Progress

Responding to Collapse, Part 7: A Team Sport

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool on March 18, 2019

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At the end of my first "Preparing for/Responding to Collapse" post , I said that we'd be considering the following subjects in this series:

  • where you want to be—where bad things are less likely to happen
  • who you want to be with—people you know, trust and can work with
  • what you are doing—something that can support you, and allow you to develop the skills and accumulate the resources you will need

 

I think I've given the first one adequate treatment in the last 5 posts (2 to 6 in this series) so now I'm moving on to the second item—who you want to be with.

So, who do you want to be with? The main thing, I think, is that you want to be with people, rather than being alone—to borrow a phrase from Douglas Rushkoff, being human is a team sport. (Here's a podcast with Rushkoff and Naomi Klein that I found interesting. Of course Rushkoff isn't talking about exactly the same thing as me, but it's still good stuff.)

What I am talking about is this: it is in the nature of human beings, and very much to our benefit, to work together in groups. Such groups act as a force multiplier, achieving more than what you would expect from simply adding up the number of people involved. And that's more both in the sense of 1) achieving the group's common goals and 2) enhancing the individual well being of its members. For most of the time that people have existed, we've lived together in small groups (less than Dunbar's number), made decisions largely by consensus, and allocated resources in a sort of "primitive communism"—from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs, if I can be forgiven for quoting Karl Marx.

During the difficult times that lie ahead of us, I think we will need to fall back on this way of living, in order to successfully meet the challenges we face.

But over the last few centuries this sort of thing has gotten a bad name. People have gone from living in small, close knit communities made up of large, extended families to living in isolated nuclear families or as lone individuals, and relating to other people mainly via the formal, money based economy. During the time when this change was happening, the level of affluence in our society continually increased, allowing us to get by just fine more or less on our own. It seems that many people have come to believe that individualism is at least partly responsible for the progress we have experienced, and that our former way of living probably had to be abandoned in order to reap the benefits of that progress.

I would say that such ideas are a long way from reality. So much so that I think we'd better stop here for a closer look at the advantages of living and working together in groups, and follow that up by considering why we have given up on this way of life. Best to be clear on this before going on to the practicalities and pitfalls of forming and working together in groups within your new community.

It's interesting that while today's corporations are intensely capitalistic and competetive, within them people are often organized in teams or crews whose members relate to each other in a very "communistic" way. I'd say that this is a tacit acknowledgement of what actually works best. For much of my career with Hydro One (Ontario's electric transmission and distribution utility) I worked as part of a crew of maintenance electricians. While it is true that there are some jobs that can be done by one person, most of the work we did went much better when done by a small group of people. Once such a crew gets to know each other and the work they are doing, they can organize themselves to do that work more productively and enjoyably than the same number of individuals could do working separately.

Within a crew there is usually a diversity of skills that complement each other, and allow people to focus their efforts on the parts of the job best suited to them. And of course the nature of most work (be it physical or mental) is such that it can be done quicker and more easily if the people doing it help each other.

Teams like this are an excellent learning environment, where you can pick up a great deal from people with more experience or different experience than you. Not just job related learning, but also contributing to your growth as a human being.

Beyond productivity and training, there are many benefits to the members of the crew which are not an intentional part of the situation or necessarily supported by management, but which certainly make for a better work environment— camaraderie, companionship, support (both in times of difficulty, and in growth and accomplishment), and the ability to make the boring parts of the job go quicker with humour, story telling, singing, etc.

As it happened we were also members of a labour union, which did its best to shield us from the worst predations of management. Unions are a pretty clear case of the use of group solidarity in dealing with a situation where the power dynamics would otherwise be completely one sided.

Co-operative efforts of groups of people in organizations like food co-ops and housing co-ops enjoy the benefits of enhanced bargaining power and economies of scale that are not available to nuclear families or single individuals. A group can also provide a safety net for its members in a way that conventional insurance, provided by a company whose main responsibility is to its share holders, can never do.

People working and living together also get to know each other quite well. Because of this the group can effectively discourage its members from shirking their responsibilities and provide them with a strong incentive to contribute to the full extent of their abilities.

