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The hour is darkest just before dawn: crisis as opportunity

Darkest before dawn (countryside photo)The Festival of Ideas is on at the University of Melbourne at the moment, and I was invited to give a short talk, envisioning how Australia made the transition to a low-carbon society by the year 2033. Here is the transcript:

As I look back from the year 2033, I would like to be able to tell you that the transition to our low-carbon society was smooth and rational. I would like to be able to tell you that, as a democracy, we shaped our nation with sensible, evidence-based decisions, and built a just and sustainable world through intelligent planning and bold leadership. I would like to be able to tell you that people did not suffer, and that our ecosystems are not permanently damaged. I would like to be able to tell you that the leatherback turtle and the orange-bellied parrot are not extinct.

But who really thought that the transition beyond consumer capitalism was going to be smooth, rational, and painless? Who really thought that Empire would lie down like a lamb at the mere request of the environmental movement? No – it was always going to be a muddy transition, punctuated with crises, and moulded with conflict, grit, and tears.

When looking back over the last few decades, one has to acknowledge that the global economy resembled, not an obedient servant, but a snake aggressively eating its own tail – a snake seemingly unaware that it was consuming its own life-support system. When the global economy finally choked on its own growth fetish, what was surprising was not how quickly it transformed into something else, but rather why so few people had foreseen its inevitable demise.

The lessons of history so often seem infantile when seen through the lens of hindsight.

The era of resource abundance and cheap energy was over, and this was to change everything. It was the ‘new normal’ that forced us to become something else, something ‘other’, whether we wanted to or not. The road, to be sure, was rough.

This was especially so in a highly interconnected, globalised world, burdened by excessive debt and addicted to expensive oil. One way or another, for better or for worse, the future was not much going to resemble the past. While the apocalypse never arrived, it is clear that humanity made a whole host of very, very, very poor decisions, and even the good ones came depressingly late. This was an era of great instability, uncertainty, and hardship, which, in a sense, we thoroughly deserved.

What I am trying to convey here is that humanity did not voluntarily embrace a new way of life, so much as a new way of life forcefully embraced us, with the global financial crisis of 2008 merely signifying the beginning of a long emergency that has only recently abated.

When the crises eventually hit Australia – and I mean hit hard – it was then, and only then, that our nation was provoked into action. It was only then, in the chambers of consumer culture, that we were shaken awake from our long, dogmatic slumber.

The hour was darkest just before dawn.

*    *    *

Every crisis, they say, is an opportunity – from which the optimist infers that the more crises there are, the more opportunities there are. Australia, I am happy to say, made the most of its crises.

When the comfortable years of consumer affluence were taken from us almost overnight, this challenged our economy – indeed, our very civilisation – to refashion itself and find or create a new identity, a new narrative of progress.

However unsettling it may have been, this identity crisis came with a surprisingly large silver lining – a silver lining that was to ignite all the positive changes that were to come later. Most importantly, it forced us to confront the question of how much we actually needed to live well and to be free. Is more always better? Or is just enough plenty? Through this period of enforced reflection we discovered several quite extraordinary things about the nature of the good life.

We discovered, for example, that our culture could thrive at a far lower material standard of living than we had thought; we also discovered that we were much hardier and resilient than we had thought; that we were much more creative and resourceful than we had thought; and that our community spirit, which had seemingly faded in the years of consumer culture, was actually still in tact, desperately waiting beneath the surface of culture for a time when we could reengage each other, and be neighbours again.

The economic depression we lived through meant that most people had very little discretionary income, so we found ourselves sharing more (because we had to), growing more of our own food (because we had to), biking more and leaving our cars in the driveway (because we had to), travelling less, mending our clothes, reusing our waste (because we had to) – all of which reduced our ecological footprint. But somehow, at the same time, we were living more. That is to say, consumer culture was forcefully taken from us, so we had to create a new culture of consumption. We embraced a simpler way of living – and, much to our own surprise, we found it to be good. If it was not always comfortable, it was, at least, fulfilling. This is the paradox of simplicity, the wisdom of which had been lost in the consumer age: less can be more.

It was the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre who said that the French were never as free as when the German’s occupied their country during the Second World War. His point was that their lives, in the midst of crisis, were suddenly infused with meaning and purpose, in contrast with the humdrum unfreedom they had been living as comfortable middle-class consumers, with their overemphasis on status and materialistic concerns. The same could be said of Australia, and indeed the West, more generally, during the last few decades of economic contraction. In the midst of crisis, torn from our televisions and shopping malls, we were freer perhaps than we had ever been before, despite the hardships and constraints we faced. In the process of creating a new way of life, our lives were unexpectedly infused with new meaning, and that was the invisible force that drove the entire transition. As Friedrich Nietzsche once said: ‘Those who have a why to live, can bear almost any how.’

It had become clear, however, that we could no longer solve the problems we faced with the same kinds of thinking that caused them. It was time to think differently, to act differently, to live differently. And if our national and state politicians were not going to act decisively in the face of crisis, then we would have to act decisively ourselves, at the community level. Australian culture underwent a silent revolution, of sorts – a renaissance of participatory democracy – which over time, in the face of much resistance, filtered upwards through the various levels of political governance, decentralising power in the process and relocalising economy.

And so, the Great Transition, as we now call it, began amongst the grassroots of local communities. After all, there was hardly going to be a progressive politics until there was a progressive culture. Agitated but inspired social movements emerged throughout the nation, in various guises and forms, representing a growing sense of dissatisfaction and disillusionment with the old ways of doing things. People had had enough of the same old story, so they began writing a new story, not with words, but with deeds.

Entropia - book cover - author Samuel AlexanderThe low-carbon society that we have today is a product of these cultural forces eventually finding political and macro-economic expression. By reordering our priorities, and reconceptualising what progress meant for our nation, we found that investment in renewables was not financially prohibitive, even in hard economic times, but merely a matter of political commitment. But do not misunderstand me. Of course we had to make some sacrifices elsewhere. Certainly, we could not afford to sustain a growth-orientated, consumer society on renewable energy. Far from it! Huge lifestyle changes were required to support our transition to a low-carbon, steady state society. So let me be clear: we no longer live lives of consumer affluence. We are a nation of radical recyclers, menders, makers, salvagers, gardeners, and retrofitters. But do not pity us! We might live simply and creatively, but we live well. We have reimagined the good life and this is reflected in our macroeconomics of sufficiency.

Perhaps the most important feature of our new economy, therefore, is that we do not use anywhere near as much energy as we did in earlier decades. Due to the fact that our levels of production and consumption have been radically downscaled, we can now afford to produce most of our limited electricity needs with solar, wind, and hydro. By walking, cycling, using public transport, producing food organically, and relocalising much of our economy, we have also been able to reduce our consumption of oil to a small fraction of what it once was. Last year, after a political firestorm, we closed all our coal power plants.

In closing, there are four points worth emphasising about our transition to a low-carbon society: (1) that it was provoked by crisis, or rather, a series of crises; (2) that the crises brought an end to economic growth as we had known it; (3) that making the best of a post-growth economy depended upon a new culture of consumption, in which people embraced far simpler ways of living; and (4) that we were required to consume much less energy in order to be able to afford to run our economy primarily on renewables and create a low-carbon society. Renewable energy, I repeat, could never sustain a growth-orientated, consumer society.

We are not at the post-carbon society yet, but we’re well on our way, and after two dark decades, the future is again looking bright.

Samuel Alexander's recent book is Entropia: Life Beyond Industrial Civilisation.

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