Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Rock by Lake Silvaplana

One of the most important and least popular lessons taught by the history of ideas is that every attempt to answer the big questions—where did we come from, why are we here, where are we going, and so forth—gets whatever support it has from two distinct sources. The first of these is the factual evidence, if any, that backs it; the second is the emotional appeal, if any, that it offers to those who embrace it. Habits of thinking hardwired into contemporary culture treat the first of those as though it’s the only thing that matters, and react to any mention of the second with the same sort of embarrassed silence that might greet a resounding fart at a formal garden party.  Since human beings aren’t passionless bubbles of intellect, though, the second source of support is fairly often the more important and the more revealing of the two.

The flurry of apocalyptic predictions that surrounded December 21, 2012 makes as good an example as any. The factual evidence supporting the idea that anything unusual would happen on that date was—well, to call it dubious is by no means a minor understatement:  the entire furore was based on misinterpretations of the Mayan calendar that wouldn’t have survived fifteen minutes of unbiased research, but which were accepted as gospel and padded out by industrious true believers into a magpie’s nest of arbitrary speculations, misquoted or invented prophecies, and scientific hypotheses yanked out of context and hammered into shape to support the preexisting 2012 narrative.  Those of my readers who tried, as I did, to question that narrative will recall the reaction from believers: talk about the facts and you could expect an endlessly shifting assortment of justifications for belief; talk about the narrative, its parallels in previous apocalyptic fads, and the tangled emotional drives that all too clearly lay behind it, and you could expect a furious insistence that bringing up such matters is irrelevant and unfair.

Questioning the modern faith in progress, on those rare occasions when such questioning happens at all, is a good way to observe a similar species of handwaving in its native habitat. As mentioned in last week’s post, the concept of progress has no content of its own, no single measurement by which it stands and falls. Thus no matter how many things are pretty clearly regressing—and these days, the list of things that are regressing is getting quite long—believers can always find something or other that appears to be progressing, and use that to defend the narrative. When that fails in turn, as it generally does, there’s always something else, even if that turns out to be no more than the pious hope that the regress will turn out to be a temporary hurdle over which, as the myth of progress demands, humanity will sooner or later leap. Move the discussion to the narrative of progress, its parallels among other triumphalist narratives, and the emotional drives that lie behind it, though, and you’ll get the same sort of angry denunciation that came from believers in the 2012 narrative.

It’s going to be necessary to risk that reaction, and a variety of other unhelpful responses, in order to glimpse a shape of time better suited to the realities of our present situation than the dead straight Joachimist line of progress or the Augustinian U-shape of apocalypse that runs from Eden to the fallen world to the cataclysmic arrival of the New Jerusalem, however renamed. The route past those overly familiar alternatives requires attention to the emotional dimensions of the shapes we give to the inkblot patterns of time, and in particular, to a distinctive emotional payoff that the narratives of progress and apocalypse share in common.

Therapists call it provisional living: the belief that life will become what it’s supposed to be once x happens. What x might be varies as wildly from case to case as the diversity of human psyches will permit. Among individuals, it might be losing twenty pounds, being promoted to that supervisor’s position you’ve always wanted, getting a divorce, or what have you, but it always has two distinctive features.  The first is that x serves as an anchor for a flurry of unrealistic fantasies about the future that will supposedly arrive once x happens; the second is that x never happens, and is more or less chosen—subconsciously or otherwise—with that outcome in mind.

It’s precisely the fact that x never happens that makes provisional living so tempting.  Most of us are aware on one level or another that the choices we prefer to make do not reflect the values and beliefs we claim to hold, and are not going to bring us the lives we think we ought to have.  Confront that reality head on, and the message that the statue of Apollo said to Rainier Maria Rilke—"you must change your life"—becomes hard to ignore.  The avoidance of that reality is therefore the cornerstone on which most dysfunctional lives are built.

Provisional living is among the most popular ways to engineer that avoidance.  The pounds you can’t lose, the promotion you won’t get, the divorce papers you never quite get around to filing, or some other x factor becomes the villain you can blame for the failure of your choices to reflect your ideals and bring you the life you think you should have. Meanwhile the dreams that pile up on the other side of the change that never happens can get as gaudy as you like, since they never have to face the cold gray morning light of reality. Not all those dreams are happy ones; people are almost as likely to put fantasies about suffering and death on the far side of x as they are to stock the same imaginary space with wealth, power, and plenty of hot sex. It all depends on the personal factor.

Progress and apocalypse, in turn, offer the same payoff on a collective level. The imagined world of the future, whether it’s the product of business as usual or of the cataclysmic repudiation of business as usual, becomes a dumping ground for every kind of fantasy, and those fantasies never have to stand up to the test of reality because the x event that’s supposed to make them real never quite gets around to happening.  This allows believers in progress and apocalypse, like other practitioners of provisional living, to put a wholly imaginary world at the center of their emotional lives.  This makes it relatively easy for them to ignore the depressingly ordinary world in which they actually live and, more to the point, the role of their own choices in making that world exactly what it is.

The imaginary future worlds conjured up by the mythologies of progress and apocalypse, in turn, are pallid reflections of an older and more robust conception, the belief in a heaven of immortal bliss to which the souls of true believers ascend after death. That conception is so thoroughly hardwired into Western culture that it can take quite a bit of research to grasp how much chopping and stretching had to be done to older ideas of postmortem existence in order to make them fit a heaven-centered narrative. It’s indicative that when the concept of reincarnation came back into circulation in alternative circles in the Western world in the 19th century, it was at first denounced in incandescent terms.  What made it "disgusting" and "repulsive," to note only two of the heated labels applied to reincarnation in that long-forgotten debate, was precisely the suggestion that human souls after death would cycle right back to the same world they had just left and live with the consequences of their own choices.

It’s at this point that we return to Nietzsche, for one of the central themes of his philosophy was an edgy analysis of the creation of imaginary "real worlds" by the human mind as a way of devaluing the world we actually inhabit. That was an even bigger issue in his time than it is in ours, with approved versions of 19th century Christian piety claiming that the proper response to every injustice was to wait patiently for payback in heaven, and a philosophical milieu in the universities in which airily abstract speculations about the Absolute had all but replaced meaningful attention to the realities of human existence. The phrase "provisional living" hadn’t been invented yet, but the practice was central to the social morality of the Victorian era, and it formed one of the central targets of Nietzsche’s grand project for a revaluation of all values that would take life itself as its touchstone.

That project had for its core theme the affirmation of existence as it actually is—in Nietzsche’s own phrase, a yes-saying to life that would counter more than two thousand years of naysaying morality, philosophy and spirituality.  As he developed his critique of the conventional wisdom of his time, his insistence on saying yes to life as it is became increasingly forceful. That journey reached its final destination in August of 1881 on a walk around Lake Silvaplana in the Alps, at a roughly pyramidal mass of stone that still stands beside the lake:  "six thousand feet beyond man and time," as Nietzsche wrote excitedly on a scrap of paper at the time.

If, as Nietzsche thought, the only ideas that matter are those conceived while walking, it may be useful to spend a few moments strolling along the path that led up to his formula of affirmation, not least because its early course seems to have escaped the notice of contemporary scholarship on Nietzsche.  A classical philologist by training, he applied a specialist’s familiarity with ancient Greek thought to the more immediate problems of philosophy and Western culture that concerned him in his major works. Most of his core conceptions can thus be traced back at least in part to one particular school of Greek and Roman philosophers, the one such school that affirmed life as it is with as much verve as Nietzsche himself: the old Stoics.

Mention the word "Stoic" to most people these days and you might, if you’re lucky, get some sort of vague sense of gritted teeth and unwillingness to crumple under the impact of pain. Off past that dim misunderstanding lies one of the most challenging adventures in human thought, a sustained effort to sort out human life on the basis of what we actually know about the world. The Stoic school of philosophy was founded around 300 BCE by Zeno of Citium, and became one of the major systems of classical thought, retaining a lively presence across the Mediterranean world until the long night of the Dark Ages closed in. Its core insight was that human beings can control only two things—their own choice of actions and their own assessments of the things they experience—and that sanity consists of recognizing this fact and refusing to make any emotional investment in those things that aren’t subject to the individual will.

In any situation, said the Stoics, the job assigned to human beings is to recognize the good and act accordingly. Nothing else matters, and the point of Stoic spiritual practice is to get to the point where, in fact, nothing else matters. The radical affirmation of the world as it is was one standard element of the Stoic training: from the Stoic perspective, the world is what it is, and though the Stoic may freely choose to fling himself into a struggle to change some part of it for the better, and unhesitatingly lay down his life in that struggle, no power in heaven or earth can make him whine about it.

