Right, schmight, left, schmeft
I had the pleasure of reading an advance copy of Richard Heinberg's new book, Peak Everything recently, and I found it to be typical Heinberg - engaging, wise, scrupulously balanced. It comes out this month, I believe, and it is well worth a read.
My personal favorite thing about it, however, was not the writing or the subject matter, but the subtitle, which (on my copy), included the phrase "Transitioning gracefully from the Age of Excess to the Era of Modesty."
I admit, I was struck by the sheer aptness of the phrase "era of modesty" to what we're coming to.
Now I gather that in the process of revision, the subtitle was changed to something else, but I keep thinking about the term he coined, both because it is great piece of phrasing, but also because it manages in three words to invoke a great transition in political and social thinking.
It should be no surprise that Heinberg is ahead of the curve again, of course, but I am impressed by the way the very title invoked not just an era of more modest usage, but also social, sexual and cultural modesty, subjects that, if they are discussed at all, tend to be thought of as discussions to be had on the "right" rather than throughout the political spectrum. With that one word, "modesty" Heinberg manages to invoke a confluence of left and right. I admit, I'm impressed, and sorry the term doesn't appear on the actual book (I wonder if Heinberg will let me steal it for mine ;-)).
Now the peak oil movement has been called the "liberal left behind" movement - the apocalypse of the left. Of course, it is no such thing, and never has been. Former Bush energy czar Matthew Simmons is no leftist radical, Republican Congressman Roscoe Bartlett never dated Abbie Hoffman and the US Army is not, as far as I know, handing out "Free Mumia" buttons with its rifles. And yet all are among the first to recognize the immanence of peak oil. While it is true we've got our share of aging hippies, we're also flush with survivalists, Petroleum geologists, investment bankers and other bastions of the right and center. And this is all to the good - the end of cheap oil is not a political fact, it is a simple, practical reality. The same is true within the climate change movement - we are all moving rapidly to the recognition that no matter what your political position, the hard, scientific truths about sea level rise, aquifer depletion and drought really don't care whether you prefer Bill O'Reilly, Thom Hartmann or Stephen Colbert.
But it is insufficient to say that these issues cross party lines, because what they actually do is destroy party and political lines, and the divisions we've carefully worked out to decide who is "left" and who is "right." Now it is worth noting that these have always been artificial distinctions for most real people. I've been very kindly called "a voice of the left" and I take some pride in that designation - I value the history of leftism, including my own family's history, going back to the early twentieth century union movement and through my parents. But "left" has never been more than a shorthand for my positions on some issues - and had we drawn the circles other ways, I might have spoken, at times for other constituencies, even, perhaps, for some segments of the much dreaded "other side." All of which is simply proof, that, while it isn't true that we're all exactly the same under the skin, neither designation is sufficient to describe most people's political and ethical thinking. Most of us are political hybrids.
Where, for example, did one put the leftist nun putting her life on the line for economic reform in Latin America - and equally passionate about ending abortion? Where does my passionately pro-drug legalization, harsher sentencing police officer neighbor go? How about the gun-toting, anti-tax radical environmentalist I know? The disabled neighborhood activist who opposes abortion and euthanasia because she sees it as the genocide of the disabled? My neighbor who believes that his sons have an absolute obligation to defend their country - and that their government has an absolute obligation to stop the war? My pro-public education, feminist, Orthodox friends who believe that modest women cover their hair - on the protest lines? My conservative, fundamentalist neighbors who believe that Jesus demands devout Christians hold no private property and resist corporate power? Where would you put me? Feminist, pro-social justice, anti-growth capitalist - and yes, pro-private property (in some senses), pro-modesty, pro-personal responsiblity farmgirl who used to help her father make bullets? The reality is that most people are more complicated than our current designations will describe.
The last decade or so has blurred things further. Which party again is the big government, tax and spend one? Which party is the party of genocide, the Dems who killed half a million children in Iraq with the embargo or the Republicans who killed half a million civilians in Iraq with the war? Now it is the left who is screaming in horror about the dangers of big government (and some of the right is screaming along with them). Where were the feminist voices of anger about sexual harrassment so evident during the Clarence Thomas hearings when the democratic president was in the hot seat? The conventional political lines are shifting.
