A Need For Response
For those following this blog, it’s likely become clear that I don’t expect our society, economy and general way of life—either here in America or elsewhere in the industrialized world—to last far into the future. Despite previous stages of this belief of mine, I don’t currently think that the end of our way of life will manifest itself in some extreme, apocalyptic moment. Rather, I have come to believe in the likelihood of a stairstep collapse, thanks to the writings of a certain Grand Archdruid. I think the underpinnings of what we consider modern society will come apart—as they, indeed, already have started to come apart—and this entire sorry game will unravel. I don’t expect that unraveling to happen entirely in my lifetime, but I expect to live through enough of its beginning to see and be forced to deal with quite the fallout. I have no illusions of a zombie apocalypse, but I neither have illusions of a relatively easy transition or the saving grace of new technology or a grand shift in consciousness that solves all our problems. We’ve made a mess of the world and we’re going to have to deal with the consequences.
Similarly, the mess we’ve made is a mess that most everyone in the industrialized nations have had a part in. That’s not to say there aren’t certain bad actors who have turned in virtuoso performances, but even they have almost certainly been functioning to some degree within the context of this insane society and culture we’ve all helped to create. I have been no stranger to bitter complaints about Obama’s failed promises—and much less a stranger to bitter and venomous rants about Bush the younger’s detestable administration—but Obama’s is a presidency in context as much as all the others. As a society, we have not shown a particular interest in being told the truth and even those of us who have opted out of our culture’s dominant narratives of myth have too often opted into alternate narratives of apocalypse that serve just as easily to protect us from the hard work a new way of life requires. That politicians are less than eager to tell us the truths that we are so quick to avoid ourselves is no surprise. It’s not particularly relevant whether they do it because they don’t know those truths or because they are actively ignoring them due to a recognition that speaking them would not be beneficial to them on a political or economic level. Either way, our broader society holds a certain level of culpability.
Within this mind frame, I wrote a recent post that served as something of a criticism of the Occupy movement. It was my attempt to advocate for a longer view within the movement: a recognition that our problems are not just about social and economic inequality—which is a serious issue, no question—but also a distorted view about what is a reasonable standard of living. I specifically called the American middle class way of life bullshit. I stand by those words. We have a worldview that is built on top of a fantasy of independence from hard ecological and environmental realities. That worldview is falling out from under us and we need to respond to that changing landscape immediately and with an intention based in community, care and cooperation. Unfortunately, that’s not a task that will be easy, and there are many forces, both external and internal, which will serve to push us toward more destructive responses.
The Risk of Demagoguery
One of those responses that I worry could happen is the Occupy movement turning more and more toward a movement of revenge. I’m not saying this is what will happen, but I do consider it a legitimate and reasonable concern. As the world economy continues to spiral out of control, austerity measures assert themselves ever more harshly and the ability to get by financially for a majority of the population becomes more challenging, our collective level of stress will rise. And the sort of harsh and stressful environment I think we’re facing in the near term will be a fantastic place for demagoguery to flourish.
Understand, I think many in the financial industry should be doing perp walks and the lack of that reality is a massive failure of justice and the rule of law. Similarly, the way Obama swept the war crimes of the Bush administration under the rug was despicable. But all of these injustices happened, again, within a societal context. And that context is something that all of us have played a role in. Hell, if you’re reading this blog, I can pretty much guarantee you that you had a role in this reality, because the internet and the vast infrastructure put in place to maintain it and provide access points to end users (i.e. me, you, and somewhere around two billion other people) is an infrastructure built on vast ecological destruction. It is an infrastructure built on economic and social inequality. It is, as well, an infrastructure that helps to perpetuate the sort of war crimes that the Bush administration engaged in. While the Iraq war might not have literally been conceived in a cartoonish, movie villain style plot geared toward oil capture (though it certainly may have) our country’s never-ending need for fossil fuels brought that war into existence. The outsized existence that we have become accustomed to powered the mechanizations that led, tragically, to that war. It’s easy to put it all on the head of W and Dick Cheney, but that’s the sort of short view that leads to demagoguery—of which I have engaged in, believe me—and the convenience of never having to examine oneself in the mirror.