The Stoics took that formula of radical acceptance to an extreme that few later thinkers have ever been willing to contemplate. Most philosophers in the classical world accepted the theory that the motions of the planets and stars shaped events on Earth, and speculated that after an immense length of time, the heavens will repeat the same patterns of movement and bring about a corresponding repetition below. Stoic philosophers embraced that theory, and built up a worldview in which the whole universe moved  through endlessly repeated cycles from one ekpyrosis—"Big Bang" would not be an inaccurate translation of this bit of technical Greek—to the next, with every single event duplicated down to the last detail in each repetition. It’s one thing to accept the present moment, and another to accept the whole of your life; it’s quite another to imagine that same life repeated endlessly through infinite time, and accept that as a whole, without wishing a single thing to be different. That’s the state to which the most extreme Stoics aspired.

That was the vision that came crashing into Nietzsche’s mind as he stood beside the rock by Lake Silvaplana. Suppose, he said, we engage in a thought experiment. Scientists tell us that there is a fixed quantity of matter and energy in the cosmos, and no sign that the universe has a beginning or an end. (This was all accepted scientific opinion in the late 19th century; the Big Bang theory was still far in the future.) Given a finite amount of matter and energy and a fixed set of natural laws working over infinite time, every event any of us experiences here and now must have happened an infinite number of times before, and will happen an infinite number of times again, in an eternal recurrence that admits of no variation. As you consider your life, past, present and to come, can you face the prospect of infinite repetitions of that same life? Can you joyously affirm that prospect—can you will it?

It’s hard to imagine a more all-out assault on provisional living, or a more forceful challenge to live up to one’s ideals. As he passed through his few remaining years of sanity, though, Nietzsche seems to have convinced himself that his thought experiment was in fact a reality, that every moment of his life had in fact happened countless times before and would be repeated countless times again. I sometimes wonder if that’s what finally pushed him over the edge into madness. Like most thinkers whose work makes a fetish of ruthlessness, Nietzsche was obsessively kind and gentle in his personal life. As he stood there on the Piazza Carlo Alberti, hearing the thump of the teamster’s stick and the terrified cries of the horse, growing more agitated by the moment, it’s all too easy to imagine the voice whispering in his mind:  can you joyously affirm this, over and over again, from eternity to eternity?

A moment later he was sprinting across the piazza, flinging himself between the drover and the horse. It was a classically Stoic thing to do, and I suspect that if he’d known that what was left of his sanity wouldn’t survive the moment, he’d have done it anyway. Fiat justicia, ruat caelum, said the old Stoics:  let justice be done, though it brings the sky crashing down. That it was his own mental sky that came crashing down was, as the Stoics also liked to say, a matter of indifference.

It was Nietzsche’s great misfortune, and a central flaw of his philosophy, that he never quite managed to grasp that the opposite of a bad thing can also be a bad thing. To challenge oneself with the vision of eternal recurrence as a thought experiment is one thing, and I recommend it to my readers as a useful exercise. If that vision were in fact the literal truth, could you give the rest of your life a shape and a purpose that would give sufficient meaning and value to everything you have already been and done and suffered, so that when you add it all up, you can joyously affirm the whole pattern—and what would the rest of your life need to become in order for you to do so?

To pass beyond that, though, and to try to inhabit a cosmos in which everything is fixed by fate, in which everything revolves through the same series of events endlessly from eternity to eternity, and in which the only freedom open to the will is to affirm that sequence joyously or vainly reject it, is to court Nietzsche’s fate for no good reason.  Insisting on a cosmos in which everything is fated to remain exactly as it has always been is as useless, in practical terms, as insisting that one fine day in the not too distant future, the march of progress or the arrival of apocalypse will transform the cosmos into whatever you think it ought to be. 

Both these extremes, Nietzsche’s just as much as the one he so forcefully rejected, impose a shape on time that can’t be justified on the basis of our own immediate experience of time.  The rigid lockstep of the eternal recurrence is just as hard to find in the course of our lives and the course of history as are the invincible upward march of progress or the satisfyingly sudden full stop of apocalypse.  It would take a later thinker, drawing on Nietzsche’s insights but avoiding his habit of countering one extreme by going to the other, to trace out a shape of time that reflects the world of human experience—or, more specifically, the world experienced by human beings who happen to be living at the peak of modern industrial civilization and have begun to glimpse the long road down on the peak’s far side. We’ll discuss that vision in the next post in this sequence.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Politics of Time's Shape

Last week’s discussion was a bit of a divagation from the main theme of the present sequence of posts here on The Archdruid Report, but it was a divagation with a purpose. The three movements I traced from hopeful beginnings to their final guttering out in fantasies of universal destruction—Christian fundamentalism, the New Age scene, and the environmental movement—each attempted to change the direction in which the industrial world is moving, and failed. Both the attempts and the failures are  instructive, and make it possible to glimpse certain aspects of contemporary life that all parties involved have done their best to keep as obscure as possible.

To begin with, it’s important to recognize that no fixed rule sets apart those changes that get called “progress” from the ones that don’t.  The three competing kinds of progress discussed in an earlier post in this sequence are responsible for part of that diversity, but the majority of it is a function of ordinary power politics.  Any change in any part of society will benefit certain people at the expense of others, and in the bare-knuckle brawl of modern political life, slapping the label of progress on those changes that will benefit one’s supporters and annoy one’s enemies is an obvious and constantly used tactic. Just as common and effective is the gambit of pinning labels such as "regressive" on those changes that would benefit one’s enemies.

At any point in time, as a result, what exactly counts as progress is a fiercely contested matter, and the success or failure of a pressure group in the political sphere can often be gauged to a fine degree by noting where public opinion puts that group’s agenda on the spectrum reaching from most progressive to most reactionary. Those assignments can shift dramatically with changes in context and the relative strength of different factions. Thus the kind of Protestant religiosity that’s now associated with the far right in America used to be an ideology of the far left—William Jennings Bryan, the radical Democratic politician whose fire-breathing speeches against corporate power make most of today’s anticorporate rhetoric look tame, was also the prosecuting attorney in the famous Scopes monkey trial—and environmental protection was dismissed by the American left of a century ago as a reactionary notion that stood in the way of bringing prosperity to the poor.

These shifts are possible because the concept of progress has no content of its own. In one sense, to borrow a bit of edgy mockery from C.S. Lewis, the contemporary faith in progress can be described as the conviction that the word "better" simply means "whatever comes next."  In the age of unparalleled abundance and technological power that is now passing,  what came next was usually settled by the most recent round of political and economic struggle, and the winners of each round were pleased to see their partisan agenda redefined as the next inevitable step in the onward march of progress.

And the losers? That’s where things get interesting.

Each of the three movements I sketched out in last week’s post started out as a contender—a movement that might have succeeded in accomplishing the changes it wanted to make to American society, and so in defining those changes as the next inevitable step in that same onward march of progress.  The first surge of what would become today’s Christian fundamentalist movement spun off the youth movement of the 1960s, embracing the teachings of that bearded and sandaled hippie, Jesus Christ, as the next stage in the moral transformation of American society.  The days of the Jesus People, Godspell, and the Good News Bible have been so thoroughly erased from our collective imagination that it can be hard, even for people who were there at the time, to think of fundamentalism as a radical movement, a social force that saw itself as moving forward toward a brighter future.

The transformation of the New Age movement was even more drastic. In its early years, most of what provided the New Age scene with inspiration had at least some claim to be called scientific; quantum physics and a dozen or so avant-garde schools of psychology played a far larger role in the movement than, say, the mutterings of channeled entities.  There was plenty of interest in extrasensory perception, to be sure, but parapsychology hadn’t yet been blackballed by the American scientific establishment, and significant figures in the sciences argued that the possibility of extrasensory knowledge ought to be taken seriously.  Early New Age books such as Marilyn Ferguson’s The Aquarian Conspiracy raised the hope of a convergence of science and spirituality, in which scientific research would put a solid foundation of proven fact under such traditional practices as yoga and meditation.

The environmental movement had much the same flavor in its first flowering. To many of us in the appropriate-tech scene, industrial society’s encounter with the hard reality of planetary limits was at least as much an opportunity as a threat, and the integration of technologically advanced societies with a thriving planetary biosphere—the goal of a great deal of enthusiastic thinking in those days—seemed to promise a future of almost unimaginable richness and possibility. The coming world of solar panels and geodesic domes, thriving organic farms and lively human-scale cities, in which Paolo Soleri’s arcologies would rise above newly reforested landscapes and dirigibles would move silently through unpolluted skies, set the stage for many soaring hopes and dreams.

It’s instructive to observe what happened as each of these movements followed its trajectory through time. The New Age movement, despite the overblown hopes placed on it by some of its supporters, never had a shot at significant political or cultural power, and it soon found its way to the fringes, where it shed its links to science, mingled with the remains of older alternative spiritualities, and began to take the unwholesome interest in conspiracy theories and apocalyptic prophecies that eventually dominated the whole movement.  Christian fundamentalism and the environmental movement had far more political clout even in their idealistic early phases, and so had to be bought off; in both cases this was done, as it’s usually done, by dangling the bait of money and influence in front of organizations and spokespersons in the movement who were willing to "be realistic"—that is, to scrap any serious challenge to the existing order of society and focus on a narrowly defined agenda instead.