And lastly I'll just note that compared to an isolated existence, living in groups with people that care about you and will help when you need it, has considerable psychological benefits.

So, given all these advantages, why have we largely abandoned our extended families and close knit communities?

Certainly, there is some overhead involved in living and working in close knit groups, and you can see why people who have attained a sufficient level of affluence might choose to exercise their independence and strike out on their own.

But the idea that group life is not worth the effort is somewhat of a self fulfilling prophecy. Living as we do these days, with a big emphasis on individualism and little opportunity to practice working in groups or learn it from experience people, we have forgotten many of the interpersonal the skills that make primitive communism work so well. And as long as things are going well there is little incentive to really try to make co-operative efforts succeed. We can do just fine on our own, without the trouble of getting along with others. Those whose lives are the most precarious, for whom individualism really isn't working, have come to simply not trust other people, and would never think of working together for their mutual advantage.

But even allowing for all that, I think we also need to keep in mind that isolated people are a lot easier to control and exploit, and this is very much to the advantage of the people who are running things in our society.

Whenever I see people making choices that clearly run counter to their own best interests, I've found that I only have to look a little further to uncover a great deal of effort that is being expended to make them do so. Effort that is being made by those who do stand to benefit from those poor choices. This is certainly the case practically everywhere in the world today, with most countries ruled by oligarchies who at best give only lip service to democracy, and are not of the people, by the people or for the people.

So, I would like to suggest that what going on here is rather different from the way we are encouraged to perceive it. Maybe, for most people, the growth of individualism was anything but progress. And while it is true that this happened while a lot of progress was happening, you don't want to confuse cause and effect. If you look closely, you can see that much of that progress was basically economic growth, or very closely tied to economic growth, which was largely driven by our switch over to using fossil fuels as our primary source of energy. So I'd say economic growth and the rise of modern capitalism drove the growth of individualism, rather than the other way around.

A excerpt from David Graeber's Debt: the first 5000 years may help clarify:

By the end of World War II, the specter of an imminent working-class uprising that had so haunted the ruling classes of Europe and North America had largely disappeared. This was because class war was suspended by a tacit settlement. To put it crudely: the white working class of North Atlantic countries, from the United States to West Germany were offered a deal. If they agreed to set aside fantasies of fundamentally changing the nature of the system, then they would be allowed to keep their unions, enjoy a wide variety of social benefits (pensions, vacations, health care…), and, perhaps most important through generously funded and ever-expanding public educational institutions, know that their children had a reasonable chance of leaving the working class entirely. One key element in all this was a tacit guarantee that increases in workers' productivity would be met by increases in wages: a guarantee that held good until the late 1970s. Largely as a result, the period saw both rapidly rising productivity and rapidly increasing incomes, laying the basis for the consumer economy of today.

This was the world into which I was born and grew up. Essentially, "setting aside fantasies of fundamentally changing the nature of the system" amounted to abandoning our communities and extended families, in exchange for individual affluence and economic security. Unfortunately, because of 1) a financial system based on interest bearing debt and 2) a growing population, this world required endless economic growth in order to continue fulfilling its promise. In another reality, where planets have infinite resources, this might have been possible, but not here.

After a few paragraphs about how this relates to Keynsian economics, Graeber goes on to say:

When the Keynsian settlement was finally put into effect, after World War II, it was offered to only a relatively small slice of the world's population. As time went on, more and more people wanted in on the deal. Almost all of the popular movements of the period from 1945 to 1975, even perhaps revolutionary movements, could be seen as demands for political equality that assumed equality was meaningless without some level of economic security. This was true not only of movements by minority groups in North Atlantic countries who had first been left out of the deal… but what were then called "national liberation" movements from Algeria to Chile, which represented certain class fragments in what we now call the Global South, or, finally, and perhaps most dramatically, in the late 1960s and 1970s, feminism. At some point in the '70s, things reached a breaking point. It would appear that capitalism, as a system, simply cannot extend such a deal to everyone. Quite possibly it wouldn't even remain viable if all its workers were free wage laborers; certainly it was never be able to provide everyone in the world the sort of life lived by, say, a 1960s auto worker in Michigan or Turin, with his own house, garage, and children in college—and this was true even before so many of those children began demanding less stultifying lives. The result might be termed a crisis of inclusion. But the late 1970s, the existing order was clearly in a state of collapse, plagued simultaneously by financial chaos, food riots, oil shocks, wide spread doomsday prophecies of the end of growth and ecological crisis—all of which, it turned out, proved to be ways of putting the populace on notice that all deals were off.

