The Burden of Denial…

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From John Michael Greer

It occurred to me the other day that quite a few of the odder features of contemporary American culture make perfect sense if you assume that everybody knows exactly what’s wrong and what’s coming as our society rushes, pedal to the metal, toward its face-first collision with the brick wall of the future. It’s not that they don’t get it; they get it all too clearly, and they just wish that those of us on the fringes would quit reminding them of the imminent impact, so they can spend whatever time they’ve got left in as close to a state of blissful indifference as they can possibly manage.

I grant that this realization probably had a lot to do with the context in which it came to me. I was sitting in a restaurant, as it happens, with a vanload of fellow Freemasons.  We’d carpooled down to Baltimore, some of us to receive one of the higher degrees of Masonry and the rest to help with the ritual work, and we stopped for dinner on the way back home. I’ll spare you the name of the place we went; it was one of those currently fashionable beer-and-burger joints where the waitresses have all been outfitted with skirts almost long enough to cover their underwear, bare midriffs, and the sort of push-up bras that made them look uncomfortably like inflatable dolls—an impression that their too obviously scripted jiggle-and-smile routines did nothing to dispell.

Still, that wasn’t the thing that made the restaurant memorable. It was the fact that every wall in the place had television screens on it. By this I don’t mean that there was one screen per wall; I mean that they were lined up side by side right next to each other, covering the upper part of every single wall in the place, so that you couldn’t raise your eyes above head level without looking at one. They were all over the interior partitions of the place, too. There must have been forty of them in one not too large restaurant, each one blaring something different into the thick air, while loud syrupy music spattered down on us from speakers on the ceiling and the waitresses smiled mirthlessly and went through their routines. My burger and fries were tolerably good, and two tall glasses of Guinness will do much to ameliorate even so charmless a situation; still, I was glad to get back on the road.

The thing I’d point out is that all this is quite recent. Not that many years ago, it was tolerably rare to see a TV screen in an American restaurant, and even those bars that had a television on the premises for the sake of football season generally had the grace to leave the thing off the rest of the time. Within the last decade, I’ve watched televisions sprout in restaurants and pubs I used to enjoy, for all the world like buboes on the body of a plague victim: first one screen, then several, then one on each wall, then metastatizing across the remaining space. Meanwhile, along the same lines, people who used to go to coffee shops and the like to read the papers, talk with other patrons, or do anything else you care to name are now sitting in the same coffee shops in total silence, hunched over their allegedly smart phones like so many scowling gargoyles on the walls of a medieval cathedral.

Yes, there were people in the restaurant crouched in the gargoyle pose over their allegedly smart phones, too, and that probably also had something to do with my realization that evening.  It so happens that the evening before my Baltimore trip, I’d recorded a podcast interview with Chris Martenson on his Peak Prosperity show, and he’d described to me a curious response he’d been fielding from people who attended his talks on the end of the industrial age and the unwelcome consequences thereof. He called it “the iPhone moment”—the point at which any number of people in the audience pulled that particular technological toy out of their jacket pockets and waved it at him, insisting that its mere existence somehow disproved everything he was saying.

You’ve got to admit, as modern superstitions go, this one is pretty spectacular.  Let’s take a moment to look at it rationally. Do iPhones produce energy? Nope. Will they refill our rapidly depleting oil and gas wells, restock the ravaged oceans with fish, or restore the vanishing topsoil from the world’s  fields? Of course not. Will they suck carbon dioxide from the sky, get rid of the vast mats of floating plastic that clog the seas, or do something about the steadily increasing stockpiles of nuclear waste that are going to sicken and kill people for the next quarter of a million years unless the waste gets put someplace safe—if there is anywhere safe to put it at all? Not a chance. As a response to any of the predicaments that are driving the crisis of our age, iPhones are at best irrelevant.  Since they consume energy and resources, and the sprawling technosystems that make them function consume energy and resources at a rate orders of magnitude greater, they’re part of the problem, not any sort of a solution

Now of course the people waving their iPhones at Chris Martenson aren’t thinking about any of these things. A good case could be made that they’re not actually thinking at all. Their reasoning, if you want to call it that, seems to be that the existence of iPhones proves that progress is still happening, and this in turn somehow proves that progress will inevitably bail us out from the impacts of every one of the predicaments we face. To call this magical thinking is an insult to honest sorcerers; rather, it’s another example of the arbitrary linkage of verbal noises to emotional reactions that all too often passes for thinking in today’s America. Readers of classic science fiction may find all this weirdly reminiscent of a scene from some edgily updated version of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau: “Not to doubt Progress: that is the Law. Are we not Men?”

