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Bringing It Down To Earth

We’ve covered a lot of ground in the last two months or so, and at this point I want to summarize the territory thus explored and link it back into the core of this blog’s project—the search for a realistic understanding of the troubled future ahead of us, and a meaningful way to respond to it. One crucial part of that response, I’ve suggested, relates to that tangled realm where consciousness meets the unconscious drives that shape so much of our experience of the world: a realm that contemporary thought addresses, however incompletely, through the science of psychology, and that the older lore of magic approaches in a much more comprehensive and potent way.

That latter lore is only one part of the toolkit we’re going to need to deal with the storms to come, but it’s an important part, and it’s well suited to deal with issues most of today’s proposals for the future leave unanswered. Much more often than not, peak oil, anthropogenic climate change, and most of the other symptoms of our civilization’s head-on collision with planetary limits to growth are treated as technical problems that can be addressed with technical solutions. Bookshelves around the world have accordingly been piled to the breaking point with proposed technical solutions. Some of them are basically handwaving, others are attempts to shill for one or another industry or political movement, but a fair number are serious proposals that could do at least some good if they were put into effect.

The difficulty, as I’ve discussed in previous posts, is that none of these plans are being put into effect, and there’s no good reason to think that any of them will be. Quite the contrary: by and large, modern industrial civilization is moving the other way, following the same trajectory of overshoot that has terminated the history of so many other civilizations. What’s more, we’re not being dragged down that road, or forced along it by the pressure of circumstances; by and large, we’re going that way with whoops of enthusiasm. When the United States abandoned its last real attempt to head in the other direction, in the early 1980s, the collective sigh of relief must have been audible on the Moon, and anyone who didn’t join in the stampede along the road to overshoot—and I can speak here from three decades of personal experience—came in for a spectrum of nasty responses, ranging from spluttering abuse to scornful pity, from pretty much anyone else who noticed.

That is to say, it’s not the technical dimension of the predicament of industrial society that matters most just now. It’s the inner dimension, the murky realm of nonrational factors that keep our civilization from doing anything that doesn’t make the situation worse, that must be faced if anything constructive is going to happen at all. In a civilization that’s spent the last three and a half centuries trying to pretend that this inner dimension doesn’t matter, it was a foregone conclusion that most people’s inner lives would end up an unholy mess. It doesn’t help matters at all that plenty of political, economic, cultural, and religious interest groups, some of them with prodigious resources at their beck, have put a very large fraction of those resources into schemes to manipulate people’s minds using any number of nonrational hot buttons, in order to maximize their own wealth and power.

An effective response to this predicament, as I’ve proposed here, involves several unfamiliar steps. The first of them is to get out from under the collective thinking of our society and the manufactured popular pseudoculture that holds that collective thinking pinned firmly in place in the minds of most people, so you can make your own decisions about what goes into your mind, instead of letting huge corporations ante up millions of dollars to choose for you. (It still amazes me how many people never wonder why what appears on TV is called "programming.") This is a challenging task, made even more so by the blank incomprehension and active hostility of those who are still down there in the belly of the beast, but the payoff is worth it. The problem with thinking thoughts that you’re told to think by others, after all, is that the people who tell you what to think are doing it for their own advantage, not for yours; think your own thoughts, and doors open before you that the thoughts you’ve been told to think are meant to keep tightly shut.

The second step is to learn how to get along with the nonrational side of your own inner life. There are any number of ways to do that; various schools of psychology, philosophy, religion and magic all have their own toolkits for this kind of work, and what appeals to one person is certain to repel somebody else. I’ve discussed a handful of useful mental tools, drawn mostly from one tradition in which I’ve had some training, and they may be enough for those readers who don’t feel any attraction to the more intensive work on offer from the schools just mentioned. Those who do feel such an attraction can find more detailed guidance in whatever tradition they choose to study and, more importantly, to practice.

These two steps provide the neglected mental dimension that’s so often missing in attempts to deal with the future bearing down on us. Without them, with weary inevitability, proposals for change end up gathering dust on the overloaded bookshelves already mentioned, if they don’t simply mutate into yet another excuse for business as usual. Einstein’s famous dictum—"We can’t solve problems using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them"—is true, but it’s only part of the whole picture. You can change your thinking all you like, but if you don’t deal with the nonrational factors that drove your previous thinking, your brand new thoughts are going to head in the same old directions. Only if you distance yourself from the thaumaturgy that predetermines so much human thinking, and then come to grips with the mental automatisms and unthinking reactions within yourself, that you can pick the locks on what Blake called "the mind-forg’d manacles" and choose your own path.