Once the bait was taken, in turn, the jaws of the trap snapped smoothly shut. The organizations and spokespersons who had swallowed the bait were expected to cooperate in the marginalization of those who refused it, and to buy into the broader agenda of the people who were cutting the checks even when that agenda contradicted the original purpose of the movement, as it inevitably did. Meanwhile, the narrowing of each group’s purpose committed it to an increasingly defensive and reactive stance:  the fundamentalists fixated on defending a handful of sexual customs, the environmentalists on defending a handful of species, and in both cases the larger partisan coalition to which the movement now belonged made plenty of noise about supporting the movement and then did essentially nothing, insisting that the hard realities of politics made it impossible to follow through on its commitments.

Both movements thus became what I’ve called captive constituencies of existing power centers. The current fracas around the Keystone pipeline shows just how much effective influence the environmental movement succeeded in buying by cashing in its hopes, its dreams and its principles.  The Obama administration, if it chooses to do so, can agree to the pipeline and suffer no noticeable backlash from the environmental movement.  There would be some yelling in the media and the blogosphere, to be sure, and a few protest marches in designated free speech zones, but come 2016 the Democrats will wave the scary Republicans at whatever remains of the environmental movement, the leaders of the big environmental organizations will give speeches about how disappointed they are in the Democrats but we still have to support them against the GOP, and rank and file environmentalists will line up meekly and vote for the Democratic candidate despite it all. Obama could as well order the national park system strip-mined for coal and launch a new biofuels program that will turn endangered species into synthetic petroleum, and the results would be precisely the same; it doesn’t help, of course, that the Republicans treat their captive constituencies with the identical degree of scorn.

It’s no accident that when movements for social change fail—whether the failure is simply a matter of banishment to the fringes, as happened to the New Age, or whether the movement is courted, seduced, betrayed and abandoned like the hapless heroine of a Victorian penny-dreadful novel, as happened to the fundamentalists and the environmentalists—apocalyptic beliefs become increasingly central to their rhetoric. Partly, that’s a reflection of the massive role that threats of imminent doom have always had in the rhetoric of social change, especially but not only here in America. Since the Reverend Jonathan Edwards thrilled colonial New England with his famous sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," attempts to move American society in any direction have normally relied on the insistence that failing to make whatever change is being proposed guarantees some awful fate or other. The less effective the movement, by and large, the more strident the threats of apocalypse tend to be, and the decline of a social movement into political irrelevance is normally accompanied by a final burst of rhetoric pushing the movement’s apocalyptic claims to their ultimate extreme.

Still, there’s more going on here than the common tendency of activists at all points on the political continuum to respond to the failure of rhetorical threats by doubling down. The distinction made in an earlier post between the shape of time defined by Augustine of Hippo and the one proposed by Joachim of Flores has a great deal of relevance here. All three of the movements I’ve discussed above started their trajectory with a Joachimist model of history:  the world had arrived at the brink of a grand transformation, and once people embraced the great forward leap that the movement offered, some equivalent of Joachim’s Age of the Holy Spirit would usher in a bright new future. The New Age movement officially kept that faith—it could hardly do otherwise, having defined itself in terms of a new age that was supposedly about to be born—but as the Aquarian Conspiracy fizzled out and the world kept following its accustomed path, New Age thinkers drifted out of a Joachimist model into an Augustinian one, in which the repeated failures of ordinary history would finally be redeemed by an equivalent of the Second Coming on December 21, 2012.

For the fundamentalist and environmentalist movements, the shift from Joachimist to Augustinian models of time was if anything more sharply defined. Once both movements abandoned the hope of changing society as a whole, they had slipped over into Augustinian time, and they promptly identified themselves with the righteous remnant of the Augustinian vision. Once they did that, their defeat was certain; the role of the righteous remnant in Augustine’s shape of time is to strive to defend the good against the assaults of an evil world, and fail heroically, so that the triumph of  the Second Coming or its secular equivalent can be all the more glorious. Activists in both movements, without ever quite noticing it, accordingly embraced tactics that were guaranteed to fail.

What media activist Patrick Reinsborough has called "defector syndrome"—the fine art of arguing for your side in such a way that only those who already agree wholeheartedly with your viewpoint will be favorably impressed, while everyone else will be repelled—has played a large role in such exercises. I’m thinking here, among other things, of a book on energy issues I got in the mail not long ago, an unwieldy coffee table-sized object that started out with a photo essay in which each page had an slogan in 60-point type, all caps, yelling something or other about the world’s energy situation. It’s hard to imagine that anybody but a true believer in the editor’s point of view would get past the bellowing; I found it unreadable, and I more or less agree with the book’s viewpoint.

To the ordinary citizens and opinion makers in the middle of the road, the people the environmental movement desperately needs to engage, that sort of tirade simply confirms the other side’s insistence that environmentalists are by definition a pack of raving extremists. The same sort of self-inflicted damage is even more common in the fundamentalist scene—think of Reverend Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church, whose shrill ravings about the alleged evils of homosexuality have probably done more to make ordinary Americans sympathetic to gays and lesbians than any other factor in living memory.  That’s the kind of own goal that tends to get scored when a movement for social change embraces the Augustinian shape of time in an uncritical fashion.

It’s important to understand why this should be so.  The shape of time that Augustine proposed in The City of God was ultimately a response to failure—the failure of the Roman state and society to maintain itself against the forces that were dragging it down the road to collapse, and the failure of the Christian religion to make good on the promises of an earlier generation of theologians and save the Roman world from itself. As a response to failure, in turn, it was extraordinarily effective. If you and your civilization are staring the Dark Ages in the face, a way of thinking about time that treats ordinary history as an evil irrelevance and focuses all hope on a shining vision of a world after history ends is not merely comforting, it’s adaptive. It inspired monks and nuns across Dark Age Europe to preserve the cultural and scientific heritage of the ancient world, and helped many ordinary people find a reason to keep going even in the harshest times.

A way of thinking that’s adaptive during the decline of a civilization, though, may not be equally so in struggles for influence in an age of abundance. As I suggested earlier in this post, any social change will benefit some people at the expense of others; what counts as progress from the point of view of the winners in any given struggle, in other words, will usually look very like decline from the point of view of the losers.  If the only two ways of thinking about historical change your culture offers you are the Joachimist and the Augustinian shapes of time, in turn—and this is decidedly true of contemporary industrial society—the winners in any given social conflict are likely to embrace a Joachimist view in which their triumph marks the arrival of a grand positive transformation and a great leap forward along the inevitable track of progress, while the losers are just as likely to embrace an Augustinian view in which their defeat will inevitably be paid back with interest by some apocalyptic transformation in the near future. Those beliefs are comforting, they allow the cascading randomness of history to be forced into an emotionally satisfying shape, and they encourage each side to continue to enact their assigned social roles as winners and losers.

This is one of the core reasons, I’ve come to believe, that peak oil has been the red-haired stepchild of the environmental movement since the contemporary peak oil scene began to emerge in the late 1990s. There have been any number of attempts to force it into a Joachimist patterm—think of all the attempts to claim that we can overcome the challenge of peak oil through some great collective leap to a better world—or an Augustinian one—think of all the attempts to extract a satisfyingly sudden cataclysm from the long slow downward arc of fossil fuel depletion—but the great collective leaps have proven embarrassingly out of reach, and the sudden cataclysms contrast awkwardly with the reality of rising energy costs, disintegrating infrastructure, and economic dysfunction that peak oil is helping to bring about right now.  If peak oil and the wider impact of the limits to growth define the future we actually face, both the winners and the losers are out of luck.

Of course this points up one of the other features of peak oil that’s rendered it so unwelcome:  it provides a basis for accurate predictions. I accept that there are at least a few people on any given side of today’s reality wars who believe, totally and trustingly, that victory for their side will bring about a great leap forward to a new epoch of history, or that the inevitable defeat of their side will be followed by a vast catastrophe that will prove to the rest of humanity just how wrong they were. I find myself questioning, though, just how large a percentage of those who make such claims can be counted among the true believers.  I’ve known far too many people whose belief in the imminent destruction of the world didn’t keep them from putting money into their retirement accounts, or whose loudly proclamed commitment to some cause never quite caused them to live up to the ideals they claimed to espouse.

I commented in a blog post last year on the odd way that mainstream climate activists had reacted to news that the Arctic Ocean was fizzing with methane. Many public figures—iconic climate scientist James Lovelock among them—who had insisted not that long before that releases of Arctic methane meant "game over" suddenly backed away from those claims, making embarrassed noises. Those who accepted at face value the predictions of imminent doom issued by Lovelock and his peers are at least being consistent when they decide that, now that methane is bubbling out of the Arctic ooze, it’s all over.  It may simply be their bad luck to have missed the winks and nudges that signaled, as I suggested in the post just mentioned, that the predictions had more to do with putting pressure on China and her allies than they did with purely objective science.

