That Which May Be Gained: A Return to Scale, Community, and Morality
SUMMARY: Bound by the tangled cord of its own sins, Industrial Civilization sits immobilized -- with the gun of reality pressed to its temple. Monumental changes are imminent – probably (hopefully) a swirling mix of both bad and good. In order to maintain our present sanity and maximize chances for the best possible futures, we need to both envision and embody the positive change we wish to see in the coming post-carbon era. As such, I suggest the following as a worthy set of goals for the coming post-carbon future: a return to life at a proper ‘human’ scale, the reclamation of functional human communities, and the widespread internalization and application of a true morality. Heck, it’s worth a shot. Hey-ho, let’s go!
STARING DOWN THE BARREL OF A GUN...WITH A PIANO FALLING OVERHEAD
Click…click…click…click…The hammer keeps falling on an empty chamber, but the inevitable bullet slowly advances.
Bound by the tangled cord of its own sins, Industrial Civilization sits immobilized -- with the gun of reality pressed to its temple. Any of the following might suffice for the kill shot: a surge in oil prices; a national debt default; a rapid devaluation of the dollar; an outburst of violence in the simmering Middle East ; a terrorist strike on some key national infrastructure; a monstrous storm or other natural disaster. There are other possibilities of course. Take your pick.
And this next shot just might be the one that undermines its foundations and topples it into catastrophic collapse. …Or it may just mark the next leg down – another mortal wound; the next morbid installment of our socio-enviro-economic Long Emergency. But in the tenuous final months (years?) of our industrial civilization, I brace myself every single day as I open the paper: Is today the day? Is today the day the gun goes off? Is today the day we’re forcibly wrenched off of our industrial teat? Is today the day we’re on our own?
But, of course, it’s not only that.
This grim economic drama is played out against a backdrop of an even more ominous environmental degradation – the metaphorical ‘falling piano’ of climatic destabilization. Profound disturbances to our planet’s energy balance threaten to, at best, slowly erode the stability of the climate system over the next century – and at worst, devolve catastrophically in the span of perhaps a few decades or so to a new (and quite probably human-unfriendly) stable state.
Meanwhile, the CO2 rises, the planet warms, the ice-caps and mountain-glaciers melt, the oceans acidify, the permafrost destabilizes and begins to de-gas, the species blink out at an increasing rate, the droughts and storms intensify, and the seas rise steadily towards our coastal cities, aquifers, and farmland.
For as we dither and deceive, the entropic arrow of time marches steadily onward.
Tick, tick, tick, tick…
GOOD AND BAD IN A SWIRLING MIX
It was, of course, all foreseen long ago. We were warned. (See, for example, the interview with David Orr at http://www.energybulletin.net/node/52016)
But we chose the easy path – the childish, impulsive, arrogant, blithely-limitless, material-worshiping path. We followed our worst instincts as a species and have ended up facing the worst of all predicaments.
It will not be surprising when it comes to a head – economically or environmentally -- yet we will certainly feign surprise. We will gnash our teeth and curse our perceived enemies. We will fire our missiles and expand the detention camps. We will be uprooted and tossed about like rag dolls. We will continue to choose the easy path; the path of comforting lies; the wrong path. And we will reap the bitter fruits we have sown for two centuries.
Or maybe not.
Maybe it’ll all just fizzle out. Maybe the industrial economy will just recede away from us like water draining from a tub – leaving us dripping cold and naked; on our own. Maybe then we’ll lock the missile silos and reactors; open the prisons; empty the shopping malls, supermarkets, and office buildings; abandon our cars in the driveways; take a walk around the neighborhood; knock on our neighbor’s door; and get down to work.
And maybe we – or some of us, at least – will find it possible to follow the righteous path; the path of reorienting our species with biophysical reality; the path of hard, honest work and reverent spirituality. And we can then perhaps – even a little bit (maybe?) – taste the sweet fruits of peace and community.
Who knows? Maybe it’ll be a schizophrenic mix of both good and bad in a swirling mix in time and place. Or maybe there’s something I’m missing. If somebody (me included, of course) tells you they know for sure – good or bad -- you can be sure they’re wrong.
SO...WHY AM I NOT DEPRESSED?
So where does that leave us? It leaves us in limbo -- in excitement and dread; in serenity and restlessness; elated and despondent; reaching out and withdrawn; good-humored and angry; purposeful and tentative.
