Tuesday, May 15, 2012

When the system hits the wall

I've just watched a presentation by Jeremy Rifkin — a very clever and articulate man — which is below. It's long but engrossing — go on, watch it, I'll wait!
If you watched it you will see what I mean. But did you also see how it is a piece of theatre, rather than a closely reasoned argument? He presents us with a view of human progress which, to condense Jeremy's argument, equates pretty much with increased energy consumption! Ergo, we must keep up the energy level! And then he pulls a whole lot of techno-speak out of the air, equating distributed information with distributed energy generation (see, one works, so the other must too!) and sketching out a sexy-sounding future with the whole world of little home generators linking together, busy making their contribution to the betterment of the human species! The young people know all about this kind of stuff 'cause they're on Facebook and Twitter! So lets get them all going on it.

Only it's all a crock of — well — crap, I'm afraid. His argument for human progress is so thin, so grossly over-simplified and ridiculously reductionist as to be no better than the sort of thing that pops into your head when you've smoked some really good weed after dinner. And then to use it as the justification for leading the young people of the world off on a campaign of technological positivism, based on about as much technical savvy as in a Jetson's cartoon, is to my mind, positively criminal. To me, the underlying game here is "Keep my scam going (and my books selling) for as long as possible". From the blurb on Amazon that goes with his book The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power Is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World:

Jeremy Rifkin is president of the Foundation on Economic Trends and the author of eighteen bestselling books, including The Hydrogen Economy and The End of Work. He has been a guest on Face the Nation, The Lehrer News Hour, 20/20, Larry King Live, Today, and Good Morning America. The National Journal named Rifkin as one of 150 people in the U.S. that have the most influence in shaping federal government policy. He has also testified before numerous congressional committees, and since 1994, Mr. Rifkin has been a senior lecturer at the Wharton School’s Executive Education Program at the University of Pennsylvania.
Rifkin is chairman of the Global CEO Business Roundtable, which includes IBM, Cisco, Cushman and Wakefield, and has served as an adviser to various global leaders, including Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Angela Merkel of Germany. His monthly column on global issues appears in many of the world’s leading newspapers and magazines, including The Los Angeles Times, The Guardian in the U.K., Die Süddeutsche Zeitung in Germany, Trud in Bulgaria, Clarín in Argentina, and Al-Ittihad in the U.A.E. He lives in Bethesda, MD.
 So this dude is a heavy hitter with influence. Maybe he is a "nice guy". But what he says, if you strip away the flashy factoids, the glossy visions and the dodgy science is no better than a high-class advertisement for himself. God help you if you take anything he says seriously (for a cogent critique of his book "The Hydrogen Economy" look here). Keep him away from the children!

On to my next guest. This is Margaret Alston, a holder of an Order of Australia, Professor of Social Work and Head of Department at Monash University and Director of the Gender, Leadership and Social Sustainability research unit. Chair of the Australian Heads of Schools of Social Work. Much less flashy than Jeremy Rifkin, much more earnest, lots of academic credibility. This is a talk on Radio National's Big Ideas program, which is a broadcast of the Sidney Myer Rural Lecture (click to get to the page with the podcast) entitled "Rural Education…Shaping Leaders for the Future".

She is a lady with a sweet voice who is trying to Do Good Work. She starts off well by talking about the problems facing rural areas with climate change, the economic crisis and peak oil, and how leadership has to come from within rural communities rather than be imposed from outside. At about the eleven minute mark she strays off overseas, running through a number of international projects she has been associated with. The classic moment comes with her description of a conference at the Prado campus of Monash University in Italy, to do with gender and climate change. The thought of all those earnest folk (mostly women?) arriving by jumbo jet from far-flung places, trailing clouds of glory fairly impressive carbon footprints, brought a faint smile to my lips. I'm sure lots of important resolutions were passed, and great thoughts were — well — thunk. And her book about it will be out soon. Then we're off to Bangladesh which is of course full of problems, but the village people are passionate that their children be well educated even though they themselves have nothing and live in villages that get washed away every time you turn around — kablam! Just like that.

