Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Ecology of Social Change

Last week’s Archdruid Report post was a bit of a departure from this blog’s normal fare, but it was a departure with a purpose. By turning a spotlight on the way that so many Americans have projected what amounts to a paranoid mythology of incarnate evil onto whichever side of the political spectrum they don’t inhabit, I hoped to begin a conversation about the immense gap between expectation and reality that hamstrings most attempts at constructive social change, in America as elsewhere.

I have to say that the true believers in the mythology responded to their cue with a great deal of enthusiasm. I received a bumper crop of angry screeds assailing me, in lively and in some cases unprintable language, for suggesting that people should be judged by their actions rather than the intentions imputed to them by their most bitter enemies. My favorite among these comments rounded off a thumping denunciation by demanding that I resign at once from my position as archdruid. The author never quite got around to explaining why acceptance of his extremist ideology should be so vital a part of my job description, so I didn’t take his advice.

Now it so happens that I spent much of the weekend reading Carl Jung’s memorably weird autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections, and so it was hard to miss the relevance of Jung’s concept of shadow projection to all this. The shadow is Jung’s name for the mental dumpster into which individuals and societies stuff the aspects of themselves they dare not face; when the dumpster gets too full, one refuge from self-knowledge lies in tipping its contents onto someone else, and claiming that the objectionable qualities belong to the scapegoat rather than oneself.

It needs to be recognized in this context that it’s only in modern morality plays that scapegoats are invariably virtuous and innocent. In the real world, it often happens that the person targeted has his own faults, sometimes grievous ones, and that these are routinely used to justify whatever other accusations are heaped on him. This process seems universal among human beings – I very much doubt any of us are entirely free of the habit of seeing our own worst qualities in the people we dislike – but its intensity varies between individuals, cultures, and historical periods, and Jung is surely right to point out that it reaches peaks when an individual or a society get caught in the gap between what the world is assumed to be and what it actually is.

Survey any of the major historic outbreaks of mass scapegoating and violence and you’ll find it in a context where socially acceptable belief systems failed to keep up with a changing world. Behind the European witch hunts, for example, lay the collapse of late medieval worldviews that hardened into dogma as they were cracking apart at the seams, just as the fatal mismatch between German fantasies of global dominion and Germany’s actual status as a little country without oil reserves or defensible borders in an age of sprawling petroleum-fueled empires played a major role in setting the stage for its catastrophic 20th-century history.

What makes the situation in contemporary America interesting, from this perspective, is the way that its mainstream culture and its self-described alternative countercultures have fallen into versions of the same double-bind. Many posts here, and of course quite a bit of excellent analysis by other authors, have outlined the way that the narratives of the cultural mainstream in contemporary America built a worldview of perpetual progress and limitless abundance on the temporary foundation of cheap fossil fuels, and have been made hopelessly irrelevant by the end of the petroleum age. Less often discussed and, I believe, less often noticed is the way that most current proposals meant to replace the current order of society with a better one also rest on beliefs about the world that hold up very poorly in the face of experience.

The mismatch here can best be traced along a specific fault line dividing future visions from present realities. Page through any recent proposal for substantive social change and odds are that the better world it envisions is usually, at least in theory, better in terms of every variable its authors consider relevant. There are rarely any tradeoffs, or any sense of the bitter choices that so often constrain the decisions of real societies in the real world; the inhabitants of the better future do not have to choose between peace and freedom, between feeding the hungry and protecting the environment, or indeed between any two values; given the right social system, the implication seems to be, you can have it all.

Consider the ways in which these same proposals hope to bring about the change they envision and the same fracture opens up. Whether they put their faith in organization, political action and the like, or expect some deus ex machina, whether cataclysmic or mystical, to sweep away the old order of things and leave the field clear for the future to be born, nearly all of them assume that the only obstacles to a Utopian society, the only factors that force hard choices on people, are the institutions, individuals, or attitudes governing today’s world.