The Need for Good Work
It also leads to the convenience of not having to throw oneself into the challenge of doing good work. The myth of progress leads inevitably toward desires for utopian schemes. We imagine new ways to structure our economy or our government or our cultural institutions to lead to a gloried future, a cornucopian golden land in which we have everything we’ve ever needed or wanted. We proclaim the ability to smooth out the inherent vagaries and fallibility of human behavior, if only we create the proper context for their existence. The problem here is that we seem too quick to place our hopes into the utopian basket of revolutionary change (or forced utopia that always seems to be waiting on the other side of apocalypse, once all the people we don’t like have died) and too hesitant to engage in the long, hard work of actually creating new cultural and economic contexts that can indeed inspire better behavior and constrain damaging impulses.
Let me provide an example. I have been meaning to write this blog post all day. However, I didn’t start it until late afternoon. For multiple hours before that, I poked around on the internet engaging in largely useless but satisfyingly distracting behavior. This is a common theme of mine: the lack of self-discipline and the propensity toward distraction. Overcoming it can only happen through restraining my own behavior, dedicating myself to what I consider worthwhile pursuits, and ignoring the need for overstimulation. This is all hard—oddly hard—and it as often as not devolves into me wasting hours of time looking at shiny things on the internet because, you know, it’s easy. Writing, on the other hand, is intensely satisfying when it comes out well but also, often, extremely hard. It’s so much easier to read about the NBA or look at my blog stats or read someone else’s hard work. This, of course, extrapolates out to TV, shopping, bitching about whatever we happen to not like at the moment, speaking rapturously about whatever we happen to like at the moment, eating, drinking, and a thousand other ingrained societal behaviors that serve to distract us and keep us from the hard work of making our life and community better.
Another example. I have participated in the Occupy movement and thoroughly enjoyed my time marching and shouting, protesting and bonding. I met great people, I felt empowered, I believe without question that I did good things. I also thrived off the emotional power of laying the blame for our very messed up world at the feet of other people. I felt the bonds of shared outrage and anger. I felt the easy pull of demagoguery. This is a fine line, of course—where does a legitimate demand for justice end and the blaming of problems on everyone else but yourself began?—and I have not figured out the exact placement of that line. I probably will never figure it out exactly. But there is a line and I think all of us need to both be very aware of it and be constantly vigilant in wondering whether or not we are crossing it. This is especially true in our culture, where distraction and shallow soothings are constantly championed at the expense of the long, hard work of figuring out how to live and work well in this world.
And that is the idea I keep coming back to. This is an idea championed by Wendell Berry, and there’s no question that I have been greatly inspired and influenced by my readings of him. We have to begin—or for those who have already begun, continue—the hard work of figuring out how to live and work well in this world. That’s an incredible challenge. I would argue it’s the central challenge of being human, of being alive in this world. What else could be the point? For what other reason could we be here? It’s not to see who can die with the most toys. It’s not to see how high a percentage of our life we can spend being distracted by shiny, technological toys. It’s not to discover how quickly we can convert the living creatures of this world into cheaply-made commodities. And it’s not to find the one person who’s screwing everything up for the rest of us. It’s the very personal work of living well in this world. That is a challenge. That is a huge, never-ending challenge—a lifetime of work, the question that only has incomplete, always changing answers.
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I’ve been buoyed of late by the Occupy movement. Having joined the kick off march and rally for Occupy Portland, participated in the October 15th global day of protest, and closely followed OWS for months, I saw the movement as the first real possibility in my lifetime of enacting broad social, political and economic change. As a proponent of such change–of radical change–I dared to hope that this may be the beginning of the long sought revolution, unveiling itself before my very eyes, in my lifetime, at what seemed a critical moment of history. I have, in recent years, danced around the sense that a reckoning is coming–an apocalypse of some kind, the collapse of industrial civilization–and I have wanted to see a revolution to help head off that collapse, or at least to try to work within its confines rather than fight it to the bitter end, inevitably to the still-further impoverishment of all.
Occupy slotted itself very nicely into the space in which those dreams resided. There was an intoxicating power to the way it grew and flourished, drawing in thousands and spreading across the globe, linking up with other protests, movements and revolutions, and commanding the attention of political and economic elites. This, finally, seemed to be history unfolding. It was happening.
