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Why dissensus matters

During the last month or so, these essays have tried to present an extended critique of the very common notion that we can collectively plan for, and achieve, the future that we decide we want. By now, though, that point has been pushed about as far as it will go. Those of my readers who are going to get my point have gotten it, and are likely more than ready to go on to something else, while those who continue to believe they can order up a future to go will continue to believe that no matter what gets said here.

Still, that discussion leads on to a further question, one that can’t reasonably be avoided here. Given that I don’t think much of the prospects of planning a desirable future and then making it happen, what am I suggesting instead? That’s a harder question to answer than to ask, because the only answer I have to offer presupposes certain things about what we can know about the future, and those have to be clarified first. The same thing is true, to be sure, about the attempts to plan the future I’ve critiqued. If we could know where history is headed and what influence our actions could have on it, making firm plans for the future would be a safe bet. Equally, if it’s impossible for us to know anything at all about the future, then all bets are off, no course of action is more likely to succeed than any other, and the only option left would be moment-by-moment improvisation.

Still, it seems to me that neither of these extremes fits our situation. There are certainly things ahead that we will never expect until they show up on the doorstep, but not everything about the future falls into this category. An interesting distinction also lies between many of the things we can know about and many of the things we can’t: very often, we have no way of knowing what will happen, but we can predict very accurately that certain things won’t happen, and we can also accurately predict the kinds of things that will happen.

A specific example may help show how this works. Some years ago, when the late housing bubble was shifting into overdrive, quite a number of people – I was among them, though I didn’t have a public platform for my predictions in those days – noted the acceleration in housing prices and drew two conclusions. The first was that those who insisted real estate could increase in value forever were wrong: not just a little bit wrong, but utterly, catastrophically wrong. The second was that if real estate kept zooming up, there was going to be a massive crash. (Those who see this as 20/20 hindsight may visit ”the Housing Panic blog, one place where these predictions appeared.)

Both predictions, it’s worth noting, were based on the evidence of history. Ever since market economies evolved the capacity to support speculative bubbles, people have lost their senses at intervals over some investment or other: tulips, stock, real estate, precious metals, commodities, you name it. The infallible sign that this has happened is the claim that the investment in question is exempt from supply and demand and will just keep increasing in value. I think most of us remember when exactly these things were said about tech stocks, and it’s been rather les than a year since many people insisted that the same things were true about petroleum: wrong in both cases, and in every other case in human history. Thus we can know something about the future: we can accurately predict that no speculative investment will rise in value indefinitely.

The second prediction followed on the heels of the first. Because millions of people were climbing aboard the real estate bandwagon, and prices were zooming upwards, it was a safe bet that eventually prices would slump, people would sell off their investments, and the result would be a crash; that’s the way every speculative bubble in history has ended. Thus the bloggers on Housing Panic knew the kind of thing the future would hold: a collapse in real estate prices in which a great many people would lose a huge amount of money. Those who noticed that banks were loaning money recklessly to speculators also knew that many banks would go under; again, that’s the kind of thing that happens when greed trumps caution and banks forget that money should only be loaned to people who can pay it back.

What nobody knew was when the crash would come, what would trigger it, and how it would play out. This is the difference between knowing what kind of thing will happen and knowing what will happen. Nothing is more difficult than timing a bubble. Isaac Newton, arguably one of the brightest human beings who ever lived, tried to time the market during the South Sea Bubble and lost most of his money. (Any of my readers who consider themselves smarter than Newton are invited to try to predict the turning point of the current bubble in US treasury bills. Since the bursting of that bubble will probably put what’s left of the global economy into cardiac arrest, this is by no means a purely academic exercise.)

These same considerations apply to any attempt to predict the future, and in particular to the central theme of this blog, the twilight of industrial civilization and the long descent into a new dark age. Civilizations, like speculative bubbles, have promoters who insist they can keep on going forever; just as with bubbles, announcements of that sort have historically been a clear sign that serious trouble is not too far off. It’s a safe bet, in any case, that every bubble will pop and every civilization will decline and fall. Those who are heavily invested in a particular bubble or civilization will of course insist that it’s different this time, just as their predecessors did; those claims have been wrong so far, and the evidence isn’t favoring them this time, either.

It’s quite possible, in turn, to predict the kind of things that will happen as industrial civilization lurches down the uneven slope of decline. Plenty of civilizations have done that before, and the common features stand out clearly from history; some of these features are already visible in the present case – it’s educational to page through Spengler or Toynbee and note how many features of a declining civilization had not yet appeared in their time, but have shown up on schedule in ours. What nobody can know in advance is just how these trends will work out in detail.

This is the perspective on the future that frames the proposals I’ve made here and elsewhere for coping with the long descent ahead of us. It’s certainly possible to know in advance some of the things that won’t happen. For example, declining civilizations always seem to get prophets who insist that some vast and improbable transformation will suddenly replace their civilization with the kind of society they would rather inhabit. They are always wrong, and such prophecies should be seen as signs of the times rather than knowledge about what will actually happen.

