Monday, March 18, 2013

God Save Me From A Normal Life — Part Two

My father was born 100 years ago.  One hundred years from now, the seven-point-something billion people alive today will be gone.  There will be no cars, TVs, computers, phones, and so on.  The vision of a technological wonderland will be forgotten and extinct, replaced by many new low-tech survival-oriented pursuits.  If humans continue to exist, they will not be very fond of our generation, and the messes we left for them.

Every civilization eventually exhausts essential resources and collapses.  As predictable as the sun, civilizations rise, peak, and then set.  In the wake of every collapse, the survivors usually regroup and repeat the same mistakes.  It’s the easiest option, or the only option.  This is a primary curse of the agricultural era — once the dirty habit of soil mining takes root, it’s very hard to quit before the ecosystem is entirely wrecked.

As the collapse of modern society unfolds, the consumer lifestyle will eventually go extinct.  Returning to a genuinely sustainable mode of nature-based living will not be possible until nature recovers and the human population adjusts to the new scenario.  This may take a generation or three.

Meanwhile, the safe bet is that muscle-powered subsistence farming and herding will once again become the primary human activities, utilizing severely depleted cropland and grassland, without the magic chemicals and machines.  The survivors will strive to recreate something resembling a pre-industrial peasant way of living — a backbreaking lifestyle, with a short life expectancy, in which everyone lives close to the brink of starvation.  (Some scientists speculate that changing climate may blindside agriculture at some point.)

The long-term future of these neo-peasants is easy to predict.  After 10,000 years of experiments in agricultural civilization, there is no place where the cropland and grassland remains as fresh and healthy as it was on day one.  Indeed, vast areas have been reduced to waste, and new wastelands are being created at an ever-growing rate.  Agriculture is a dependable path to ruin, because it is almost always unsustainable in the long run.  Industrial society is a dependable high-speed path to ruin. 

Wise guys persistently question the wisdom of remaining on any obvious, clearly marked path to ruin.  Our ancestors were not imbeciles or evil monsters.  With good intentions, they innocently adopted agriculture.  It was impossible for them to foresee the disastrous long-term consequences of their experiment.  Today, we cannot plead ignorance.  The long-term consequences are far better understood (but generally disregarded).  Like all other animals, humans primarily live in the here and now.  Long-term thinking had no purpose when we lived in balance with nature.

Wise guys persistently recommend that we move in the direction of sustainable living, because all unsustainable options, by definition, have no long-term future.  In a smart collapse, the transition to subsistence farming would be seen as no more than a temporary transition on the high-priority path to a genuinely sustainable future.  It would be awesome to actually acknowledge the big lessons of history, break out of our 10,000-year cycle of repeated mistakes, and strive to live more mindfully.  We inherited big brains; we should use them.

A huge plus is that the new generation of radical thinkers is providing us with a different way of perceiving the world.  Agriculture was a stunning mistake.  The long-tarnished reputation of “primitive” nature-based living has been dusted off, spiffed up, and recast as a brilliant, enjoyable, healthy, time-proven mode for living far less destructively, or even sustainably.  It was not problem-free, but it left far fewer scars.

Half-baked intelligence got us into this mess, and our only hope for survival is a new and improved intelligence, heavily armed with clear thinking, reality-based history, state-of-the-art foresight, respect and reverence for nature, and a fervent, uncompromising contempt for deeply rooted pathological traditions.  With powerful wisdom, perfect luck, and more than a few miracles, humankind may once again be wild, free, and happy, a century or three down the road.  Imagine that.

A huge minus is that the road ahead is treacherously littered with slippery banana peels.  Say hi to the hope and optimism crowd, the “normal” mainstream consumers who comprise the vast majority of modern society.  For them, the consumer way of life is sacred and non-negotiable.  They conjure quirky comforting dreams that the current way of life will continue for the rest of their days.  The economy will recover and grow like crazy, everyone will have high-income work with outstanding benefits, the housing market will make everyone billionaires, everyone will drive monster trucks, death will be cured, and technology will clobber every problem — heaven on Earth!