But then, within the same time frame, I began to question my dreams of apocalypse. Much of this questioning came out of a series of posts written by John Michael Greer over at The Archdruid Report. In writing about magic and thaumaturgy, he brings to account the sort of binary thinking that drives such apocalyptic thinking, as well as its utopian sibling. Greer argues that humans have a tendency toward binary thinking, seeing “polarized relationships between one thing and another, in which the two things are seen as total opposites.” He believes, due to its frequency, that this is “likely hardwired into our brains” and that it stems from “the snap decisions our primate ancestors had to make on the African savannah,” sorting things into “food/nonfood, predator/nonpredator, and so on.” Today, we have the ability to go beyond such binary thinking into more complex thought processes, but a proper amount of stress can trigger our more primitive mind frame, pushing us back into binaries.
The tendency to project our timeline out into apocalyptic or utopian fantasies, then, stems from that binary thinking. Some see history moving us toward an ever-more-perfect society while still others believe that we are heading for a complete collapse–the end of civilization or, more colloquially, the zombie apocalypse. I’ve tended toward this latter mind frame, spurred on by signs of ecological catastrophe, a rapidly changing climate, the plateauing of oil production and the exhaustion of physical resources. And I do still think that we’re in for a reckoning on a global scale. Yet the idea that it’s going to collapse all at once, in some kind of fiery apocalypse–or more specifically, in some kind of sudden and complete withdrawal of governmental authority, industrial economic activity and legal and social structures–no longer holds as much sway with me.
My new found hesitancy to embrace such a concept stems, again, from recently-read writings of Greer’s. He notes that past civilizations that have collapsed have all followed a similar model, though the details of course vary wildly. However, the similarity tends to manifest itself, in Greer’s words, as a “stairstep sequence of decline that’s traced by the history of so many declining civilizations—half a century of crisis and disintegration, say, followed by several decades of relative stability and partial recovery, and then a return to crisis; rinse and repeat, and you’ve got the process that turned the Forum of imperial Rome into an early medieval sheep pasture.” Furthermore, in his book The Ecotechnic Future, Greer argues for a long perspective view of societies that casts them in evolutionary terms, with our current industrial civilization being, essentially, a less-evolved mutation of a technic society. In his frame, our use of technology was the evolutionary leap and our current use of it is just one early and not particularly resilient manifestation of that leap. As we deplete the fossil fuels and other physical resources that power our current evolutionary branch of society, we’ll be forced into new branchings. However, he foresees (far) future societies likely still using technology, just in more appropriate and sustainable manners.
Looking out on Cape Falcon from the beginning of the trail.
These new-to-me perspectives–of stairstep collapse and an evolutionary model overlaid on our society–has evolved my own thinking about what our future may entail. While, as I mentioned above, I still see that reckoning on its way, I see it less likely as playing out in complete and catastrophic collapse. Rather, I’m swayed by Greer’s argument that we’ll see more of a stairstep collapse and future transitional phases–though they’ll likely be trying affairs, to say the least. This shift in perspective on collapse, meanwhile, has also shifted my perspective on the Occupy movement. Simply put, I no longer think it can or will lead to the revolution I previously hoped for. More specifically, I don’t think that revolution is even possible.
If we are heading for a stairstep collapse rooted more in the increasing scarcity of fossil fuels and their incredibly-concentrated sources of energy, as well as the inability of America to continue to control a share of the world’s resources far beyond its population share, then we are facing a future with no grand solution. Our course is untenable; there’s no solution to make it tenable. If there’s no grand solution, then there’s no revolutionary moment that can save us from collapse, from a series of harsh changes that we don’t want to and are unprepared to make. There are only small moments of adjustment. There are only high levels of persistence. There is only a long process of muddling through, of taking the next step not in accordance with a long-established plan, but with a deft adjustment to recently-arisen circumstances. There is only a series of moves made in conjunction with local realities, not one grand saving grace rooted in a globalized reality. There is only you, and your family, your household and your neighbor’s, the small community around you, a watershed, a localized climate and geography that is asserting itself every day as a greater and greater percentage of your total reality. That’s the only solution, and there’s nothing particularly grand about it.
My experiences with the Occupy movement have been intoxicating. They’ve been empowering. And I don’t think there’s anything surprising or unique about this. In the context of a political and economic system that has rendered the vast majority of people powerless, that voice and sense of impact that the Occupy movement has provided can be addicting. Finally, we think, politicians are responding! Finally, the media is acknowledging us, even if it’s half the time an acknowledgement made up of nothing more than spite and degradation. The Occupy movement isn’t an online petition destined to be ignored. Nor is it dispiriting, as such petitions tend to be. It, rather, engages you in a way that such easy actions do not. Instead of clicking mindlessly, you come together with like minded people and you voice your displeasure, your anger, your frustration and outrage. My experience with that was addictive–I wanted more of it! Based on the growth of OWS, I don’t think my reaction was an isolated one.
