless it will be claimed just as fervently about many crises in the future. The most intriguing detail about all this, again, is the way in which an idea that’s been rehashed more often than the average sitcom plot has been trotted out again under the label of new and innovative thinking.

A third example is the profusion of claims that everything will be all right if only the right people are given political power. David Korten’s widely touted The Great Turning is a case in point. Korten argues that certain people, who have reached a higher “developmental stage” than the rest of us, are uniquely qualified to hold positions of leadership as the ideology of Earth Community vanquishes Empire, the Satan-surrogate of his intensely dualistic secular mythology. His arguments differ only in details from those Plato uses to justify elite rule in his totalitarian Utopia The Republic or, for that matter, the equivalent arguments used by defenders of aristocratic privilege in 18th and 19th century Europe. Since few of Korten’s readers are apparently familiar with these latter, though, his profoundly antidemocratic and illiberal treatise has been hailed as a breakthrough work full of new and innovative thinking.

As these examples suggest, the reappearance of the same new ideas over and over again has a troubling side. Many of those ideas have been tried repeatedly in the past, and have worked very, very poorly. Despite their appeal, there’s no good reason to think that they’ll work any better in their latest incarnations. Thus it may be worth looking into the immense failure of cultural memory that stands in the way of tracing the histories of our own ideas.

In his scathing 1986 study of the ideologies of gender in late 19th century art, Idols of Perversity, Bram Dijkstra commented:

In a world which stresses the value of individualism above all else, it is a primary requirement for the ‘self-confident’ mind, to remain blind to the logical conjunction of personal ideas and the assumptions held by the ‘mass’ of one’s contemporaries. The ideas of ‘individual’ thinkers, more often than not, are largely constructed from contemporary clichés. These clichés have merely been stripped of their baser trappings, of their rhetorical conventionality, in accordance with whatever happen to be the prevailing guidelines for the ‘individualistic’ ego (p. 146).

Step past Dijkstra’s irritable prose and the point he makes is worth following up. The mythology of progress that provides modern industrial culture with its unacknowledged established religion devalues the cultural legacy of older epochs and the experience of the past; it’s symptomatic that one of the more crushing phrases of devaluation in modern teen slang is “Oh, that’s all history.” Without the depth perception that only an awareness of the past can bring, though, all we have to work with are the two-dimensional surfaces of contemporary popular culture, with all its baggage of unacknowledged borrowings from the past. Santayana’s famous dictum, it turns out, needs revision; those who do not remember their history are condemned to rehash it, under the delusion that they are being original.

There’s a way out of the paradox of unoriginal originality that besets so much of modern thought, though it’s at least as paradoxical: the way to get genuinely new ideas is to learn and value old ones. Partially that’s a matter of avoiding old mistakes, as suggested above, but it has other dimensions. Creativity, as Arthur Koestler pointed out many years ago, comes from the collision of incommensurable realities; to put that in less lapidary prose, it’s when the mind encounters two or more sharply different ways of making sense of the same thing that it can leap to a new level of understanding and come up with something authentically new.

Just as the 19th century collision between Western painting and the visual arts of other cultures enabled the Impressionists to break through to a new way of seeing light and color, and the cultural flowering of Heian Japan unfolded from the collision between the traditional forms of Japanese society and the arrival of cultural imports from China, our chance of finding the new ideas we so desperately need will go up sharply if the unstated assumptions and easy beliefs of contemporary culture are highlighted by contrast with radically different ways of looking at the world – and the past provides plenty of those.

Put this in the context of industrial civilization’s decline and fall, and an unexpected significance emerges. One of the great challenges faced by every dying civilization is the need to pass on as much as possible of its cultural, intellectual, and technical heritage to the future. Most readers of this blog are probably familiar with the role that Christian monks played in safeguarding the heritage of the Classical world during and after the collapse of Rome. The same thing has happened at other times, and in other ways – and there have also been times when it did not happen, and bare enigmatic ruins became the sole legacy of a civilization.