Peak oil might have become another excuse for such maneuvers, except that it’s shown an awkward capacity for appearing on schedule and causing exactly the sort of disruptions that have been predicted by peak oil researchers all along. It’s hard to threaten someone with a crisis that’s already arrived, and harder still to rouse enthusiasm for a great leap forward when every attempt to make it ends in a messy slide backward.  Both the shapes of time our culture is willing to consider, in other words, have passed their pull dates—and the obvious alternative, though it’s a better fit to the evidence and arguably more adaptive as well, is utterly unacceptable to most people in the industrial world today. We’ll discuss that in the next post in this sequence.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Pleasures of Extinction

One of the wry pleasures that’s repeatedly come my way since the beginning of this blog seven years ago is that of watching a good many of my predictions come true in short order. Now it’s true that I’ve also made a certain number of failed predictions over that time.  Back in 2007 and 2008, for instance, I insisted that the US government wouldn’t be dumb enough to try to cover its ballooning budget deficits by spinning the printing presses; some idiocies, I thought, were too extreme even for the inmates of the current American political class.  As th Fed proceeds merrily through yet another round of quantitative easing, that assumption has proved to be rather too naive.

Even so, my batting average so far has been pretty respectable. In the early days of this blog, for example, Daniel Yergin was insisting at the top of his lungs that the price of oil would settle down shortly to a long-term plateau of $38 a barrel, while fans of a dozen different alternative technologies were claiming just as stridently that if the price of oil ever got to the unthinkable level of $60 a barrel, the technology they favored would be profitable enough to sweep all before it. There were very few of us back then who predicted that oil would go quite a bit past $60 a barrel and stay there, and even fewer who pointed out that abundant cheap fossil fuel energy made alternatives look much more viable than they were. These days, with oil wobbling around $100 a barrel and most of the alternatives still wholly dependent on government subsidies, that turned out to be tolerably prescient.

Over the last few weeks, another of my predictions has turned out spot on the money. A little less than six months ago, as New Age bookstores around the world were quietly emptying entire bookshelves dedicated to December 21, 2012 and putting 50%-off stickers on the contents, I noted in a blog post here that it wouldn’t be long before people who were looking for an excuse to put off doing anything about the crisis of industrial society would have a replacement for 2012.

Well, it’s here. The latest apocalyptic fad is near-term human extinction, or NTE for short: the claim that humanity, along with most other life on Earth, will inevitably be extinct by 2030 at the latest.

It’s probably necessary to say up front that humanity will certainly go extinct eventually—no species lasts forever—and there’s always the chance that it could happen in short order; a stray asteroid with enough mass, or a few rearranged codons in some virus nobody’s heard about yet, could do the job quite readily. Still, there’s a great difference between claiming that human extinction is possible and insisting that it’s certainly going to happen in the next seventeen years, especially when the arguments used to defend that claim amount to nothing more than an insistence that worst-case scenarios are the only possible outcome.

There’s a tolerably long history to such claims. When I was growing up in the 1970s, there were people on the far end of the environmental movement who insisted that humanity would certainly be extinct before the year 2000, and the same prediction has been repeated with different dates and justifications ever since. Those of my readers who remember the Solar Temple mass suicides of 1994 and 1995 may recall that the collective suicide note left behind by the members of that ill-fated order made exactly that claim:  Earth would be uninhabitable by the year 2000, Solar Temple founder Luc Jouret insisted, and so the initiates of the Solar Temple were getting out while the getting was good.

In the early days of the peak oil movement, similarly, the same insistence on imminent extinction popped up tolerably often. I was convinced at the time, and remain convinced today, that this was largely a product of an odd and very American habit I’ve termed "apocalypse machismo."  One consequence of America’s pervasive anti-intellectualism, with its frankly weird equation of manhood with chest-thumping brainlessness, is that many male American intellectuals end up burdened by doubts about their own masculinity, and some of them respond by trying to talk as tough as possible; intellectual women in this male-dominated culture find they often have to copy that same habit, sometimes to even greater extremes, in order to get taken seriously at all.  This has been a major factor all through America’s recent history; the neoconservative movement, packed as it was with academic intellectuals whose obsession with proving their own virility on a global stage drove them into one foreign policy fiasco after another, makes as good a poster child as any.

In the same way, we had a lot of apocalypse machismo in the early peak oil movement.  In the first few years of this blog, for that matter, I could count on fielding (and deleting) a comment every month or two from somebody who wanted to talk about the new scenario for imminent human extinction he’d just worked up. The Deepwater Horizon blowout and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown fielded a bumper crop of the same thing; those of my readers who doubt this are invited to go digging back through the archives of any unmoderated peak oil forum, where they’ll find, in the days and weeks immediately following each of these disasters, colorful if implausible scenarios predicting the imminent demise of all life on earth presented as sober fact.

No doubt there’s at least some of that at work in the sudden surge of interest in near-term human extinction, but I question whether it’s the main driving force this time around. There are at least two other factors that are likely to be involved, and one of them unfolds directly from the points made in the last few posts in the current sequence.

The shape of time sketched out by Augustine of Hippo in the pages of The City of God, and adopted thereafter by most of the western world until the rise of the later mythology of perpetual progress, allows a range of variations. Even within the mainstream of western Christianity, the options extend over a much broader landscape than most of my readers may realize, and the versions of the Augustinian mythos found outside the Christian mainstream are even more diverse. In his useful 1998 book Millennium Rage, sociologist Philip Lamy argued that most beliefs about the future in today’s America are "fractured apocalypses," in which the events foretold in the Book of Revelation are pulled out of context and rearranged in response to contemporary social trends.

His insight can be applied a good deal more generally: the whole Augustinian story has been subjected to similar treatment. Eden, the Fall, the vale of tears, the righteous remnant, the redeeming revelation, the rising struggle between good and evil, the final catastrophe and the return to paradise thereafter—you’ll find these, or most of these, in a great many current belief systems, but the order and relative importance of each element may vary, and it’s far from uncommon for one or two of the classic themes of the story to be stretched nearly out of recognition, or deleted entirely.

One detail that often comes in for serious reworking in modern social movements is the final step, the one in which the elect are welcomed back into paradise while everyone else is herded into the lake of fire to be punished for all eternity.  The habit of morphological thinking discussed earlier in this sequence of posts is of crucial importance here: take a close look at the development over time of social movements that embrace the Augustinian narrative, and the historical shifts in that last part of the story have a fascinating message to communicate.

The wave of Christian fundamentalism that’s currently breaking and flowing back out to sea makes a good case in point. Back in the days of the Jesus People and the Good News Bible, when that wave first began building, its rhetoric was triumphant: the whole nation was turning to Christ, the rest of the world would surely follow, and the imminent Second Coming would see everyone but a few stubborn sinners rushing forward joyfully to embrace God’s infinite love. Fast forward a couple of decades, and the proportion between the saved and the damned shifted significantly closer to the sort of thing you’d hear in an old-fashioned hellfire-and-brimstone sermon, but the saved were still utterly convinced of their own salvation:  those were the days when "In Case Of Rapture, This Car Will Be Unoccupied" bumper stickers sprouted on the rear ends of cars all over America.

You won’t see too many of those bumper stickers these days. Just as the optimistic faith that a new generation could win the world for Christ gave way gradually to the far more pessimistic vision of a world mired in wickedness from which the elect would shortly be teleported to safety—beamed up by St. Scotty, as the joke had it, to the bridge of the USS Enterchrist—so the serene confidence on the part of believers that they would be numbered among the elect has been replaced, in these latter days of the movement, by an increasingly pervasive sense of sin and unworthiness. Too many dates for the Rapture have come and gone, too many once-respected preachers have been caught with their pants around their ankles in one sense or another, and the well-founded suspicion that the Republican party is using the evangelical churches every bit as cynically and shamelessly as the Democratic party is using the environmental movement has got to weigh on a lot of once-hopeful minds. 

Christian theology places hard limits on just how far the exclusion from future blessedness can extend, as there has to be "a great multitude, which no man could number" (Revelations 7:9) of the saved gathered around the throne of God when the boom comes down. Outside Christianity, the same process routinely goes much further. A good example is the New Age movement, which emerged out of a variety of older fringe spiritualities right around the same time that the current round of Christian fundamentalism got going in America. The early days of the New Age movement were pervaded by the same optimistic sense that a new and more enlightened epoch was about to dawn, and everyone—even, or especially, those who made fun of the movement’s pretensions—would soon fall in line.

