Saturday, September 06, 2008

It's just a phase

Some deep ecologists have suggested that agriculture was a fundamental mistake in human evolution and has created more ills than it purports to address. There is perhaps a larger group of people who believe that it was the discovery of fossil fuels and their contribution to the industrial revolution that constitute a critical wrong turn in human history. After all, the power which fossil fuels put in the hands of humans has enabled them to affect the ecosphere in profound ways that not only threaten the human future, but the future of every living thing on the planet.

Then, there are those, probably an even larger group, that believe we have simply misused our technological prowess, and that if we could turn that prowess toward harmonizing ourselves with nature, we could preserve ourselves and our technical society while allowing nature to flourish once again.

Embedded in each view is the assumption that somehow human society made a bad decision, perhaps even an immoral decision. It's hard for me to imagine that such "decisions" could have been averted or that such developments even fit the definition of the word "decision." For example, it's hard to imagine someone long ago "deciding" to plant seeds and tend to the resulting plants. It's easier to imagine that the connection was made between seeds and plants that sprouted from where those seeds had once lain. I can imagine experiments, halting at first, to test the theory that plants come from seeds. And finally, I can imagine attempts to sow seeds of favored food plants on plots near temporary seasonal encampments in order to provide food that would supplement sustenance obtained from traditional hunting and gathering.

Likewise, the discovery and use of fossil fuels was not a "decision," but more likely perceived as an opportunity for energy gain.

I am more inclined to the view that humans are like any organism and seek to maximize their energy gain for the purposes of survival and propagation. And, like other organisms humans can experience periods of riotous growth in their numbers followed by periods of decline and retrenchment. This "pulsing" is completely consistent with observed natural patterns. And, while we certainly should not abandon moral thinking, we need to be careful when we apply it to something as vast as the evolution of the human species.

In saying this, I do not mean to minimize the human suffering that may be in store for us in a future that is energy-constrained--one in which fossil fuel supplies decline, but nothing of comparable scale takes their place. I am only trying to point out what Howard Odum suggests in his book, The Prosperous Way Down, namely, that human societies are not immune to the expansions and contractions which apply to other creatures. To be more precise, industrial civilization is not a path of continuous expansion, but simply a phase of expansion that will inevitably lead one day to a phase of contraction.

By looking at the fossil fuel age this way, we need not judge it as either good or bad. I often think that the burden of criticizing or defending our current society on moral grounds uses up considerable energy that might be used to imagine and construct a new society that will be viable during a period of contraction. I'm afraid it is not moral arguments that will cause people to ready themselves for such a contraction, but circumstances themselves. (I confess that I must take some of the responsibility for the excessive moralizing.)

To the extent that we can accept that industrial civilization is neither a mistake nor the highest and best arrangement of human affairs that will ever be, but rather has unfolded as one would expect through the interactions of social creatures who seek maximum energy, we can turn our energies to managing a transition to the next phase of civilization.

There is considerable talk about creating sustainable societies, that is, societies that can last for an indefinite period without either exhausting their resources or fatally disturbing the natural processes upon which they depend. But if Odum is correct about the pulsing nature of complex systems, then we can expect to do no such thing. Instead, humans will be continually called upon to adapt to dynamic resizings of their scope during phases of both expansion and contraction.

Often we confuse what is good with what is permanent. Permanence somehow conveys an innate moral rightness to us. But there are many things which we value which are inherently ephemeral--the bloom on a rose, the flight of a bird, the excitement of success, the exhilaration of falling in love. Do we value these things any less because they do not last? No, we value them all the more. But, we learn to go on to the next task in life, looking to meet our needs and attentive to the possibilities of pleasure and pain in every circumstance.

If we could come to accept that our current industrial age is just a phase, ephemeral like all ages, neither a triumph which must be defended in its entirety at all costs, nor a mistake which must be allowed to collapse, nor a system that can be redeemed with just a few adjustments, we could learn to let go of it as it recedes without rejecting aspects of it that might prove to be instructive or useful. We could then move on to our next task, creating a new phase of human existence on planet Earth within limits we can no longer ignore.

5 comments:

Ralph said...

... humans are like any organism and seek to maximize their energy gain for the purposes of survival and propagation.

How could it be otherwise, since we and all those of our kind are animals?

But the peaking and passing of the industrial age will necessarily leave its imprint on our species. A great deal of knowledge from our period is almost certain to survive in the form of books and other media, as well as in human memories, passed along through teaching and learning. Though we cannot know the details, it is clear that the availability of such knowledge will make the lives of our descendants very different from the lives of any prior humans.

As a species, we can never return to what we were before all this frantic use of external energy began.