A student came to me the other day and asked me, in light of all that was wrong, how she could maintain her cheerfulness and positive outlook. She didn’t want to lose it and was confused. And she had trouble reconciling the things I was saying and writing with my generally-cheery and positive personality.
She didn’t ask this next question, but I asked it of myself, “Why am I not depressed about all this?”
Because she certainly has a point. It’s some pretty horrible stuff. Monumental change of any sort is scary as hell, and this is about as monumental as it gets -- the collapse of the largest, most complex civilization in the history of the planet; and perhaps even ultimately the collapse of the biosphere itself. This could quite possibly be a bona fide horror show. And perhaps we have every reason to dread the future and crawl into our dark holes of self-pity and grim survivalism.
So why the heck am I NOT depressed? Why am I cautiously optimistic about the future?
Am I unable or unwilling to grasp the true magnitude of the change that’s coming? Am I naively discounting or unfeeling of the suffering that will certainly accompany it? What’s WRONG with me? Do I WANT the suffering to occur? Because if industrial civilization tanked, all my hand-wringing would finally be proven right. “Ha hA ha HA – See everybody, I’m not a kook! I was right! I was right!” Am I a monster or something?
Well I certainly hope not. And I don’t think so.
I think perhaps the explanation for my curious lack of dread comes down to this: a sort of mental weighing-out of the things that may and will be lost in the coming times versus things that may and will be gained. And I think I have already, to some degree at least, reconciled some of the losses and envisioned the possible gains. In my mind, I have already gone through some degree of mourning for our past, present, and future losses and emerged into some partial form of acceptance.
And I have also consciously begun working towards laying the groundwork for the envisioned gains. Futile efforts? Perhaps. But maybe not. Maybe crucial.
THAT WHICH HAS BEEN, MAY BE, AND WILL MOST CERTAINLY BE LOST
So what have I mourned for – in part, at least? I can think of a few things.
Firstly (of course) I have mourned for myself. I have let go of the notion that my Industrial Civilization® membership card entitles me to live essentially forever outside of biological reality – to replace my malfunctioning organs with synthetic or borrowed ones as needed; to vanquish, at a moment’s notice and with potent synthetic chemicals, the countless microorganisms who desire to eat my flesh. I accept that I really have no right to live past the functioning life of my body – whatever that turns out to be. I have no right to immortality. That wish was a ridiculous industrial fantasy – part of the fundamental disconnect between the industrial version of our species and the Earth. I am ready to go when called. I don’t want to, of course – I love this Earth -- but I’m reconciled to it. I have already mourned for my lost industrial pseudo-immortality.
And I have already mourned, in part, for the countless species that have been exterminated forever from this planet – and for those whose termination is already guaranteed by the coming climate catastrophe; changes that have already been set in motion and cannot be stopped. I cannot, of course, name even a small fraction of the already-departed and the walking-dead -- but as Derrick Jensen movingly writes, they are all our kin. We have been killing ourselves. It does not matter if they are familiar or nameless, great or tiny, in our yards or out of sight – they are our kin and we have killed them. We ARE killing them. They are blinking out now… and now… and now... and now… and now…
And I have mourned, to some small degree at least, for those of my own species – perhaps those of my own family – who will not make it through the changes ahead. I have only seen pictures of war but it feels like war is coming. Isolated or nation-wide, skirmishes or conflagrations, remote or in my very house -- I don’t know. But war, when it comes, may take many of us. It may even take most of us. It is, of course, by no means a stranger to our nation. And it is part of our very nature as a species. But we have not addressed it honestly and critically when we could have; when we had the resources to do so. We have not nurtured the safeguards against it. So it will be here again.
There are other things, of course, that have been and will be lost, but that is enough.
THAT WHICH MAY BE GAINED
So I have already mourned – in some fashion, at least -- for these things. But again, I don’t ONLY see what has been, is being, and will be lost. That would surely be the end of me.
My seemingly-incongruous optimism, I think, comes from also seeing what MIGHT be – what COULD be. And it comes from perhaps seeing some ways we might get there. I think I can see some of these things – through the guidance of many brilliant, beautiful people, of course -- and I think that’s what keeps my heart afloat. THAT’S why I’m not depressed – why I am even hopeful.