As the movement matured and the New Age stubbornly refused to arrive, in turn, the same mood shift that affected fundamentalism had a comparable impact; New Age teachers began to talk more about the ascension of enlightened individuals into higher planes of being, the activities of evil powers who were maintaining the illusion of a world of limits, and the imminence of a world-cleansing cataclysm that would finally get around to ushering in the New Age. By the time the hoopla began building over 2012, finally, the prophecies trotted out in advance of that much-ballyhooed nonevent ranged all over the map; there were still optimists of the old school, who insisted that a great shift in consciousness would make everyone get around to agreeing with them; there were many more who expected mass death to leave the world purified for the usual minority of the elect; and there were no small number who were retailing scenarios in which the entire human race would be exterminated.

This is a familiar rhythm in the history of American popular spirituality.  At regular intervals, some movement that’s existed out on the fringes for decades suddenly gets a mass following, turns into a pop culture phenomenon, and has thirty to forty years of popularity before it returns to the fringes. Some traditions repeat the process; Christian fundamentalism has had two periods of pop stardom—once between the Roaring Nineties and the Great Depression, and then again from the late 1970s to the present—and a strong case could be made that the New Age movement is a rehash of the vogue for occultism that was so huge a part of American pop culture between 1890 and 1929. Other movements fill the void when the ones just named head for the fringes; from the 1930s to the 1970s, liberal Christian churches were a dominant force in American religion, and there’s some reason to think that the pendulum is headed the same way again as fundamentalism sunsets out a second time.

If human beings were rational actors, as economists like to imagine, they wouldn’t respond to the disconfirmation of their beliefs by postulating world-wrecking catastrophes. Here as elsewhere, though, the fond fantasies of economists stand up poorly as models for predicting events in the real world. If you haven’t had the experience of devoting decades of your life to a failed belief system, dear reader, try to put yourself into such a person’s shoes.  It would take a degree of equanimity rare even among saints to look back on such an experience without harvesting a bumper crop of resentment, grief and guilt—and if fantasies of apocalyptic destruction play any role at all in your belief system, one way to deal with those difficult emotions in their first and rawest forms is to pour them into a belief in some cataclysm big enough to punish the world and everyone in it for their failure to live up to your hopes.

The environmental movement is not a religion, but its course in America in recent decades followed the pattern I’ve just outlined. Like fundamentalism and the New Age movement, it came in from the fringe in the 1970s with the same sense of imminent triumph that guided the other movements I’ve named. Its transformation from a charismatic movement of outsiders to a set of bureaucratic institutions closely intertwined with the existing order of society followed the same trajectory as fundamentalist churches, and its sense of triumphant expectancy faded out at roughly the same pace, replaced by the same struggle against evil that brought fundamentalist Christians into their devil’s pact with the GOP and inspired New Age believers to embrace conspiracy theories and the paranoid fantasies of David Icke.

At this point, roughly in parallel with fundamentalism and the New Age, the environmental movement is having to come face to face with the total failure of its hopes. Back in the heady days of its early successes, the vision that guided it saw environmental protection as the next step forward in the same trajectory of social progress that included the civil rights movement and second wave feminism; it was in this spirit, for example, that environmental lawyers proposed that trees be given legal standing. The hope all along was that industrial civilization could achieve a permanent peace with the world of nature and continue up the infinite road of progress without leaving a scorched and looted planet in its wake.

That hope is dead. If there was ever a chance to achieve it, it went whistling down the wind decades ago, and at this point the jaws of resource depletion and environmental degradation are tightening around the collective throat of the world’s industrial societies, in exactly the fashion predicted in detail forty years ago in the pages of The Limits to Growth. Even if the green technologies promoted by an increasingly frantic minority of environmentalists could support something like today’s rates of energy use, which they can’t, we can no longer afford the sort of massive buildout of those technologies that would be necessary to supplant even a significant part of our current fossil fuel consumption. If what’s left of the environmental movement managed to overcome its own internal dysfunctions and the formidable opposition of its foes, and became a mass movement again, the most it could accomplish at this point would be the protection of some of the most vulnerable ecosystems as industrial society stumbles down the first bitter steps of the long descent into the deindustrial future.

That’s still a goal worth achieving, but it’s not the goal to which the environmental mainstream committed itself when it embraced a role among the socially acceptable institutions of American public life, with the perks and salaries that this status involves. This explains, I suggest, the way that certain mainstream environmentalists have turned to proselytizing for nuclear power and other frankly ecocidal technologies, under the curious delusion that "possibly a little better than the worst" somehow amounts to "good."  The desperation in such rhetoric is palpable, and signals the end of the road—an end that, in this case as in the others I’ve cited, involves a good many fantasies of total destruction.

Still, there’s another factor here, and it unfolds from one of the least creditable aspects of the way that the environmental movement has evolved over time. It has become increasingly clear that the perks, the salaries, and the comfortable middle class lifestyles embraced so enthusiastically by so many people in the movement are themselves part of the problem. I was intrigued to read earlier this month a thoughtful essay by leading British climate scientist Kevin Anderson arguing, in terms that will sound very familiar to regular readers of The Archdruid Report, that the failure of climate change activism to make any headway in changing people’s behavior may have more than a little to do with the fact that the people who are urging such changes aren’t making them themselves.

I have no reason to think that Anderson reads my blog or, for that matter, knows me from Hu Gadarn’s off ox, but then you don’t need to wear an archdruid’s funny hat to notice that people these days are acutely sensitive to signs of hypocrisy, or to grasp that even the most vital changes aren’t going to happen if even the people who are most aware of their importance aren’t willing to start making them in their own lives.  For reasons a post last year discussed at some length, those who have built their lives on the fantasy that it’s possible to have their planet and eat it too are not going to find such reflections welcome, or even bearable.

Fantasies of imminent human extinction are one comforting if futile response to this ugly predicament. If you want a justification for living as though there’s no tomorrow, insisting that in fact, there’s no tomorrow is certainly one option. If I’m right, the pleasures of believing in near-term human extinction are likely to appeal to a very large and well-heeled audience in the years immediately ahead, and those of my readers interested in cashing in on the next 2012-style bonanza should probably take note.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

The Song Remains the Same

If you always do what you’ve always done, a popular saying nowadays has it, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten. Most people accept that readily enough in the abstract. It’s when they attempt to apply this logic to their own lives and thinking that they get tripped up, because self-defeating patterns very often arise from a mismatch between basic presuppositions about the world and the world as it’s actually experienced, and confronting that mismatch is not an easy thing. It’s usually much simpler to insist that it’s different this time, and repeat the same failed strategy yet again.

The logic of speculative bubbles is a case in point. The next time you read some online pundit insisting that a new era has dawned, that the old rules of economics have been stood on their head, and that some asset class or other that’s been rising steadily for a while now is certain to keep on zooming upwards for the foreseeable future, he’s wrong. It really is that simple.  Any of my readers who haven’t been hiding under a rock for the last fifteen years or so saw that same rhetoric deployed to promote the tech stock bubble, the housing bubble, and an assortment of commodity bubbles, not least the recent and now rapidly deflating bubble in gold; those who know their way around economic history can find the same rhetoric being waved around every bubble since the Dutch tulip mania of the 17th century.

If human beings were in fact rational actors, as one of the more popular schools of economics these days likes to insist, investors would react to the next appearance of that well-worn rhetoric by pulling out every dollar they can’t afford to lose.  In the real world, of course, things don’t work that way.  When the Federal Reserve’s current orgy of quantitative easing finally does what it’s supposed to do and kicks off a gargantuan speculative bubble—yes, that’s what it’s supposed to do; Greenspan’s easy-money policy a decade ago succeeded in blowing a bubble big enough to cushion the downside of the tech-stock crash, and Bernanke’s pretty clearly working off the same playbook—it’s a safe bet that investors will stampede into the bubble, “it’s different this time” will once again become the mantra du jour, and the same cycle of boom and bust will repeat itself with mathematical precision.

Grasp the hidden logic behind bubble economics and you can see the mistaken presuppositions that drive that cycle. It’s an article of faith in today’s industrial economies, buoyed by three centuries of  economic growth driven by fossil fuels, that money ought to make money, and that having a certain amount of money invested ought therefore to guarantee a stable income. It so happens that this isn’t always true. In 1929, for example, overinvestment and overproduction during the boom years of the 1920s left very few sectors in the US economy able to pay accustomed rates of return on investment, but investors weren’t willing to come to terms with this unwelcome reality. The result was a huge pool of funds seeking any investment that would promise a return heftier than the economy would support; modest increases in stock values started pulling that pool into the stock market, kicking off a feedback loop that ended with Black Friday and the Great Depression.

That same pattern on a vaster scale is what’s driving the latest round of bubbles.  In the United States and most of the other established industrial nations, the returns on investing in the production of goods and services are too small to support investors in the style to which past decades accustomed them; the result is a pool of funds almost immeasurably larger than the one that created the 1929 boom and bust, sloshing through the global economy in search of any investment that will yield a bigger than average return. Because the real economy of goods and services is dependent on such awkward necessities as energy and raw materials, which are in turn subject to accelerating depletion curves, the problem’s only going to get worse, but those who hope to make a living or a fortune from their investments aren’t exactly eager to learn this. Thus the increasingly frantic efforts to inflate the global economy by means of speculative excess; the alternative is to accept the fact that an entire way of life based on money making money has passed its pull date.

