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Julian's tragedy

As most of you probably know, there was an European election last Sunday during which conservatives made significant gains. As you probably don't know – no matter what French people like to think, France is hardly the center of the world – the French ecologists scored a major success, finishing just behind the socialists. In Brittany they even beat them, becoming the first left wing force.

We were a part of the green coalition and participated in the campaign, so this victory is also ours. Yet my pleasure is mixed. It is not only that the foundations of this success are fragile – they definitely are – or that traditional parties are very likely to engage in heavy tokenism – they have already begun – to remain in office. The hard truth is that even if we had won every election and seized state power, we would probably be unable to stave off the impending collapse.

There is of course the timing problem. We might have muddled through to some kind of sustainability during the late seventies and the early eighties, but with peak oil probably already past we are very likely to have lost this opportunity for ever. If we are to believe the Hirsch report, and it is very conservative, we need twenty years of intensive preparation to mitigate the effects of peak oil. It is obvious we do not have those twenty years.

Even if we had them, I am not sure it would change anything.

The problem is that complex societies are, well, complex and the ability of the supposedly leading elites to change them is limited. In fact, there are no such elites, only an insanely intricate web of competing groups, lobbies and power centers alternatively competing and collaborating with each other. The ability of those groups to resist change is amazing, and I am not speaking here only of corporations or of political lobbies but potentially everybody's neighbor who, no matter what he voted, can be counted upon to oppose every measure, no matter how necessary, which will substantially reduce his life standard or go against long held beliefs.

Of course one could break this resistance, force sustainability upon people literally at gunpoint and some people in the peak oil community could be tempted to follow this way. This kind of eco-stalinism would be a costly mistake. Revolution is to social reform what rape is to romance: it is violent, ugly and both participants are unlikely to live happily ever after. Every time this “solution” has been tried in the past, the only tangible result was a rather impressive body count. Besides, it would almost inevitably lead to the formation of a security apparatus which would siphon most remaining resources, making sure the average citizen is much less well off than he needs to be.

That is what one could call Julian's tragedy, or the powerlessness of power. For those who don't spend hours reading Edward Gibbon (or more prosaically Wikipedia), Julian II (331 – 363) was the last pagan Roman emperor. He seized power from his murderous Christian uncle and tried to restore classical paganism as the dominant religion in the Empire. Despite his governing skills and his initial popularity he soon found out that you cannot just decree away peoples' beliefs. Rulers, no matter what they privately think, are every bit as trapped in the web of competing power centers and beliefs as the rest of us, and if he disregards them, he is quite likely to end up as Julian did, dying from a Persian arrow in the Iraqi desert while his lieutenants prepared the unraveling of all he had fought for.

Does that mean that we peak-oilers should abandon the political field and focus upon personal and community preparation? Of course not. First because community preparation is politics, even if at the local level. In fact, you can't really prepare a community for the hardships of the post-peak era without entering local politics, directly or indirectly. That is not the whole story, however, for if we, peak-oil activists, can no longer save the Empire, we can cushion its fall in some areas and prepare the way for its successors, so that the post-peak dark age will be shorter and brighter than it would have been otherwise.

Science-fictions geeks will have recognized Hari Seldon's logic, and it is not a bad logic in our situation, even if it makes for poor electoral propaganda. For the others, I will sketch what is, in my opinion, one of the best science-fiction series ever: Asimov's Foundation cycle. In an archetypal galactic empire a no less archetypal lone scientist works out a way to calculate what the future will be. It turns out that this future will be very bad for the Empire. Rotten to the core it will ultimately collapse into a chaotic mess of warlord states and won't reform for 30.000 years. Faced with this rather unappealing reality, Hari Seldon decides, not to try to save the failing empire, but to create in some far away back water, the core of a new empire which will reunify the galaxy after only 1,000 years.

It is, of course only a novel, but it offers a good rationale for us to enter politics. Nobody can predict what shape the future will take, and even if we can be pretty sure the present world is going to collapse, its demise will take time and it can be succeeded by a lot of things, not all of them pleasant. We cannot really predict the results of our actions, either, as history is the realm of complexity and unintended consequences and our best efforts may turn out to be futile. Yet we can work to cushion the decline and make sure that whoever will succeed us will inherit the best of what we have. That may mean paying lip service to hopes we know are false or supporting projects we know will fail but will make it more likely that, in centuries from now, our descendants, who will probably be as alien to us as modern Mexicans are to Aztecs, will have something to build upon. That may means dirtying oneself or engaging in apparently pointless power plays.

This is not a very rewarding job and it is as likely to fail as to succeed. Sometimes it will leave you with a bitter aftertaste and even victories will sometimes feel empty, but it certainly beats replaying Julian's tragedy.

Editorial Notes: Related from The Guardian: French victories and Irish defeats mean mixed results for Greens. -BA

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