These curious habits of thought unfold from a single assumption: that human choices and only human choices place limits on the perfection of human society. Back of this assumption lies the prestige of the Enlightenment cult of reason, with its conviction that building a better social mousetrap will cause the world to beat a path to your Utopian door. Yet it’s hard to think of an assumption that has been more thoroughly disproved by experience. Consistently, the more Utopian a new society has appeared on paper, the more disastrous it has turned out to be in practice. Proponents of social change tend to insist that their new society will be different, but at this point in history, that insistence is starting to wear very thin.

The crucial flaw in most of today’s ideas about social change, then, may just be that – even when they wrap themselves in environmental slogans – they are rooted in a fundamental denial of ecology. Imagine for a moment that instead of a human society, we are talking about some other ecosystem composed of living things. That ecosystem has evolved over many generations in relationship to other systems, animate and inanimate, and it maintains itself by complex balances that challenge any attempt at analysis. What happens when human beings set out to reengineer the ecosystem to suit their own preferences, especially if they assume as a matter of course that their new ecosystem will necessarily be stable, balanced, and healthy if it is pleasing to them?

Of course we don’t have to speculate about the answer; the catastrophic results of human mismanagement of natural ecosystems are far too well documented. Our species has learned the hard way, over and over again, that tinkering with an ecosystem needs to be done with exquisite care. It can be done – traditional societies all over the world have evolved ways of shaping their environments for human benefit that still maintain the overall integrity of the ecosystem, and today’s permaculturists and students of appropriate technology are moving in the same direction – but it can only be done in small steps, with a great deal of knowledge and an even greater supply of patience.

I am coming to suspect that exactly the same thing is true of human societies. The discipline of human ecology has shown that the same principles that shape the environmental relationships of other species and other communities also apply to our species and our communities. Like these other living things, human beings depend for their survival on natural cycles, and are subject to natural limits. Like the communities of other living things, human communities – from villages to nations – are shaped by their history, adapt to their environments, face hard choices between competing goods, and respond homeostatically in order to counter movements toward disruptive change.

Thus social change is possible, just as environmental change is possible, but it may need to be pursued in a very different spirit from the one that motivates the Utopian ideologies of the present and the recent past. If we are to take human ecology seriously, it seems to me, it’s time to start trying to understand the ecological conditions – the relationships linking human beings to each other, to other living things, and to inanimate nature – that foster desirable social changes. Then, in the manner of tribal gardeners carefully replacing noxious plants with edible ones, those who desire those changes might work to bring about those conditions, keeping an eye on the results and letting experience rather than ideology guide their efforts.

As far as I know, the art of applied human ecology or social ecotechnics suggested here exists only in the most embryonic form, and no little effort will be needed even to begin the process of evolving it. Still, the attempt to better society by remaking it according to some ideological model or other has failed so consistently that it’s high time to try something else.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Pornography of Political Fear

In most respects, despite the media hoopla, yesterday was an ordinary day. Amid brisk January weather, one of the world’s large nations marked the installation of a new chief executive with the usual round of ceremonies and celebrations. The transition was orderly to the point of dullness; the retiring president and his replacement had coffee together in the White House before the ceremony, and afterwards walked together with every evidence of cordiality to the helicopter that would ferry one of them back into private life.

I am not sure how many people noticed that the clatter of rotor blades as that helicopter took off put a period at the end of some of the most extravagant rhetoric of the Bush era. For the past eight years, a great many voices had insisted that the weary Texan who left the White House yesterday was about to declare martial law, suspend the Constitution, cancel all future elections, order dissidents to be rounded up and interned in concentration camps built by Halliburton, and a great deal more of the same kind. If, dear reader, you were one of the people who spent George W. Bush’s presidential terms insisting that these things were about to happen, grab a beer from the fridge and have a seat, because we need to talk.

The rumors I’ve just described were very nearly an article of faith across large sectors of the American left in the years just past. Hundreds of websites and a sizable number of talk radio programs presented them as matters of simple fact, and vied with one another to accuse the Bush administration of the most diabolical intentions. Those who pointed out that the purveyors of these ideas never quite got around to offering the least scrap of evidence to back them tended to be dismissed with scorn. Yet the fact remains that all those claims were quite simply wrong.

