Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Warning! Rant coming on!

I went to a Transition Town training session on the weekend. I had misgivings before going but they turned out to be misplaced. It was a different style of learning to anything I'd done before, conducted by a pair of very competent women. We were given all the materials they used for the session plus a lot of extras at the end of it all, which is good because I can't see myself using what we learned for a while, as our group is still in its formative stages and I'm sure I'd forget most of it if I don't use it straight away.

I was interested in the attitudes and opinions of the other participants. Why do people get involved in something like this? Generally it is well-educated middle-class people like me I suppose, with some commitment to "doing good". However I found that there are some deep-seated ideas that are perhaps unhelpful even among the well-intentioned and well-educated. We did an exercise which was designed to help us explain rising carbon dioxide levels and the greenhouse effect. It seems from the reaction of the people I was working with that it is common to believe that by bringing pressure to bear on politicians and getting the message out to the public we will somehow reverse the trend. There seemed no understanding that nothing will be done, until the consequences make it impossible to carry on.

What do I mean by this? It is simply that anything the individual does is almost irrelevant in the larger scheme of things. I think we are well beyond remedial action on the macro, society-wide scale. We (the great Middle Class) seem to still be suffering from the illusion that we have Power. Power to change other people's behavior. Power to influence those in power. There is no general understanding, even amongst the educated, that freedom disappears the higher up the hierarchy one moves — that those at the top are so hedged in by prior constraints, massive inertias, debts owed and obligations that come with the job that our leaders have almost nowhere to move at all. And as for telling the Chinese and the Indians and the Brazilians that they need to radically restructure their societies — well it's not even worth a laugh.

We seem to be unaware that our behavior is animal behavior: we are no different from voles, slugs, armadillos or trout in our desire to produce descendants and make some space for ourselves in the larger world. And the sum of the actions of six billion humans is no different from the actions of six billion armadillos in this regard, no matter how intellectual and above "animal" behavior we think we are. Politicians know this instinctively and fear the animal passions of the "mob" — the great mass of the population — and usually (if they are "successful") stay within safe limits. But the average punter doesn't see this. We don't see ourselves as being part of some powerful mob. Instead we ordinary people are aware of our own feelings of weakness in the face of what seems to be overwhelming forces — we project our fantasies of real power onto our leaders, little realising that both feelings of weakness and fantasies of power are illusory phenomena. They come and go, depending on our immediate circumstances and the state of our digestion as much as anything. The middle classes —even the well-educated technocratic elite, working the cogs and gears of the system — don't seem any better at understanding this than the most illiterate forklift-driver.

Amongst the educated, frustration often turns into the blame game. The world is a mess, we see clearly what is wrong, nothing is being done, it's the fault of the Keynesians (if you're an Austrian economist like Mish or Gary North). Or it's the nervousness of the do-nothings in Congress who don't see the need to spend if you're Paul Krugman, the Keynesian. Or moving down the ladder into the unsavory depths, it's the liberals (if you're Anne Coulter), the right-wing demogogues and their puppet-masters (if you're a follower of Counterpunch) and so on downward to infinity where dwell the gamiest of conspiracy theorists, crazed religious nut-bags and scary eco-fanatics like Derrick Jensen. Don't get me wrong: each of these characters possess a fraction of the truth and there may be value in listening to what they say in order to see how the world works. But all of them are entirely primitive when it comes to Answers, because each of them believes in Salvation and Atonement. They believe that following their prescriptions will lead to Heaven on Earth. That's why they're dangerous. Like Hitler, Stalin and Mao.

Why do these people suffer from a common fallacy? Why do they have such broad followings? Well I could spend ages raving about our Judeo-Christian world-view (which still forms the way that most of us think, even if we believe we're athiests). But I'll let you, gentle reader, think all this through in your own time. Suffice to say there are some still, small voices which do talk sense. Steve Keen on economics, Dmitri Orlov on social realities. Nobody's perfect but some are definitely better than others and popularity is a poor guide to excellence when we are so embedded in the Judeo-Christian schema and we love good-and-evil dichotomies so much (beware dichotomies!).

So what is real and how do we choose actions which are effective? Well, look out the window. Smell the flowers. Smile at your neighbor. This is reality, the single endless moment we all live in. There is no future, except in our imagination. There is no past except in our memory. If you're crossing the road and a bus is coming, step back onto the curb! And likewise with the great changes pressing down on us. To go to an analogy, if the Titanic has hit an iceberg there's no urgency in arguing with the captain about whose fault it is. Your job is to get you and your charges into a lifeboat! So try and look at what is really going to happen, not what you hope will happen. What you hope will happen is that enlightened leaders will guide us to the Promised Land. What is really going to happen is complex, messy and unpredictable in many ways, but it will include the climate changing, the financial system seizing up and the economy going down the tubes. You can't stop any of these things from happening! All you can do is try and protect yourself from the consequences. Nature, in its majestic impartiality, will deal with humanity as it deals with everything.

Ok! That'll do for now!

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