Our civilisation has got itself stuck in a state of paralysis, with us all looking to the next to do something. It’s kind of hard to ignore the pending crises we all face, but we’re doing a pretty good job doing so. All of these articles are from just today alone; Beware the Global Finance Crises Part III, What Exxon Knew About Climate Change, Haiti Drought Cuts Harvests, Lifts Prices, Food Crisis Looms. I could’ve chosen plenty more.
Yet most of us go around pretending that everything is going to work out ok. Most of us think that all of this is beyond our control. Why?
Living in the UK I can only comment for what things are like here, and what I see is a lethargy and indifference that has developed over at least the last decade. Politicians have eroded public confidence in the political system. Perhaps people are so used to seeing stories such as those above in the news, that they just take it as normal, and no longer do they make an impression. As I see it, most people seem resigned to one of either two scenarios about the future:
Someone will save us and fix it all for us or we’re heading towards an apocalypse where it will become survival of the fittest.
Either way people get stuck in a paralysis of inaction and indifference. They feel powerless to act and prevent. In the meantime let’s have business as usual.
Our culture unfortunately gets stuck on these two extreme stories instead of considering the huge array of options that lie elsewhere on the sliding scale of scenarios. This can be thought of as ‘binary thinking’ – either this or that. We do it a lot in our extreme culture. However, it’s rarely an empowering or realistic/accurate way of looking at the world. The world has many more shades of grey (way more than fifty…), and is far more complex than these generally overly-simplistic options tend to suggest.
From my own reading it seems that most of the ancient, indigenous cultures understood this. This is why they have thousands of mythologies, that span many different, diverse meanings and outcomes. They understood the power of story, so they taught plenty of them. So when you face a challenge in life (or perhaps as a community), you had a range of options open to you. That’s very handy.
In our culture however our cultural narratives are often homogenous. We tell lots of stories yes, but most of them centre around the Hero’s Journey, and as important a story it is, it’s far from the only one. Essentially in our stories, we always eventually triumph over evil. It may be a long difficult battle, it may take some soul-searching, we may need to consult with someone wise, but we’ll eventually get there after our trials and tribulations. We’ll bring that knowledge/relic back to ourselves/our people and save them (I agree that’s a simplistic, brief overview of the hero’s journey, but there’s plenty of people writing about it out there). As a result of our bias, we have even moulded the old stories to fit the hero’s journey, but again that’s a topic for another blog.
And the stories we tell in our society are stuck. They’re stuck on solutions that probably won’t work this time. We’re stuck on the transcendental view of the world.
Let’s start by looking at the idea that someone out there will save us. Doesn’t this look remarkably like many of the religious stories we’re all told? It doesn’t matter how bad the situation, we merely have to wait until we’re bailed out by The Big Guy Upstairs. Insert your religion of choice and you have the source of your saviour. Christian’s believe in the Second Coming of Christ, and on the other end of the scale scientists believe in the The Great Discovery (or if you believe in Neo-Liberal economics you believe in the redemptive power of The Free Market) . Each story follows the same set of rules, but has different characters. We shouldn’t be surprised by that. Science as we know it was born out of a hugely religious era, by religious people. I’m not saying science itself is a religion. But I’m saying the stories that dominate the scientific veiw-point are shaped by the culture that bore it (sacrilegious as that is to say). So whether you’re a Christian or an Atheist, it seems that you both believe in the idea of someone bailing us all out – a Miracle. (Disclaimer: I have nothing against either Christianity or Science, they’re both tools to help us understand the world, and I like to have as many tools as possible). As a Scientist you may believe that you hold The Beacon of Truth, and as a Christian likewise, but both are just approaches to a ‘problem.’ Stories to help us on the road ahead. I am not negating or trivialising the power of either. Different tools for different times for different problems or predicaments.
I digress… the important point here is that many believe that someone will save us. And once they’ve saved us, we’ll go on to live in our own version of Utopia. Sounds great doesn’t it? It frees us of us any responsibility and we can be safe in the knowledge that we’ll all be ok in the end. That’s what Hollywood tells us right?
The problem with this story is what happens if Jesus doesn’t return (in time?)? What happens if we don’t find a scientific answer to climate change or Peak Oil and we are not able to carry on as normal (‘we’ predominately being the 1 billion or so middle class of the world, the rest of the world is dealing with this every single day, see the article at the beginning about Haiti). Great as it may sound to the middle class masses, business as usual depends on a discovery. I’m going to suggest that discovery would have to be of a technological origin, but either way, someone, somewhere needs to bail us out.
