Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Carbonic Civilisation & its Discontents

Various legislative bodies around the World are busy pushing out laws which are meant to address the issue of greenhouse gases. How effective these laws are will be inversely proportional to the wealth of the country each legislature controls. This is because people are very bad at sawing off branches they happen to be sitting on.

Us ordinary folk may labour under the delusion that technology can solve any material problem. We see glossy pics of electric cars and solar panels, and imagine the only thing stopping the adoption of low-carbon technologies are some fossilised politicians and industrialists. But this is not so. The real brake on cutting carbon dioxide outputs are tens of millions of families with 2.4 kids, two cars, a hefty mortgage and orthodontists bills. The real costs will be very high for such folk, which are a lot of the people we know.

Why? Because you may recycle your plastic, not waste water, buy organic and do all the things we are told to do, but there is a whole lot of stuff "out the back" in the industrial suburbs of every city which has to operate on copious fossil fuels in order that we can live our lives, and this stuff — the factories, warehouses, freeways, waste treatment plants, hospitals, offices, roads, mines and railways — are expensive to rebuild and will take a long time to change. "Expensive to rebuild" means we must find the time to rebuild them. Either that or we must work to pay someone else to do it. And that assumes it is possible to rebuild them in a more benign form, which in many cases it is not.

We've just had a big materialist binge over the past few years, where the cost of the stuff we use has been kept artificially low because the Chinese have paid their workers a low wage to build it. That situation cannot last. We will soon go back to paying the real cost of living. This will mean less money to change our built environment to a less carbon intensive arrangement. Add to that the decline in oil availability and we have a real problem.

And then there is the unspeakable, uncomfortable truth that lies under all this — there are way too many people on the Planet. How are we voluntarily going to reduce our population to something more in line with what the Earth can support?

The truth is that we are animals like any other on Earth. We expand to fit our environment and then some. We want more, usually not much more, just that little bit, even the richest amongst us. Do you know anyone who wants less? No, I didn't think so!

We've expanded very successfully until now. Of course we always have Problems. And we always have earnest people, experts, discussing and proposing Solutions to these Problems. These Solutions, strangely enough, always need More of something. More spending on health care, education, law and order, supervision of industry. Surely a solution to the crises looming over us at the moment is a lot less of everything? People, cars, cows, strip mining, commercial fishing, driving, flying — well, make your own list!

But of course having a lot less means things get very tough for the great mass of people with the 2.4 kids, cars etc. They need to work to pay for their lives, they vote, or even if they don't, they can make trouble for the People In Charge. And of course we all want the world to be better, we just don't want it to be at our expense. Let the less worthy pay! So we will see the hunt for people to blame — scapegoats — intensify. But of course all that is in vain if the problem is all of us.

So what is my Solution? Well, it's in several parts.

Firstly it's your problem so you've got to solve it! OK, you didn't choose to be born, but can you tell me the name of anyone who did? So get over it — you're in charge of your life.

Secondly a lot of us, maybe most of us, don't feel we're really up to scratch in a lot of ways. We'd love to be told by some competent person what to do. We believe in experts. Well guess what? Experts are often wrong! And the more they say they know and the less you do, the wronger they tend to be. Sure, listen to what people say. But an honest heart and an open mind is of more value than believing any appearance of certainty. This may mean you run against the tide of opinion a lot of the time. Learn to deal with it. You don't need to broadcast your contrariness. But practice the courage of your convictions in small ways, because one day you may need to find it for something big.

You will come across people who believe that the world was made for the use of themselves in any way they see fit, and others who will tell you the human race is a blight on creation. Avoid these types — they are both expressions of arrogance, in that they make value judgements which no-one can truly make. And both attitudes lead to trouble.

The world will re-adjust to make everything right again. Nature has a way of dealing with these problems. Those who best protect themselves from what is coming will part of the future of life on Earth. Let that be a guide for your actions.

I don't think we can do anything at a world-wide or even nation-wide level about the greenhouse problem because of the pressure of population and the prior investments we have in our industrial civilisation. So we will have to deal with the consequences of dramatic climate change over the next few decades. That's the way it is folks. Just think about how you and those closest to you can survive the coming changes. Forget about survivalism and Mad Max scenarios. Most people will survive or die where they are, dependent on the conditions in their local area. So for a start, understand where you live, how it works, how people survive in it now and how they and you might survive in the future. If it doesn't look good, move to somewhere better while you can!

Understand how nature works. Darwinian selection works through the survival and reproduction of the fittest. That doesn't mean the ones who can win races, it means the ones that fit the best into their environment, who can gain sustenance, shelter and safety without wrecking where they live.