(As an aside, I suspect that it is the lack of the appropriate mental tools needed to envision some livable post-carbon future that traps many people in the other less-productive ‘camps’ of futurism: the techno-utopians, the ammo-and-canned-soup survivalist doomers, and the head-in-the-sand neo-optimists. For others, I suppose, the reason is just flat-out greed for short-term profits – i.e. the inability to imagine ANY future beyond the next ‘take’. But I digress.)
So in this ‘hope for the future’ I possess, what might we make of a new post-carbon world? What COULD it be? And how might we get there?
I’ll elaborate a little bit on this now – on some things that might be gained as we move beyond industrial civilization.
There are many possibilities, of course, but in the interest of space, I’ll discuss just three here: (1) a return of the human sphere to its proper scale, (2) the profoundly uplifting promises of genuine community, and (3) the possible reclamation of morality from its industrial sewer.
These are my seeds of hope in an industrial climate reeling with loss and despair. These are the ideas that put a glimmer in my eye and a smile on my face even when confronted daily with the toxic depredations of my civilization.
THE INDUSTRIAL PERVERSIONS OF SCALE, COMMUNITY, AND MORALITY
But before I outline more fully these ‘seeds of hope’, I want to give a very brief overview of their current perversions at the hands of industrial civilization. I do this to underscore both the imposing magnitude of our reclamation tasks – i.e. what we’re up against as a starting point – and the profound importance that such a reclamation succeeds. For it MUST succeed if we wish to create (in James Kunstler’s phrasing) ‘lives worth living and places worth caring about.’
Let’s begin with our civilization’s gross perversion of scale, since that has perhaps influenced all else.
It was, of course, our easy access to rivers of concentrated ancient sunlight (i.e. fossil fuels) that enabled industrial civilization to expand its scale far beyond anything imaginable to other human civilizations. These great rivers of energy made it possible to (temporarily) beat back the universal tide of entropy and construct physical and bureaucratic entities of dizzying organizational and technological complexity. And these entities were then assembled to access and unleash even more of this fossil energy; doing work of astonishing magnitudes on the lithosphere, oceans, atmosphere, and biosphere of our planet – and altering it to a huge, sometimes-almost-unrecognizable degree in the process.
But this exponential expansion of the scale at which we have operated has had profound negative impacts on the Earth’s biosphere, our human communities, and our very thought patterns.
For one thing, we have turned out to be famously poor ecosystem managers on a planetary scale. We absurdly misidentified both resource pools and waste sinks as effectively infinite. We ignored -- and even worked actively to obscure(!) -- the flashing red warning signals offered by the planetary biogeochemical system. Ecologically speaking, we tragically projected the wasteful, early-successional program of our industrial civilization onto the larger planetary scale. We were never able to approach, or even TRY to approach, something resembling a mature, steady-state approach to ecosystem management.
A quick scan of the scientific literature, of course, will show that the ecological chickens from this delusional industrial program are starting to come home to roost -- in spades, unfortunately.
Our human communities were another grim casualty of the industrial program. The industrial program of ‘biggering’ everything (see Seuss’ The Lorax) – approaching its fruition now in the form of industrial globalization – has been utterly toxic to the functioning of traditional human communities. While the pressures of increasing economic scale undermined the economic foundations of these human communities, the ideology of predatory consumerism eroded their social fabric. The once-numerous, economically-vibrant, semi-self-sufficient, culturally-rich communities across the US have now been largely replaced with their polar opposite: economically-morbid, global-supply-chain-dependent residences of dispirited and atomized consumers.
The slowly-creeping, seemingly-optional spread of this cultural cancer has rendered it -- largely in the span of just six decades -- the ‘new normal.’ It is a deep credit to the dark skill of our corporate spin-masters that we don’t even collectively realize the extent of our profound degradation as a culture over this relatively short time period.
And under all of this, it is not surprising that these massive ecological, economic, and social degradations have corrupted our very thought patterns as a civilization. The traditional moralities of honesty, forgiveness, respect for tradition, cooperation, charity, thrift, and reverence for That Which is Beyond Our Comprehension have been neglected (and even mocked!) to the point of irrelevance and scorn. These ‘old-fashioned’ moralities, being incompatible with the industrial economic program, really stood no chance of survival. The ‘new morality’, which can be obtained readily from any of the various mass-media spigots, glorifies in day-glo colors the dubious standards of artifice, vengeance, novelty, hyper-individualism, greed, conspicuous consumption, and a crude cartoonish combination of bravado and hubris.
Oh, how far we have fallen!