And why shouldn’t we believe that you say? We’re on a straight line to Technological Progress. The Promised Land. Where we’ll have flying cars, robotic butlers, and unlimited cheap, free energy (feel free to add in your own clichéd vision of the future). What do you mean we won’t be able to reverse climate change and find new cheap sources of oil (or what do you mean that Zero Point Energy won’t work?!)?! Yesterday we only had bricks for mobile phones and today we have super smart computer phones… Someone will invest something somewhere. Or so the story goes.
That’s the story we’re being sold most of the time. We’re told that Technology carries on in a straight line into infinity and beyond. Soon we’ll all be living on the moon.
As fascinating as that story goes it’s unlikely to happen. This story stems from the arrogance of humanity. The ego in its most abstract self. Theoretically this may all sound plausible. Yet here on Earth, it’s unlikely. Like every other animal on this planet we’re subject to the same constrictions and limitations. We’ve all taken a flight into fantasy. And as fantastic as a flight into fantasy is, it’s just that, a fantasy. Reality meanwhile is trying its best to hammer us with the facts. The world’s getting considerably warmer. The sea levels are rising. Economies are struggling to recover. Easily accessible, cheap oil is running out. And so on.
And this leads us on to the other Great Vision of the Future. The equally transcendental view. The Apocalypse. You might believe that the biblical Four Horsemen are galloping towards us, or you may believe that Zombies will come hunting for your flesh. Either way you believe that an almighty bloodbath is bearing down on us. But so long as you’re a believer in Christ, or a Lone Survivor you’re going to be ok. Yes, you may lose a few of your brethren along the way, but in general Your Side will ‘win’. And after that, we’ve of course purged the Earth of all its wickedness and problems, and you’ll be free to live in… Utopia!
Does this sound slightly naive and simplistic to you? Does this once again, like the Miracle Saviour story, sound like a way of absolving ourselves of real responsibility for the situation, that we all caused? Does this once again sound like a Hollywood fiction and an escape into the realms of the abstract mind, tinged with Ego?
Both of these popular narratives stem from the same place of Ego distraction. They’re both ultimately the same story, just on opposite ends of the extreme. They both ultimately stem from the same religious stories that have been passed down for the last 2000 years. One is for the optimists, the other for the pessimists.
The problem is not these stories per se. It’s the fact that they are told as the only possible stories. Whereas in reality they just exhibit the extreme ends of the scale. In the middle are thousands of other potential outcomes (stories). Historically the world doesn’t take the extreme, simplistic route. It tends to take a far more complex path. We live in a complex system after all.
Personally, I’d love to buy into the technological miracle story. Personally, I used to buy into the technological miracle story. But fortunately/unfortunately, someone managed to force reality into my face. I now realise it’s extremely unlikely to happen. Why?
Because technological fixes to these problems are going to land us with more technological problems to fix. The fundamental problem here is technological in nature, thus, the same thinking that caused the problem can’t be used to solve it. Cue Einstein quotes. The problems are too multi-faceted for us to just fix. Indeed we don’t face a problem, or even problems, we face a predicament. It doesn’t take long to realise that the situation we all face is due to a lack of balance with the natural world. A balance that has become so out of control we have to accept that it has now gone beyond our control. (Ah, control, that’s another of modern humanity’s tricky topics, yet again another blog.)
I won’t go into all the details in this piece, as each topic in themselves is deserving of a blog each. But when you look at the proposed ‘fixes’ to our ‘problem’ most (all?) include either vast sums of money or vast sums of oil (or other rare, endangered raw material), or usually both. Neither of which we have great amounts of. The richest nations in the world are all saddled with huge amounts of debt. This article here highlights the issues of new oil exploration and debt.
Quite simply, a technological ‘fix’ is only going to land us deeper in trouble. We are futilely attempting to find a fix for our fossil fuel habit.
The internet, fossil fuels. Roads, fossil fuels. Solar panels, fossil fuels. Food, fossil fuels. The economy, fossil fuels. Our civilisation has become wholly dependent on fossil fuels for their function. So unless we bring ourselves back into balance with Nature then we have very little chance of transitioning into the future.
The abstract world of the wonderful human brain breaks through limitations and constraints. The physical laws of Nature bind us to reality. We are not exempt from these laws.
The cultures around the world that accepted these laws, and worked with them, survived for many thousands of years. The cultures that didn’t died out. History is littered with the remains and relics from defunct civilisations.