Once all this is done, though, there’s a third step, which consists of bringing the work you’ve done down from the realm of mental phenomena into the realm of everyday life. That’s an essential element of magical practice, by the way; it’s a core teaching of the old occult philosophies that your magical work, however deep it may reach into the innermost realms of consciousness, has to be brought all the way down to earth, and anchored right here in the world of matter by an appropriate action on what occultists like to call the material plane. Put more simply, in magic as in anything else, it’s necessary to walk your talk, or the talk dries up into excuses and goes rolling away like tumbleweeds in the wind.

One question that needs careful consideration, though, is how to walk the talk we’ve been discussing over these last few months—or, to put the thing in more explicitly magical terms, how to choose an appropriate anchor for the movement of consciousness I’ve tried to set in motion in the last two months of blog posts. The careful consideration is essential here for several reasons, but the most important of them is that contemporary culture is well stocked with bad advice on this subject.

Thus it’s a very common notion, when the issue of walking your talk comes up, to think that it’s enough to engage in activism—in other words, to walk your talk by insisting that the government, or the big corporations, or other people in general, get out and walk theirs. Activism has its place, to be sure, and potentially an important one, but activism only matters if the people who are doing it have already followed Gandhi’s advice and become the change that they wish to see in the world. When that first necessary step doesn’t happen, activism fails. Those of my readers who have watched the self-destruction of the climate change movement have already seen how far activism gets when the activists show no signs of accepting the limits that they hope to impose on others.

Beyond that, there’s another problem with activism in this context, which is that it amounts to demanding that somebody else do something. There are times when this is an entirely appropriate thing to do—when, for example, it’s precisely the actions or inactions of a government or a corporation that need to be addressed. Not all the difficulties that beset a modern society come from such causes, though, and when a problem is actually being caused by habits of thought and action that are shared by everyone—even when some people engage in them more, or more profitably, than others—trying to make a handful of the worst offenders take the blame for everybody is not an effective strategy. Nor is it any more helpful to insist that a few people, however rich and powerful they may be, are to blame for changes that have their origin in factors entirely outside of human control.

The Occupy Wall Street protests that are still struggling gamely on as I write this, despite a rising tide of police repression, have fallen into both these latter traps. Though the culture of larceny that defines Wall Street these days amply deserves criticism—not to mention the legal charges of racketeering and fraud that the Obama administration has steadfastly refused to file, even in the cases that most stridently call for it—the misbehavior of bankers and stockbrokers doesn’t actually have that much to do with the decline of the American economy that has deprived a great many of the OWS protesters of the chance to earn a living. Central to that decline is, first, the unraveling of the American global hegemony that, until recently, funnelled some 25% of the world’s energy resources and 33% of its raw materials and industrial product to the 5% of humanity that lives in the United States; and second, the ongoing depletion of those same energy resources and raw materials, which is ending the abundance that made the American lifestyle of the 20th century possible in the first place.

No amount of protesting is going to refill the once vast and now mostly depleted reserves of cheap oil and other resources that gave America its age of extravagance, nor is protest going to do anything to stop the decline of America as a world power or the rise of competing powers. Blaming the results of both these processes on the manifold abuses of Wall Street is not going to help the situation noticeably—though seeing bankers and stockbrokers doing perp walks through the streets of Manhattan might do a little to restore public faith in the rule of law, which has taken quite a beating in recent years. Most Americans, ignoring these realities, still insist they are entitled to a standard of living that neither their country’s faltering position in the world, nor the hard facts of physics and geology, will enable them to have for much longer, or get back if they’ve already lost it. Until that sense of entitlement gives way to a more realistic set of expectations, nothing is going to solve the problem Americans think they have—that of finding a way to hang onto hopelessly unsustainable lifestyles—and nothing is going to be done to deal with the predicament Americans actually face—that of dealing with the end of abundance in a way that doesn’t finish shredding the already frayed fabric of our society.