That’s the kind of awkwardness that tends to pop up when the world shifts, and a pattern of behavior that used to be adaptive stops working. To get past the misguided but seductive insistence that “it’s different this time,” in turn, the habit of morphological thinking discussed in an earlier post is essential. 1920s-era investment trusts are not the same thing as tech-stock mutual funds, mortgage-backed securities, or whatever boondoggle will be at the center of the next big speculative bubble, any more than a porpoise is the same thing as a bat; put them side by side, though, and the common features will teach you things that you can’t learn any other way.

All this is by way of introduction to another bit of comparative morphology, one that many of my readers may find even more upsetting than the ones I’ve covered already. I’m sorry to say that can’t be helped. Last week we talked about the shape of time, the various abstract notions of history’s direction that every human culture uses to make sense of the world its members experience; such notions are  exactly the sort of basic presupposition about the world that I discussed earlier in this post, and when the course of events begins to move in directions that a culture’s notion of the shape of time can’t explain, the result is quite commonly the sort of self-defeating cycle discussed earlier. That’s the situation we’re in here and now, and what makes it worse is that the shapes of time that define history for most people nowadays have very different origins and functions than most of us think.

To unravel the resulting tangle, in turn, it’s necessary to glance back to two thinkers whose relevance to modern thought is rarely recognized.  To meet the first of them, we’ll need to go back exactly sixteen centuries to the year 413 CE.  The place is the city of Hippo, in what was then the province of Numidia and is now the nation of Algeria; more precisely, it’s the residence of the Bishop of Hippo, a man named Augustine, who was just then in the process of giving the Western world what would be, for the next millennium or so, its definitive shape of time.

Here as elsewhere, historical context matters. By Augustine’s time, the Roman Empire’s control of the Mediterranean world had been established for so long that most of its citizens assumed that it would be around forever. Troubles at the periphery were common enough, but the thought that something could disrupt the whole imperial system was all but unthinkable.  The distinctive shape of time accepted by nearly everyone in the late Roman world contributed mightily to that habit of thought.  To most of the people of the Empire in that age, history was the process by which an original state of chaos was reduced to stable order under the rule of a benevolent despot. What Jupiter had done to the Titans or, in terms of the new Christian faith, God had done to Satan and his minions, Rome had done to the nations, and peripheral troubles were no more a threat to Rome than to her divine equivalents.

The problem with this confident civil faith was that history stopped cooperating. In 410, after a long series of increasingly desperate struggles against Germanic invaders, the legions crumpled, and the Visigoth king Alaric and his army swept into Italy and sacked Rome.  Only Alaric’s willingness to be bought off kept the city from remaining in his hands for the long haul. The psychological and cultural impact of the defeat was immense, but of equal if not greater concern to the Bishop of Hippo was the uncomfortable fact that the empire’s remaining Pagans were pointing out that the beginning of Rome’s troubles coincided, with an awkward degree of exactness, with the prohibition of the old Pagan cults.  Since Rome had abandoned the gods, they suggested, the gods were returning the favor.

Augustine’s response is contained in The City of God, one of the masterpieces of late Latin prose and the book that more than any other defined the shape of medieval European thought. The notion that divine power guarantees the success or survival of earthly kingdoms, Augustine argued, is a complete misunderstanding of the relationship between humanity and God. The inscrutable providence of God brings disasters down on the good as well as the wicked, and neither cities nor empires are exempt from the same incomprehensible law.  Ordinary history thus has no moral order or meaning.

The place of moral order and meaning in time is found instead in sacred history, which has a distinctive linear shape of its own. That shape begins in perfection, in the Garden of Eden; disaster intervenes, in the form of original sin, and humanity tumbles down into the fallen world. From that point on, there are two histories of the world, one sacred and one secular. The secular history is the long and pointless tale of stupidity, violence and suffering that fills the history books; the sacred history is the story of God’s dealings with a small minority of human beings—the patriarchs, the Jewish people, the apostles, the Christian church—who are assigned certain roles in a preexisting narrative. Eventually the fallen world will be obliterated, most of its inhabitants will be condemned to a divine boot in the face forever, and those few who happen to be on the right side will be restored to Eden’s perfection, at which point the story ends.

Those of my readers who are familiar with the main currents of European and American Christianity already know that story, of course. 1600 years after Augustine’s time, his vision of time remains  official in most Christian churches. What’s more, it can be found in a great many places that would angrily reject any claim of intellectual influence from Christianity. Goodness at the beginning; a catastrophic fall brought about by a misguided human choice; a plunge into the history we know, which has no redeeming features whatsoever; a righteous remnant set apart from history who serve as an example of the blessed alternative; a redeeming doctrine that brings the promise of future joy to those few who embrace it; and sometime soon, the final cataclysm that will sweep away the fallen world and all its evils, so that the redeemed few can be restored to the goodness of the beginning: where else have we heard this story?

Pick up any neoprimitivist book by Daniel Quinn, John Zerzan, Derrick Jensen, or their peers, to cite one example out of many, and you’ll find that the names have been changed but the story hasn’t.  Eden is called the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, the Fall is the invention of agriculture, the righteous remnant consists of surviving hunter-gatherer peoples, the redeeming doctrine is set forth in the book you’re reading, and Armageddon is the imminent collapse of industrial civilization, after which humanity will be restored to the hunter-gatherer paradise forever: it’s the same narrative, point for point. Look elsewhere in contemporary popular culture and you’ll find scores if not hundreds of ideologies that follow the same pattern; from radical feminists whose Eden consists of Goddess-worshipping Neolithic matriarchies straight through to Tea Party supporters whose Eden consists of pre-1960s America seen through intensely rose-colored glasses, the song remains the same.

This is where morphological thinking becomes as necessary as it is difficult. Most people can quickly learn to spot the standard elements of Augustine’s narrative in any belief system they themselves don’t accept; add a six-pack or two of good beer and it can turn into a lively party game, in which characters, situations, and events out of The City of God can be spotted hiding in a dizzying assortment of contemporary ideologies.  The fun stops abruptly, though, when one or more of the players realize that his or her own beliefs follow the same script.  One of the things that sets the Augustinian shape of time apart from most other shapes of time is that it assumes its own uniqueness; while it might be possible to imagine a version in which there are several different Edens, Falls, righteous remnants, sacred histories, redeeming revelations, final cataclysms, and New Jerusalems descending from the skies, in practice this never seems to happen. Each such narrative presents itself, and is accepted by its believers, as uniquely true and unrelated to any other version of the same narrative.

Still, this is only half the story.  Those of my readers who know their way around the history of ideas, or have tried the aforementioned party game themselves, will have noticed that a significant number of popular ideas about history don’t fit the narrative of fall and redemption Augustine set out. This is where the second of our two thinkers comes into the tale. His name was Joachim of Flores, and he was an Italian mystic of the twelfth century CE.  Like Augustine of Hippo, he was a writer, though his prose was as murky as Augustine’s was brilliant, and nobody other than historians of medieval thought reads his books nowadays. Even so, he had an impact on the future as significant as Augustine’s: he’s the person who kicked down the barrier between sacred and secular history that Augustine put so much effort into building, and created the shape of time that the cultural mainstream occupies to this day.

To Joachim, sacred history was not limited to a paradise before time, a paradise after it, and the thread of the righteous remnant and the redeeming doctrine linking the two. He saw sacred history unfolding all around him in the events of his own time. His vision divided all of history into three great ages, governed by the three persons of the Christian trinity: the Age of Law governed by the Father, which ran from the Fall to the crucifixion of Jesus; the Age of Love governed by the Son, which ran from the crucifixion to the year 1260; and the Age of Liberty governed by the Holy Spirit, which would run from 1260 to the end of the world.

What made Joachim’s vision different from any of the visionary histories that came before it—and there were plenty of those in the Middle Ages—was that it was a story of progress. The Age of Love, as Joachim envisioned it, was a great improvement on the Age of Law, and the approaching Age of Liberty would be an improvement on the Age of Love; in the third age, he taught, the Church would wither away, and people would live together in perfect peace and harmony, with no need for political or religious institutions. To the church authorities of Joachim’s time, steeped in the Augustinian vision, all this was heresy; to the radicals of the age, it was manna from heaven, and nearly every revolutionary ideology in Europe from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries drew heavily on Joachimist ideas.