Just as the collective consciousness of our civilisation believes we’ll exist forever so did the civilisations who passed before us. The Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Mayans – they’re just the few stories I know about. They each ran up against constraints. Constraints that ultimately led to their demise.
An interesting parallel with the Mayans and our modern ‘Western’ civilisation, is that whilst we’re facing Peak Oil, the Mayans faced ‘Peak Corn’. Evidence shows that their civilisation got so big and populous that they just couldn’t feed themselves. Their ancient method of cultivating an area of jungle for some years for corn, before leaving it fallow for some years, became abandoned. They shortened the amount of time for fallow, and increased the amount of time for cultivation. Meanwhile depleting the soil that sustained them. You can’t grow anything without soil. A sober reminder to us in our times as we face the ‘extinction’ of topsoil in our own food system – read this article in Time magazine for an overview. Like the Mayans, bad farming practices are eradicating our soil.
So as the Mayans pushed and pushed to grow more food for more people they slowly consigned themselves to extinction. They could’ve swapped to something else more sustainable. They had options. But corn had a mythological importance to the Mayans. They simply refused to consider another way. As a result they walked down the long road of civilisational descent, that many believe lies ahead of us in The West.
The parallels are uncanny.
We like to think our civilisation will continue forever. But this based on the false notion that our civilisation has been a straight line ascent since Ancient Times. The reality is different however. It’s been filled with rises and falls. The (Western) Roman empire collapsed around the 5th century. After that Europe entered the long period of the Dark Ages. There are many theories as to why Rome fell, interestingly they too parallel the issues facing our civilisation. Deforestation, soil erosion, climate change, disease, population, greed and more all being implicated (this wikipedia article gives a good summary).
Whatever the reasons, history shows us that many civilisation believed they were going to live forever, yet fell. This should be a sobering reminder to us all.
Something else history shows us is that most (all???) falls from grace are slow, and themselves are a series of ups and downs. Once again our cultural narrative of absolute triumph or absolute collapse fail us. My belief now is that we will face a long, slow descent that will last two or three hundred years. We will face many challenges along the way. Our greatest challenge is to ensure we get through them as best as possible. And that means equipping ourselves now with the relevant tools and skills to help us. It means rebuilding communities and local networks. It means us all doing deep internal work to address our own fallibilities. It means learning once again how to grow food without chemicals, how to build houses from natural materials and how to build machines that don’t rely on fossil fuels. It means re-learning how to tell stories. It means re-discovering our cultural heritage and perhaps forging a new one. Ultimately it mean re-establishing our connection with the natural world.
We all have to take our fair share of the shared responsibility that’s been bestowed to us by our ancestors. If we all act now we can not only prepare ourselves for an uncertain future of transition but help to lessen the severity of that period. As dire as many of the situations are, if we all take positive action then we have a chance of lessening the scale of the learning curve that awaits us. Small changes however aren’t going to cut it. We’re now facing immediate crisis. Ultimately recycling and buying eco-products whilst better than the alternatives aren’t going to save us. We all have to embrace a life of voluntary simplicity. Something else I will discuss in more detail in a later blog. We need to reduce our dependency on fossil fuel. We need to increase our own self-reliance and re-lay the foundations of our communities that we all depend upon. Be clear, I’m not suggesting this will ‘save’ us. Be careful that the dominant narratives don’t hijack this. They’re about putting in place the systems we need in the future, now. It’s about mitigating as many of the crises as possible. The time for the miracle has already passed.
And neither is this a one size fits all story for the future. There’ll be all sorts of stories unfolding, and in different parts of the world, and indeed in different regions there will be different scenarios. Simultaneously we’ll have many situations developing. Ultimately no-one knows how the future is going to unfold. But by embracing the more chaotic nature of reality, we will be better prepared to deal with that lies ahead. We empower ourselves, instead of paralysing ourselves.
This may all sound ominous. Indeed it is. But once we overcome that initial sense of foreboding, we might come to realise that what lies ahead may not be so bad (whilst not falling into the trap of naivety). It will mean The West bearing its ‘fair share’ of the suffering that we have currently externalised. That will be painful. But it may also mean that we once again come to live back in harmony with the land and eco-system, with each other and of course ourselves.
Our diversion into global civilisation hasn’t been all bad, it’s yielded some advancements, but now it’s time for us all to embrace a new future and a new way of living. With all of the challenges and benefits that entails.