It literally breaks my heart every day to watch, largely helpless, as my children and students sink powerlessly into this seductive immoral cesspool our culture has become.
EYES ON THE PRIZE: SCALE, COMMUNITY, AND MORALITY
So -- that little review was maybe a bit unpleasant, huh? Well it should be. It’s the anatomy of a planetary-scale train-wreck; a tragedy of monumental proportions.
But I think that we can do better. I know we can.
I have a deep hope that we can not only recover what has been lost and reclaim what has been perverted, but that we can maybe make something better than before. That’s what sustains me -- what keeps me going. That’s what allows me to stare straight-on at a very unsettled and unsettling future and not curl up into a little whimpering ball on the rug.
Now of course, I realize that there is a distinctly non-zero chance that we may be headed down a far darker road than we hope: disastrous climatic tipping points may have already been passed; the snap-back from ecological overshoot may be more severe than we wish to imagine; our shredded social fabric may be tattered beyond repair for the foreseeable future. In other words, highly unfavorable alternate stable states may already be in the cards environmentally, economically, politically, and socially.
But to be debilitated by such grim possibilities only makes them more likely. And should they occur, there would be no preparing for them anyway. The only truly constructive path – the only path that perhaps offers us at least SOME chance of success on the treacherous road ahead – is to keep our ‘eyes on the prize’ and keep working for something good; something great, even.
And in order to do so, we must be able to visualize and articulate ‘the prize’ we are reaching for.
As such, I suggest the following as a worthy set of ‘prizes’ and goals for the coming post-carbon future: a return to life at a proper ‘human’ scale, the reclamation of functional coherent communities, and the widespread internalization and application of a true morality.
Now, some of these ‘prizes’ are almost guaranteed in some form. Others will only be obtained with effort. But all are crucial to fashioning livable civilizations from the ashes of the current one. These are things that we must strive for.
A RETURN TO SCALE
In a thermodynamic sense, we obviously have no choice but contraction of scale in the coming post-carbon era. As fossil fuels begin their imminent nose-dive, the net-energy needed to maintain the absurdly-huge current industrial scale simply won’t BE there. And despite the likely-violent convulsions that will almost certainly accompany such a monumental contraction, the smaller ‘human’ scale towards which we are returning may be beneficial in many ways.
Firstly, we simply won’t have the massive power to damage the biosphere as extensively and rapidly as we have. While our ecological depredations will almost certainly continue at some level, smaller scales of human activity will limit these depredations to a similarly-smaller scale. Our depredations will likely also be more separated in time and space -- giving ecosystems less extensive damage to mend and more time to mend it. Gaia, so to speak, may again have the time and resources to heal her inevitable wounds.
Secondly, there is more of a chance that even local occurrences of ecological degradation can be vastly minimized at smaller scales of societal organization. For example, the latest Nobel award in economics was (refreshingly) presented for studies on how communication within a community – something facilitated by smallness of scale – has the potential to prevent the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ syndrome associated with many human ecological-management failures.
And another more personal example: I know from my own farming/gardening experience, that I simply am able to treat the soil much better when I operate on a smaller scale; I can pay much closer attention to closing the cycles of the matter and energy changes I’m orchestrating. While maintaining adequate productivity on such a reduced scale often requires more holistic knowledge and thought-patterns – really, a richer multi-way communication between humans and their ecosystem -- the potential benefits to all involved parties are great indeed.
The noble discipline of Permaculture speaks eloquently to the practical skills and thought patterns required here.
A smaller scale will also perhaps encourage a return towards greater personal responsibility for our actions – and thus a higher quality of work. The impetus for this greater responsibility would be a more intimate connection with the results of our work at a smaller scale. No longer will we be able to destroy distant landscapes or communities from afar by remote control. Any destructive activities will be felt close to home. Thus, the blame will be more transparent – and the necessary safeguards and justice maybe more readily enacted.
And finally, perhaps one of the more edifying personal benefits of the coming reduced scale may be the opportunity to ‘more fully inhabit’ our own lives – to feel truly human again. The increasingly huge scale and accompanying dizzying pace of industrial civilization has left a frighteningly large percentage of us almost numb to our true biological and community-based origins as a species. Our lives have increasingly been patterned on the cold logic of the machine: efficiency, speed, multi-tasking, compartmentalization, impersonal-electronic interactions, and a profound disconnect form the glorious complexity of Nature.