SoapBoxTech said...

Before the proliferation of fossil fuel energy sources, significant industrial energy was obtained through slavery. Indeed, slavery provided much of the energy needed to develop the infrastructure for exploiting and distributing this new, cheap energy. Should we ignore the morality of this lengthy, and continuing, period of human history as well? Perhaps a return to large scale slavery should be a significant aspect of the future society in a world without fossil fuel energy.

I personally feel that chalking the past couple of hundred years of human activity up to nothing more than natural population cycles is taking the very real chance of ensuring that such activity continues. I agree that we must accept our "animal" status, but we must also accept that we humans are more than just animals. This means learning to figure out what aspects of our existence are part of natural cycles and which aspects are part of being conscious, reasoning, sentient creatures. If we ignore our humanity, we take the chance of losing it.

Generally I find myself in support of the reasoning presented within this blog page, but this week's offering has me wondering what is inspiring this apparent about-face.

Kurt Cobb said...

Soapboxtech is properly concerned that we not abandon any moral progress we might have made. But I wonder if we have really eliminated slavery under our current system. Think, for a moment, of the women textile workers in places like Guatemala locked in their workplaces for 12 or 14 hours a day and paid a pittance for their work. Think of the many places where people are exploited in this way throughout the world by our globalized economic system. I'm not sure we should hold up that the fossil fuel age as a paragon of moral progress. I'm not saying there are no advances. But I think those advances have been very uneven and have been on the backs of the less powerful throughout the world. This is why I say, "while we certainly should not abandon moral thinking, we need to be careful when we apply it to something as vast as the evolution of the human species." So, as you can see, I'm not saying we should ignore morality, but that we should be careful how we apply it. To imagine that our moral progress is merely a straight line from the beginning of human existence to today is a mistake.

I do think it is important to recognize what drives human behavior, that is, the focus on basic needs, the need for mutual affection, the desire to propagate, the drive to dominate as a survival strategy, often expressed through the drive for social status and wealth in our society. If we don't deal squarely with these drives, then we are kidding ourselves. We can't wish our way out of these.

I'm suggesting a nuanced approach to evaluating the fossil fuel age that includes accepting "aspects of it that might prove to be instructive or useful."

What I am really trying to get at is a pragmatic approach to the coming energy transition. We could try to create a utopian, egalitarian society as we make the transition, but I doubt we would succeed even though I wish we could. Human biology and culture are too much stacked against us. But we could take the best of what we have and try to preserve that. This approach is more helpful, I think, than condemning or defending the system as a whole.

LJR said...

Kurt,

Excellent perspective. Just as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland - "There's no there there," - a paraphrase might be - "There's no we here!"

"We" didn't decide on agriculture. Collective action is quite a different affair from an explicit public decision arrive at by some conscious consenual process.

It's interesting that the common scientific consensus is that single celled life existed 500 million years after the earth formed. But it took another 2000 million years for multicellular organisms to leave a fossil trail. This gives some idea of just how difficult it is to create collectives with staying power.

The odds that we have arrived at a "stable" form of cultural existence on a first try are so low as to be laughable.

There's no "answer" to our predicament other than to realize that there's never been a survival advantage to predicting how high orange rinds splatter in a pail of pig slops. Trying to figure out what's likely to happen next in this culture is a similar exercise in futility and wasted time.

Time to dust off "the will of the gods," and get on with daily living I guess.

SoapBoxTech said...

"I do think it is important to recognize what drives human behavior, that is, the focus on basic needs, the need for mutual affection, the desire to propagate, the drive to dominate as a survival strategy, often expressed through the drive for social status and wealth in our society. If we don't deal squarely with these drives, then we are kidding ourselves. We can't wish our way out of these."

This statement is basically what I felt was missing from the original blog post. Perhaps it was implied and I missed it, but it was this that inspired my comment. I felt the post was suggesting that we don't need to worry about these things are they are "natural", and that we should just wander along letting nature takes its course. I thought it seemed to be suggesting that to strive to deal with these issues could be a waste of energy that might be better spent coming up with new energy sources (etc) so that we could get back to fulfilling these needs.

I am relieved to know this was not the case. Turns out, I agree with all you have said in your reply. I know we have not eradicated slavery, literally OR figuratively (as with your example, and countless others). I do not see the industrial age as a period of moral progress, quite the opposite actually. Most of what would "seem" to have been moral progress during this time, tends to be little more than a facade. I also agree that it is pointless to try to achieve some kind of utopia. Suffering is natural, struggle is natural. We do not have to live our lives surrounded by either one, but we must accept that we cannot always avoid them either.

Thanks for the response, Kurt!