Monday, November 29, 2010

Truth Needn't be Scary

For those of you following along at home, Erik Curren has responded to my response. (also archived here) The primary third party to this exchange, Dmitry Orlov, has posted some additional comments on this exchange as well.

A quick semantic clarification is in order, especially regarding my own writing. I don't consider the immanent end of Western industrial civilization--the Industrial Growth Society--to be equivalent to collapse. I tend to think of collapse as something bad. While Western civ is causing collapse in many areas, such as with the rampant biodiversity loss that's breaking numerous links in the food chain, and there's a high probability that it will cause collapse in ways we haven't even thought of yet, ending an era of domination, exploitation and destruction I find difficult to put in the category of collapse.

I'd first like to thank Erik for this opportunity to continue engaging in an intelligent conversation to allow clarification of points. This demonstrates that we're in agreement on quite a bit. The "What I know" section of his response points out many of these areas.

I sure don't know what the future will look like either. But I do know that if we apply a rational framework that is based on the natural systems principles that ecosystems use to become sustainable, we can guide human societies in a direction that works for life in general instead of mainly for the elite control hierarchies that have gotten us into our current mess.

I also know that when the non-profit my wife and I run started doing public screenings of the documentary End of Suburbia in 2004 that it woke a lot of people up. You could, in many cases, quite literally see the fog lifting from people. EoS connected a lot of dots and supplied some badly needed missing information that mainstream sources would rather ignore and deny. Admittedly, the attendees at these screenings were mainly an educated crowd--whether university or self-learners was irrelevant. They were either already aware that the status quo was dysfunctional, or they had that uneasy sense that things were amiss and would rather do something about it other than take any of the culturally popular mood-altering drugs and pretend that everything was just fine.

So, yeah, in American culture today this makes for a small, but growing, percentage of the general population. There are various reasons for this, well known to students of Western culture--the dumbsizing of public education, the debt trap of consumerism which requires longer working hours, the distractions of pop culture, the effects of the world's largest experiment in operant conditioning known as advertising, and the fact that modern psychotherapy focuses on making one feel sane about living in an insane world. It also helps when you can rig an economy so that one's best chance of obtaining a higher education means first taking your chances as cannon fodder and being subjected to military indoctrination.

Something else I know in the area of economics is that our current economy is based on fairy dust. Whether people listen to Nicole Foss or Jeff Rubin means little if their primary goal is to guide speculation in wealth accumulation. The fact is that we're not in a recession; we're at the end of an historic period in Western civilization. And Foss comes much, much closer to speaking this truth than Rubin does.

I also know that we don't need a source of power--at least one that comes from a centralized grid or contributes to the degradation of the natural world--to keep from shivering in the dark. We know how to build extremely efficient zero-carbon homes--they just can't be slapped together in a week by a group of half-drunk minimum wage high-school dropouts and are thus less profitable to the growth lobby. The Inuit managed to survive just fine without Consolidated Edison. But even if this isn't the lifestyle of choice for many people, a technologically advanced society can exist within the carrying capacity of their supportive ecosystems. They just have to be honest about that balance point among population, consumption, and waste assimilation.

The attempt at arguing $225/barrel oil means people can no longer afford insulin is both a strawman and a red herring, as well as a thinly disguised argument in favor of maintaining the status quo. Decent public transportation in walkable cities instead of Lexus payments--as well as not taking on mountains of unnecessary consumer debt in the first place--would allow people to afford their insulin. More importantly, if they were to stop eating processed death foods and washing them down with high-fructose corn syrup that has a few cancer agents plus a neurotoxin and an endocrine disrupter thrown in for color, flavor and preservation they might not need the insulin in the first place. And, of course, getting off their duff once in a while would be a big help too.

Using John Michael Greer in an appeal to authority argument doesn't carry much water either. In a conversation with Rob Hopkins, that I also weighed in on, Greer takes a viewpoint that since we can't forecast the future, that planning is both a waste of time and gives people false hope.

As Curren points out in his "What I know" section, the rapidly accumulating evidence that we are about to slam into a brick wall is becoming inescapable. So Greer's position that rapid collapse is unlikely and we'll have a long, slow, multi-generational descent--I guess because he doesn't want to frighten anybody either--ignores what we know about tipping points, and are coming to better understand about feedback loops. Due diligence is indeed what we should be doing, and post haste. Unfortunately, Greer seems to be advising people to do the opposite.