This is false hope and irrational optimism, better known as denial (or psychosis).  It attempts to distract our attention from the pain of despair.  This psychosis dominates our culture, like the air we breathe.  Everywhere we turn; it’s there — entertainment, education, politics, religion, everyday conversations.  It dominates the minds of most people, for obvious reasons.  It’s all they know.  It encloses their minds in a cocoon of magical thinking, shielding them from uncomfortable inputs.  The world outside of the well-padded cocoon is an intensely unhealthy and unstable reality.  So, close the curtains, lock the doors, roll a joint, turn on the TV, and hope for better days ahead, right?

Is it possible to survive without false hope and irrational optimism?  Yes, in fact, it is.  Some of my best friends are present in reality, and they are quite smart and interesting.  For anyone who is even slightly present in reality, the path ahead is obviously jammed with 800-pound gorillas, as far as the eye can see — climate change, deforestation, mass extinction, energy depletion, economic collapse, wars, famines, pestilence, and on and on.  The deeper you explore reality, the more gorillas you find. 

Sadly, if you outwardly acknowledge the presence of even one gorilla, you suddenly change into an abominable monster of pure negative energy — a sick, pessimistic, brain-damaged doomer!  But wait!  Realistically, isn’t it sick and pessimistic to hope that the most destructive experiment of the entire human journey remains alive and well for as long as possible?  Do you really hope that it continues destroying life on Earth?  Circle the true doomer in this picture.  Everything is backwards.  Words can be very slippery.

If these hope fiends could slip outside their cocoon of magical thinking, they would see that genuine optimism enthusiastically embraces the sane and healthy desire to eventually return to a sustainable way of life.  Genuinely positive people are interested in freeing themselves, overcoming their addictions, rejecting the toxic values of mainstream society, resigning from soul-killing and planet-killing occupations, remembering what it is to be authentically human, and celebrating the perfection of creation (what’s left of it).

But the “normal” hope and optimism crowd has no interest in being enlightened or saved, and any attempts at doing so are usually a waste of time, and more than a little depressing.  They are committed to shopping till they drop.  The mainstream worldview is a maximum-security prison, and it will never open the gates when reason and logic come calling — instead, these sensible visitors will be warmly welcomed with a shower of boiling oil.  Obviously, humankind does not march to the beat of reason and logic — these are new, immature, and unstable mental powers.  So, the human mind is a bouncy slippery fish, and the path to genuine sustainability will not be short or simple.

I shall now reveal an immensely hopeful and optimistic plan that has a very slight chance for success — my reason for writing this book. 

To be continued.


Anonymous said...

Great to see you disseminating via Facebook. It'll get to different audiences. I'll re-post .... And ask FB friends to do the same.

Riversong said...

Adrian, that's a near-perfect description of our current cultural psychosis, but for one thing: "humankind does not march to the beat of reason and logic".

While it's all too true that modern Americans, in particular, tend to put dogma, prejudice and preconception ahead of rational thinking in their daily lives (i.e. nearly half of Americans believe in the Creation story rather than biological evolution), it's also true that it was the rational mind which fathered the scientific and technological "wonderland" we "enjoy" today - and even the most hardcore fundamentalists drive pickup trucks while texting on their "smart" phones and use the internet to debunk global warming.

Prior to that other uniquely American imbalance, which puts personal freedom on a pedestal built on the detritus of social responsibility, what got humanity through its first 2½ million years on the planet was a balance between intellect and intuition, with much learning coming – not by the logical trial and error which rational anthropologists have always assumed – but by direct communication with the more-than-human world in which we were embedded.

As a native American once said: "The mind is a powerful tool to use when needed. The rest of the time, it should remain safely in the quiver."

We certainly need to put logic and reason to better use than we have so far, but we must not let it continue to dominate our cultural evolution, lest we forever confuse rationalization with justification and cleverness with wisdom – which comes from a much deeper place.

What Is Sustainable said...

Vern, thanks!

What Is Sustainable said...

Riversong, I see where you’re coming from. But after nearly four years of working the Earth Crisis beat full-time, the last two words I’d use to describe humans are logical and reasonable. We’re not Spock, we’re more like Captain Kirk. Reason often has to stand in line behind emotions, testosterone, and mass hysteria.

We will never consider reasonable responses to out-of-control overpopulation or climate change. It’s 2013, and the streets of this very “progressive” and “well-educated” town are still roaring with automobiles. We will never contemplate addressing soil mining or water mining or forest mining or fish mining until crisis arrives. I would eagerly trade technological wonderland for healthy wilderness. Wonderland seems to be more trouble than it’s worth.