Peak oil is a big deal. Climate change is a big deal. The likely economic restructuring that will accompany both of them is a big deal. But it isn’t the end of the world, or at least, it need not be.
In spring, this season of renewal, I think it is important to remind ourselves of that fact.
Marie Mies, one of the authors of The Subsistence Perspective, recounts the story of attending a symposium on the future. Great scientists and scholars arrived from every nation, and Mies was invited to represent the “feminist perspective” (read – be the token woman) among the great men. The scholars prognosticated bleakly on an environmentally devastated future in which nuclear violence, climate change and overpopulation end the world as we know it. And then Mies spoke, saying
Please, remember where we are in Trier, in the midst of the ruins of what was one of the capitals of the Roman empire. An empire whose collapse people then thought would mean the end of the world. But the world did not come to end with the end of Rome. The plough of my father, a peasant in the Eifel, used to hit ths tone of the Roman road that connected Trier with Cologne. On this road where the Roman legions had marched grass had grown, and now we grew our potatoes on that road.”
(Mies and Bennholdt-Thomas, 25)
Mies pissed off the guys at the symposium, whose claims were that there was no hope, no future to prepare for, no reason to go forward with the next thing, to plant the next potato. In fact one of them, Josef Weizenbaum argued that we women were at fault, because we keep going on, and don’t cease entirely to bear children. Weizenbaum said to Mies that women should go on sex strike. And perhaps that’s not the worst way to get people to behave themselves (à la Lysistrata), but Mies also pointed out that we women often clean up the mess and go on, that their notion that nothing more will come when we have lost what we’re accustomed to is a male one. Men, not exclusively but still more often than women, hold the power of large things in their hands. And I think when large things fall away, it is easy to forget that small things – the seed, the child, the need for dinner – stil go on. And so will we, at least in some way.
I don’t insist on the notion that there is something fundamentally gendered about this difference – that’s perhaps a little essentialist to me. But ultimately, many of us are going to have shift our focus away from distant things to the local ones, away from our preoccupations with things like B-to-B software engineering and averting the client’s latest crisis, and back to things like dirt and water and dinner. We will have to turn our eyes towards the things that enable us to go on, rather than the less necessary things that put our going forward at risk.
Empires end. Eras end. Ways of life end. But people mostly go on. Yes, there’s always Easter Island, and it is technically possible that we’ll render the planet unhabitable by warming it. More likely we’ll just kill a few billion people. But none of that has to happen. None of it is necessary. And much of what is required to prevent it is simply coming to terms with the notion that a radical change in your way of life is not the same thing as the end of the world. I think many people tend to associate the two – we have always been wealthy and comfortable and lucky here in the west, and the loss of some or all of those things seems like a disaster of unimaginable proportions. But it doesn’t have to be – that’s a way of thinking we can choose to discard, recognizing that those who live less comfortable lives often value them equally.
Take the toilet. Most of us are rather attached to indoor plumbing. We like it, we consider it a convenience, and more. Many of us are disgusted, sometimes violently so, by the thought of coming into contact with – even just for a moment – our own urine and feces. We have become accustomed to the notion that fresh drinking water will simply whisk away anything that we deem unpleasant. The same people who change diapers and scoop cat feces out of litter boxes are irrevocably opposed to the notion of once in a while emptying out a drawer full of dry compost from a composting toilet. People who have shit in the woods while camping would rather die than give up their flush potties at home, because they somehow have attached the whole structure of civilization to their toilets in their heads.
But there’s nothing natural about the idea that we shouldn’t have to deal with our own wastes – through all of human history we’ve done it. In fact, the last couple of generations of rich white American folk were really the only people in history ever to have to have nothing to do with their own poop. In us is the capacity to get over the toilet, or the lack thereof, to stop wasting drinking water and start building soil fertility from human waste, rather than from artificial nitrogens that warm the planet and destroy the environment.
And the same is true of all the other things we’ve become accustomed to – we’ve tended to think
that if we don’t have X, or live Y way, the world will come to an end – we’ll be savages, awash in a Mad Max-esque world with nothing worth living in it. But not only is that wrong, it is a demeaning way of thinking – demeaning to our ancestors and everyone else in the world who lives without the luxuries we have. For us to say “life without hot showers wouldn’t be worth living” even in jest, is to begin our thinking with the assumption that those who don’t have hot showers somehow live a lesser life than we do. But were our grandmothers less civilized, less human, less valuable because their lives didn’t begin with indoor plumbing?
Even deeper things and those of more value than hot showers carry the same false associations. Modern medicine is in many ways a good thing, and people who advocate doing anything to preserve technology often talk about defibrillators and appendicitis and emergency response. And I’d like to see these things continue too – but more people die every year from medical errors than would die if we didn’t have surgeons for appendicitis. Fewer of us would need defibrillators if we lived in a society with less meat and more exercise. And 1/3 of all emergency response calls are in relation to car-related injuries – 1 million people die every year because of cars. But that’s a holocaust we’re willing to tolerate because we’re comfortable with it and we see it as an inevitable downside of our society, rather than something that if we changed it, we wouldn’t have to endure.
A life without much of modern medicine – still keeping the germ theory of disease and knowledge of low-intervention care like splinting bones, washing hands and midwifery would undoubtably lose more people to death in childbirth, accidents and sudden heart attacks. It would also lose less people do to superbugs, medical errors, car accidents and other downsides of modern life. I haven’t run the numbers – I don’t know which would save more lives in the end. But what matters here is that a life in which appendicitis condemns you to death is not inherently more hellish than one where riding to work condemns you to death – we tend to associate what we have with the “civilized and good” and what we don’t as “uncivilized and terrible” – but again, that’s a habit of thought we can change.
