Facing Decline, Facing Ourselves
Of all the fallacies that surround the contemporary crisis of industrial civilization, and have done so much to bring that crisis down on us, the most seductive is the assumption that it’s a technical problem that can be solved by technical means. That’s an easy assumption to make, for a variety of reasons, but it puts us in the situation of the drunkard in the old joke who looks for his keys under the streetlight half a block from the dark sidewalk where he dropped them, since under the streetlight he can at least see what he’s doing.
The technical aspects of our predicament, though challenging, are the least of our worries; it’s the other aspects that have proven intractable. Consider the project of cutting US per capita energy consumption to a third of its present level. Given that the average European uses a third as much energy each year as the average American, and in many ways gets a better standard of living out of it, this is far from impossible; a great deal of the technology is sitting on the shelf only one continent away, in effect, and simply needs to be put to work.
Now of course such a project would require a great deal of investment in railways, mass transit, urban redevelopment, and the like, but what’s been spent on recent military adventures in the Middle East would cover much of it – and let’s not even talk about what could be done with the funds being wasted right now to prop up Wall Street banks looted by their own executives in the final blowoff of an epoch of corporate kleptocracy. The return on the investment needed to cut our energy use to European levels, in turn, would be immense. Since the US still produces more than a third of the oil it uses, to name only one result, we would no longer be sending billions of dollars a year to line the pockets of Middle Eastern despots; we’d be a net exporter of oil – even, quite conceivably, a member of OPEC.
So why isn’t so sensible a project being debated right now in the halls of Congress? Why, more broadly, has energy conservation through lifestyle change – arguably the single easiest and most cost effective option we have on hand in dealing with the end of the age of cheap oil – been entirely off the political and cultural radar screens since the end of the 1970s, so much so that most of those who have noticed that we’re running out of cheap abundant energy have framed the issue entirely in terms of finding some technical gimmick that will let us keep on living the way we live now?
This is where the technical dimension of our predicament gives way to a region where the forces that matter are not the cut-and-dried facts of physics and engineering, but murkier factors – political, cultural, psychological, and (let’s whisper the word) spiritual – and what’s theoretically possible matters a great deal less than what’s culturally and emotionally acceptable. Most writers on peak oil, though not all, have tended to shy away from this unsettled and unsettling territory. This is quite understandable; industrial culture privileges technical knowledge and rewards those who can (or say they can) make the machinery of our daily life purr more smoothly and profitably, and shuts its ears against those who ask questions about the purposes the machines serve and the emotional drives that make those purposes seem to make sense. Still, this leaves us scrabbling around with the drunkard under the streetlight, searching for keys that are lying in the dark half a block away.
It’s for this reason, among others, that I was pleased to get a copy of Carolyn Baker’s new book, Sacred Demise: Walking the Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse. Those of my readers who are familiar with Baker’s blog and mine will probably be able to imagine, if they don’t happen to have followed, some of the lively disagreements we’ve had, and it will doubtless come as no surprise that some of the arguments made in Sacred Demise seem problematic to me. Still, those issues of detail are less important than what Baker has tried, with quite some success, to accomplish with this book. What Sacred Demise represents is the first really sustained effort to pull the debate over the future of industrial civilization out of the comfortable realm of technical questions, and force it to confront the deeper and fundamentally nonrational factors that have done so much to keep effective solutions out of reach.
The title of the book may need some explanation, because Sacred Demise deals at least as much with psychology as with religion. Admittedly the line between these two has become blurred in recent years; as the modern West has redefined religion wholly in terms of personal relationships with the transcendent, and made its collective aspects increasingly hard to sustain, psychology has come to play the role in modern religious movements that theology still plays in their more traditional sisters. While this shift has had its share of dubious results, it has allowed some crucial religious themes – the imminence of death, the quest for meaning in human existence, and the challenge both these level at individuals and societies alike, among others – to remain live issues in a passionately secular age.
These themes, in turn, frame Baker’s approach. She argues that we are long past the point at which the unraveling of the industrial age can be prevented, and our options at this point are limited to facing the difficult future ahead of us, on the one hand, or pretending it isn’t there until it overwhelms us, on the other. She dissects the logic of those who only want to hear about solutions, tracing it back into its deep roots in the fear of death and the attempt to cling to familiar patterns of meaning even when those no longer make sense of our experience, and she tackles the awkward but necessary issues all of us have to confront as decline and fall sets in: the need to mourn, to confront the reality of death, to find new narratives to make sense of a rapidly changing world. .
For Baker, then, the core task of our time is not how to prevent collapse; decades of mishandled opportunities have put that hope out of reach. Nor does she embrace the futile strategy of trying to hide out in survivalist enclaves until the rubble stops bouncing. Instead, she calls us to face collapse squarely and personally, as a reality that is already shaping our lives, and will do so ever more forcefully in the years to come. Facing collapse, in turn, requires us to deal with the whole realm of personal baggage we each bring to the experience of decline and fall. That’s a crucial issue, for the unstated psychological and religious subtexts of the crisis of industrial civilization have played a huge role in confusing the already complex issues facing the world just now.
Thus it’s vital to realize, when somebody insists that technological progress will inevitably lead our species to immortality among the stars, or when somebody else insists that contemporary civilization has become the ultimate incarnation of everything evil and will shortly be destroyed so that the righteous remnant can inhabit a perfect world, that what they’re saying has very little to do with the facts on the ground. Rather, these are statements of religious belief that coat mythic themes millennia old in a single coat of secular spraypaint. If, dear reader, one or the other of these is your religion, that’s fine – you have as much right to your faith as I have to mine – but please, for the love of Darwin, could you at least admit that it’s a religious belief, an act of faith in a particular constellation of numinous experience, rather than a self-evident truth that any sane and moral person must automatically accept?
This last point, I have to admit, goes a little beyond what Baker has to say, and in fact my central criticism of Sacred Demise is precisely that it doesn’t quite manage to apply its sharpest insights to Baker’s own point of view. That view is perilously close to the latter of the religious viewpoints mentioned above; for Baker, the diverse and morally complex reality of the industrial world is flattened into a single vast and terrible abstraction labeled by turns Civilization and Empire, the exact equivalent of Babylon and the kingdom of Satan in her historical mythology. Psychologically, this might best be described in Jungian terms as a bad case of projecting the shadow; in religious terms, it represents a drastic confusion between the realms of being, mistakenly mapping one of the great themes of myth and religious vision onto the messy and prosaic realities of everyday existence.
For all that, Sacred Demise is a crucially important book. It is not the last word on the subject, nor do I think Baker would want it to be; rather, it’s the first word in a conversation that we desperately need to start, as the high notes of economic crisis mingle with the basso-profundo of declining energy reserves, pushing us further and further away from the world of business-as-usual fantasy we have tried to inhabit for the last quarter century. We need to start talking about how we can hold onto our humanity in bitter times; about how we can find reasons for hope and sources of necessary joy as so many of our former certainties crumble to dust; about what stories we can use to bring meaning to the world when so many of our familiar meanings no longer make sense of anything. In order to face the realities of decline, in other words, we have to face ourselves, and Baker’s book is a significant contribution to that vital task.