And at the same time that this shift is happening, those of us who forsee the coming crisis have to make major internal political shifts as well. For example, in The Upside of Down, Tomas Homer-Dixon observes that to deal with all of the coming crises, we'd have enact,
"...a global society that I've come to call 'Holland times ten," with vastly more sophisticated, pervasive and expensive rules and regulatory institutions than anything the Dutch live with today. Do we really want such a future for ourselves and our children?"
Homer-Dixon, not exactly a right winger, recognizes the simple reality that a vastly more repressive beaurocracy might actually be worse than the collapse. He observes, following Joseph Tainter, that institutions created to deal with crisis invariably stick forever, leaving us laden with ever more oppressive layers of government. What is remarkable about Homer-Dixon's book is that it, like Heinberg's title, shakes off conventional left/right thinking and simply allows the data to lead him to a conclusion that is neither. I'm not sure I agree with Homer-Dixon, but I find him a particularly creative example of the ways in which these problems shake up our traditional assumptions.
The same could be said of Rod Dreher's book, Crunchy Cons. Dreher too is motivated by the honest recognition that the current realities, including peak oil (which he describes) and the environmental crisis have changed things. He tries very hard to slip all the good stuff under the rubric of conservativism, for example, arguing that traditional social welfare programs that support families are conservative. I'm not convinced he succeeds, but he does one of the most remarkable analyses I've imagined, and his work has real power among conservatives who haven't fitted into the exact mold around them. I know many of these people, and I believe that generally speaking, Dreher is one of the first people to seriously reconsider, in a popular and accessible way, how to reconfigure politics to deal with the future.
What is disappointing in Dreher, of course, is his longstanding allegience to the politics of balkanization. That is, instead of seeking a middle ground, he wants to shove environmentalist, agrarian conservatives into Republicanism. Personally, I think he'd be better off abandoning that territory and seeking a new one. The reality is that for most of the people who work in these issues, left and right stop becoming fully explicatory categories. Heinberg himself writes about the problem of doing so in Powerdown where he discusses his preference for anarchism and minimal government, while arguing simultaneously that no societal powerdown can occur without a large, invasive government structure. And that it cannot succeed without that large structure eventually voluntarily handing out power to smaller, localized units of power. This represents a remarkably hybridized vision of government - personally, I don't necessarily believe it to be right, but again Heinberg has allowed the realities of the system to override his personal political preferences and at least to imagine how we might enact the changes required.
Like Homer-Dixon's rejection of large government structures and Dreher's rejection of unfettered capitalism, Richard Heinberg's call for modesty, at least to me, raises some fascinating questions. One of the most fascinating is why it is that the word "modesty" so powerfully invokes sexual modesty, almost overriding the notion of modest desires, expectations and practices outside the realm of sexuality.
I admit, my personal theory about why we have abandoned all other senses of modesty along with traditional sexual modesty is this - modesty of all kinds is, to a large degree, about choosing not to be looked at. Both sexual modesty and economic modesty reject the external gaze of others, saying "don't focus on me."
Historically speaking, many of the rules of sexual modesty have been applied to women, with the assumption that the burden of rejecting the gaze must lie upon women, because it is their sexuality that draws the eye. Feminism rightly rejected the idea that men should not be required to limit and control their own gazes and desires. But it also rejected the notion that there should be limits on the power of the gaze - popular feminism focused on the notion of the powerful female "I" at the center. But a world of people walking around trying to draw gazes and be powerful creates a superficial culture, intent on "self-expression" in a visual sense - the house, the clothing, the car, the membership. That there might be power in not being at the center of the gaze itself, that modesty might also carry power was overlooked.
This is because feminism's rejection of the origins of modesty also happened to coincide with the largest capitalist expansion in history. Feminism was as successful as it was, precisely because it served the goals of capitalism (I've written about this in more detail before here: ) And growth capitalism is, far more than feminism, about the rejection of the notion of modesty. That is, if all of us are not constantly calling out "look at me" there is no market for designer clothing, fancy decorations to make our house an expression of our "self," fancy cars to express our wealth.