But here we have come to the meat and potatoes of the good professor's talk: education! As it is for the Bangladeshis, so it should be for us country folk in Australia! Then follows a long discussion of the problems down on the farm. Rural youngsters don't get as much education and tend to rush off to the city if they've got any brains. And how do you get young teachers to go happily off to Lake Boga to Spread the Word? Dear dear dear. With enough resources, we could be leading the world with all these brilliant country youngsters, who instead are drinking Jim Beam & Coke, crashing their utes, watching Biggest Loser, beating each other senseless or shagging in their time off from fixing fences or cleaning at the motel.

I think I've got the good Professor's schtick worked out. You make some statement about the world which catches attention and being an intelligent person, she makes an intelligent statement. Then comes the bit where you must blow your own trumpet, but in a subtle way. The international connections, the book etc. This segues into the main subject, which is to get more funding for your particular gig. Fortunately education is like love: you can never get enough of it. So her talk is — surprise! — a big advertisement for herself and her institutions. All those bright young people sitting there like little birds with their beaks open, waiting for mummy bird to drop in the Worm of Knowledge! And who is better equipped than you-know-who to play mummy bird?

Will it do any good? I think at this point, we need to find some historic, successful rural leaders of note and examine their education. How about Attila the Hun for a start? Let's get real. Rural Australia is simply a thinly-spread industrial suburb of the great international civilisation of which we are all a part. The survival of rural Australia is therefore is therefore tied closely to the fate of this mighty construct — not to whether little Johny or Jane in Grong Grong gets a diploma of Gender Studies. Unfortunately the signs aren't good. Climate change and economic collapse means quite simply that large areas of this great brown land are going to be abandoned. Those parts that will survive and thrive are quite easy to identify. They are the ones without extreme climate (sorry inland Australia, the Northern territory and Queensland!), which have good soil and which are favoured as holiday spots by the elites which will be running our cities.

As the economy starts to shrink, the chorus of entitlement-seekers will rise to a shriek. Unfortunately many intelligent people have been recruited into roles as the highly-educated technicians who run our current bloated system. Their wages are now paid by what will soon become a rapidly shrinking tax base, or by industries which cater for discretionary purchases such as cars, Coca-Cola, corn chips or holidays in Bali over which the sword of consumer cost-cutting hangs.

As reality bites will we turn away from Snake Oil salesmen like Jeremy Rifkin? Probably not — we all love a good story even if it's not true, us gullible human beings! The fate of the educators is easier to foresee — those who can teach you what you need to know will be fed and those who are peddling a scam will starve.


photohodge said...

Lloyd - IMHO - you nailed it in your first para.

Our response to problems is more complexity (technical or bureuacratic). Aside from the (conventional) sustainability related issues arising from that approach, the whole edifice is in danger of collapsing under its own weight.

This idea of complexity ultimately leading to a 'radical simplification' is something that perhaps trumps (systemically overrides) all other sustainability concerns?

Keep up the good work/thinking.

Lloyd Morcom said...

Photohodge — yes! I am very tired of earnest pleas to save this-and-that when it's obvious the whole system is just crunching the environment underfoot. Saving snails in Alaska or the downtrodden of Timbuktu might just make some sense if you're there, but what about the elites, riding on the back of the elephant-in-the-room while wringing their hands about how awful it all is, jetting off all over the globe exhorting us to turn off our lights when we're not needing them?

Talk about Bad Faith! How do these people sleep soundly? What kind of bullshit do they tell their children? "Keep one hand in front to wring on demand dear, while the other one should be behind your back to catch the payola!" Oh, I know it's no good getting angry. Human nature is a weak, flexible thing and even the sharpest intellect is a clumsy instrument, putty in the hands of deeper drives to do with prestige and survival in the rat race. But I just hate to see generation after generation of trusting youngsters being dragged under by the bullshit.

Of course Nature will take over at some point and then we'll really have something to wail about!

Mitch Davis said...

I kept waiting for the moment where I could say "Lloyd, you've lost me", but it never happened.

The two examples are both based on fairy tales we want to believe, in order to avoid the difficulty of the inevitable.

Go that assuaging of green guilt!