Giving up on society doesn't automatically mean grabbing your family and locking yourself into a bomb shelter. What I'm talking about is giving up on the failed assumptions of Western industrial civilization. There's a big difference. When coupled with the rational alternative a systemic implementation of relocalization offers, the benefits of a different way of creating our social relationships points to a positive way forward that feels good to participate in.

In Curren's selective quoting of Yevgeny at Club Orlov he rather conveniently skipped the most important final phrase in that quote. "[B]ut that's only if they find enough fuel to get there and back." I'm always having to point out to people that the gangs of Los Angeles aren't going to invade Tucson because we're more than a tankful of gas away. The Sonoran Desert is going to be littered with lowriders, and they're going to be wishing the racist Arizona legislature hadn't shut down all the immigrant water stations.

Because something else I know--from direct experience--is that if you take the time to honestly lay things out for people, they get it. This works best if you first take the time to listen to their concerns and hopes. This is how I ran my campaign for Arizona State Senate this year. I ran as an independent on a platform that used relocalization and steady-state economies as the only rational response to peak oil, global warming and corporatism, and although I lost, I gathered support from across the political spectrum. Neither the Democrat nor the Republican candidate would debate the issues, and spent most of their time talking about how bad the other was. But after every forum or other speaking engagement, I'd have a handful of people come up to me and say I was the only candidate making sense, and that it was so refreshing to hear someone speaking truth and offering actual alternatives. These were people I'd never met before, i.e. they were outside the choir.

Now, some people are just very deep in the consensus trance, but many of the people I've talked with over the years who say "Don't scare people, they can't handle the truth, they'll just shut down," turn out to be stalwarts of the status quo of growth and empire, even when they insist that they're really dog soldiers for the peace or environmental or whatever movements. The conditioning that declares growth and material accumulation as necessary for progress and prosperity runs very deep, and the artificial stimuli that enforce this worldview are constant and applied in myriad ways.

Which is actually one of the things that underpins my optimism, strange as that might sound. Studies in operant conditioning show that as soon as the artificial stimuli are removed and/or the subject is returned to a more natural environment, subjects (from any species) revert back to more natural behaviors much quicker than it took to train them to act against their nature. Other studies show that neuronal growth and new pathways occur in as little as 45 minutes by simply enhancing one's environment. Literacy and the ability to successfully challenge the status quo can take as little as three weeks. There's no reason to accept that the change we seek is going to take generations, or even decades, to come about. And it can start as simply as turning off your TV and attending a meeting of your neighborhood association.

We have the ability to rapidly change. It seems that what we're really lacking at a cultural level is the motivation, which a full set of facts can help provide. So I very much agree with one aspect of Curren's message. We must become better communicators, and use many different communication techniques and styles. One thing that using the models and metaphors of natural systems shows is that there is a whole lot of diversity, so a one-size-fits-all "solution" isn't going to cut it.

Some people are better at certain tactics, some people respond better to certain stimuli (some of the lessons of operant conditioning can be useful), we're all at different points of awareness, and some people respond faster than others. One of the problems I have with any of the stage models of change or development is that they tend to ignore individual differences, that change doesn't have to be tepid incrementalism, and that people have the ability to quickly jump to advanced stages while skipping intermediate stages entirely.

As Derrick Jensen so correctly points out, change begins by believing in it, not by talking ourselves out of it, and definitely not by talking others out of it--and I might add, or the style with which they're most effective.

And for the record, while I support the transition movement as a step in the right direction, I'm not committed to it. I am one of the co-founders of Transition Pima--a Transition US regional hub--but what I'm committed to is getting back in balance with a living, sensuous Earth which relocalization--a practical and affordable process to create a sustainable future--could do when combined with reconnecting with nature and steady-state local living economies.

Hopefully we can make the transition to a sustainable future fun and exciting and all that. It doesn't have to be about sacrifice and austerity (except for people who just can't give up the bankster mindset). And in fact, when one honestly examines what passes for Western "civilization," it's not hard to come to the conclusion that sacrifice and austerity is its modus operandi.

I think most people would quite willingly give up their body burden, despair, and the lack of time to develop any type of meaningful, lasting relationships with family, friends, community, and environment. The truth needn't be scary, especially when there are alternatives to the dysfunctional status quo to be offered. But we must be honest about how much damage we've already caused, about how it's come to be, and about what we could start doing differently. Because what we're facing now is a global Truth or Consequences.