In a culture that rejects modesty of all kinds, that demands the gaze rest upon us, that validates the notion that the "I" is at the center of the "eye" all the time, markets flourish. In a culture that values modesty of all sorts - that rejects the gaze, the notion that the self is at the center of everything, there is no place for endless growth. Thus, the notion that the culture of modesty was bad, because it derived from the sexual repression of women was wrong - what was bad was the notion that women were "drawing" male gazes, and thus had to regulate their bodies, rather than expecting men to regulate themselves. But the actual assumptions of both sexual modesty (as it applies to both men and women), and economic and cultural modesty is simpler. It is "My worth is not in what is visible. I am one among others, I am not the center of everything." We threw the baby out with the bathwater. It is true that one can read "don't make me the center of things" as "I am powerless" or as a form of silencing. But it is also true that modesty can represent that power of self-deferral, the placement of others before the self. Undoubtably, one can have too much of that. Equally indubitably, in western society, we don't have too much of that sort of self-abnegation - far from it.
At the risk of alienating people on both the left and the right who read this blog, and ending up with absolutely no readers at all, I'm going to observe that none of the problems we are facing can be fixed from the right or the left, or even through discussion of things in those terms. And speaking to the left, to which I have a longer and deeper alliegence, there are things that we really ought to reconsider. Here are some of the places where I think leftists might want to look to the right to find, if not common ground, some useful tools.
1. I believe passionately in the importance of personal responsibility, and of fair accounting for one's choices.
I do not mean by this that one's situation is wholly a product of one's personal choices, and thus tough patooties if you were born poor. What I mean is that each of us needs to take greater responsibility for our present, societal circumstances than we do. I often hear people lamenting the power of corporations - as though that power does not derive from our dependency and willingness to give them cash. Walmart isn't powerful because they are an evil corporation - they are powerful because they have great stinking wads of money and those wads came from you and me. Stop buying their crap and guess what - Walmart won't be powerful. I also hear many voices call for public policy solutions, when what they really mean is that they want the government to take care of peak oil and climate change for them, without being personally inconvenienced. Again, this is a failure of personal responsiblity, because if we tell governments that what we want is solutions without personal sacrifice, we will get only inadequate solutions, that will fail us and the next generation.
I believe that everyone has a degree of personal responsibility, and that the level of responsibility is increased by every advantage given to you. Were you born into a family that loved you? Guess what - you got a present, or a gift from G-d, and you owe a little more than someone who was beaten daily or neglected. Did you get a decent education? There's another level of responsibility - if you were either lucky enough to get a good education at good schools with teachers who cared about you, or you were born smart enough to be an autodidact and compensate for the inadequacies of what was given to you, bow down to diety or thank your lucky stars, and get your ass in gear because you owe a little more than those who didn't. And so it goes.
Full scale, straight out, honest accounting of responsibility is important. That means that yes, people are responsible for what they do and do not do, the choices they make. And those who shape the choices other people can make, or don't shoulder a greater degree of responsibility in privelege are also responsible.
One of my professors, when I was complaining about some terrible personal situation I was enduring, once pointed out to me that most of the great deeds of human history were performed by people who were having really bad days and extenuating personal situations. That's not to say no one ever has an excuse for anything, but the more excuses we make for ourselves, the more we say "well, I deserve just a little extra because..." (and who doesn't), the less likely we are to have any extra for the quiet people who have learned to expect nothing and who truly need our hand up.
Ultimately, we need to be held responsible for our choices. The Peter Parker system should apply here - with great power, should come great responsibility. The better off you are, the more you need to take full responsibility for your actions - to stop asking for tax breaks and accomodations. But this goes all the way down.
2. I sure as heck don't expect the government to save me in a crisis.
Ok, I'm going to tell the truth. I don't understand why it is that people in Florida don't have any bottled water or boards for their windows, and are standing in line for it the day before the hurricane. For cripes sake, you live in Florida! The same is true with people who are unprepared for blackouts during winter storms in up near me, or earth quakes in CA. I'll grant you, one of the better uses for government is to get the helicopters up and make sure people don't die of typhus after the disaster, but I wouldn't bet on it.