It’s a bit uncomfortable to be the one who points this out, because I am no fan of George W. Bush. I voted against him in two elections, and have never regretted either vote. He and the neoconservative movement that used him as its sock puppet did a great deal to damage the country I love. Yet it’s always seemed to me that a person should be criticized for the things he does, not the intentions that his worst enemies impute to him. Bush was certainly a bad president; he may even, as many of those enemies have claimed, be a bad person. Somehow, though, it seems to have been forgotten that these points do not justify telling lies about him.

The enthusiasm with which those rumors were minted and spread is all the more ironic, in that some of the people who participated most eagerly were among those who complained bitterly when right-wing pundits and websites meted out the same treatment to Bill Clinton during the latter’s two terms. I think most of us who were around at that time heard more than our fill about UN troop convoys rolling down American highways, black helicopters crisscrossing the skies, and Clinton’s personal plan to put America under the yoke of a tyrannical world government that would send gun owners and evangelical Christians to concentration camps. Those stories were just as unsupported by evidence and disproven by events as the equivalent claims about Bush, or the flurry of similar stories already beginning to circulate about President Obama.

The last two decades, in fact, have seen the rise of what might best be called a pornography of political fear in America’s collective discourse. Like other forms of pornography, it flattens the rich complexity of human interaction into a one-dimensional world in which abstract shapes and motions stimulate unthinking reactions from the brainstem levels of its viewers. It thus debases what it claims to describe, even as it pursues whatever raw sensation it evokes further and further away from any human reality. The payoff of the pornography of political fear is different from the one experienced by those who have their hands down inside some less metaphorical pair of shorts, but it is every bit as reflexive, and its results can be just as messy.

The nature of that payoff deserves some discussion here. Hate in contemporary America has much the same status given to some other words with four letters in earlier times: a great many people affect to despise it, and condemn those who practice it publicly, while thirsting for the chance to engage in it themselves. The pornography of political fear appeals precisely because it provides a culturally sanctioned opportunity to indulge in the forbidden pleasures of unrestrained hate. The intoxication of feeling justified, and even virtuous, while wallowing in hatred for an irredeemably evil Other is a potent force in today’s culture – and it may yet become an equally powerful factor in tomorrow’s politics, with disastrous results.

An earlier post on this blog explored the way that terms such as “fascist” have been stripped of their contexts and turned into all-purpose epithets with no other meaning beyond “I hate you.” This common pattern of rhetoric makes it difficult to draw any useful lesson from the bitter history of 20th century totalitarian governments, but the effort needs to be made, because certain features of contemporary culture display unwelcome similarities to the conditions that helped those earlier nightmares claw their way into waking life.

One of them is precisely this habit of allowing pornographic fantasies of political evil to pass unchallenged as reasonable discourse. In the decades leading up to the rise of European fascism in the 1920s and 1930s, rhetoric no more heated than today’s torrents of partisan vilification spread through all sides of the political controversies of the day. This did much to create an atmosphere of collective hatred in which it no longer seemed unreasonable, to far too many people, to single out one group within society as the source of all its problems – and set out to remove those problems by exterminating their supposed source.

More than two thousand years ago, much the same process was mapped out in precise detail by a long line of Greek philosophers, who explored the ways that the republics of the classical world gave way to tyranny. The key to the process, according to many of these ancient witnesses, was the rise of bitter factional struggles over wealth and power that spun so far out of hand that the machinery of civil government broke apart and the rule of a tyrant became the only alternative to chaos and civil war. In a nation where a noticeable number of members of either party don’t seem to be able to walk past a picture of the other party’s candidate without screaming obscenities at it, we are closer to that outcome than most people realize.

Such habits flourish these days because representative democracy has always been an easy target for its critics. Abuses of power and displays of rank incompetence happen in democracies and closed societies alike, but in democracies they are more likely to become public knowledge and can be denounced in comparative safety – those people who fling the word “fascist” at today’s democracies, for example, can do so without having to worry in the least about being dragged from their beds in the middle of the night by armed men in jackboots and hauled away to a prison camp. Since politics in a representative democracy requires a constant process of compromise among competing pressure groups and power centers, furthermore, it’s rare for any side to get everything it wants, and this breeds dissatisfaction with the system.

