Thursday, May 21, 2009

New times, new games

We will get caught up in trying to save the unsaveable. The more we have invested in some arrangement, no matter how ill-fitting it may be, the harder we'll fight to preserve it. Of course our society is full of change and we've made a virtue of it for years, but the changes which kill off inappropriate small businesses are one thing (the individuals involved are generally too powerless to fight reality for long): those threatening powerful interests are another. So the battle will be drawn out, ridiculously, as everything the powerful can lay their hands on is thrown at the task of propping up the dead arrangements to which the powerful owe their place. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the car industry, the big banks, the building industry, airlines, newspapers. We'll all be told that life simply won't be worth living if these things shrink or disappear.

But of course a new generation will be born who have no knowledge of any of this stuff. They will take the world as they find it and invent new meanings and purposes for themselves. This will happen no matter what anyone now tries to do. The question then becomes, what will the values of a post-cheap energy world be? Who will champion these values? Who will fight against them?

The world is never a simple place. Almost everything that has ever been continues to exist at some level, but some trends and types rise to dominate and some formerly dominant fade. The dominance of our now inappropriate industrial living arrangements, the very complete dependence upon them by the majority of the population in countries like Australia and the huge mental and physical cost of building and maintaining them will create great conflict within society and between nations, and within the individuals charged with maintaining the system. Something too complex to fully understand, so all-powerful and so impressive will command the loyalties of millions even as it destroys them. Many of those who understand the folly of trying to maintain the system will see no alternative but to support it in some more limited form — perhaps limited to themselves and those closest to them.

The new thinking will come from those who feel they have little stake in the system as it is, even if they are deluded in these views. Groups or individuals who are marginalised always find it easier to break with the past or with widely accepted beliefs which have lost their utility. The uneducated, unemployed underclass will be the breeding ground for the new world, and so will a small fraction of the middle-class. It will be another cycle of the conflict which has characterised our world for the past few hundred years, one in which I was caught up in the 1970's where I suddenly saw the emptiness of what I'd formerly believed (Heroic Materialism) and I dropped out into the Counter-Culture, as we then called it. We thought we were the new hope for the World, but we had quite a few things wrong, not the least being the timing!

The Counter-Culture has been largely absorbed back into the society which gave it birth. It has changed some things. There is now a clear consciousness of the environmental price we pay for our way of life amongst a significant minority of the population in a country like Australia. But overall the cheap energy party has continued, as it was bound to do until the energy got too expensive. That's where we are now.

Amongst those who think a lot on these matters there tends to be a view that if only we could communicate the urgency of the situation to the larger world, then we could start to get the situation under control. I don't think so myself. I think only a small percentage of citizens, even in a well-educated country like Australia, will ever understand what's going on (and that's not to say they would then know what to do about it!). And even if the majority understood, action to deal with the problems is another matter.

I think it is going to be very messy. That is, I don't think we are going to have a situation of mutual understanding. I think we're going to have a Tower of Babel instead. But new and lasting arrangements will emerge eventually, when all the shouting and fighting has wound down. Don't be holding your breath waiting for it though. Look how long Rome took to fall.

The new successful games will emerge at the margins. States will hollow out quite quickly. All kinds of sub-groups will jostle for space inside the hollowed out State. Most will fail. But the successful ones will spread as the monastic movement spread through Europe after the collapse of Rome.

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