Look, we all watched the footage of Hurricane Katrina, and it confirmed what everyone on the right has been saying for generations - our present government isn't going to save our asses in a crisis. Now there are good and useful reasons to want to try and get what government does better than anyone else done right by them, and I'm all for that. Agitate for change - yes. Because there are always going to be people who can't protect themselves and situations we can't prepare for.
But ultimately a certain degree of self-sufficiency is merely common sense. Now there are people who may not be able to afford extra food or blankets, or a way out of a dying city - and we need to help those people. But it would be really helpful if you aren't one of those people, if you aren't elderly or disabled or desperately poor, if you'd get your act together and be prepared to meet your own damned needs for most predictable situations, so that you won't clog the system.
3. I don't want to see power centralized any more than strictly necessary anymore.
Ok, let's be honest - this used to be the big old left/right debate - social welfare or not, big government or little government. It is no longer a right left issue. The current administration has a bigger government than the last one, with more debt and beaurocracy, and now the dems are calling for restraint. No one has a monopoly on this one.
And let's be honest, whether you hate the Clintons or the Bushes (or both equally), every single one of us can see exactly why we want to decentralize power, and exactly why we should be getting rid of political dynasties and the system that locates private armies and our own right to justice in the hands of any one person.
In fact, both peak oil and climate change require, absolutely mandate a reduction of scale of government - just as conservatives have been calling for. Yes, we also need to expand some central projects - but the general movement has to be towards local sovreignty and local power and resources being kept in the communities.
4. We're going to have to develop better family relationships and a strong focus on family units, and ASAP.
I'm not talking about getting into people's bedrooms here, I'm talking about getting people to take care of aging parents, disabled family members, to stop whining about "what about *myyyyyy needs* and to start thinking a bit more of other people. Those of us who had ordinarily fucked up families (as opposed to transcendently so) are going to have to start getting along again, and recognize that biological and chosen family are going to be much more important in our lives for a long, long time. And we're going to start having to value and honor the work of caring for others - instead of acting like helping grandma to the bathroom or breastfeeding your kid is a pain in the ass to be shoved off on other people, we have to start realizing that this *is* the point - the reason we're here. To be of use. To do good work. To care for others.
We're also going to have to parent better, and stop telling our kids how special and perfect and wonderful they are, and tell them to get their asses out from in front of the tv and get to work helping out. Instead of telling Jimmy and Jenny that the best thing they can do is to get good SAT scores and go to Tae Kwon Do, tell them the truth - that you want them to grow up to be good and righteous people, who care about others, are hard workers, honorable and generous.
5. If you harbor any lingering prejudices about blue collar work with your hands, get over them now.
It is not, in any sense of the word, more noble to be a tax lawyer than a plumber, and it doesn't mean you are smarter. If you call the middle of the country "flyover states" cut it out now - you won't be flying much of anywhere anyway, and they grow your dinner. They might get pissed off and stop growing it.
The reality is that most comparatively well off, well educated people have been doing things that aren't very useful and are soon going to stop being done. Most of the people we have been told we are smarter then are actually doing good and useful work - feeding people dinner, keeping houses running, building things, making things, growing food. It is likely that we have been so firmly told we are smarter simply because it was a good way to avoid pointing out that we are, as my husband likes to put it, "the surplus population."
And if you think all religous people are the same, and religion is the cause of all problems, and religious people are idiots - ok with me, but shut up about it. As we're less and less able to control our future, more and more people are going to be praying in their foxholes, maybe even you. Get over it, and stop feeling superior.
And if you reject religion, don't want to see it flourish, but aren't working to provide community support, care for the sick and dying, festivals of celebration and release, and a way to think about why the world is so screwed up, expect to fail. Don't blame it on religion - blame it on the fact that you aren't very good and doing the things that religion does very well for many of us.
6. We're going to have to start talking about sex differently, and say a hard word for many of us to swallow - "Don't."
I'm not talking about today's rather ineffective forms of abstinence education - I'm talking about the unpleasant reality that poverty means less health care, which means more STDs, less access to reliable birth control, more teenage pregnancy, more complications, more AIDS. I'm going to be blunt - unless we completely change our government's attitudes on these subjects, we're going to enter into a society where the ability to mitigate the dangers of sex are radically reduced - a society which for many resembles the pre-pill society.