That in itself is no vice – reasoned dissent is the lifeblood of a republic – but when dissatisfaction festers into the insistence that one’s own side ought always to get everything it wants, and the habit of demonizing the other side for standing up for its own interests and hopes for the future, something has gone terribly wrong. It may be one of the bitterest ironies of the next few decades that those who label their political enemies as fascists, by that very act, are helping to build a climate of political hatred, and contempt for flawed but functioning democracies, that could make something like fascism inevitable in today’s America – and a future totalitarian state, it bears remembering, could as easily arise from today’s political left wing as from the right.

It may already be too late to avoid that experience. Still, the effort is worth making, and one place to start is a principled rejection of the pornography of political fear. So, dear reader, when somebody tells you that Barack Obama is personally plotting to enslave you – and you will hear that claim in the near future, if you have not heard it already – I suggest that at the very least, you ask for some evidence more convincing than the splutterings of a fringe media personality or a conspiracy theory website that made exactly the same claims about Clinton and Bush. If we are going to get through the unraveling of industrial civilization with anything like a functioning society, the bad habits of rejecting the claims of a common humanity, demonizing political disagreement, and projecting the shadows of our own frustrations and failures onto the faces of our political enemies, are luxuries we can no longer afford.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Future That Wasn't

It’s a common affectation of pundits and professional thinkers to claim for their ideas a historical importance they probably won’t have. It does happen now and then, of course, that some thinker ends up having a massive impact on the shape of history; Karl Marx relished his self-defined role as forerunner of a Communist future, though I doubt he would have welcomed the trajectory his thought actually took from the barricades and marches of the late 19th century, through the bloodsoaked debacles of the 20th century’s revolutionary dictatorships, to the slow descent into bureaucratic torpor and collapse that finally swallowed the Communist dream.

Still, it needs to be remembered that Marx was one of more than a dozen major (and scores of minor) would-be social prophets who flourished in the century or so that centered on his life and are utterly forgotten today. Charles Fourier, for example, was a massively influential figure in his time, the inspirer of hundreds of what would now probably be called lifeboat ecovillages, but I have yet to meet anyone who has read his Theory of the Four Movements or takes his theories of social change through passional attraction seriously; most people who have heard of him at all these days tend to confuse him with the mathematician Jean-Baptiste Fourier, an entirely different person whose elegant discoveries are still much used today.

The same point can be made more broadly. Most of the intellectuals who were household names in the early decades of the 20th century are forgotten now, and their ideas have dropped out of circulation so totally that canny promoters today can resurrect notions of that time and market them as the discovery of the ages. Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, the hugely successful pop spirituality phenomenon of two years ago, was exactly such a rehash of forgotten commonplaces; its promoters correctly guessed that ideas that appealed to the public during the boomtime of the 1920s, no matter how dubious those ideas were, would be just as popular during the late housing bubble. No doubt they’re sorting through the rather different self-improvement literature of the 1930s in search of a bestseller for the decade ahead of us.

The interesting thing is that there were thinkers busy during these same decades whose visions ended up having a huge and enduring impact on the way the entire Western world thinks about the future. These visionaries weren’t to be found in the ivory towers of academe or any of the other prestigious places where people, then and now, expect great minds to be found; they didn’t even have the cachet of romantically starving to death in garrets. Most of them could be found in ordinary urban apartments and homes, hunched over clattering manual typewriters, as they fed a couple of dozen cheap gaudy magazines with science fiction stories.

The impact of science fiction on current visions of the future has been on my mind of late, for reasons mostly involved with two writing projects of mine unrelated to this blog. One of them is a study of the UFO phenomenon, unimaginatively titled The UFO Phenomenon, which is due out in March. One of the themes central to that book is the extraordinary way that every UFO-related belief of the last six decades surfaced in pulp science fiction many years before it showed up in reports of UFO encounters; that inevitably focused my attention on the wider impact of science fiction on contemporary images of the future.

