Sunday, August 21, 2011

Who are the real radicals?

It is becoming standard procedure these days to decry those who oppose you politically as radicals as in "radical agenda," "radical views," "radical friends," and "radical past." Often this refers to suggested changes in policies that are no more than a few decades old. But I'd like to do something that will seem truly radical to those who are narrowly focused on the contemporary world. I want to look at what might be regarded as radical when considering not the last few decades, but the last 100,000 years.

For most of human existence, we lived as hunter-gatherers, leaving one place when the easy food had been exhausted to find new grounds for hunting and gathering. Only very recently in the human journey have we lived as farmers. The move from nomadic hunting and gathering to the settled life of farming must have seemed radical indeed. As Jared Diamond points out in his 1987 article "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race," farming arose because of increasing population pressures. Whereas some groups chose farming over limiting their numbers, others stuck with hunting and gathering. But the vastly superior number of people in farming communities eventually led to the extinction of all but a few remaining hunter-gatherer communities on Earth.

Contrary to what we have been led to believe, the hunter-gatherers lived longer, healthier lives than their farmer successors. A varied diet and small group size guarded hunter-gatherers from the poor nutrition and epidemics that were constant companions to civilized humans. A flat social structure implied a rough equality or at least not much of a differentiation since wealth was in the forests and not in the hands of individuals.

Almost 10,000 years after the invention of agriculture, humans discovered fossil fuels. This, of course, vastly increased their ability to extract wealth from the land and the seas. And, it allowed for increasingly specialization which led to technical breakthroughs that would have seemed akin to magic only a few generations ago.

There were those at the beginning who protested the effects of this newfound power. The Luddites regarded the new deskilled world of industrial labor as a radical step away from the craft economy they had known. And, even today craft objects are often prized far beyond those made in factories and tend to last longer and work better than their manufactured counterparts. (Certainly, there are exceptions to this, but they only point out the extra cost of producing something of quality and durability meant to last not just a few years, but one or more lifetimes.)

The spread of the automobile and the construction of roads on which to run them eventually led to a whole new way of life labeled as suburban, far outside city centers and completely unrelated to rural life. Those who criticize the suburbs as an ahistorical aberration, contrary to the historical precedent of small villages and compact major cities, are proclaimed radicals by those who do not understand just how radical--and likely transitory--their suburban existences are.

All those in city and suburb alike are now fed by an agriculture powered by fossil fuels and modeled after the factory--and thus the term "factory farm." But farmers who run these factory farms often style themselves as "conservative" despite the rapid and radical change in farming methods in the last half century. But the term factory farm has in some circles become a term of derision as many seek out artisanal food processed locally from ingredients grown on small farms, often organically. Are these the new Luddites?

Of course, the burning of fossil fuels has now put the globe on a path to highly disruptive climate change. But the corporate boardrooms of the very industries most responsible for the burning of those fuels are supposedly filled with "conservative" businessmen and businesswomen. Naturally, they would not succeed at this colossal task of changing the climate without the assent of the consuming public which now enjoys an unparalleled standard of consumption. (I refuse to call it "standard of living" anymore.) And, many in that public consider themselves "conservative." But, ask yourself, What could be more radical than risking the wholesale decimation of the Earth's species including ourselves? We risk all this for a level of consumption that is far beyond our needs--I'm not including people in most poor countries--and which actually creates so-called "diseases of civilization."

I have tried to categorize America's political parties along a continuum not of conservative to liberal, but rather of conservative to radical. By this I mean that conservatives would want to preserve a way of life that ensures the long-term continuity and survivability of human communities. But I find only radical political parties in America. Therefore, crowded on the radical end of the spectrum I characterize the following groups in decreasing order of radicalness (with only tiny distinctions between them):
  1. Libertarians - They champion allowing unfettered radical change to the Earth's surface, oceans and atmosphere and unfettered exploitation of its resources. Their distinguishing characteristic from other parties is that they--I mean the real Libertarians--believe government should favor no particular group in this process.

  2. Republicans - Like Libertarians they champion allowing unfettered radical change to the Earth's surface, oceans and atmosphere and unfettered exploitation of its resources. But they tend to rail against the evil of cities and laud the totally unsustainable and ahistorical hypertrophy of the suburbs. Unlike Libertarians they are eager to use government to steer public resources toward favored constituencies, primarily the wealthy.

  3. Democrats - Democrats believe that radical changes to the Earth's surface, oceans and atmosphere and exploitation of its resources should proceed at a slightly slower pace than Republicans do, and that there should be a minor appearance of public spiritedness by inconveniencing some industries with health and safety regulations and by redistributing some wealth via the tax system and government services from the wealthy to the middle and lower classes. Not surprisingly then, like Republicans Democrats see government as a way to steer public resources toward favored constituencies, primarily, but not exclusively, the wealthy.

  4. Socialists - Socialists are like Democrats used to be. Socialists continue to see government as a way to share society's wealth very broadly with the entire population, primarily through publicly-funded education, health care, transportation, pensions and a variety of social services. They tend to believe that government control of and/or stringent regulation of large parts of the economy are the best way to serve the public interest. Some socialist governments have embraced the idea that radical changes to Earth's atmosphere are unwise and have taken modest, but hardly adequate steps toward curbing those changes.

  5. Greens - We must distinguish between what I call the techno-optimist Greens and the ecologically-grounded Greens. The techno-optimists feel that technology will allow us to repair radical changes we've made to the Earth's surface, oceans and atmosphere and prevent new ones while radically reducing our exploitation of resources. We'll do all this without missing a beat when it comes to living modern, technological lives. Our use of resources may go down, but we won't have to give up any of the things we've come to expect. They believe that government will have a major role in this transition through regulation, incentives and taxation. One cannot dismiss their ideas as completely without merit. But they certainly partake of the radical catechism of the four previously mentioned parties. On the other hand, ecologically-grounded Greens accept that the modern industrial way of life cannot succeed. They sometimes offer a vision of what I'll call a craft-based, agriculturally-oriented society retaining some of the key technical benefits of industrial society.

Certainly, I haven't exhausted the list of political parties in America. But this sampling provides an idea of just how radical all modern political agendas remain. If one works backward in time from today, the mark of true conservatism would be a honest belief in and embrace of the hunter-gatherer way of life. What I am trying to point out is that today we are all, by virtue of our position in history, radicals. True conservatives are non-existent--except perhaps for a few hunter-gatherers. We are forced then by circumstances to choose which brand of radicalism to practice.


Joe said...

Great concise history of human cultural change! Two minor points:

The vast majority of manufactured products, especially electronics, are not producible on a craft basis.

The number of eco-greens who actually practice what they believe is virtually zero. They hardly deserve to be called a political party. All the other parties you describe are indeed practicing what they believe...BAU.

David Veale said...

As a faux farming neo-luddite, I think this is one of your best entries yet! It amazes me how quickly things which have appeared only in the last century have become absolute "needs", such AC, hot water, electricity, cars, etc.

Then again, most of our population arrived along with these amenities, and is probably in fact dependent upon them for survival (particularly fossil fuels for agricultural production, heating, etc).