That guaranteed that Joachim’s narrative would percolate out just as enthusiastically as Augustine’s did, influencing at least as many apparently secular ideologies. Pick up a copy of Hegel’s Philosophy of History, for example, a hugely influential work in 19th-century European thought; if you can get past the man’s famously unreadable prose, you’ll find a version of history that copies Joachim’s plot exactly but changes the names of all the characters.  Hegel’s version of history begins in Asia and ends in Germany; there are three ages, Oriental, Classical, and German, and the improvement that plops a One Way sign on history is the increase of freedom, which is the way that the absolute Spirit reveals its essential Idea in history. "The East knew and to the present day knows only that one is free; the Greek and Roman world, that some are free; the German world knows that all are free," Hegel wrote.  "The first political form therefore which we observe in history, is despotism; the second democracy and aristocracy, the third monarchy." (If this last point seems a bit odd to my readers, this may be because they aren’t ambitious professors angling for patronage from the royal house of Prussia.)

More generally, look at all the sets of three more or less ascending ages to be found in modern thinking about time. The division of prehistory into the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age is as much a reflection of this habit as the division of history into Ancient, Medieval, and Modern periods. No matter how many scholars point out the complete irrelevance of these schemes, they remain stuck in place in popular culture and education, because they bolster the contemporary belief that our own time is the culmination of all previous history, the point from which the future will leap forward along its predestined track toward the future we like to think we deserve.

Put two compelling visions of the shape of time in a culture, and you can count on any number of fusions and confusions between them. Marxism, interestingly enough, is among the best examples of this. Karl Marx himself was a thoughtful student of Hegel’s philosophy, and the theory he presents in his own writings is correspondingly Joachimist:  history is a progressive series of ages—feudal, mercantile, capitalist, socialist, communist—in which each age represents an improvement on the ones before it, while falling painfully short of the ones still to come. Friedrich Engels, who finished the second and third volumes of Capital after Marx’s death, was heavily influenced by his Lutheran childhood and brought in the standard hardware of the Augustinian vision, with primitive Communism as Eden and so forth. The result is a rich ambiguity that allows committed Marxists to find adaptive responses to most of the curveballs history might throw their way.

For the great difference between the Augustinian and Joachimist visions is precisely the kind of historical events to which they tend to be adaptive. Augustine’s vision was crafted in a civilization in decline, and it turned out to be extremely well suited to that context: from within Augustine’s shape of time, the messy disintegration of the Roman world was just another meaningless blip on the screen of secular history, of no real importance to those who knew that the history that mattered was the struggle between Christ and Satan for each human soul. That way of thinking about time made it possible for believers to keep going through times of unrelenting bleakness and horror.

Joachim of Flores, by contrast, lived during the zenith of the Middle Ages, before the onset of the 14th-century subsistence crisis that reached its culmination with the arrival of the Black Death. His was an age that could look back on several centuries of successful expansion, and thought it could expect more of the same in the years immediately ahead. His way of thinking about time was thus as well suited to ages of relative improvement as Augustine’s was to ages of relative decline.

Improvement and decline, though, are value judgments, and what counts as improvement to one observer may look like decline to another. That’s the key to understanding the roles that Augustinian and Joachimist visions of time play in contemporary industrial society—with implications that we’ll explore in detail next week.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

The Shape of Time

Trying to have a conversation about the issues central to this sequence of posts, to make use of an apt if familiar metaphor, is rather like trying to discuss the nature of water with fish.  The ideas that play the largest part in shaping our experience of the world and of ourselves are so deeply woven into the act of perception itself that we rarely if ever notice them until we run face first into their limits.

Even suggesting that there are ideas woven into the act of perception, for that matter, gets a blank look much more often than not. Most people, most of the time, think and act as though the things that they experience with their senses and sort with their thoughts are objective realities “out there,” and pay no attention to the generations of careful research that’s shown that what we perceive is a cooperative project in which external stimuli, the biologically defined structures of our sense organs and nervous systems, and the culturally and individually defined contents of our minds all have roles to play.

There’s good reason for that lack of awareness.  Patterns of thinking, like patterns of action, are most efficient when they don’t require conscious attention. Just as you can’t really become skilled at playing a musical instrument until you no longer have to consciously move every finger into position on the keys or strings, you can’t really use a way of thinking about the world until it slips below the surface of the mind and starts to structure how you experience other things.  Pay attention to the way your mind works when you wake in dim light in an unfamiliar room, and the vague shapes around you take time to turn into recognizable furniture, and you’ll get a sense of the way this affects your awareness of the world; learn some cognitive skill such as plant identification, and notice the shifts in perception as foliage changes from a vague green blur to a galaxy of legible patterns, and you’ll get a sense of the same process from a different angle.

The difficulty with this otherwise helpful process comes when the unnoticed ideas you’re using to frame your experience of the world no longer tell you the things you most need to know. Wilderness tracker Tom Brown Jr. tells a story in one of his books about a group of students who were learning plant identification, and were out with Brown on a herb walk. Brown stopped them at one point along the trail, pointed to a plant, and said, “What do you see?” The students all correctly named the plant. “Get closer and take another look,” Brown said. The students did so, and confirmed that it was, in fact, the plant they’d named. After several repetitions, they were almost on top of the plant, and it wasn’t until then that the rabbit that was nibbling on the plant leaves bounded away, startling the students. They had been paying so much attention to plants that they hadn’t seen the rabbit at all.

The same thing happens in far less innocuous ways when the unnoticed ideas aren’t simply the product of a weekend workshop’s focus, but provide basic frameworks for the experiences and the thinking of an entire culture. The cognitive framing that I called the shape of time in last week’s post is a case in point. Most people, most of the time, don’t notice that all their thinking about past, present and future is shaped by some set of unnoticed assumptions about time and history. The assumptions in question usually come out of some fusion of culturally valued narratives and recent experience—not a bad idea, all things considered, unless events begin to move in ways that a fusion of culturally valued narratives and recent experience no longer explain.

It’s easiest to understand this in practice by taking an example that’s as different as possible from the common habits of thinking today; fortunately, the history of ideas has no shortage of those. The one I want to introduce here comes to us courtesy of Hesiod, one of the very first ancient Greek poets whose works still survive. He lived in the eighth century BCE in the harsh if beautiful hill country of Boeotia, halfway down the eastern side of the Greek peninsula. That we know of, he wrote two major poems, The Origin of the Gods and Works and Days, and the latter of these sketches out a vision of the shape of time that was to have a great deal of influence long after Hesiod’s day.

It’s a vision of relentless decline. For Hesiod, the zenith of human happiness lay in the distant past, in the Golden Age when the old wise god Kronos ruled and the earth produced crops without human labor. Since then, age after age, it’s been all downhill: the Silver Age of folly and ignorance, the Bronze Age of merciless warriors, the Age of Heroes immediately before Hesiod’s time, and finally the bitter Iron Age when misery and hard labor are humanity’s lot. In his vision, it’s not going to get any better, either: eventually the last frail scraps of goodness will go whistling down the wind, infants will be born with their hair already gray.  Then Zeus will destroy the humanity of the Iron Age as he destroyed the inhabitants of the previous four ages, and the story ends. If the Golden Age was scheduled to return after that, Hesiod doesn’t mention it.

To some extent Hesiod’s model is the human life cycle, seen from the perspective of an old man looking back on life in a hard age: happiness in infancy, folly in childhood, war and passion in adolescence, hard productive labor in adulthood, and finally the miseries of old age and death. Still, there’s more to it than that, because Hesiod’s vision of the shape of time was a tolerably good reflection of the history that part of the world had experienced in the centuries just before he lived.

Two thousand years before Hesiod, prehistoric Greece had been the home of a lively assortment of village cultures making the slow transition from polished stone tools to bronze. On that foundation more complex societies rose, borrowing heavily from contemporary high cultures in the Middle East, and culminating in the monumental architecture and literate palace bureaucracies of the Mycenean age. Those of my readers who have some sense of the rhythms of history will already know what followed: too much clearcutting and intensive farming of the fragile Greek soils, made worse by the importation of farming methods better suited to flat Mesopotamian valleys than easily eroded Greek hills, triggered an ecological crisis; most of the topsoil of Mycenean Greece ended up at the bottom of the Aegean Sea, where it can still be found in core samples; warfare, migration, and population collapse followed in the usual manner, as Mycenean society stumbled down the curve of its own Long Descent.

That’s the past that defined Hesiod’s vision of the present and the future. Those of my readers who are up for a challenge might consider trying, for a few moments, to fit their minds around that vision—to try to sense what it would have been like to see history as a long and bitter descent, and to imagine that view of things not as an interesting speculation or a theory, but simply as the way things are, the way they have always been and will always be.  Think about the way the world would look to you if humanity’s best years were in the distant past, the future held nothing but a long trajectory of decline ending in extinction, and your chances of relative happiness depended on being smart, tough, and intensely aware of the downside risks in every choice you made.