Yet, Greer once again wrote something that impacted the way I thought about this reaction. In an essay entitled “A Choice of Contemplations,” Greer writes that “The vast majority of Americans these days believe that something has gone very wrong with their country, but there’s nothing like a national consensus about what has gone wrong, much less how to fix it. By chance or design, the Occupy movement has capitalized on this by refusing to be pinned down to specific demands or specific critiques, mounting a protest in which protest itself is the central content. Tactically speaking, this is brilliant; it’s created a movement that anyone with a grievance can join.”
A particularly beautiful and calming spot along the trail.
This rings true to me. Since the inception of the movement, I’ve been sympathetic to people who have called for specific demands, but unconvinced. Ultimately, I thought the lack of demands lent the movement a great strength. As soon as demands were introduced, they could be used to split apart the movement, to discredit it, and could become a flash point for a full-fledged attack from the movement’s enemies. All of which, I think, is true. Yet the part I wasn’t seeing as clearly was what Greer wrote. The lack of demands opens the movement to anyone who’s angry, which is damn near everyone. Not all will join, but the potential is there. In that sense, the movement was primed for growth. It seems not a coincidence, then, that it grew very fast from its inception.
But I can’t help but think there’s something more we’re facing here. Yes, we have an exploitative and brutal economic order and a corrupt and ineffective political class. Yes, we have a co-opted and bankrupt media and decaying national infrastructure. Yes, we have a societal and cultural order that is propped up by the underpinnings of domination and brutalization. And God yes, we need movements against these unfair and destructive aspects of our society. But what do we do when these movements get caught up in the same system? It’s a common refrain from the Occupy movement (though by no means a consensus) that we need to rebuild the middle class and create a fair economy that provides everyone an honest opportunity for a well paying job with benefits. But let’s be honest for a moment here. The middle class America that most of us envision when we talk about this is bullshit.
It is, I’ll say it again, bullshit.
This is a class built on the exploitation of the rest of the planet: many of its human occupants as well as all its non-human occupants and damn near everything else found in the earth’s ecosystem. The American way of life consumes vastly more resources on this planet than it has population–and the planet is overpopulated. We’ve been living in a fantasy land of the exploitation of concentrated-energy fossil fuels and the destruction and waste of the planet’s physical resources, and we built multiple classes on that exploitation and waste. One of those is the middle class. It’s not as wasteful and as unsustainable as the upper class here in America, but it sure as hell isn’t sustainable, either.
I don’t see a future in which we don’t have to deal with dramatically lower wealth and standards of living. This doesn’t mean we all have to be miserable, dead or living in squalor–though I will be surprised if we get through this tumultuous next few decades without our share of chaos and suffering–but we sure as hell aren’t going to have processed foods and microwaves, TV and the internet, video games and 401k and guaranteed retirements, a country in which a tiny fraction of the population farms, massive tractors and automobiles and development strategies powered by oil, or an endless supply of cheap technological gadgets to distract us from our ever-more meaningless lives. We’re going to have to reacquaint ourselves with limits and physical realities and the necessity to live with the sustainable levels of energy and resources provided by the planet’s ecosystem. The analogy is simple and has been used numerous times: we’ve run up the credit card bill and now we’re going to have to pay it off–while simultaneously learning how to live without the extra purchasing power of that credit.
The model going forward is impossible to predict in its exact details, though one could sketch some likely outlines. One reality that seems undeniable, though, is that we’re going to move away from globalization and return to localities. In fact, we’re looking at a hyper-localized future, in which we’re going to have to reacquaint ourselves with the idea of making our living from a particular piece of land, rather than just existing on a piece of land that means nothing to us while we import our existence in from the globalized, industrial economy. This is huge. It’s going to be hard and it’s going to be made harder by the fact that, over the last couple generations, we’ve discarded an incredible amount of the knowledge needed to live in such a manner. We’re going to have to resurrect as much of that knowledge that still exists, create new knowledge through lengthy trial and error, and train incredible numbers of people in these forgotten skills. And we’re going to have to do it within a compressed time frame–much quicker than such a process would play out naturally.
A stray root from this tree forms what looks like a little hobbit house door.