Ignoring the moral issues, let's be practical. Birth control is expensive - a really reliable set up requires a woman to have regular medical check ups and access to pricey medicines. Condoms are expensive to your average poor teenager. Heck, they are expensive for my budget. Abortion is really expensive. A truly reliable system for young people requires a form of birth control for the woman and a condom for the man - pricey, and hard to come by if you don't live near a drugstore - which thousands of us don't.
Now the ideal for some people might be to use government to make all these things available and free, and to place no restrictions on sexual practices, age at onset, etc... But the reality is that our present system is as much a product of cheap energy as everything else - if we don't want to rely on a universal system to keep our actual kids from getting pregnant or diseases, we have no choice but to change the way we think about sexuality. If we want to ensure that AIDS in the US doesn't come to mirror AIDS in Africa, we need to be very careful about what we teach our children about sex.
We have become a society in which personal restraint is unimaginable, and abstinence education will always fail as long as a small minority is struggling against a society that calls every form of sexual restraint repression. But we need to think and talk about this - even though most of us who grew up in the age of birth control aren't exactly the poster-children for such restraint. But we can't afford to have our kids get pregnant earlier and earlier, to have outbreaks of diseases we can't afford to treat, to create an expanding underclass of children born to other children. So we're going to have utter the words "no" "don't" "wait." And we need to talk about how we can get there - talk to the people who were there all along.
7. We need a new sense of personal freedom,
one in which limits in the form of things like honor, self-discipline, modesty, courtesy, and public order are perceived not as acts of repression, but as structure in which culture can bloom. The notion that there are things we should not and ought not do is likely to be a painful one to those who spent their youth practicing iconclasm and smashing idols. The notion that we should follow our bliss, support our own self-esteem and do what feels best to us has to be replaced with the notion that we should regulate our desires, limit our choices and do what is best for the community.
Our culture has grown to reject hypocrisy as the ultimate sin. Hypocrisy in the popular (rather than the moral) sense, of course, is defined as doing things that you don't believe in/expressing feeling you don't have for the sake of the community. But, of course, communities run on just such self-restraint, and in tighter knit, more strongly bound communities, how you feel about things may not matter that much all the time. It may be that what you do, how you treat others, and how you regulate your own feelings and intentions is more important to your own survival and success than the following of one's bliss.
In my religion, we believe that feeling follows form. Instead of the Christian (and popular secular) notion that what is in your heart will lead you, instead we believe that you do the right thing, and that practice in doing the right thing will lead you to be able to feel the right way doing it. That is, when your failing mother needs help, you care for her because it is the right thing to do, to honor your parents, and in doing so, you open up the possibility that you will do it purely from love. But unless you do the work itself, you have few opportunities to change your feelings and develop that sense of love. I personally believe that a shift from relying on how you feel to what you do is necessary to success on the community level.
Again, capitalism has enthusiastically supported the notion that we should follow our hearts all the time - just as it has rejected modesty of ambition, of lifestyle, of desire. Because if you believe that your feelings are authentic, immutable, and natural - that is, that you feel the way you do about X for some fundamental reason of self, then there is no reason to limit one's desires. But if you believe that one's desires are shaped by your actions, if you believe that, for example, you might come to feel love (I do not claim this is inevitable, by the way, merely possible. Nor do I claim that everyone should love their mothers - not all mothers are even possibly lovable), where there was none before, if you were to care for your mother, spend time with her, know her better by virtue of helping her, you open up the possibility that our instinctive feelings are not necessarily our most reliable guide.
There are more, but now that I've traumatized everyone on the left, eliminated all readership and gotten my book contract revoked ;-), I'll stop for the moment.
Now does this mean I've gone right on everything? Nope. I still believe that sex is one of those things that is none of my business, I'm still pro choice, pro-reallocation of wealth and regulation of markets and rabidly environmentalist. But perhaps, just perhaps, we can disagree on these issues and agree on others. Perhaps we can put a few of them to the side, and get together some of the time, fight tomorrow and talk today. And perhaps, just perhaps, we can find a way to talk from less fixed positions than right, left and center. And I'm going to email Richard Heinberg and tell him how much I liked his original subtitle ;-).
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