Hope is not a virtue in such a world. Whether or not Hesiod invented the story of Pandora’s box, he’s the source from which every later version derives, but there’s a detail you’ll find in modern versions of the tale that is not in his account. The usual version these days is that when all the plagues and curses in the box flew out to afflict humanity, Hope remained behind as a kind of consolation prize. In Hesiod, it’s not a consolation prize, it’s the nastiest of the curses that Zeus put in the box, the enticing delusion that things will get better when they won’t. Early Greek poets liked to use fixed adjective-noun pairs—the rosy-fingered dawn, the wine-dark sea, and so on; when the word “hope” appears in ancient Greek poetry, the adjective normally assigned to it was “blind.”

That’s the world in which Hesiod lived. The point that too many of his modern interpreters don’t grasp is that his attitude, and the practical implications of that attitude which filled the verses of Works and Days—distrust the new, rely on traditional wisdom, aim for modest goals, keep a year’s supply of grain on hand so you don’t starve—were better suited to his world than, for example, our faith in the limitless potential of the future would have been. In an impoverished tribal society scrabbling for survival amid the ruins of a far more complex culture and the long-term impacts of ecological collapse, accepting the reality of decline and the likelihood of further trouble to come was a better strategy than any of the alternatives; in the language of evolutionary ecology, it was adaptive. It’s unlikely to be an accident that visions of time like Hesiod’s are very common in the hard times that follow the collapse of major civilizations.

Now of course Hesiod’s bleak vision is far from the only alternative to the vision of progress that defines the shape of time to most people in today’s industrial world. For a third alternative, consider the distinctive way of thinking about time that’s common to a great many tribal societies around the world. In this vision of the shape of time, everything important took place in illo tempore—in the Dreamtime, as the Australian aboriginal term has it, the time when animals lived and spoke like people and the powers who defined the cosmos traced out the patterns that humanity would follow ever after.  In this way of thinking about time, all of the history that mattered happened long ago, and is chronicled in the mythic narratives that the elders recite to children so that they will know the right way to live. Each event since then, whether it’s part of the cycle of the year, the cycle of a human life, or what have you, simply reiterates and reflects some feature of that original time.

I have no idea if this is still the case, but when I was growing up, there were any number of children’s novels set in “primitive societies”—that is, cultures that experienced time in the way I’ve just outlined—which focused obsessively on some imaginary individualist who turned his (or, very rarely, her) back on tribal custom via one triumphant innovation after another. Those stories were very flattering to the sensibilities of readers in modern industrial cultures, to be sure, but they missed nearly everything relevant to the tribal cultures in question. By the time a society following a hunter-gatherer or village horticulture ecology has inhabited a given bioregion for a few thousand years, it’s a safe bet that the people in that culture will have tried all the available options, figured out which ones work and which ones don’t, and enshrined that hard-won knowledge in stories, customs, and taboos, the normal technologies for passing knowledge down through the generations in societies that don’t have writing.

In such a context, innovation is rarely a good idea.  The resource base that would be necessary to deal with subsistence failure or ecological instability simply isn’t available—the ability to store food over the long term doesn’t come in until the invention of grain agriculture, so nothing as substantial as Hesiod’s year of stockpiled grain stands between a hunter-gatherer or village horticultural society and starvation. The innovator who introduces the bow and arrow to a people used to hunting with spears thus might be dooming them to starve to death when the new technology proves too successful at killing game, and wipes out the herds.  In that ecological setting, an understanding of time that wards off such potentially lethal possibilities is adaptive.

Let’s look at another example, drawn from among the cyclical cosmologies that emerge like clockwork in literate urban civilizations, once they’re past their adolescence and start paying attention to the traces of earlier civilizations around them. There are dozens of such cosmologies, some of which have been discussed at length in these essays; the example I have in mind this time around, though, is the traditional Chinese version, which guided historical thought in China from archaic times straight through to the 20th century.

The basic theory of the Chinese science of time is that events are guided by many different cycles, some faster and some slower, some influencing one dimension of human life and some shaping another.  The cycle of the seasons was one of these; the cycle of human life was another; the cycle of the rise and fall of dynasties was a third; there were many more, each with its own period and typical sequence of events. Just as no two years had exactly the same weather on exactly the same days, no two repetitions of any other cycle were identical, but common patterns allowed the events of one repetition to be more or less predicted by a sufficiently broad knowledge of earlier examples.  On a much broader scale, all cycles of every kind could be understood as expressions of a single abstract pattern of cyclic change, which was explored in the classic Chinese textbook of time theory, the I Ching—in English, the Book of Change.

Most people in the western world who are familiar with the I Ching at all think of it as a fortunetelling book, full of obscure oracles accessed by flipping Chinese coins or, for the cognoscenti, sorting bundles of yarrow stalks. Back in the day, that was the kindergarten level of I Ching practice. The masters of the Book of Change recognized that each of the 64 hexagrams was an abstract representation of a particular stage in the unfolding of a cyclic pattern; each hexagram could turn into any other hexagram under the right conditions; and the goal of study was to be able to contemplate any given sequence of events, identify what pattern was in process just then, figure out where it was going next, and get there first. This wasn’t a purely philosophical pursuit by any means—many Chinese martial arts rely on the I Ching as a basis for strategy, and “getting there first” in this case involves bringing a fist or a foot up hard against the opponent’s vulnerable spots.

Like the other shapes of time we’ve discussed so far, cyclical cosmologies are highly adaptive in their own historical context. They emerge, as I’ve already suggested, in mature literate civilizations that have access to the records and ruins of older societies.  Whether it’s Chinese scholars pondering the rise and fall of dynasties, Chaldean priests mulling over the fates of the kingdoms of the Mesopotamian plain, Roman Stoics sketching out the rhythms in which Greek city-states flourished and fell, or early 20th century European historians recognizing familiar patterns in the historical events of their own time,  students of the cycles of history recognize that the past has lessons to offer the present, and use a sense of cyclic change to guide their efforts to understand those lessons and put them to work.

Does that make cyclical cosmologies more accurate than the others we’ve just considered?  Is the circle the true shape of time?  It’s hard to see any way in which those questions could mean anything. What I’ve called the shape of time is an abstraction, a convenient model that sums up the way that events seem to unfold from the standpoint of particular people in a particular historical situation. Abstractions of this kind are tools, not truths—you might as well ask if a hammer is factually accurate. It’s nonetheless true that different tools are better suited, more adaptive, to different situations. If you live in a society struggling to endure in the wake of cultural and ecological collapse, Hesiod’s vision may be your best bet; if you live in a society that has a stable relationship with its bioregion but very few resources on which to fall back in time of trouble, the Dreamtime cosmology will likely be a better choice; if you live in a society that has a literate historical tradition, and want to use that resource to help you duck some of the troubles that overwhelmed earlier societies, the cyclical approach is the tool you need. Other situations have other tools better suited to them—the handful of shapes of time I’ve outlined here are only a few of the many options that have been tried, with more or less success, over the span of recorded history.

One of the others is of particular importance to our broader theme.  If you happen to live in a society that has stumbled across an energy source of unparalleled abundance and concentration, a source so rich that the major economic challenge faced over the course of three centuries is that of finding enough ways to use it to replace human muscle power and the other, far more limited energy sources of less lavishly supplied eras, then a vision of time as endless progress is going to be your most adaptive choice.  That’s arguably the main reason why belief in progress has become so deeply entrenched in the collective imagination of the industrial world:  for more than three hundred years, much more often than not, it worked.  During that era, those people, companies, and nations that gambled on progress by and large did much better than those that bet their money and other resources on stasis or decline.

As the fine print says, though, past performance is no guarantee of future results, and a shape of time that was highly adaptive to some particular set of historical conditions can become maladaptive when the conditions suddenly change. Ancient Greece went through such a shift, beginning a century or so after Hesiod’s time, as the reopening of trade routes closed since Mycenae’s fall made it profitable for Greek farmers to turn hillside acreage over to olive orchards and vineyards for the export trade. By the beginning of the sixth century, as Greek wine and oil flooded markets across the eastern Mediterranean and brought a corresponding flood of hard currency and imported goods back home, Hesiod’s harsh but functional views stopped being relevant, though it was many years more before that lack of relevance was really processed by the Greeks. Another millennium passed before the old pattern repeated itself, and the civilization of classical Greece stumbled down the curve of decline and fall toward a dark age that Hesiod would have recognized at once.

The central theme of this blog, in turn, is that the same sort of transformation is happening in our own time, but in the other direction.  The shape of time that governs nearly all contemporary thinking in the industrial world, the vision of perpetual progress, was adaptive back when ever more abundant energy supplies were being extracted out of mines and wells and poured into the project of limitless industrial expansion. The end of the age of cheap abundant energy, though, makes that shape of time hopelessly maladaptive, and a galaxy of assumptions and ideas founded on faith in progress are thus well past their pull date.

Since most people in the modern industrial world aren’t even aware of the role that faith in progress plays in their thinking, their chances of adapting to the end of progress are not good—and certain habits of thought the civil religion of progress has inherited from older theist religions make the necessary adaptations even harder than they have to be. We’ll discuss those next week.