These trends will necessarily reverse as our scale diminishes. No longer will we be the increasingly frantic, detached avatars bouncing around in the cold realm of cyberspace. We will again reclaim our identities as living organisms enmeshed within a living biosphere. Our species will again become, necessarily and non-optionally, part of the Great Whole – with all the benefits and dangers that such membership confers.
We were meant to live slowly and intimately among other organisms, and so again we shall. I don’t think it is wrong to look forward to this.
Now, as I alluded to earlier, this return to scale will require a wide range of mental and physical skills no longer collectively possessed in this country. So much has been lost in the past 60 years. Thus, it is required that as many of us as possible work hard to reclaim these skills – and NOW, in this pre-collapse period where the fossil-fuel safety net is still largely intact. Skills like gardening, woodworking, metal-working, conflict resolution, natural building, animal husbandry, garment-making, and so many more will be essential to making life work on a smaller scale. The more of these skills we can bring into the coming turbulence, the better the ride we may hope to have.
A RETURN TO COMMUNITY
Just as we face the compulsory return of our lives to a smaller scale in the post-carbon era, I think we are destined also to return to tight local communities. And I think that’s an overwhelmingly good thing – something to really look forward to; something to make us atomized industrial consumers smile as we gaze into the otherwise uncertain future.
And by ‘communities’ here, I mean REAL communities – collections of inter-dependent, cooperating neighbors working together to fashion meaningful lives. These won’t be the superficially-connected, nebular entities we call ‘communities’ today. We won’t be able to afford those shallow luxeries anymore -- video-gaming ‘communities’; internet ‘friends’ lists; corporate ‘families’; ‘communities’ of fellow teachers and administrators in a school district; geographic neighborhood ‘communities’ composed of rank strangers, etc. And good riddance to that fake nonsense – Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘granfalloons’.
The post-carbon communities will be REAL communities working together on real, fundamental problems -- like building functioning local economies with resilient local food, water, transportation, and manufacturing systems; like building rich networks of deep face-to-face social interactions; like ensuring that our lives are consistent with the demands and limitations of finite local material and energetic resources.
I think there are several reasons why the return to ‘real’ communities is non-optional. The first reason comes from the fact that our minds – like the rest of our physical selves – have been shaped by the marathon genetic-kneading of evolution. The success of our species over the past 200,000 years has been, from my understanding of cultural anthropology, due in a large part to the survival benefit of community organization; through the whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts benefits of neighbors helping neighbors.
In other words, it is very probable that gathering together into coherent communities is an inherently human trait. Insightfully, Dmitry Orlov wrote (in an excellent essay at http://www.energybulletin.net/node/51224) that industrial civilization (i.e. the corporate nexus) has needed to expend vast amounts of energy to not only break apart pre-existing communities, but to KEEP them apart. And I think the historical record clearly backs this up. (For example, see Chomsky’s extensive chronicling of shameful corporate-backed anti-community ‘mischief’ in Central America. Or, closer to home, just trace the 60-year history of ANY small town in the US.)
Another reason for the non-optional return of community is the fact that there will just be (in the poetic phrasing of Will Oldham) ‘no one what will take care of us’ once our industrial corporate masters and fossil-energy security blankets are gone – and they WILL be gone shortly. We will simply NEED each other more than ever -- for we have barely retained any of the necessary low-energy-requiring, pre-industrial skills we’ll desperately require to thrive in a post-carbon economy.
And again, I think this return to community is one of the main reasons to – dare I say – look forward to the coming post-carbon era. Because I think that we are not only pre-disposed towards community organization, but our mental health crucially DEPENDS on it. In other words, humans apparently NEED rich community structures to lead fulfilling lives. In the most basic sense, community gives true meaning to our evolution-shaped minds, and this sense of meaning is a pre-condition for true happiness.
So, I know this will sound overly-generalizing, but I think it’s worth a gamble. I’m going to present here something like a universal equation for our species:
‘Community = happiness’
OK, OK, I know that’s too simplistic, but in the larger sense, I think it’s perhaps a fundamental, evolutionarily-engrained truth of our species; a truth both sadly neglected and often purposely perverted by our corporate masters.
For after economically crushing our communities, our corporate masters substituted the lost happiness-potential of these disbanded communities with a crude form of shallow, base amusement. And, of course, there is a profound difference between a real, deep human happiness and this crude amusement dispensed to atomized consumers by the corporate entertainment/diversion complex.