Peak Oil: Apocalypse or Promised Land?

The Energy Bulletin published on November 24 the following response I wrote to an article by Erik Curren, which was first published on Transition Voice which you might want to read through first for the full context, and especially to some of the articles Curren links to as they provide good background information on what we're facing.


I found it rather hard to tell what point of view Erik Curren is actually arguing for or against in "Peak oil risks becoming an apocalyptic cult." But it seems to be don't tell people the truth as they might ignore you, or even worse, laugh at you. So, let's browse through the sections of Curren's article.

First off, though, if we can't honestly admit that staying the course means slamming into a brick wall at high-speed before the wreckage sails over a very high cliff we won't make the necessary changes to do any more than stave off the inevitable--at best. The reality of the global situation today is that if you're not scared, you're not paying attention.

Predicting collapse becomes a pretty safe bet considering how far into the overshoot range we are--in the areas of population, consumption, and waste generation--and the fact that our "leaders" still believe we can get away with even more of what got us into our current dire straits, coupled with their insistence that we're not actually in dire straits, but even if we were, some whiz-kid will invent something to take care of it and we can all happily get back to the normal that created our dire straits in the first place. This is the type of optimism that makes pessimism redundant.

Curren starts out with a refrain that is becoming a bit too familiar. Mentioning the facts that the Industrial Growth Society is entirely dependent on cheap and abundant supplies of fossil fuels to power the growth necessary to pay off yesterday's debt, and since we've passed the peak in conventional supplies the global financial system can't survive much longer is somehow seen as equivalent to the American survivalist movement--and Curren throws Glenn Beck in as an additional bogeyman just for good measure.

Now, if one were to stop their inquiry into the peak oil movement at that point it would be easy to come to the conclusion that it's nothing more than bunch of doom-n-gloom misfits who can't adapt to civilization and are praying for the apocalypse. But being that superficial is generally associated with swimming at the shallow end of the gene pool.

The peak oil movement, pretty much since its inception, has always pointed out that there is an alternative--at least if we begin to implement it before too many tipping points are passed. Powering down, relocalizing, reconnecting, and remembering how to build mutually supportive community relationships are all mainstays of the peak oil movement. As well as of the global warming, social justice, and ecological integrity movements.

Communities are sets of relationships which operate at many scales. Curren says the guest post by Yevgeny on Dmitri Orlov's blog "deconstructs the idea of 'community.'" I'm at a total loss to see how he comes to that conclusion. Yevgeny does an excellent job of describing exactly what community is when talking about his father's village. The word itself may not be exactly translatable into Russian, but the concept is pretty universal. Who is rejecting the idea of community? I sense an attempt to create a straw-man, but I'm not sure who or for what purpose.

Nicole Foss does a good job of helping people realize our current economy is built on fairy dust. If Transition Norwich is an indication, I'm glad to see the Transition Movement waking up to reality, and especially their very mature response to it: "We didn’t have to be Pollyannas anymore." The end of affordable consumer goods would be a blessing in disguise, because none of them actually deliver on their promise of fulfillment. $225/barrel oil would help people discover they don't actually need the stuff in the first place.

By remembering how to share, build stuff to last, decentralize the grid with clean renewables, and a handful of other common sense changes that are technologically feasible today, it's not hard to come to the conclusion that we could have technologically advanced societies that are sustainable (and yes, there's a humane way to deal with the overpopulation problem). The only "downside" is that none of this supports economic growth. The main concept that changes is growth being necessary for progress and prosperity goes into the dustbin of history. The only suffering falls on bankers and insurance salesmen. But as Richard Heinberg says, we need 50 million more farmers anyway. The sunshine will do them good.

The collapse of an economic system that is based on debt, exploitation, and destruction is the opposite of an apocalypse, especially when relocalization/transition offers a positive alternative that actually can improve people's lot in life. Innovation and entrepreneurship can finally fully blossom because it won't be narrowly tied to only those products and industries that prop up the growth machine.

The fact is that we've been lied into our current perception of reality by the status quo, and it's not meeting the needs of everyday people, let alone offering anything approaching fulfillment. Cultural maturation beyond this story sounds much more like the promised land than the apocalypse.