I would say that the underlying problem causing this failure of capitalism is economic contraction caused by the reduction in the surplus energy available as we've been forced to tap into ever poorer quality and/or less easily accessible fossil fuels. And sadly this is a problem for all economic and political systems. Indeed, it is a problem without a solution, which is bringing about changes that we will just have to adapt to.

I am not certain if Graber agrees with me that the crises we've faced since the 1970s are quite real, but I do agree with him that those in power have certainly used those crises to "put the populace on notice that all deals are off." He is also quite right that this is a "crisis of inclusion"—as the economy contracts the rich and powerful are not about to be excluded, so a great many other people have had to be, in order for the rich to keep a relatively larger slice of a shrinking pie.

But how, you may ask, does this relate to the problem of diminishing community in our modern society? Well, it seems that all the fixes that are available to the excluded majority involve us being separated from our former support systems (family and community in an informal economy) and striving to perform better as competing individuals in the formal economy.

We are told that to secure a good job we need an education, at least a bachelor's degree. This means (in many countries) taking on a significant amount of debt, so that after you graduate, you'll be desperate to get a job and pay off your student loans. This leaves you very little choice in the job you take and little choice about leaving it if it doesn't suit you.

To get that job it is very likely that you'll have to move a long way from where your family currently lives and set up as a lone individual, in a place where you, at least initially, have no support network.

If you meet the love of your life and decide to live together or actually marry, you will both have to go on working to pay off those student loans and make a start on building a family together.

This is a stressful situation, especially since you don't have any sort of support network and I suspect it contributes to marriage breakup. If you do break up you'll be left as a single mother or a lone individual.

Or perhaps instead of seeking higher education, you could go for a job in the trades. As I said earlier, crews of tradesmen are among the best examples of communistic relationships found in today's world. But in most companies there is a strong push to have people working by themselves whenever possible and to have as little contact with their co-workers as possible, lest they organize a union. Unions are in a desperate situation today, with no effort being spared to break them and leave working people completely at the mercy of management.

All this is very convenient for those who are in power. It is easier to exploit people who are not organized, who see each other as competitors rather than comrades. And in the process you can monetize much work that used to be part of the informal economy and make some additional profit out of it, while keeping people conveniently isolated from each other. I'm not saying this is a conspiracy of any sort, just rich people supporting the kind of politicians who will benefit them the most in the short term, and rest of us taking the path of least resistance through our lives.

Even if you are fortunate enough to have a good, secure job, it is pretty easy to look around and see than many other people find themselves with no support from family or community and working for minimum wage with no benefits in a job where their schedule can be adjusted and their hours reduced arbitrarily and they can be fired for any reason or no reason at all. And if they end up jobless and homeless, there is a definite tendency to put the blame for this onto them, rather than a system which sees workers as liabilities rather than assets.

No wonder many people are starting to express doubts about the current world order. As BAU continues to collapse it will become more and more clear that there must be a better way to live. Many would tell you that things are more likely to break down into chaos and violence but a closer study human behaviour in disasters shows that when there is trouble, people feel a strong urge to work together to help each other pull through.

Well, that was a lot of words expended in support of a proposition that I originally thought was obvious. I do think it was worth it, but now this post is just about as long as it should be. So I'll wrap things up here and continue next time with a look at the pitfalls and practicalities of forming and working together in groups within your new community.

The Disaster Mythology is a subject that keeps coming up on this blog, and to save explaining it again and again in various posts, I've finally created a page about the subject: The Disaster Mythology. Check it out.