The second is even more directly related to the SF genre, and rather more personal. Long before I started writing nonfiction about the future, or anything else, I cherished the dream of becoming a science fiction author; I wrote something like a dozen SF novels, and amassed an impressive collection of rejection slips from nearly every publisher in the field. I shelved that dream when I launched a nonfiction writing career in 1995, but a fine bit of irony awaited; one of my SF novels has finally been published by a small press. The Fires of Shalsha – that’s the title – isn’t about peak oil, though it has more than a little ecology woven into it and some of the themes discussed in these essays are part of the story.

The fact that science fiction counts as a literary genre at all these days is one measure of the wild ride it has had through the world of letters. 19th-century science fiction, what there was of it, counted as respectable literature; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which many critics consider the first true SF novel, received the same attention as other Gothic novels of the time, and Jules Verne was no less respected as a popular novelist in his time than Alexandre Dumas. At the beginning of the 20th century, such literary talents as E.M. Forster dabbled in SF, and H.G. Wells’ novels were reviewed alongside the serious literature of the day.

Enter the pulp magazines. The pulps – the name comes from the cheap paper on which they were printed – descended from the Victorian penny dreadfuls, with the same lurid topics, loud advertising, garish illustrations, and abysmal quality that made their 19th century equivalents so profitable. American pulps covered the spectrum of popular genres – Westerns, romances, mysteries, two-fisted adventure stories, you name it – but the gaudiest of the lot were devoted to science fiction. As it became a pulp genre, science fiction traded the salon for the gutter, and for several decades few authors who valued a literary reputation would touch it.

This plunge into the depths of popular culture had immense consequences. Despite the claims of importance noted above, serious literature rarely has a major impact on society. Its readership is too small and too well educated to slip into the uncritical enthusiasm that shapes the imagination of an age. Most often it turns out to be the popular literature, the reading material of housewives, factory workers, and schoolchildren, that reaches into the crawlspaces of culture where the future takes shape. By shedding literary credentials and wrapping itself in the gaudy finery of the pulp magazines, science fiction worked its way into the collective imagination of the modern world.

In this way, drawing on the passionate modern belief in the goodness and necessity of progress, science fiction in its pulp days transformed itself from a somewhat esoteric literary genre to a folk mythology that still shapes most of our thinking about the future today. Onto the blank screen of infinite space, as a result, the modern imagination projects all the dreams, fantasies and fears other cultures assign to more obviously metaphysical realms. Many of the essays I’ve posted on this blog have focused on disputing assumptions about the future that root straight back into the science fiction of the pulp era.

What makes this all the more interesting is that the grand future shared in common by most science fiction from the pulp era straight through to the 1970s – the leap upward from Earth to the first colonies on the Moon and Mars, the expansion through the solar system, the inevitable arrival of interstellar flight, and the panorama of star federations and galactic empires to follow – has lost nearly all the conviction that once made it look like the inevitable shape of things to come. It had its day, and accomplished certain things in that time; without Jules Verne and his many successors, human footprints probably would never have been left on the Moon, but its day is over now. Those who still cling to the old hope today – I am thinking of Ray Kurzweil and the Extropians here – have been reduced to wrapping Protestant eschatology in the borrowed garments of science fiction; rapture into heaven followed by immortality is a religious concept even when the god who is expected to provide it is named Technology. It’s a measure of this loss of faith that the publication of science fiction novels in the English-speaking world, at least, has declined steadily since the late 1980s and now amounts to only a few hundred titles a year.

In this light it’s interesting to note that the impact of peak oil on the future of the industrial world has begun to be explored using the toolkit of fiction. James Howard Kunstler’s World Made By Hand is the example most people in the peak oil scene know about, and deservedly so; it’s a rousing, readable tale that borrows from familiar genres (notably the Western) to portray the aftermath of the petroleum age in accessible terms. More experimental and, to my taste, even more interesting is Caryl Johnson’s self-published “essay-novel” After The Crash, which weaves together a tale about the writing of a narrative history of the end of the Hydrocarbon Age in post-Crash Philadelphia with social criticism directed at the present and speculation about the future.