If you’ll allow me an analogy here: this industrial version of ‘amusement’ is the high-fructose corn syrup to the nutritious greens of real community ‘happiness’ – more appealing at first, but fundamentally of a much lower quality and destructive to overall health.
Our minds are literally sick with an excess of industrial amusement and literally starving for real happiness. As Roger Waters intones, we are literally ‘amusing ourselves to death.’
Now, obviously not every member of a community is happy at a given time, nor is every community necessarily in a ‘happy place’ given certain unfavorable external circumstances. But, I think it is true that the existence of real communities certainly provides the best environment for the POTENTIAL attainment of real human happiness. And I think that’s perhaps reason enough to welcome the return of real community, in spite of all its potential imperfection and the other nasty stuff that’s headed our way.
One big problem with all this return-to-community stuff, perhaps, is the dearth actual functioning communities to hold up as examples – to help us better envision what we should expect and/or hope for. At this late stage if the anti-community industrial program, real communities are indeed few and far between. So as an alternative of necessarily-lesser quality, I highly recommend Wendell Berry’s fiction as essential reading towards better understanding the potential benefits, challenges, imperfections, and contradictions inherent in real functioning communities. It’s good stuff indeed.
A RETURN TO MORALITY?
The issue of morality is perhaps more problematic than the issues of scale and community – and thus more crucial to our present situation -- because I think we can be even less sure of a positive outcome here.
The return of our lives to a proper, human-sized scale and real community is, I think, inevitable in light of the low-energy reality of the coming era. And, as discussed above, both of these changes have large potential ‘up-sides’ to them. But I can certainly imagine things going horribly wrong in spite of this positive potential.
Historically, there have been very good communities and very nasty communities. In our long, pre-fossil-fuel history, we have been angels and we have been monsters. Real communities have shown great feats of goodness and perpetrated unimaginable atrocities.
This is due, of course, simply to the maddening duality of the human mind – we have both good and bad inside us. Either one can grow to overshadow the other given the proper nourishment. The good is nourished by good, and the bad is nourished by bad.
So the key question, perhaps, of our post-carbon transition is this: How might we best nourish the good in us so that an admirable morality can largely govern our thoughts and actions? In other words, how can we establish a noble traditional morality as part of our daily thought patterns?
In short, how do we get our post-carbon communities to be good?
I can think of three ways.
The first is simply by not glorifying badness -- as has, in fact, been the fervid mission of the modern corporate nexus. As a review of successful late-20th century business models shows, selling badness is far more profitable than selling goodness. As such, the corporate mind-benders have worked overtime to make “bad the new good” – to blatantly turn true morality on its head for the sake of maximizing short-term profit. As soon as we open our eyes in the morning, soul-killing, immoral sludge can be found gushing like a fire-hose from every radio, TV, magazine, billboard, t-shirt, computer, movie screen, and ipod within sensory reach.
We are told to seek consumption and treat thrift as shameful; to seek vengeance and treat forgiveness as traitorous; to seek domination and treat compassion as weakness; worship the novel and disdain the traditional; to idolize the fortunate and blame the unfortunate; to worship appearance and dismiss substance; to eschew honesty and just get away with anything we damn well can. I could go on and on, but you get the idea.
It’s beyond messed up -- and it’s all that a lot of kids (and even adults) have ever known.
Now, I certainly don’t mean to come off like some über-moralist firebrand preacher here (or some hypocritical neo-conservative hack, for that matter), but I think it’s past-time time to honestly assess just how morally debased our civilization has become and how purposely we have been shepherded here by our corporate masters.
But we have a break here: the morality-perverting influence of the corporations will shortly be gone – as the global corporations wither and die for lack of essential fossil energy inputs. This, of course, does not mean that they will be replaced by agents of impeccable moral standards – what follows may indeed be more morally debased than what we have now. But the salient point here is that a true morality simply has no chance of establishment as long as our current, profoundly-immoral civilization persists. So the demise of industrial civilization at least gives us a CHANCE at morality.
The second way we can perhaps coax our post-carbon communities into being ‘good’ is by consciously incorporating this morality directly into our economic structures. If you create an economic system that rewards waste, greed, and violence to communities, then that’s obviously what you’ll get. That’s, of course, what we have now. However, if our necessarily-local post-carbon economies reward thrift, generosity, and community-building -- then THAT’s what we’ll get.