Links to the rest of this series of posts, Preparing for (Responding to) Collapse:

 

Coming Soon to a Laptop Near You on Diner YouTube

Just another day on the Farm with FarmGal

 

 

The Defunct Politics of More

Off the keyboard of Steve from Virginia

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Published on Economic Undertow on October 4, 2013

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Triangle of Doom 100113

The ‘Almost-but-not-quite Goldilocks Oil Price’: not so costly as to torpedo the world’s economies at once but costly enough to strangle them slowly (click on for big). Costly enough to assure drillers of a profit for their hard-to-gain crude, never costly enough to bring extra-cheap crude onto the marketplace as during the ‘Good Old Days’ …

Costly crude = non-costly crude: if you cannot wrap your minds around the foregoing paradox, don’t worry. None of the ‘Brand X’ analysts are able to do so, either: “”We had to destroy the village in order to save it!”

This small notice appeared in a major media outlet;

Cyprus’ energy minister says that a gas field off the country’s southern coast contains between 3.6 and 5 trillion cubic feet (0.1-0.14 trillion cubic meters) of natural gas, noticeably less than an earlier estimate.

A 2011 estimate put the size of the field -— being developed by U.S. firm Noble Energy Inc. and its Israeli partners Delek and Avner -— at 5-8 trillion cubic feet.

The initial rosy estimates of available ‘reserves’ invariably shrink; this reduction takes place before the first drops of petroleum- or the first cubic millimeters of natural gas are out of the ground. There are technical reasons behind this but real issue has to do with finance. Initial estimates are always made large enough to guarantee funding for the necessary infrastructure; everything else by necessity follows along behind.

21st century petroleum extraction has become one of the world’s most expensive industrial enterprises along with nuclear power and military. As with these others infrastructure must always be built first. This would appear to be self-evident but appearances are deceiving: the crude and other resources are presumed to spurt themselves out of the ground at our pleasure after some hand-waving and utterance of the magic words ‘fracking’, ‘deepwater’ and ‘technology’.

Petroleum cannot bootstrap itself and hasn’t been able to since the Rockefeller era. There was never enough petroleum available early on to create and support petroleum extraction, what enabled the pioneer wildcatters was the nation’s gigantic coal industry. We could extract crude oil because we had an industrial base. Inventors were ready to design- and steel mills and factories were in place to produce the inexpensive rotary rigs used to gain the crude bounty lying out of reach in the super-giant fields of Texas, Oklahoma and California. Those were indeed the good old days: the highest quality sweet crudes were to be found in porous, easy to drill free-flowing formations relatively close to the surface, on dry land with good year-round climate, near transportation, refining and ultimately customers. At the same time, the infant automobile industry was producing what looked to be unlimited fuel demand — cash flow — as fast as highways could be built and banks could provide credit.

The crude oil added to the coal energy represented a colossal surplus that had the effect of driving the price of all energy products to the cost of production. Energy became a ‘loss-leader’ for the consumption side of the economy, perpetually cheap fuels became an American entitlement that is in force today. Nevertheless, without an industrial base the crude surplus would not have been available. Oil reservoirs were well beyond the reach of hand-dug wells.

The coal industry was only partly able to bootstrap its self. Large coal deposits could be found early on near the surface. Coal mining required agriculture, firewood and human labor. Farmers created enough food to allow the surplus labor to delve deeply within the earth chasing coal seams rather than farm. With time, coal provided the necessary energy for miners to dig more ‘efficiently’: fewer farmers and more coal. Instead of claustrophobic and dangerous underground mines there were gigantic open pits made possible by explosives, steam engines and railroads.

Eventually there were diminished returns to mechanized mining; the coal seams were exhausted, greater efforts were needed to retrieve less coal: the bootstrap started running in reverse.

Fast-forward and we have painted ourselves into a technology corner. Relentlessly increasing real costs are ‘baked into’ the petroleum cake. We retrieve hard-to-get oil by wasting ever increasing amounts of oil that is slightly easier to get. Petroleum isn’t a stock, it’s a chain of increasingly expensive flows, every link dependent upon all the others.

Analysts insist peak oil isn’t about ‘running out’ and that there will always be oil available. Without relatively cheap petroleum and a high-tech industrial base there is no way to access the expensive crudes needed to replace those already depleted … any more than Welsh miners and pit ponies could possibly gain natural gas from Cyprus’ Mediterranean waters.