Civilization is not a lifestyle. It is a way of thinking about our relationship to other people. In a civilized society, you act as though other people are as real as you are – that is, you assume that they feel pain like you do, and you endeavor to do unto others as you would have done to you. In a civilized society you believe that others have rights, just as you believe you do, and you attempt to extend them as justly and fairly as possible. Perhaps we cannot offer everyone the right to be free of hunger – I hope we can, but perhaps it won’t be possible – civilization begins at the moment that we try to create some kind of real equity, and at best, don’t go around enjoying our enormous meals in front of the starving as we do today. Civilization has existed in all of human history at one point or another – and if it has a definition, if you can sort out the societies that thought public beheadings were civilized from the ones that didn’t – it comes down to the notion that we have responsiblities towards other people, and the other people have rights and responsibilities towards us. The rest is culture – and culture is valuable, but we are not so written into our culture that we cannot learn to think anew.
And there is nothing in civilization that has anything to do with lights, ipods, toilet paper, social security and clean underwear every morning. We have gotten in the habit of associating the *objects* of our civilization with the *fact* of civilization, and thus seeing in the absence of those objects, the end of the world. And that is a real and serious mistake.
It is a mistake for two reasons. First, it leads us in the wrong direction – it means when we seek to preserve what is good about our lives we are focusing on what things we can keep going, as if that was the central issue, rather than what objects we need to achieve a just and decent society. And second, when it turns out that we can’t all have our own ipods anymore, it plunges us into despair, thinking that we have lost our world. But our world is not its objects or comforts, and it is not our wealth.
Beyond certain fairly simple needs – home, shelter, food, water, clothing, love, society, in many cases, the things we have are barriers to civilization – they are barriers to doing good, honorable work that doesn’t harm anyone. If we substitute a powered object that warms the planet for something we can do fairly easily – like hang laundry or mix bread – we have stepped away from what we consider civilized and done injustice for no reason other than a few minutes of saved time. And the moment we begin justifying harm to others and the future by saying “well, I’m very very busy, and my very important work justifies this…” we’ve stepped onto the road to moral evil. As long we believe our own comfort is worthy of doing others harm, even our own children, we will never be able to achieve justice. And many times, the objects we have implicitly tell us that we are not competent to do these things the right way – the rototiller stand speaks volumes as it says, “the hoe is too hard.”
The same is true, more explicitly, of the industrial economy – its functioning depends on making itself indispensible. That is, we must need corporations enough so that however they act, we will continue to absolve them because we need them for food and clothing and shelter. Our dependency narrows our choices – it means, for example, that we cannot require the industrial economy and the things it makes to serve us and our definition of justice – we must accomodate ourselves to it. And so we are told that an increasing host of things that no human being before us ever needed our indispensible to human life – that we cannot go on without the objects of civilization, and the multinationals that provide them. This is, of course, a lie. Perhaps *the* lie.
As long as we perceive civilization in the objects of civilization, we will be dependent on the industrial economy, industrial agriculture, and all the other things that do harm to us and the future. I do not mean this in a purely sentimental sense – I don’t think it is possible to live without doing harm, and there are tools that we all use to make life better. But understanding the harm they do, and choosing wisely and honestly, from a perspective that understands that these are merely tools to be picked up or laid down as we choose, a useful means to the kind of world we want to live in – is the key to having power over our future. We accept that a politician who takes money from agribusiness is probably influenced by their desires. But we are not free of the influence of agribusiness as long as we are dependent upon it to feed us. And as long as we are dependent upon the growth economy to supply our most basic needs, we may speak of resistance, but we are voting with our dollars for industrial society, and our dollars always speak louder than our words.
We must begin to turn around our thinking, and begin not from the objects we associate with civilization, but from the values we hold dear. From there, we can move forward again in a meaningful way, asking ourselves of each choice “is this truly necessary, and are its consequences things we want.” We might think, as the Amish do, for example, before we adopt a technology, whether its unintended consequences are worth it to us. The Amish do not drive cars, not because they believe cars are evil – they will ride in them – but because they believe cars enable a society of distance and independence that is incompatible with their basic beliefs and values. What would the world be like if we evaluated everything we chose in the same terms – if we looked at the things in our life not as links to civilization, but as catalysts for a particular kind of society, and asked ourselves, are we choosing the right catalysts. What might our culture look like if we chose only to take the best and most essential elements of what we have, and conserve the rest? What might it look like if we held any values dear enough to limit ourselves in order to enjoy them? I suspect, in fact, that we *do* as people hold values dear. And thus, the ones we claim we care about – freedom and justice, honor and integrity – those are the things the structure of our society should reinforce.
There is very little doubt that we have enough resources on the earth today to enable our society to gradually come to a sustainable population and avoid any kind of disaster – if we in the rich world are willing to give up many of the things we have come to associate with our culture and civilization itself. There is no need for hunger, or continued warming of the planet – but in order to create a world in which resources are used more wisely, we’d have to undergo tremendous cultural change. And the first such change would be the disassociation of the world itself with the way of life we have become accustomed to, with a real and serious evaluation what it is we want our lives to be for.
Someday – whether in 10 years or 500, the odds are good that someone will plant potatoes on the highway that passes my town. Societies end. Ways of life end. The grass comes up again. And it will for all of us. The question is what do we offer the people who are here now and those who come after us – is the best we can hope for to have them scramble to survive in the ashes of our “civilization” or can we do better.
The grass will be up soon here. Perhaps we had better choose. And wisely.