Mendo Island Journal — Timely. Useful. Sometimes Cranky.

Bringing it down to earth

In Around the web on November 24, 2011 at 9:04 pm

The Archdruid Report

…No amount of protesting is going to refill the once vast and now mostly depleted reserves of cheap oil and other resources that gave America its age of extravagance, nor is protest going to do anything to stop the decline of America as a world power or the rise of competing powers. Blaming the results of both these processes on the manifold abuses of Wall Street is not going to help the situation noticeably—though seeing bankers and stockbrokers doing perp walks through the streets of Manhattan might do a little to restore public faith in the rule of law, which has taken quite a beating in recent years. Most Americans, ignoring these realities, still insist they are entitled to a standard of living that neither their country’s faltering position in the world, nor the hard facts of physics and geology, will enable them to have for much longer, or get back if they’ve already lost it. Until that sense of entitlement gives way to a more realistic set of expectations, nothing is going to solve the problem Americans think they have—that of finding a way to hang onto hopelessly unsustainable lifestyles—and nothing is going to be done to deal with the predicament Americans actually face—that of dealing with the end of abundance in a way that doesn’t finish shredding the already frayed fabric of our society.

Any attempt to walk the talk that we’ve been discussing here, in other words, has to begin with the individual, and has to start with the acceptance of a very significantly lowered standard of living. To return to an acronym I’ve proposed here already, any response to the future that doesn’t involve using LESSLess Energy, Stuff, and Stimulation—simply isn’t a serious response to the downside of the industrial age. The toolkit of the Seventies—organic gardening and appropriate tech movements… is among many other things a very effective way of responding to the need to use LESS in a humane and creative manner.

By growing a garden and raising chickens in your backyard instead of buying packaged and processed vegetables and eggs that are shipped halfway across the continent, conserving energy relentlessly and getting as much as you can from local renewable sources, and sharply downscaling the pursuit of material excess in favor of a life that’s rich in experiences, relationships, and meaning, it’s possible to get by very comfortably on a small fraction of the energy, stuff, and stimulation that most Americans think they need. This isn’t simply a good thing on abstract grounds, though it is that. On the individual scale, such steps provide a margin of safety in hard times that the ordinary American lifestyle simply doesn’t have; on the community scale, those who embrace such steps are positioned to act as role models and mentors for those who decide to make the same changes later on, when the advantages of doing so are likely to be much more evident; on the wider scale, even a very modest movement in this direction, amidst the widening failure of the political and economic mainstream to do anything worth noticing in the face of the widening crisis of our time, might just possibly fill the role of a seed crystal around which a much larger movement could take shape.

Seen from another perspective, though, these practical steps also have a magical dimension: they serve to bring the changes in consciousness we’ve been discussing for the last two months all the way down into the world of everyday life. To complete the task of breaking away from the murky thinking and the tangled nonrational drives that dominate contemporary life in today’s America, it’s necessary to break away from the lifestyles and everyday choices that are produced by that thinking and those drives. Mind you, the same equation works the other way around: to make the break away from lifestyles that demand energy and resource flows we can’t count on getting for much longer—and making that break is perhaps the most essential task of the decade or so immediately before us—it’s going to be necessary to turn away from the thinking patterns and the unmentioned and usually unnoticed passions that make those lifestyles seem to make sense.

The recognition that these two transformations, the outer and the inner, work in parallel and have to be carried out together is the missing piece that the sustainability movements of the Seventies never quite caught. Significant steps were taken toward that discovery; books such as Gregory Bateson’s Mind and Nature and E.F. Schumacher’s A Guide For The Perplexed lay out much of the groundwork from which an analysis of the sort I’ve been suggesting in these essays could have been built. Some of the less intellectually vacuous movements in the alternative spirituality scene of the time were moving in the same direction from the other side of the equation. Still, it never quite came together; the engineers were too dismissive of the occultists, the occultists were too suspicious of the engineers, and when the Reagan administration came into power and hit the entire movement at its most vulnerable point—the flows of government and foundation grant money on which nearly all of it, appropriate tech engineers and New Age theorists alike, had become fatally dependent—the chance at that recognition went by the boards.

That could happen again. I’ve suggested more than once that the troubles looming ahead of us in the near term may well open a window of opportunity for the same kinds of effort toward sustainability that we had, and then lost, in the wake of the energy crises of the Seventies. If something of the sort does happen, once the immediate crisis is out of the way, there will inevitably be a backlash, and that backlash will likely wield the same tools of thaumaturgy that were turned on the appropriate tech movement in the early 1980s with devastating effect. Good intentions and idealism, it bears remembering, are not an adequate safeguard against systematic manipulation of the mass mind, especially when that manipulation moves in parallel with the desperate craving of a great many Americans to have the lifestyles they think they deserve and ought to get.

Meeting a challenge on that scale is a tall order. Still, any movement faced with a backlash of that kind can accept its short term losses, renew its commitments to its values and vision, keep on going straight through the initial waves of negative publicity, and carve out a niche from which it can’t be dislodged, and pursue a long-range strategy, knowing that the tide will eventually turn its way. With a few worthy exceptions, that didn’t happen in the twilight years of the early Eighties, but many other movements of many kinds have done it, and a noticeable number of them have passed through that stage and gone on to accomplish their goals. Whether green wizardry or the broader peak oil movement reaches that last milestone is up to the future; for the time being, though, while it’s vital that we be ready to respond if a window of opportunity does open for us, it’s even more vital that when the backlash comes, as the Who put it, we won’t get fooled again.


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