Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The moral issue of now

Ran Prieur has a post which encapsulates the issue we in the industrial world face: the irrationality of our desires. He says…
My favorite election commentary is by Sharon Astyk: The election is over - Now what do we do with all the fear? I agree: the voters are not really idiots -- they are cowards, and using their human brainpower to convince themselves of fantasies that defy both reason and observation: that the government can dispense benefits without collecting taxes; that an economy based on exponential growth can continue on a planet of fixed size; that we can have utopia merely by filling the slots in the present system with different people. What they're afraid of is reality: that the government, the economy, the planet, cannot continue to give more than they get, that all the stuff we've been getting, we're going to stop getting.
If we expect Santa Claus (ie the great god of industrial civilisation) to bring us goodies endlessly while we have no appreciation of the costs, we will react with infantile rage when our desires are frustrated. And who will we blame? Refugees? Indians? Moslems? Jews?
After they lose their toys, the people will be hungry for leaders who call for the sacrifice of others, and I mean sacrifice in the literal sense: the ritual mass-murder of scapegoats. When there are piles of bodies in the streets, only then, from the sane fringes, will new and better systems grow to fill the dead spots.
And what will trigger this rage in Australia? My guess is a big collapse in real estate prices, brought on by a downturn in China which will slow our export bonanza. I hope it doesn't get as bad as Ran posits, but you never know.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The True Faith

I'm talking about Science of course, or really its wildly popular but mentally subnormal child, Scientism. The believers in Scientism are generally the same people who believe in humanity's ever-upward climb towards perfect happiness and power — ok, we have the odd World War or financial hiccup, but everything will eventually get better and better, mkay?

The more paranoid fringe of Scientismists (I've coined a nice clumsy new term!), the sort who believe that George Bush bombed the World Trade Center because the Arabs weren't smart enough to organise something like that, tend to see conspiracies everywhere, except where they really are. Scientismists know deep down they're as dumb as dogsh*t, but that there are two types of smart people in the world, scientists and those evil bastards in the tall buildings. Scientismists believe in science, not as a system of inquiry, but as a reliable faith and the fount of all good things like iPhones and Prozac and Jumbo jets. They also tend to think like Ayn Rand: that the world is run by an incredibly smart conspiracy of evildoers who grab the ideas from the scientists and do what they will with them. Anything that disadvantages the powerful will be hidden away in some vast underground bunker. Like this wonderful invention that could let cars run on next to nothing! Watch this video!

What's worth noting is that no-one interviewing the guy asks where does the energy come from? And of course the designer, who knows what it is that he's made, just assumes that they know. But one comes away with the impression that these knob-heads think the energy comes from the salt water. All it took was a lone genius to see this! Just point radio waves at salt water and kaboom! Now watch the big energy companies suppress it!

Of course this is an American TV news spot and we know how ignorant a lot of those folk are. Not like Australia, where our ABC is rigorous in its scientific rectitude. But if you listen to people in this country talking and follow the political gossip you will soon realise that magical thinking and scientism is just as firmly embedded here — in control in fact — and that we are in no way especially intellectually privileged. For a start, who is talking about the fact that Australia imports 30% of its oil? We pay for it with our exports but how long can this go on? How do you think our economy will fair without that imported oil? Will electric cars magically appear? How about the parade of diesel trucks which carry the vast majority of our goods at some stage of their distribution? Will we get electric trucks too? And who supplies all this — Santa Claus? It is a dagger at the throat of our society, but no-one is talking about it! Instead all the talk is about the distribution of the goodies we have. The banks are greedy! No, they're the pillars of our economic strength! Houses cost too much because everyone wants one, but if you're smart, get in now and buy one because they always go up in value and you too can become a millionaire without working for it!

Most of us have very little understanding of how our lives really work. We're unaware of the vast investments in plant and institutions which so intricately underpin our daily life. All these complex arrangements are built and maintained by us, but we are conscious of only the tiny area we work in. For the rest, we deal in a kind of shorthand knowledge — a pseudo language which fools us and those we talk to, because it works. Until it doesn't. So house prices and stock prices go up and down and the trick is to know when to buy and sell, because stocks and houses have become almost purely gambling chips, the key to a future of living without working! Who knows what the stocks really represent? Because we all know we live in the best and luckiest country in the World and everything just gets better and better all the time because that's the Law of Nature, or something.

This spread of magical thinking has become the characteristic of our age, an age that began seriously in the nineteen-eighties. That's when somehow it seemed possible to spin something into nothing by talking the right talk. Young guys who had been nobodies only a few years previously suddenly had black clothes and cool haircuts and were driving new Porsches — rush hour to the eastern suburbs of Melbourne seemed to be jammed with them. The recession at the end of the eighties threw cold water on a lot of this for a few years, but it all popped up again in the mid-nineties and has powered on ever since. No-one makes anything, that's all done mysteriously, in China. Instead, we all work in service industries and the coolest thing is to be a celebrity, a chef or a footballer. And get a contract for a TV show. And spend enough on your credit card to get a free flight to Honkers and back. We just wish those dumb bastards in Afghanistan would see reason 'cause then they could live like us!

How long will it all last? One could argue that it will die when it doesn't work any more as a pseudo-philosophy. Of course it has never really worked, but over a short human life span it's possible to think all kinds of bizarre things and never have reality find you out. Only a very great trauma changes people's thinking and then usually only in those young enough to be receptive. I think scientism and its adherents will be with us for a very long time: even when it's obviously shot its bolt, like the Black Knight in The Quest for the Holy Grail, with all limbs missing its acolytes will think the corner will soon be turned and we'll be soon be back to Business as Usual.