Seen from a certain perspective, though, there’s a definite if unmentionable logic to “the iPhone moment,” and it has much in common with the metastatic spread of television screens across pubs and restaurants in recent years. These allegedly smart phones don’t do anything to fix the rising spiral of problems besetting industrial civilization, but they make it easier for people to distract themselves from those problems for a little while longer. That, I’d like to suggest, is also what’s driving the metastasis of television screens in the places that people used to go to enjoy a meal, a beer, or a cup of coffee and each other’s company. These days, that latter’s too risky; somebody might mention a friend who lost his job and can’t get another one, a spouse who gets sicker with each overpriced prescription the medical industry pushes on her, a kid who didn’t come back from Afghanistan, or the like, and then it’s right back to the reality that everyone’s trying to avoid. It’s much easier to sit there in silence staring at little colored pictures on a glass screen, from which all such troubles have been excluded.

Of course that habit has its own downsides. To begin with, those who are busy staring at the screens have to know, on some level, that sooner or later it’s going to be their turn to lose their jobs, or have their health permanently wrecked by the side effects their doctors didn’t get around to telling them about, or have their kids fail to come back from whatever America’s war du jour happens to be just then, or the like. That’s why so many people these days put so much effort into insisting as loudly as possible that the poor and vulnerable are to blame for their plight. The people who say this know perfectly well that it’s not true, but repeating such claims over and over again is the only defense they’ve got against the bitter awareness that their jobs, their health, and their lives or those of the people they care about could all too easily be next on the chopping block.

What makes this all the more difficult for most Americans to face is that none of these events are happening in a vacuum.  They’re part of a broader process, the decline and fall of modern industrial society in general and the United States of America in particular. Outside the narrowing circles of the well-to-do, standards of living for most Americans have been declining since the 1970s, along with standards of education, public health, and most of the other things that make for a prosperous and stable society. Today, a nation that once put human bootprints on the Moon can’t afford to maintain its roads and bridges or keep its cities from falling into ruin. Hiding from that reality in an imaginary world projected onto glass screens may be comforting in the short term; the mere fact that realities don’t go away just because they’re ignored does nothing to make this choice any less tempting.

What’s more, the world into which that broader process of decline is bringing us is not one in which staring at little colored pictures on a glass screen will count for much. Quite the contrary, it promises to be a world in which raw survival, among other things, will depend on having achieved at least a basic mastery of one or more of a very different range of skills. There’s no particular mystery about those latter skills; they were, in point of fact, the standard set of basic human survival skills for thousands of years before those glass screens were invented, and they’ll still be in common use when the last of the glass screens has weathered away into sand; but they have to be learned and practiced before they’re needed, and there may not be all that much time left to learn and practice them before hard necessity comes knocking at the door.

I think a great many people who claim that everything’s fine are perfectly aware of all this. They know what the score is; it’s doing something about it that’s the difficulty, because taking meaningful action at this very late stage of the game runs headlong into at least two massive obstacles. One of them is practical in nature, the other psychological, and human nature being what it is, the psychological dimension is far and away the most difficult of the two.

Let’s deal with the practicalities first. The non-negotiable foundation of any meaningful response to the crisis of our time, as I’ve pointed out more than once here, can be summed up conveniently with the acronym L.E.S.S.—that is, Less Energy, Stuff, and Stimulation. We are all going to have much less of these things at our disposal in the future.  Using less of them now frees up time, money, and other resources that can be used to get ready for the inevitable transformations. It also makes for decreased dependence on systems and resources that in many cases are already beginning to fail, and in any case will not be there indefinitely in a future of hard limits and inevitable scarcities.

On the other hand, using L.E.S.S. flies in the face of two powerful forces in contemporary culture. The first is the ongoing barrage of advertising meant to convince people that they can’t possibly be happy without the latest time-, energy-, and resource-wasting trinket that corporate interests want to push on them. The second is the stark shivering terror that seizes most Americans at the thought that anybody might think that they’re poorer than they actually are. Americans like to think of themselves as proud individualists, but like so many elements of the American self-image, that’s an absurd fiction; these days, as a rule, Americans are meek conformists who shudder with horror at the thought that they might be caught straying in the least particular from whatever other people expect of them.

That’s what lies behind the horrified response that comes up the moment someone suggests that using L.E.S.S. might be a meaningful part of our response to the crises of our age. When people go around insisting that not buying into the latest overhyped and overpriced lump of technogarbage is tantamount to going back to the caves—and yes, I field such claims quite regularly—you can tell that what’s going on in their minds has nothing to do with the realities of the situation and everything to do with stark unreasoning fear. Point out that a mere thirty years ago, people got along just fine without email and the internet, and you’re likely to get an even more frantic and abusive reaction, precisely because your listener knows you’re right and can’t deal with the implications.

