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The same new ideas

As I write these words, a week before their publication, The Archdruid Report is starting its third year. It’s been a long strange trip, to borrow a phrase from the Grateful Dead. Perhaps the strangest thing about it, and certainly the most interesting, has been the chance to watch the way that ideas rise and sink through the collective imagination of the modern world.

This isn’t simply entertainment, though it certainly has its entertaining aspects. Behind the obvious challenges posed by peak oil lies a struggle among basic assumptions about the nature of reality. Underlying the cornucopian position, for example, is a worldview in which all meaning and value center on humanity’s upward climb to a modern society, and nature is merely a source of raw materials and a place to dump waste. Go to the apocalyptic true believers at the other end of the spectrum and you enter a worldview in which humanity has fallen from grace by usurping nature’s power, and only the purifying force of total catastrophe can admit a righteous remnant back into its proper subservience.

These worldviews, like others in the peak oil debate, have ancient roots, and the belief systems that cluster around them faithfully copy equivalents from past centuries. One of the interesting things about the play of ideas around peak oil is the way that an unfamiliar predicament has been redefined in such familiar terms. What adds irony to the interest, though, is the consistency with which those who present these common notions insist on describing them as new and innovative ideas unlike anything anyone has thought before.

Circumstances give me something of a front row seat to this odd spectacle. It happens that, as a function of my training and temperament alike, my ideas about the future of industrial society differ sharply from many of the popular views on the subject. I hasten to say that my ideas are no more original than those of the other sides in the debate. Everything I’ve said about the future here and elsewhere comes out of one thread of what Mortimer Adler used to call the Great Conversation, the play of ideas down the years that traces the cultural history of our world, and they root down into a worldview at least as archaic as those I mentioned a moment ago. What interests me is the number of people who are just as dependent on secondhand ideas as I am, but have apparently never noticed that fact.

Consider the widely circulated theories that the end of industrial society will be sudden, total, and imminent. There’s nothing particularly new about this claim, which has been being made regularly since the mid-19th century. There’s rarely anything new in the arguments supporting modern versions of the claim, either; most of them were well aged before such durable classics as Roberto Vacca’s The Coming Dark Age dusted them off for a new audience in the 1970s. For that matter, the shark-fin theory of history, in which societies rise over time to a peak of wealth, power, and corruption, and then suffer total destruction, can be found in the Old Testament, and underlies the religious rhetoric of apocalypse that coined most of the ideas now being retailed by today’s prophets of fast collapse.

The persistence of the shark-fin theory in apocalyptic rhetoric, it has to be said, is not matched by a similar presence in actual history. It’s vanishingly rare for a society to collapse at the peak of its wealth and power, for the simple reason that wealth and power are two of the most effective means for staving off collapse. As a rhetorical reality, however, the sudden collapse of unjust power has immense cultural resonance throughout the western world, and people are duly lining up for the chance to say “How art the mighty fallen!” over the corpse of industrialism. What fascinates me most, though, is that each of them seems to think they thought of those words by themselves, and for the very first time.

For amother example, take the confident announcements that the current troubles of industrial society are the harbingers of an evolutionary breakthrough to a higher mode of being, where the problems that beset us today will have lost their relevance. Few claims about the future are so insistently described by their proponents as new and innovative thinking; even fewer have less right to that title. Glance through the pages of such classics of Victorian thought as Joseph Le Conte’s Evolution, published in 1888, and you’ll find the same claims of imminent evolutionary transformation that fill so many popular books today.

The idea of an evolutionary breakthrough was necessarily a bit of a latecomer on the cultural scene, since a theory of evolution had to be invented first. Once Charles Darwin took care of this detail, each subsequent generation has duly identified whatever crisis made the headlines as the birth-pangs of the new humanity. Their equivalents today insist that this time, it’s for real, since the current crisis is so much more dire than those of the past. In making that argument, they’re on familiar ground, since the same thing has been claimed about many crises in the past, and doubtless it will be claimed just as fervently about many crises in the future. The most intriguing detail about all this, again, is the way in which an idea that’s been rehashed more often than the average sitcom plot has been trotted out again under the label of new and innovative thinking.