Set such fantasies aside, and it’s not that difficult to predict the kind of things that will happen as our civilization runs down. Mass migrations, for example, usually take place when civilizations collapse; the tidal force of migrant workers and refugees streaming across today’s borders is already making headlines, so it’s a safe bet this process will shift into high gear in the future. On the other hand, it’s anyone’s guess how those migrations will affect individuals and communities in any given corner of the world. I’ve suggested in these essays, for instance, that the western shores of North America may end up receiving some millions of refugees by sea from Japan. The Japanese islands can only support a small fraction of their current population on local resources; the northern Pacific currents go the right direction, and Japan has a huge and capable merchant marine and fishing fleet, so means, motive, and opportunity are present.

None of this makes the arrival of the first rusting container ship full of refugees on an Oregon beach a certainty. For all we know, Japan might purchase eastern Siberia from a disintegrating Russia thirty years from now, and settle its extra population there; it might go to war with China and suffer losses so drastic that the point becomes moot; or some other unexpected turn of events might set history in motion down a different path. What we do know is that as fossil fuels run short and importing food becomes a strategy without a future, a large fraction of the population of Japan will either relocate or die; what they do about that bitter choice is less predictable.

Thus the knowledge we can get provides no basis for making a future to order, but potentially allows room for something beyond improvisation. Since a miracle is not going to bail us out from the results of our collective mistakes, we need not waste time waiting for one, and can get to work in more practical ways. Since the kind of things that happen early in a civilization’s decline are tolerably well documented, we can assess trends already at work in the areas where we live, and guess at the near-term challenges we are likely to face. Since the endpoint of the process of decline is also fairly well documented, we can try to anticipate what things, readily available now, will be scarce and useful to our descendants, and do what we can to see that those things get passed down the chain of years to the waiting hands of the future.

Now it’s true, of course, that none of these options are foolproof. Even with the guidance of history, it’s possible to misjudge the shape of the future disastrously, and even those who guess the future in advance may not be able to avoid its dangers. This is why the concept of dissensus, introduced last week, is vital just now: as any ecologist can tell you, in the face of unpredictable change, the wider the range of variation in a species, the more likely that some of them will have what it takes to adapt. A monoculture of ideas, organizational styles, or paradigms is just as vulnerable as a monoculture of living things, and so our best option just now is to encourage disagreement, so as to foster as many different approaches to the future as possible.

The need for dissensus, it should be stressed, does not simply cover the technologies different individuals and groups might decide to pursue, the organizations they might choose to make or support, or the survival strategies that might seem most promising to them. It also reaches into the realm of ends. I have said this several times in recent posts, but it bears repeating: we have no idea what kind of society is best suited to a world after industrialism. It’s far more likely than not, in fact, that such a society will have little in common with the notions that middle-class intellectuals in the industrial world today might have of it. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to imagine such a society; it does mean that attempts to push diverse visions into a single consensus are as unproductive as they are futile.

Diversity in the realm of ends, finally, also applies to the most basic decisions about the way the predicament of our time is framed. For some people, the most meaningful challenge focuses on rebuilding communities to help them and their residents get through the end of the age of abundance. For others, it focuses on building new societies they hope will replace the one we have now. For still others, it focuses on developing new technologies, or rescuing old ones, to replace those that will stop working when today’s lavish energy supplies run out. There are those for whom raw survival is the most important thing, and there are those who have come to terms with the inevitability of death and are pursuing other goals.

Which of these choices is the best? Wrong question. All of them, and more, are necessary parts of a dissensus-based approach to the crisis of industrial civilization. As you read these words, members of a city council in a Midwestern college town may be mulling over a project that will pull their community through hard times, while activists one town over, with the best intentions in the world, devise a similar program that will fail and take their town’s future with it. One ecovillage in Ohio may be inventing social forms that will evolve into the neotribal societies of the 22nd century, while another attempt on similar lines sparks quarrels that tear a community to shreds. One hobbyist in Montana, staring at pictures of a 19th century solar steam engine, may start making the prototype of a machine that will become the prime energy source of the ecotechnic age, while others miss the necessary insight and waste their lives on dead ends.

What adds spice to the irony is that we have no way of knowing in advance which is which. All any of us can do is pursue the work that calls to us individually, cooperate with others who share the same commitment, take the measures to weather the crisis that seem to make sense from where we are, and remember that those who disagree with us most heartily may be assembling their own piece of a puzzle that is, ultimately, bigger than any of us.

Editorial Notes: John Michael Greer seems to be flirting with an extreme skepticism - suggesting that nothing can be foreseen, that little is knowable. The Black Swan" skepticism of Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes more sense to me. In a world where hard-to-predict events will have large impacts, he advocates a cautious and conservative course -- not betting the farm on a particular outcome. This is similar to planning decisions made by small farmers (peasants) for whom survival is more important than maximizing income. Thus the ideas of relocalization and resilience are not arbitrary notions of "middle-class intellectuals," but have roots in traditions which have proved themselves over the centuries. -BA

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