Any attempt to walk the talk that we’ve been discussing here, in other words, has to begin with the individual, and has to start with the acceptance of a very significantly lowered standard of living. To return to an acronym I’ve proposed here already, any response to the future that doesn’t involve using LESS—Less Energy, Stuff, and Stimulation—simply isn’t a serious response to the downside of the industrial age. The toolkit of the Seventies organic gardening and appropriate tech movements, which I’ve discussed here at some length, is among many other things a very effective way of responding to the need to use LESS in a humane and creative manner.

By growing a garden and raising chickens in your backyard instead of buying packaged and processed vegetables and eggs that are shipped halfway across the continent, conserving energy relentlessly and getting as much as you can from local renewable sources, and sharply downscaling the pursuit of material excess in favor of a life that’s rich in experiences, relationships, and meaning, it’s possible to get by very comfortably on a small fraction of the energy, stuff, and stimulation that most Americans think they need. This isn’t simply a good thing on abstract grounds, though it is that. On the individual scale, such steps provide a margin of safety in hard times that the ordinary American lifestyle simply doesn’t have; on the community scale, those who embrace such steps are positioned to act as role models and mentors for those who decide to make the same changes later on, when the advantages of doing so are likely to be much more evident; on the wider scale, even a very modest movement in this direction, amidst the widening failure of the political and economic mainstream to do anything worth noticing in the face of the widening crisis of our time, might just possibly fill the role of a seed crystal around which a much larger movement could take shape.

Seen from another perspective, though, these practical steps also have a magical dimension: they serve to bring the changes in consciousness we’ve been discussing for the last two months all the way down into the world of everyday life. To complete the task of breaking away from the murky thinking and the tangled nonrational drives that dominate contemporary life in today’s America, it’s necessary to break away from the lifestyles and everyday choices that are produced by that thinking and those drives. Mind you, the same equation works the other way around: to make the break away from lifestyles that demand energy and resource flows we can’t count on getting for much longer—and making that break is perhaps the most essential task of the decade or so immediately before us—it’s going to be necessary to turn away from the thinking patterns and the unmentioned and usually unnoticed passions that make those lifestyles seem to make sense.

The recognition that these two transformations, the outer and the inner, work in parallel and have to be carried out together is the missing piece that the sustainability movements of the Seventies never quite caught. Significant steps were taken toward that discovery; books such as Gregory Bateson’s Mind and Nature and E.F. Schumacher’s A Guide For The Perplexed lay out much of the groundwork from which an analysis of the sort I’ve been suggesting in these essays could have been built. Some of the less intellectually vacuous movements in the alternative spirituality scene of the time were moving in the same direction from the other side of the equation. Still, it never quite came together; the engineers were too dismissive of the occultists, the occultists were too suspicious of the engineers, and when the Reagan administration came into power and hit the entire movement at its most vulnerable point—the flows of government and foundation grant money on which nearly all of it, appropriate tech engineers and New Age theorists alike, had become fatally dependent—the chance at that recognition went by the boards.

That could happen again. I’ve suggested more than once that the troubles looming ahead of us in the near term may well open a window of opportunity for the same kinds of effort toward sustainability that we had, and then lost, in the wake of the energy crises of the Seventies. If something of the sort does happen, once the immediate crisis is out of the way, there will inevitably be a backlash, and that backlash will likely wield the same tools of thaumaturgy that were turned on the appropriate tech movement in the early 1980s with devastating effect. Good intentions and idealism, it bears remembering, are not an adequate safeguard against systematic manipulation of the mass mind, especially when that manipulation moves in parallel with the desperate craving of a great many Americans to have the lifestyles they think they deserve and ought to get.

Meeting a challenge on that scale is a tall order. Still, any movement faced with a backlash of that kind can accept its short term losses, renew its commitments to its values and vision, keep on going straight through the initial waves of negative publicity, and carve out a niche from which it can’t be dislodged, and pursue a long-range strategy, knowing that the tide will eventually turn its way. With a few worthy exceptions, that didn’t happen in the twilight years of the early Eighties, but many other movements of many kinds have done it, and a noticeable number of them have passed through that stage and gone on to accomplish their goals. Whether green wizardry or the broader peak oil movement reaches that last milestone is up to the future; for the time being, though, while it’s vital that we be ready to respond if a window of opportunity does open for us, it’s even more vital that when the backlash comes, as the Who put it, we won’t get fooled again.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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