Exactly how these goals can be accomplished will depend on how each local economy is structured – but the key point here is that a foundation of economic morality needs to be a conscious goal of each economy, not just a happy accident should it happen to occur. It needs to be talked about explicitly and actively monitored by community leaders. The well-developed (but, tragically, as-yet unimplemented) discipline of Steady-State Economics speaks eloquently to this need.
The third way of maximizing the chances for post-carbon ‘goodness’ is simply by being good ourselves. Goodness can breed goodness, and by demonstrating impeccable moral standards ourselves – especially in the face of adversity – we can perhaps have a crystallizing influence on those around us; on the ‘goodness’ of our larger community.
And we should TALK about it. We should be discussing what sort of morals are good and WHY they are good; what sorts of behavior patterns are good and WHY they are good. Moral goodness and badness should be talked about – not in the hypocritical, self-aggrandizing, pseudo-political manner of the modern neo-conservatives and their big-box churches – but openly and honestly among regular people in our everyday lives.
Obviously our organized religions can have an important role here, but we need not (and should not) rely solely on a formal religious setting for our discussions of morality. These discussions should happen in schools, at the dinner table, in the garden, at work, and in the bedroom. We can no longer afford to leave morality as just one of the myriad happy, comforting, superficial lies we collectively tell ourselves once a week to justify and ameliorate the guilt for our real-life depredations. We need to make morality a real part of our lives and treat each other and the Earth accordingly.
A POST-CARBON TRANSITION MANTRA: "SEE THE CHANGE, BE THE CHANGE"
So…all that went on longer than I had planned. (Is anyone still here?)
But seriously, would that perhaps be a reasonable answer to a kid (or adult) who wanted something to look forward to in the coming times? Would it foster at least some hope for the post-carbon future? Would it flesh out some of the key things we may be able to look forward to: a proper scale, community, and morality? Would that give us something to work towards in these uncertain times?
I, of course, hope so -- because it definitely helps me. I’m certainly not immune to waves of despair in these uncertain and troubled times, and it’s nice to have a couple of key ideas to anchor my mind in the constructive realm.
So perhaps these ideas can be part of some core message we can tell the exceptional kids (and exceptional adults) who are not afraid to look a profoundly troubling reality directly in the face and work to make a positive difference in their communities.
Perhaps the core message would include something like this:
First, we need to SEE the change we want; to identify and define the important things we want to preserve or create in the coming post-carbon era. I suggested above that these might include (1) ecological health resulting from lives lived on a proper scale, within biophysical limits of the planet, (2) richly inter-linked human communities, and (3) an inspiring moral standard of thought and conduct.
Next, we need to BE the change we want.
For example, if we want ecological health, we need to pattern our daily physical routines so that they align within the material and energetic limits of our community – so that they operate on the appropriate scale. We need to work towards trying not to overstep our ecological bounds AT ALL. This is obviously a tall task – especially as we are still mired in the era of relatively cheap, scale-distorting fossil energy -- but it’s a goal to which we should continually strive.
If we want community, we need to seek out our neighbors and work to pattern our local economies in a way that encourages and nourishes inter-personal ties and dependencies within our community. Rob Hopkins’ Transition program exemplifies this goal (--see www.transitionus.org). Strive to be, in his phrasing, the ‘seed crystal’ of community in your town – something for the necessary larger community structures to build around. And really any community-related activity is a step in the right direction. Start small if you wish, but keep trying for more.
And finally, if we want our community to exemplify a strong, honest morality, we need to hold ourselves to these firm (but appropriately-forgiving) moral standards. And we should do this in neither a threatening, do-as-I-do-or-else manner or in a holier-than-though manner, but simply as an example to others who might wish to emulate these admirable qualities. The learned guidance of our religions and exemplary moral teachers will, of course, be indispensable here – but it should also be an every-day thing – something we all talk about during our normal lives.
So in spite of the proverbial gun of reality to the head of our current civilization and the proverbial environmental piano falling above us, we STILL might have a chance to make something really good from all of this.
I certainly think there will be both good and bad coming our way -- but, by our thoughtful actions, we can perhaps try to steer things more towards the good and better support each other better through the inevitable bad.
The key for our current transition efforts is to figure out what 'thoughtful actions' are most appropriate and how best to get them out there -- and that's pretty much a key focus of my life right now.
And, you know, it’s actually kind of fun.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
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