We are used to seeing ourselves in a very upwards and outwards way. I'd say the dominant story of our civilisation for the past sixty or so years has been "Everything will be fine once we get the settings just right and all those other people learn to behave themselves". But unfortunately that just isn't so, and we are going to be flung into a world soon where we wont necessarily have any idea of what's coming next. We'll be reacting to crises right on our doorstep, not trying to make the Afghans or the Somalis jump when we say jump. For a lot of us this is going to be a bitter pill to swallow. So preempt the change and embrace your inner powerlessness now! Just concentrate on what's close by and attend to its needs: self, family, community and the enclosing natural environment. Forget saving the world-as-a-whole. That's always been a totalitarian dream powered by cheap fossil fuel.

The hard part for many of us who wake up to what's really going on is we can feel very isolated. If our Significant Other doesn't share our new view of reality, what do we do? I don't know what the answer is here other than patience and good humour. Reality will impose itself on us all eventually. Your job is to make sure you're as right as you can be. Not that anyone predicting trouble gets thanked for it, but speaking from a little experience in these matters, time is on your side with this.

What do you tell the children? I have my way with this one too, but it may not be for everyone. I have four children, two of them step-children, the oldest of whom is thirty-four. My attitude has always been that children make their own way in the world and what you need to do is keep them safe, well-fed, emotionally secure and don't let them get away with bad habits. Everything else they will pick up themselves. If you push them in a particular direction you will get adults who either will do nothing unless they're pushed, or adults who believe in pushing other people.

I've been very lucky so far with how things have turned out, but I'm aware that it is luck and not good management. The problem is, if you do something to assure success, like spend a fortune on private tutors, all you do is create someone who can't live outside that sort of system. To my way of thinking the best you can do is let children grow up in an environment which is healthy, with not enough money to get them into trouble but enough to keep them fed and give them a few basic tools for their growth. As long as they don't feel crushed by the society they grow up in, or that they are too good for it, things are generally alright. As for us breast-beating about how we elders have squandered the inheritance and left them nothing, give it a break! The last thing anyone needs is an excuse for failure and by saying something like that, you will produce either arrogance (I'm not as stupid as the person telling me this!) or a victim's mentality (I'm one of you and therefore I'm doomed too!) in a child who isn't sensible enough to say "Phooey!" to you.

Education is important but I can't say that it is necessarily effective to spend twelve or more years sitting at a desk. Looking at the corner we're busy painting ourselves into with our mighty civilisation, one needs to question some of our basic notions here. It may become more difficult to fund in the future in any case. Opportunity is the most important thing, plus the ability to take advantage of it, which involves such things as good health, common sense and a lack of timidity. Character is something which matters more than just about anything and it matters a great deal when you're younger. And character is what will distinguish the survivors from the doomed in the next, difficult stage of our history — providing they are in the right place!

The next pillar of survival is community. We ordinary folk will find it much easier if we're part of a real community. Communities are the normal human social arrangement, but they have not fared well in our industrial world which demands loyalty to abstract functions and specialisations, and prefers humanity to be broken up into single, bite-sized functional units for easier deployment to places of highest profit. The Soviets did it by force, through murder and deliberate starvation in the nineteen-twenties to break up the village structure of the Soviet Union. Our more modern societies have done it through education (get the children away from their parents and environment) and propaganda (most advertising), and by driving local, small businesses under or by making them into empty shells, fronts for a franchise. All this has so undermined community that in many places it is vestigial, especially in big cities. As a natural human artifact, it is forever being rebuilt. But building community takes a long time, generations in fact, so in the face of the rapidity of the changes we're facing it's better to find one already in existence. I've had some experience of intentional communities (I'm an old hippy) and they tend to be unstable for a variety of reasons. So I don't recommend cults or communes unless they are embedded in a larger functional community and have good relationships with it.

The final step is for us industrially disabled types to throw away our crutches. Learn to walk or ride a bike — leave the car at home — grow some of your own food, talk to your neighbors, get involved in the work of your local community. Don't be like a little bird, lying back helplessly with your beak open, squawking and waiting for Big Daddy to drop something into it. Cause Big Daddy wont be there much longer.

The solution to the greenhouse problem of carbon dioxide will be a radical fall in its production by individual people, and this is going to happen not by executive fiat, but through the uneven collapse of the great industrial civilisation which has been built up on the back of the copious use of fossil fuels as these fuels stop being affordable to the great bulk of us. The cheap stuff has all gone, and the expensive stuff is too expensive to keep the wheels spinning. We will have wars for resources and people saying we've turned the corner and that new technology will save us — it's only five or ten years away! It's always just five or ten years away.

But the show is over. It will appear to run in for years, as the elites who manage to command remaining resources claim that everything has returned to normal and those who aren't benefiting have only themselves to blame, but that's the age-old story of the relationship between the haves and have nots. Forget alternative energy. It will provide only a tiny fraction of our energy. It simply costs too much compared to dirty old oil and coal.

Will life be worth living? Of course it will! This is an amazing time to be in. We have lived through and seen the peak of the greatest civilisation the World has ever known, and we get to decide how to deal with its dissolution and the shape of what comes after it. It would have been nice to have flying cars and holiday trips to the Moon, but there's still plenty of other good things to enjoy: wine and love, children, good friends, food, music. Have fun!



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