This is not quite a new genre; its roots arguably go back to older works such as Richard Jefferies’ After London and Stephen Vincent Benet’s novella “By the Waters of Babylon,” and flowed into and then out of some of the byways of science fiction – I am thinking particularly here of Edgar Pangborn’s Davy and its sequels, alongside more straightforward SF works such as the novels of Wayland Drew’s Erthring Cycle and Marvin Kaye and Parke Godwin’s The Masters of Solitude. Still, the emergence of books of this kind focused on peak oil strikes me as a hopeful sign. Just as science fiction enabled people to get their heads around such improbable realities as moon landings decades in advance, peak oil fiction could make it easier for people today to make sense of the approaching changes in our own world.

If the peak oil movement of today is going to have much effect on the future, such options probably need to be explored. Today’s intellectuals are no more immune from the future’s forgetfulness than their great-grandfathers were – I cheerfully expect my own work to be forgotten just as thoroughly as Charles Fourier’s, for example, once I’ve been dead for a century or so. The history of science fiction shows that indirect routes of influence may be the most lasting and powerful options we have, and I hope more peak oil writers and visionaries take the time to explore them.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Age of Memory

Oswald Spengler, whose shade I have evoked several times already in these essays, is not the kind of philosopher that most intellectuals today find appealing. He had rather too much of the old-fashioned schoolmaster in him: precise, didactic, unsympathetic, dry. Worst of all, he had no patience with the fashionable logic that sees the present generation – or any other – as destiny’s darlings, to whom the lessons of history no longer apply. It’s no wonder that so few people read his books nowadays.

Still, these unendearing habits are among the reasons I find Spengler so useful as a guide just now. There are certainly times when the cultural pendulum has swung too far in the direction of logical rigor and cold analysis, when the disciplines of intellect need to be relaxed to make room for the life of the feelings and the play of the imagination. Still, I’m far from convinced that this is one of those times. Rather, it seems to me, we’ve approached the other end of the pendulum’s swing, the point when the world needs a reminder that a belief’s emotional appeal is no argument for its validity, and when what nineteenth-century writers liked to call “the heaving passions” – a phrase that seems rather too appropriate these days – have drowned out nearly everything else.

Now of course there are plenty of people these days leading the charge to flog what remains of reason out of our collective discourse about the future; it’s one of the finer ironies of cultural history that most of the people who think they’re rebelling against their culture are simply pushing its agenda a little further and faster than most of their contemporaries. This, again, is why I find Spengler so congenial. He matched up the twists and dodges of modern thought with their equivalents in the lives of half a dozen dead civilizations, and showed how those cultural factors most often claimed as evidence of progress nowadays are simply phases in a life cycle that is beginning to close in on its end. Like the poetry of Robinson Jeffers or the ethics of Epictetus, he has no time for our self-importance, and reading him clears the mind the way a bitter aperitif clears the palate.

Among his least popular arguments is the suggestion that modern Western culture – Faustian culture, as he called it – finished its creative age in the nineteenth century. Of course this is a generalization, as any statement about history must be; as generalizations go, however, it has quite a bit going for it. Take the arts as a test case: those that have their roots in the Faustian world, if they are still practiced at all, have either fossilized into repetitions of old forms, like classical music; turned for inspiration to the arts of other cultures, like popular music, which draws heavily from African music by way of the influence of blues on rock and jazz on nearly every contemporary genre; or become the self-referential concern of a narrowing circle of cognoscenti, like today’s avant-garde art music.

Similar patterns can be traced straight across the spectrum of the Western world’s cultural forms. Political thought across the industrial world, for example, is spinning its wheels in ruts laid down decades ago; a central reason why politics has degenerated into struggles over personalities and petty issues across the political mainstream, and into Utopian fantasies out on the fringes, is that nothing even approximating a new idea has entered the Western world’s political discourse since well before World War Two. (This applies to alternative culture as much as to the mainstream; nearly all of the ideas now being put forward as cutting-edge, avant-garde, New Age political ideas were already creaking with age when they were last recycled in the 1920s.) True to form, Spengler does not even give us the comfort of a good ringing denunciation of decadence. instead, he suggests that it is the natural fate of the cultural life form that sprouted in western Europe around 900, burst into flower at the beginning of the Renaissance, and has now gone to seed.