The extraordinary collection and transmission of information made possible by modern industrial society’s energy-intensive technological infrastructure raises the prospect that our civilization could leave a far richer legacy to the future than any before it. Still, the vulnerability of that technological infrastructure to the impacts of decline means that we can’t count on such a positive outcome. Whatever is to be saved has to be valued highly enough to be preserved, copied, and passed on from generation to generation. In a society that habitually devalues its past, it’s by no means guaranteed that anything of the sort will happen.

For this reason among others. I’ve come to think that a crucial role in shaping the future will be played by cultural conservers – individuals who choose to take on the task of learning and preserving some part of the cultural legacy of the past, and passing it on to the future. That’s not a highly valued role these days; our society glorifies the innovator and derides the conserver of tradition. Still, it’s a role that can contribute hugely to a better future. Over the weeks to come, I plan on discussing how cultural conservers might practice their craft, what resources might be useful to them, and how the gifts they preserve might benefit the world on the downside of Hubbert’s peak.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Preparing For What Future?

Last week’s Archdruid Report post, as my regular readers will recall, tried to point out that the current round of price spikes in food and petroleum prices does not justify claims that industrial civilization was on the brink of a rapid and total collapse. Predictably enough, this suggestion brought down a flurry of criticism.

Some of that was simply another helping of the standard arguments for the progressive and apocalyptic fantasies that play so large a role in today’s collective consciousness. Fortunately, not all fell into that reflexive category. My essay cited a recent post by relocalization blogger Sharon Astyk suggesting that a fast crash was imminent, and she responded the next day with a thoughtful rebuttal. I won’t try to summarize her arguments here; those interested should certainly read her response in full.

One point, though, deserves a response in detail. My essay last week ended with what I thought was a fairly straightforward comment: “...unless, that is, we allow premature proclamations of triumph or catastrophe to distract us from the work that must be done.” Astyk took exception to this and suggested, if I follow her correctly, that the phrase was simply a rhetorical flourish. That it certainly was not. It could doubtless have been expressed more clearly, but it points to what, as I see it, is one of the most crucial factors in discussing the future of industrial society.

The actions we take to prepare for the future, after all, should be shaped by the future we expect. If we can reasonably expect the future promised us by the modern myth of progress – a future of constant improvement toward a destiny among the stars – then it makes sense to plan on business as usual, to treat each ephemeral new technology as the wave of the future, and to treat nature as a sort of green decor worth saving solely for esthetic and sentimental reasons. If, on the other hand, we can reasonably expect the future promised us by the modern myth of apocalypse – a future of sudden chaos and mass death that will leave, at most, a handful of survivors huddled in isolated hideouts – then it makes sense to abandon any hope of improving the status quo and eschew any plan for the future that doesn’t involve firearms, canned food, and subsistence skills basic enough to be practiced in the desolate silence of a mostly empty world.

The problem with either of these decisions is obvious enough. If our plans rely on the arrival of some particular future, and that future does not come about, whatever money, effort, resources, and time have been invested in our imagined future has gone down a rathole. If the future we get turns out different enough from the one we expect, in turn, our actions may have closed doors and wasted opportunities that could have spared us major difficulties. The textbook example in recent times is the decision taken around 1980, by nations across the industrial world, to discard the promising steps toward sustainability made in the previous decade. If those steps had been followed up, the transition to a postpetroleum world could probably have been made without massive disruption. At this point, after a quarter century of wasted opportunities, the chance of doing that is slim at best.

Seeing this catastrophic error as a matter of choosing the wrong future to prepare for, though, rather begs the question. There’s at some reason to think that the decisions that turned the industrial world away from sustainability in the early 1980s were not the result of a conscious decision that a future of infinite economic growth on a finite planet was possible and desirable. Rather, it seems all too likely that people wished to take certain actions – for example, scrapping expensive and inconvenient conservation programs – and justified those actions by imagining a future in which those actions seemed to make sense. Certainly the same thing has happened in a big way in the alternative scene.