A third example is the profusion of claims that everything will be all right if only the right people are given political power. David Korten’s widely touted The Great Turning is a case in point. Korten argues that certain people, who have reached a higher “developmental stage” than the rest of us, are uniquely qualified to hold positions of leadership as the ideology of Earth Community vanquishes Empire, the Satan-surrogate of his intensely dualistic secular mythology. His arguments differ only in details from those Plato uses to justify elite rule in his totalitarian Utopia The Republic or, for that matter, the equivalent arguments used by defenders of aristocratic privilege in 18th and 19th century Europe. Since few of Korten’s readers are apparently familiar with these latter, though, his profoundly antidemocratic and illiberal treatise has been hailed as a breakthrough work full of new and innovative thinking.

As these examples suggest, the reappearance of the same new ideas over and over again has a troubling side. Many of those ideas have been tried repeatedly in the past, and have worked very, very poorly. Despite their appeal, there’s no good reason to think that they’ll work any better in their latest incarnations. Thus it may be worth looking into the immense failure of cultural memory that stands in the way of tracing the histories of our own ideas.

In his scathing 1986 study of the ideologies of gender in late 19th century art, Idols of Perversity, Bram Dijkstra commented:

In a world which stresses the value of individualism above all else, it is a primary requirement for the ‘self-confident’ mind, to remain blind to the logical conjunction of personal ideas and the assumptions held by the ‘mass’ of one’s contemporaries. The ideas of ‘individual’ thinkers, more often than not, are largely constructed from contemporary clichés. These clichés have merely been stripped of their baser trappings, of their rhetorical conventionality, in accordance with whatever happen to be the prevailing guidelines for the ‘individualistic’ ego (p. 146).

Step past Dijkstra’s irritable prose and the point he makes is worth following up. The mythology of progress that provides modern industrial culture with its unacknowledged established religion devalues the cultural legacy of older epochs and the experience of the past; it’s symptomatic that one of the more crushing phrases of devaluation in modern teen slang is “Oh, that’s all history.” Without the depth perception that only an awareness of the past can bring, though, all we have to work with are the two-dimensional surfaces of contemporary popular culture, with all its baggage of unacknowledged borrowings from the past. Santayana’s famous dictum, it turns out, needs revision; those who do not remember their history are condemned to rehash it, under the delusion that they are being original.

There’s a way out of the paradox of unoriginal originality that besets so much of modern thought, though it’s at least as paradoxical: the way to get genuinely new ideas is to learn and value old ones. Partially that’s a matter of avoiding old mistakes, as suggested above, but it has other dimensions. Creativity, as Arthur Koestler pointed out many years ago, comes from the collision of incommensurable realities; to put that in less lapidary prose, it’s when the mind encounters two or more sharply different ways of making sense of the same thing that it can leap to a new level of understanding and come up with something authentically new.

Just as the 19th century collision between Western painting and the visual arts of other cultures enabled the Impressionists to break through to a new way of seeing light and color, and the cultural flowering of Heian Japan unfolded from the collision between the traditional forms of Japanese society and the arrival of cultural imports from China, our chance of finding the new ideas we so desperately need will go up sharply if the unstated assumptions and easy beliefs of contemporary culture are highlighted by contrast with radically different ways of looking at the world – and the past provides plenty of those.

Put this in the context of industrial civilization’s decline and fall, and an unexpected significance emerges. One of the great challenges faced by every dying civilization is the need to pass on as much as possible of its cultural, intellectual, and technical heritage to the future. Most readers of this blog are probably familiar with the role that Christian monks played in safeguarding the heritage of the Classical world during and after the collapse of Rome. The same thing has happened at other times, and in other ways – and there have also been times when it did not happen, and bare enigmatic ruins became the sole legacy of a civilization.

The extraordinary collection and transmission of information made possible by modern industrial society’s energy-intensive technological infrastructure raises the prospect that our civilization could leave a far richer legacy to the future than any before it. Still, the vulnerability of that technological infrastructure to the impacts of decline means that we can’t count on such a positive outcome. Whatever is to be saved has to be valued highly enough to be preserved, copied, and passed on from generation to generation. In a society that habitually devalues its past, it’s by no means guaranteed that anything of the sort will happen.

For this reason among others. I’ve come to think that a crucial role in shaping the future will be played by cultural conservers – individuals who choose to take on the task of learning and preserving some part of the cultural legacy of the past, and passing it on to the future. That’s not a highly valued role these days; our society glorifies the innovator and derides the conserver of tradition. Still, it’s a role that can contribute hugely to a better future. Over the weeks to come, I plan on discussing how cultural conservers might practice their craft, what resources might be useful to them, and how the gifts they preserve might benefit the world on the downside of Hubbert’s peak.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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