Monday, September 20, 2010

Right actions, right thoughts

What is right action for us doom-and-gloomers? I'm caught up in our local Transition Town group. Sure, it's what some people want and it gives us members mutual support, plus we may be getting a big community garden and orchard going at the bottom of the town. But I have mixed feelings about, it in the sense that I can't see it being The Whole Answer to the problems coming towards us and I'm still copping it as well from a few people, accused of being too negative in a more general sense.

I guess my last post on the Aussie housing bubble was guaranteed to upset a lot of folk and was a typical snarky comment on things as they are now — I admit it was negative although I think it was a necessary corrective. But I think it's a good time to give a background on what I think is right action, which must first of all spring from right thoughts. And this implies a lot of what is going on amongst the chattering classes is wrong thoughts leading to wrong actions.

Why can't we just save the world by recycling plastic, buying an electric car and growing our own vegies? Why can't we do all this while making politicians pass good laws restricting pollution, exploitation and simultaneously saving the whales, while working for strong international covenants to stop those developing economies making things worse by letting their big populations to buy in to the consumer dream?

This is what I'd label the standard left-wing program save-the-world program.

The standard right-wing save-the-world program is a little different but we need to mention it too. The world is fine as long as I and my significant others are doing well! Those pesky foreigners trying to grab our stuff? Nuke 'em! Drug addicts? Kill 'em all — except for my son of course, for whom I've just paid thousands to spring from a prison in India after he was caught trying to smuggle some ganga back to Australia. The Chinese are all sub-human — except for George, with whom I go to watch Collingwood playing each week. And all these pollution laws — an evil impost on business! Except for the ones which stop the spraying of pesticides in those areas where our honey producing subsidiary has seen profits cave in over the past few years.

The right-wing is easy to mock: after all, these types always depend upon the left-wingers working for them to keep the show on the road. It's only on a few points that they can stick to their convictions. This also leads on to another not-much-mentioned paradox (to be discussed some other time): how come left-wingers and right-wingers end up building very similar societies?

But I'm more interested in the illusions of the left because they underpin a lot of what goes on in politics. Why can't we legislate to fix our problems with Peak Oil/Climate Change? Surely if everyone made a big effort to conserve, we wouldn't have a problem — right? We could all drive a Toyota Prius and presto! This is where the explanation gets tricky because it's counter-intuitive. When we make more efficient use of a resource it simply makes it available to more people, so consumption rises rather than falls. This is known as Jevons Paradox. This only applies to increases in technical efficiency of course — it's still possible to tax or otherwise restrict the availability of say, oil, in order to reduce its use. But can we restrict our use in Australia and tell the Chinese and the Indians they can't use it too? Of course you can run on and imagine some United Nations action that might force the nations of the world to restrict consumption if you put aside how utterly unlikely this is. But if it were possible, would this solve the problem of Peak Oil and carbon dioxide induced climate change? How could it, when at best, it might slow down (slightly), the rate of use of oil and coal, but the oil and coal would still get used anyway, just over a few more decades and it is still unrenewable and still adds CO2 to the atmosphere.

The fact is, the toothpaste is out of the tube. We (by which I mean the human race) will go on using oil until we can't — same with coal. You may swear off it (as far as you can, given that everything we use in day to day life has a fossil fuel component) but in the end it will all get used up anyway, irrespective of your decisions. So what if it takes fifty years longer to disappear, than if we continue to fly like mad moths around the planet? The effect will be virtually the same. Electric cars? Where does the electricity come from? From solar panels you say? How much embodied energy do they contain? You see, there is no escape. We can't have a complex industrial civilisation based on extracting sunshine from cucumbers to quote Jonathan Swift . We may entertain fantasies of a world where doves alight on the shoulders of young people dancing round the maypole at harvest time in Kabul, as well as in Korumburra, before everyone jumps on their bicycles to go back to the town hall for an election of councilors followed by a hoedown to a string band, but let's not confuse ourselves even further with these idle fantasies.

Of course it — that is, industrial civilisation — will end, and maybe quite soon. Nature will impose upon us the discipline we can't impose on ourselves. Our problem is not to save the World, but to save ourselves. By all means aim for a low carbon lifestyle, because pretty soon we will be living one anyway whether our politics is anarcho-syndicalist or slightly to the right of Ghengis Khan. Our issues will revolve around dealing with the consequences of a declining world industrial civilisation, not fixing its underpinnings.

The Heroic Materialist project is over, for all kinds of reasons. For a start, capital in the form of debt is in the process of vanishing, which is rushing us towards an economic collapse after which large-scale capital intensive projects will simply be impossible. Want to solve the energy crisis by building a nuclear fusion power station? Sure, hold a few fundraisers in your town and build one at the end of your street. Because that is about the level of economic co-operation we can expect to see in the future. The only projects which get done will be on a small scale, except in countries which can't maintain security, where we can expect large scale marauding warlord lead armies who will swiftly reduce the territories they prey upon to sparsely populated wastelands in any case.

I don't expect anything like that in Australia. We may have quite serious civil conflict if the industrial system's dispossessed citizens are victimised —always a possibility when a narrow, suspicious world-view amongst the elites replaces the boundless optimism of a time of growth. But a collapse of society I don't foresee. Instead I see the gloomy crumbling of individuals who are unprepared for the changes we are going to have to face, to be a followed by a new generation who accept the world they find as a given and get on with inventing their lives and their own goals and meanings. Some will be happy, some unhappy, but it was ever thus. Our task as the transitional generation is to smooth the way, cutting the suffering which will be inevitable while making the way clear for the next generation to find their own direction.

This will mean letting go of inappropriate dreams and plans as much as anything — at a federal level, dreams such as turning Afghanistan into suburbia and building the high speed rail link down the eastern seaboard of Australia. At the state level, we need to stop pretending we can go on living in our cities as if consumables such as oil, water and electricity are in infinite supply. And at the personal level, fantasies of a leisured retirement with overseas cruises will be snatched away.

On the other hand we will have a return of the natural world, which will no longer be under the extreme pressure industrial civilisation has been placing on it. We will eat more healthy food, get more exercise and use our wits to build viable communities rather than manipulate symbols on screens. Our lives will be in our hands, not those of "experts". For a short period, until a new system solidifies (as they always do), the world will be ours to mould in the image we think best.

1 comment:

Peter said...

Hi Lloyd,

Thanks for another insightful post. I particularly liked the observation:

Quote: "Our task as the transitional generation is to smooth the way, cutting the suffering which will be inevitable while making the way clear for the next generation to find their own direction." unQuote

That neatly summarises our goal or mission as 'transitioners'. In concrete terms, we need to prepare individually (by for example reskilling and clearing debt) as well as getting active in the community helping to educate and prepare others for the changes ahead.