The botanical metaphor is one that Spengler himself would have appreciated, but I mean it in a slightly different way than he did. Spengler’s view of what he called civilization – the second half of a culture’s life cycle, when its creative possibilities have all been worked out – was largely negative. The ancient Egyptians, among others, would have disagreed strenuously; from their viewpoint, geared as it was to cultural stability and the preservation of traditional forms, what a Faustian mind necessarily sees as a creative period becomes a matter of blind groping in the dark, and what a Faustian mind sees as stagnation is the healthy balance of a successful society. Nor can the Egyptian viewpoint be dismissed out of hand; maintaining cultural continuity, a rich and tolerant religious life, and stunningly beautiful art and architecture as living traditions for more than three thousand years is not a small achievement.

Even within a Faustian perspective, the completion of the Western world’s cultural trajectory has potentials that need to be recognized. To return to an example I have used several times before in these essays, the sorting process that picked Aristotle’s Organon out from among scores of other Greek works on logic, and spread it throughout the Mediterranean world, happened long after the creative age of Greek philosophy was over. As culture gives way to civilization, a ruthless winnowing of cultural heritage typically begins, and those creative works and techniques that survive the process become basic to the arts, crafts, and sciences of the mature society. From there, they move past the periphery of the civilization and become part of the common cultural heritage of humankind.

This is the phase toward which Spengler saw the Western world advancing. Whether his scheme makes sense of the broader phenomenon of historical change he hoped to clarify, it provides a perspective crucial to our own time. The end of the age of cheap energy has many implications, but one of the most important – and most daunting – is that it marks the end of the road for nearly all the cultural trends that have guided the industrial world since the paired industrial and political revolutions of the eighteenth century. Those trends pursued greater size, greater speed, greater power; the replacement of human capacities with ever more intricate machines, demanding ever more abundant energy and resource inputs; an escape from the interdependence of living nature into an artificial world transparent to the human mind and obedient to the human will.

That way to the future is no longer open. The nations of the industrial world could pursue it as far as they did only because abundant reserves of fossil fuels and other natural resources were available to power Faustian culture along its trajectory. The waning of those reserves and, more broadly, the collision between the pursuit of unlimited economic growth and the hard limits of a finite planet, marks the end of those dreams. It may also mark the beginning of a time in which we can sort through the results of the last three centuries, discard the ones that worked poorly or demand conditions that no longer exist, and keep what still has value.

One useful way to talk about this process, it seems to me, is to borrow a common habit of talking about history and put it to work in a new way. Not that long ago it was common to describe the medieval period in the Western world as the Age of Faith, and to contrast it smugly with an Age of Reason that was held to have dawned with the first stirrings of the scientific revolution, and come into its own with the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. Oversimplified though these categories are, they point up certain important distinctions between the phases of our cultural trajectory that were primarily guided by religious thought and those guided by the expansive Enlightenment belief in the limitless power of human reason.

That latter belief is on its last legs just now, because the effort to direct human behavior solely according to reason simply didn’t live up to its advance billing; the inevitable reaction is following. Thus the faith that unchecked rationality is a ticket to Utopia, or the only hope of the human future, or whatever other set of religious ideas might be assigned to it, is wearing very thin these days, and the decline of today’s technological infrastructure in the wake of peak oil may just put paid to it. Reason will doubtless retain an active role in our collective life, just as faith has done, but other forces will likely take the lead in the decades and centuries ahead of us.

Thus it may not be inappropriate to suggest that in a very real sense, the Age of Reason is ending. If Spengler is right, what will follow it is an Age of Memory, where the collective imagination of the West turns back to contemplate its own past and extract the most useful elements from a thousand years of innovation. The cultural conserver concept, which I introduced in an earlier post here, represents one workable response to that possibility. I plan on discussing that in more detail, and in more practical terms, in the weeks and months ahead – subject to the usual interruptions, of course.