Deepwater gas fields require a massive up-front expenditure in dynamic positioning drillships, undersea robots and well-control hardware, gas separators, processing plants and a network of pipelines along with the factories needed to create all of these things. Drillships are nor made in garages by entrepreneurs but in a handful of gigantic specialized shipyards by companies with multi-decade experience building such things. They are not pulled out of the air ‘from nothing’; every drillship in the world today is conceptually dependent upon every one built before. Ship building is an institution rather than simply a mechanical process; the products are not just ships but the continually improved means to design and build them. This must be so otherwise there would be no deep water oil drilling at all. There are too many chances within the drilling process for company-killing failures, the greatest of these; not being able to retrieve enough oil with the newly-purchased ship to pay for it.

Every bit of infrastructure must be in place and paid for before the Cyprus gas enterprise turns its first dollar. Customer dollars in turn are dependent upon the amount of credit these customers have available to them. This in turn is dependent on how much credit is left over after the drillers have taken their share! Our new credit economy can be difficult to understand because it is in many ways paradoxical; drillers depend on their customers as a source of credit at the same time they compete with them. We don’t recognize a contest for credit because consumption is never considered to be a component of energy production. We intently focus extracting more supply in order to overcome shortages without considering why there are shortages in the first place.

Because Cyprus’ gas industry cannot bootstrap itself it must oversell and borrow. With time, the Cypriot’s necessary fuel supply will be unaffordable if it isn’t so already. Cyprus will fall further into debt even as it is already bankrupt. Its natural gas will either be exhausted for a pittance or unaffordable to end users … whereby it will remain in the ground; the drilling endeavor will be a bust.

Humans consume petroleum to gain two things: waste and empty feel-good abstractions such as ‘prosperity’, ‘freedom’, ‘growth’, ‘progress’, presumably Godliness and proper manners. Waste is self-explanatory, the rest can be hard to grasp. Growth, etc. are not things. They can only be experienced vicariously by way of television and the gloating overlordship of billionaire tycoons whose luxurious idleness is gained at the expense of everyone else. None of these abstractions can be held in the hand, they can only be inferred- or referred to relative to other empty abstractions, or to other real resources that shrink like petroleum. Prosperity has become an inventory of disposable novelties. Freedom is the sensation that occurs when sitting in a traffic jam. Growth is like a football score with an exception: there is no clear public understanding what happens when the growth wins.

Progress is war by other means …

— The flaming Tesla, an apt symbol of our vulnerable failed technological paradigm. The fiasco underway in Washington right now is a failure of government, not necessarily a failure of particular components of a particular government but rather the generalized failure of the the modern technocratic state itself. What technocrats are able to do now is manage their own bankruptcy. They are limited to do anything else because they were designed around the modern premise of continual ‘more’: more resources to gobble, more growth, more business, money and credit … more waste, more political power and influence. Theirs is the ‘Politics of More’, which has been stealthily rendered obsolete by events, by their own prior management success.

Governments are now faced with problems they are ill-equipped to solve. Questioning problems is by itself destabilizing because of the ominous implications. Discussing energy implies there is a shortage. Discussing default implies that one is underway. Policy ceases to exist because words needed to frame the policy dare not be spoken. The analog is Walter Bagehot’s observation about finance, “Every banker knows that if he has to prove that he is worthy of credit, however good may be his arguments, in fact his credit is gone …” Every effort our politicians make to prove their credibility undermines it.

That governments are unwilling to solve their self-created crises does not mean they cannot be solved, it is just that our ‘more’ economic and political solutions are inappropriate to changing times. We need solutions devised around the necessity for less in all things. We throw around the term ‘efficiency’ but the more useful approach is restraint. Americans consider themselves conservatives, our governments are filled with them. Some of these governments should start conserving. The alternative is self-solutions; indirect conservation by other means driven by events.

It’s not too hard to notice how close to the edge we really are. The triangle of doom is nothing other than the corner we have painted ourselves into. Every component of the world economy must function flawlessly, policy makers must avoid errors. Even so there is little time left before the cost of extracting fuel — driven by the necessary extent of our industrial base — runs higher than what customers can afford. This can be safely estimated to occur at the end of next year.