Look for proposals for responding to the crisis of industrial society these days and you’ll find that nearly all of them fall into three groups. First are those who want to organize a political movement to throw the current rascals out of office and put a new set of rascals in. Second are those who talk about building ecovillages in the countryside, to provide a postapocalyptic version of suburban living to today’s smart investors. Third are those who plan on holing up in a cabin in the mountains with guns and canned beans, and waiting until the rubble stops bouncing. I’ve argued elsewhere that none of these is a viable response to the future we’re most likely to face, but there’s another point worth noting: each of them is also something many people in today’s American middle class want to do anyway. Quite a few people nowadays think they ought to have more political power; an equally large number like to daydream about moving to a new exurban development far out in the countryside; and of course, the appeal of firearms collections and fantasies of self-reliance remains strong in an age that has problematized traditional images of masculinity. To a great extent, peak oil has simply become another excuse for the pursuit of activities, real or imagined, that many people find desirable for other reasons.

Amplifying this is one of the most enduring habits in the American tradition of public rhetoric – the attempt to scare the bejesus out of people in the hope that this will motivate them to follow a desirable course of action. Colonial preacher Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” set a cultural fashion that remains alive to this day. Choose any cause you care to think of, and if it’s attracted anything like a mass movement, odds are that its prophets are announcing the imminent arrival of some variety of doom – closely modeled on the Book of Revelations, far more often than not – unless people change their wicked ways. If it’s not a mass movement, the odds are even better that its prophets will be proclaiming some inevitable doom which will sweep away the unbelieving multitudes and leave the earth to the righteous remnant – that is, the prophets in question and those who agree with them. In either case, the catastrophe is simply rhetorical ammunition meant to back the claim that whatever action you’re supposed to take is the only alternative to doom. Peak oil, of course, has attracted a sizeable number of would-be prophets of both kinds.

I should hasten to say at this point that I’m not assigning Sharon Astyk to either camp. Mind you, I suspect she would propose relocalization as a good idea – as, indeed, many people have been doing, for a variety of good reasons, since the early decades of the 20th century – even if nothing like peak oil were in the offing. Still, retooling lifestyles to rely more on local resources and one’s own efforts, and less on a far-flung and increasingly fragile global economic system, is likely to prove a very useful strategy during the cascading series of crises unfolding around us right now. In that, I think, we’re very much in agreement. Going beyond that, however, requires a clearer sense of what kind of future we are facing – and not just on a global basis.

Local and personal scales also count; everyone shares the same future only when “the future” has been reduced to an ideological abstraction. The same problem afflicts current talk about the possibility of a crash, fast or otherwise: exactly what is crashing, and how far, and how uniformly? I’ve done my best to be clear about such issues here and elsewhere, but it’s probably worth repeating myself. My take is that modern industrial civilization is on the downslope of its history, headed for the compost heap of fallen empires alongside all the dead civilizations of the past. Peak oil and the other elements of the crisis of the contemporary world, in this analysis, are simply the current manifestations of patterns that shaped the fall of other civilizations, and our future will most likely follow a similar course – an extended, uneven decline extending over more than a century, including repeated periods of crisis followed by partial recoveries, ending in a dark age in which much of the technology, knowledge base, and cultural heritage of today will survive in fragments or be completely lost.

Those parts of the world peripheral to today’s industrial civilization will follow trajectories of their own – it’s worth remembering that the Muslim world and T’ang dynasty China reached the zeniths of their own cultural arcs while the western world was scraping the bottom of the last round of dark ages – and new cultures will arise from the ruins of the modern industrial world in time. The global reach of industrial civilization, though, makes it unlikely that any part of the world will escape the approaching troubles entirely, and the equally global drawdown of resources erases the possibility that societies of the future will be able to duplicate the industrial model; their technics, while potentially even more sophisticated than ours, will have to work with much less concentrated and abundant energy sources.