This is where we get into the psychological dimension. What James Howard Kunstler has usefully termed the psychology of previous investment is a massive cultural force in today’s America. The predicaments we face today are in very large part the product of a long series of really bad decisions that were made over the last four decades or so. Most Americans, even those who had little to do with making those decisions, enthusiastically applauded them, and treated those who didn’t with no small amount of abuse and contempt. Admitting just how misguided those decisions turned out to be thus requires a willingness to eat crow that isn’t exactly common among Americans these days. Thus there’s a strong temptation to double down on the bad decisions, wave those iPhones in the air, and put a few more television screens on the walls to keep the cognitive dissonance at bay for a little while longer.

That temptation isn’t an abstract thing. It rises out of the raw emotional anguish woven throughout America’s attempt to avoid looking at the future it’s made for itself. The intensity of that anguish can be measured most precisely, I think, in one small but telling point: the number of people whose final response to the lengthening shadow of the future is, “I hope I’ll be dead before it happens.”

Think about those words for a moment. It used to be absolutely standard, and not only in America, for people of every social class below the very rich to work hard, save money, and do without so that their children could have a better life than they had. That parents could say to their own children, “I got mine, Jack; too bad your lives are going to suck,” belonged in the pages of lurid dime novels, not in everyday life. Yet that’s exactly what the words “I hope I’ll be dead before it happens” imply.  The destiny that’s overtaking the industrial world isn’t something imposed from outside; it’s not an act of God or nature or callous fate; rather, it’s unfolding with mathematical exactness from the behavior of those who benefit from the existing order of things.  It could be ameliorated significantly if those same beneficiaries were to let go of the absurd extravagance that characterizes what passes for a normal life in the modern industrial world these days—it’s just that the act of letting go involves an emotional price that few people are willing to pay.

Thus I don’t think that anyone says “I hope I’ll be dead before it happens” lightly. I don’t think the people who are consigning their own children and grandchildren to a ghastly future, and placing their last scrap of hope on the prospect that they themselves won’t live to see that future arrive, are making that choice out of heartlessness or malice. The frantic concentration on glass screens, the bizarre attempts to banish unwelcome realities by waving iPhones in their faces, and the other weird behavior patterns that surround American society’s nonresponse to its impending future, are signs of the enormous strain that so many Americans these days are under as they try to keep pretending that nothing is wrong in the teeth of the facts.

Denying a reality that’s staring you in the face is an immensely stressful process, and the stress gets worse as the number of things that have to be excluded from awareness mounts up. These days, that list is getting increasingly long. Look away from the pictures on the glass screens, and the United States is visibly a nation in rapid decline: its cities collapsing, its infrastructure succumbing to decades of malign neglect, its politics mired in corruption and permanent gridlock, its society frayed to breaking, and the natural systems that support its existence passing one tipping point after another and lurching through chaotic transitions.

Oklahoma has passed California as the most seismically active state in the Union as countless gallons of fracking fluid pumped into deep disposal wells remind us that nothing ever really “goes away.” It’s no wonder that so many shrill voices these days are insisting that nothing is wrong, or that it’s all the fault of some scapegoat or other, or that Jesus or the Space Brothers or somebody will bail us out any day now, or that we’re all going to be wiped out shortly by some colorful Hollywood cataclysm that, please note, is never our fault.

There is, of course, another option.

Over the years since this blog first began to attract an audience, I’ve spoken to quite a few people who broke themselves out of that trap, or were popped out of it willy-nilly by some moment of experience just that little bit too forceful to yield to the exclusionary pressure; many of them have talked about how the initial burst of terror—no, no, you can’t say that, you can’t think that!—gave way to an immense feeling of release and freedom, as the burden of keeping up the pretense dropped away and left them able to face the world in front of them at last.

I suspect, for what it’s worth, that a great many more people are going to be passing through that transformative experience in the years immediately ahead. A majority? Almost certainly not; to judge by historical precedents, the worse things get, the more effort will go into the pretense that nothing is wrong at all, and the majority will cling like grim death to that pretense until it drags them under. That said, a substantial minority might make a different choice: to let go of the burden of denial soon enough to matter, to let themselves plunge through those moments of terror and freedom, and to haul themselves up, shaken but alive, onto the unfamiliar shores of the future.

When they get there, there will be plenty of work for them to do. I’ve discussed some of the options in previous posts on this blog, but there’s at least one that hasn’t gotten a detailed examination yet, and it’s one that I’ve come to think may be of crucial importance in the decades ahead.
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