Over the last month or so, as these ideas have been percolating and coalescing in the back of my mind–spurred on by a variety of Greer’s writings and my own knowledge base and lifestyle–I’ve been struggling to figure out what I think now about the Occupy movement and my place in it. And while I haven’t come to a firm conclusion, I did come to one particular course of action on December 12th. On that day, I had originally planned to travel to Portland from the Oregon coast, where I’m living on a farm, and join in on the attempt to shut down the Port of Portland. As the Occupy encampments had been broken up by authorities and massive displays of force had successfully pushed the movement into a new and quieter phase, I felt the urge to join in on striking back and making clear to the authorities that the movement was not defeated–that it had not been broken under their violent repression. But as the day grew closer on the calendar, my motivations changed. The more I thought about leaving the farm to drive again into Portland, the more I wanted to stay. The more I thought about shutting down the port, the more I wanted to connect to my local landscape.
Therefore, I chose to hike on December 12th. I hiked up Neahkahnie Mountain, which is not the particular land I live on, but is a prominent element of the local geography. It was not a long hike–about four miles round trip, up to the top of the mountain from a midway point and back down to that point. It was a beautiful hike on a glorious day, the sky blue and the sun shining and everything simply far nicer than it typically would be on a mid-December day along the Oregon coast. The air was chilly, but it was no match for the body heat worked up by the physical exertion. I hiked, I observed, I experienced, I worked my body and touched the trees and stood multiple times in awe of the beautiful world around me. I felt calm and relaxed and my mind slowed but became sharper, more perceptive. This, then, was a different kind of exhilaration than the protest and port shutdown would have offered. It was something that struck me as more holistic, more calming . . . more grounding. It was a connection to my local landscape, and it was critical.
If we’re to live in a future with limited access to fossil fuels and the need to live at a truly local level, then we are going to have to rediscover the places we live. We will need to study them, observe them, become intimate and familiar with them. We will need to do our best to understand them, love them, forgive them the challenges they provide us and embrace their peculiarities. This is not a quick process. It is, in fact a lifelong process–a process ideally suited to multiple lives, even. In an ideal reality, culture would provide us the capability of understanding the land over multiple lifetimes in the form of the knowledge passed down to us from previous generations, living on the same land we came to live on. The reality today is far different. Very, very few of us have such a connection. Many of us are nomads.
The port–in its current form, at least–will not last my lifetime. Perhaps my certainty is hubris, yet that certainty remains within me. The land I live on now and in the future (which will hopefully be approximately the same) will be there throughout my lifetime and beyond. And at some point during this life of mine, I will be necessarily more tied to it than I am today. If I want to secure my future, then, and to make that future better, than I best learn the lay of that land. And every day I jet off somewhere else is another day I’m behind in that process. Similarly, every day I exist on this land but spend the day on my computer rather than out on it is another day I’m behind in that process. (Hello, today!) I need to make these days count, and on December 12th I believe I made my day count.
I don’t begrudge the Occupy movement. Rather, in many ways, I cheer it on. We need the activism. We need protest. We need people who are willing to do whatever they can to try to stop this machine as it murders our fellow creatures, human or otherwise. But I also think we have to keep a steady focus on a future beyond that machine. It’s coming down, the machine–that’s inevitable. It’s fuel is running out and its structural integrity is degrading. What replaces it is a question of high importance and whatever the answer is, it’s going to be rooted in a future reality that is smaller and more local and far more connected to the landbase and the ecological sphere within which each individual exists.
I ask people not to lose sight of that. Protest, yes, absolutely, but don’t become too addicted to the intoxicating sense of power and voice. There is a smaller, quieter, but I would argue greater power in learning your land, connecting to the creatures of this world, and figuring out how to live and work well in this world. That is the ultimate struggle of our time. The machine we attempt to stop is simply the result of our failure to do this good work. We have to figure out our own lives and how to live them better–how to live them as properly as we possibly can–if we are to craft a future better than that machine. Otherwise, when it comes to a coughing halt, devoid of fuel and falling to pieces, all of us who spent our time only fighting will no longer have an existence. We’ll be lost, and in that loss will only be chaos–the vacuum where a meaningful and connected life should be, where our new culture is searching for purchase, for the nourishing soil within which it will grow.
The view from the top of Neahkahnie Mountain, looking out over Manzanita, Nehalem and beyond.