If the managers err, credit will likely be affected first although direct energy shortages are a possibility. Fatal management error could occur next week, uncertain customers would be unable or unwilling to borrow … fuel prices would decline. Unable to borrow, the entire industrial base — not just the petroleum segment — would be stranded like over-mortgaged house purchasers were in 2007. Oil production starting with the least productive would be shut in: the deep-water, the arctic, the tight- heavy oils and bitumen production, biofuels. When consumers have no credit they cannot bid prices higher or afford to take deliveries, whether there is a fuel shortage does not matter if fuel users have no money, falling fuel supply cannot grant more credit or make it available to consumers, neither can ‘artificial shortages’ caused by OPEC or others.

Reduced fuel supply would then strand consumption dependent firms such as real estate, auto making, trucking, airlines and tourism; business failures would reduce credit which in turn would reduce available fuel supplies in a self-reinforcing cycle. The danger that lurks behind the ongoing charade in Washington, DC, is that an inadvertent ‘technical default’ would look like the real thing and credit system would delever in a panic. Borrowing costs particularly for short-term credit would quickly escalate out of reach; there would be a rapid return of the Great Finance Crisis … with the central banks’ policy rates already at the lower bound, with them already buying securities, with governments either embracing fiscal austerity or having it forced upon them by force of events.

Painted into a corner: even full-on fiscal and monetary easing directed toward individuals would have little effect other than to kick the proverbial can, but only so far! Even now, there are visibly diminished returns to increased credit flows; the real costs of energy extraction relentlessly increase, the real returns on energy consumption remain at zero … the costs of energy added to the cost of additional credit become too burdensome to bear.

Moderns have gotten used to more, we have known nothing else. We’ve been stupendously lucky; our entire lives, our parents’ lives and generations into the past, from the beginning of the Enlightenment and the founding of the republic onward … every American has had available some measure of more. Even during the depths of the Great Depression, Americans in general lived better than their counterparts did a hundred years’ previously … even though there were far more Americans in the 1930s than in the 1830s. Now we are confronted with less, something alien to moderns as the tropics would be to a walrus. Our economy emerged to manage the costs associated with increased surpluses. Now all the surpluses are questionable, are false assumptions or claims made against phantoms. We need to embrace a new conceptual approach … and do so in a big hurry.

How do we reinvent our society? Creativity is going to save us, not repeating the same errors, making greater efforts until we exhaust ourselves …

The Rock by Lake Silvaplana

Off the keyboard of John Michael Greer

Published on the Archdruid Report on May 29, 2013

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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.

Buried in Progress

Off the keyboard of Jason Heppenstall

Published on 22 Billion Energy Slaves on April 5, 2o13

 

Discuss this article at the Epicurean Delights Smorgasbord inside the Diner

If you want to see a picture of what defying progress as defined in the modern sense looks like, see the picture above. I came across it today as I’m reading the classic Farmers of Forty Centuries by the American agronomist F.H.King.

Published in 1911, King travelled to a China before petroleum powered agricultural machinery and artificial fertilizers. It’s quite an amazing book, and in it he details all the ingenious methods that Chinese farmers used to enrich the soil and continue the traditions of forty centuries. The book is a cross between a travel journal and a permaculture handbook – my kind of book!

But the copy I have seems to be a bit of a dud – all the illustrations are missing! I was reading about King’s fascination with Chinese burial mounds- or ‘graves of the fathers’ – of which he saw many thousands as he sailed up the Hwangpoo River towards Shanghai. These burial mounds were sacrosanct; nobody was allowed to plant crops on them but shallow burials meant that the nutrients of the corpses didn’t go to waste. He writes:

“These grave lands are not altogether unproductive for they are generally overgrown with herbage of one or another kind and used as pastures for geese, sheep, goats and cattle, and it is not at all uncommon, when riding along a canal, to see a huge water buffalo projected against the sky from the summit of one of the largest and highest grave mounds within reach.”

Intrigued, I Googled the subject to see if any of these grave mounds were still there, which yielded the above picture. So, yes, at least one of them remains, although in this case it is only there because some elderly and traditional Chinese person didn’t grant permission for the development company to build a condominium complex on it!

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