The current round of global troubles – the peak of conventional petroleum production worldwide, soaring prices and incipient shortages in other commodities, spiraling breakdowns in the international debt market, and the fraying of America’s global empire – marks, in this analysis, the onset of one of the periods of crisis mentioned above. If this is the case, we face several decades of serious social, economic, and political turmoil, with a high likelihood that many of these troubles will spill over onto the battlefield. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, the period between 1929 and 1945, with its economic crises, political horrors, and global power struggles ending in a brutal world war, may make a tolerably good model for the period now dawning around us.

If I’m right – and every discussion of the future needs to start with those unpopular words – the future for which we have to prepare has two aspects, one overarching, one immediate. The overarching aspect is the slow curve of decline I’ve called the Long Descent, the final trajectory of industrial civilization toward its death. The immediate aspect is the need to deal with the particular round of crises breaking over us just now. Those two aspects are related but they’re not the same, and the resources and skills needed to deal with them are also not the same.

These, ultimately, are the reflections that lie behind my suggestion that fixating on the short term, and overstating the implications of short-term trends, may well get in the way of a constructive response to the broader picture. This is why it’s problematic to insist, as a number of internet bloggers did recently, that the discovery of a new oil resource in North Dakota means that peak oil is no longer a problem. On a global scale, with most of the world’s oil producing countries and most of its supergiant fields already in decline, the Bakken shale simply doesn’t make that much difference, and planning for a future that will allow us to keep up the extravagant energy-wasting lifestyles of the recent past will likely have disastrous results.

Yet it’s just as problematic to insist that the current wave of crises will inevitably spin out of control into a fast crash that will bring industrial civilization to its knees. That claim carries its own agenda of actions for the future, and if the claim turns out to be inaccurate, many elements of that agenda could all too easily prove to be dysfunctional. Moving to an isolated rural area and making a go of subsistence farming is not a viable strategy for everyone, for example, and even those who are well suited to that life might turn out to have made a dysfunctional choice if the fast crash fails to arrive on schedule.

If the end of the industrial age turns out to be a longer and more complex process than fast-crash advocates suggest, in fact, isolated rural areas may not be the best places to start small farms at all. Truck gardens and organic food production on the outskirts of small and mid-sized cities will be much better positioned to thrive in a world where markets still exist but transport costs are a major limiting factor. In some areas this is already happening; the explosive growth of farmers markets, community-supported agriculture schemes, and direct sales of local produce to local restaurants have put down the foundations on which local and regional food production networks could easily grow. Fostering the emergence of such networks could contribute much to the future. So could the evolution of many other economic specialties that are irrelevant in the context of a fast crash, but not in the more complex terrain I suspect the future holds for us.

Of course there’s a broader context to all this. My vision of the future is very much a minority view these days. So many people believe in the fast crash scenario that there’s unlikely to be anything like a shortage of people preparing for it, but the Long Descent is another matter. It doesn’t echo any of the narratives our culture and media circulate about the future, and it doesn’t feed the widely held and wildly popular sense of our own uniqueness that underlies so much of today’s supposedly innovative thought, so its mass appeal is pretty minimal.

Thus you won’t find many people preparing to make the transition from today’s high-tech economy to the less complex, more impoverished, more fragmented, but still industrial economies that I expect to emerge from the Great Recession and global troubles of 2010-2030 or thereabouts. Nor will you find many people seriously taking on the role of cultural conserver that will be desperately needed if many things of value are to get through the deindustrial dark ages of 2200-2600 or thereabouts, and reach the successor cultures that will emerge beyond it. As I see it, these are among the crucial tasks before us; they could make the long road to the deindustrial future more bearable, and pass on important gifts to the future; but as I tried to suggest last week, they will not happen if the people who could make them happen get caught up in premature proclamations of triumph or catastrophe.