Equipment for Living

Among friends, acquaintances, and even among colleagues who already troll the dark waters of post-carbon anticipation in the Transition Movement, I have gained a reputation as “the doom and gloom guy.”  This misunderstanding is, I admit, not without merit.  I declare my beliefs about the future of modern industrial society frequently and with as much volume as I can muster.  I am not shy about telling anyone who might listen that the material prospects for Americans and members of other “advanced” nations are not looking very good these days.  At the same time, I don’t any (naive) optimism about a coming post-collapse permaculture utopia of the sort that gives many people in my corner of the sustainability world their hopeful outlook.   Neither peak oil nor climate change will provide some sort of magic “reset button” for a consumer society that is going off the rails of industrial progress.  John Michael Greer is probably correct that the coming contraction will be long and slow and will create suffering comprising more dull and nagging aches than any sort of ecstatic agony or blinding insight on the road to this or that Damascus.  In addition to dim material prospects, this is to say, I don’t think that human well-being, as it is generally understood, nor most of the other parts of life celebrated by the Enlightenment or Individual Liberalism, should expect a particularly rosy future.

This can be scary.   Parents may feel additionally weighted by this burden.  But even while considering the direst aspects of a world of increasing constraints and contractions, I don’t find the future to be the source of gloom.  My vision of the future is not very depressing to me, and for the very simple reason that if things turn out the way I believe they might, I don’t think I will be particularly depressed then—nor gloomy.  Weight, fear, and the unknown are, of course, weighty, scary, and unknown.  But is that the same as gloom?  And are emotions such as these inevitably the source of complacency or withdrawal or hopeless defeat (the ostensible reason for a policy forced optimism in many environmental movements)?  There may be some idiosyncratic personal reasons behind my relative optimism towards a difficult and in many ways perilous future, but irrepressible hopefulness and buoyancy is not one of them.  I may be somewhat of risk-taker, enjoy testing my endurance, and like the idea of an adventure.  But beyond that, I am subject to a relatively “normal” mix of positive and negative emotions.   Amidst my apparent (though misnamed) doom and gloom, and all of life’s other ups and downs, I feel equally frustrated and sad, as amused, interested, and intrigued.  I am angry at times and joyful at others, sour and sweet, petty and forgiving.  At Transition Milwaukee, we laugh a lot and have plenty of fun—and not, I should remind everyone, only when we evade the more perilous aspects of the future.  Joy, meaning, even relaxation, are instead the frames we put things in, even really bad things.

This is not to deny that a pervasive sense of doom can, if one lets it, easily result in gloom—or despair, depression, or hopeless despondency.  Putting bad news in a useful or beneficial frame does take some work.  Having a good philosophical and literary tool box can be very helpful in this way.  In Kenneth Burke’s phrase, “poetry is equipment for living.”  One tool that I have found particularly useful is my persistent allegiance to a spiritual philosophy that, I should also note, is unlike those that view the world as a perfect unity, a place of inherent meaning where “things always happen for a reason,” or in which we are protected by this or that benevolent force (which seems to take more than a few days off).  Rather, for lack of a better term, I would call this spiritual orientation “existentialism.”  Just as the existentialism that most people are familiar with looks for meaning in the face of meaninglessness, some of its principles can be extended to bolster cheerfulness in the face of doom.   This existentialism, which I will describe in greater depth shortly, I should note, also upholds truths that are the opposite of the beliefs needed to maintain the modern, industrial, capitalist, and quintessentially American system of ceaseless and incessant buying and selling.  Because that system spends about $1500 per year on each and every  American in the name of marketing and advertising, maintaining the self-inoculating existential counter-truths that I have in mind does take a certain kind of discipline; this discipline requires a certain obsessive streak, I will admit, and is likely to come off as annoying to many people (and it probably is), some of whom are likely to see you as a zealot, and others who will merely consider you the “doom and gloom guy (or gal).”

Being Towards Death

The varied ideas and differing schools of thought that are somewhat haphazardly fall under the label of existentialism are as varied as thinkers like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre, and even in some ways Hegel, while novelists and poets as varied as Virginia Woof, Wallace Stevens, and  Albert Camus addressed many of the same concerns.   Despite this diversity, they share an orientation characterized by the rather dry phrase: existence precedes essence.  This phrase makes most sense in the context of previous Western Metaphysics, which was fairly certain that essences–including human nature, reason, sentiment, and judgment, as well as the ultimate human values–were inherent and immutable (“philosophy” is the name our society has given to the task of finally discovering what these essences are).  A universe full of essences is what has underwritten Western Philosophy’s (and most spiritual traditions) belief in the inherent meaningfulness of things.  In more concrete terms, existentialists hold that our sense of reality and the truths by which we live, in contrast to traditional metaphysics, weren’t somehow beamed into our brains at birth and are not written in some sort of secret code across the heavens–and for these and other reasons are therefore not testable according to some soundproof system similar to the model enjoyed by mathematics and the natural sciences. 

Rather, human truths–and the always contingent “truths” about humans–develop according to the lived experiences of individuals and (I would add and emphasize) cultures (one of the chief weaknesses of existentialism as it is generally understood is its focus on the individual consciousness).  To round out my version of existentialism, I would add to “lived experience” the inherited  and collectively shared stories by which we interpret that reality, a point emphasized by post-structuralists like Jacque Derrida and Michel Foucault who recouped this Nietzschean emphasis on inherited narrative traditions.

The other crucial insight brought to the existential table by post-structuralism, is an understanding of language and reality as constructed by way of contrasts and differentiation—or as linguist Ferdinand de Saussure explained, language is a “system of differences” with no positive or immutable absolutes to which the whole shifting and slipping world of signification might be tethered.   Meaning and value, then, are constructed through opposition and contrast: “culture” is described as the opposite of “nature, but only a “nature” whose characteristics, value, and meaning were conceived and invented by that very culture.  “Special” makes no sense without an “ordinary” backdrop from which it might be differentiated, with each term changing as once-special events become routine.  “Freedom” is meaningless without the bondage de jour against which it is fighting, so that it can alternatively emphasize the freedom to vote, to not be taxed, to consume without limits, to keep your farm or to turn farms into subdivisions, to mate with whomever you like, to be left alone by an overseer, to live in a society without private property, all depending on the context in which one is living and struggling.  There is, according to this view, no one single and final definition of freedom that we all might agree upon once we become more clear about some obscure set of laws about human nature.  Contrasts are lived and interpreted, and are never still or immobile.[1]

The mother of all contrasts derived from lived experience, Martin Heidegger pointed out, is the contrast between life and death.  Life, he argued, and other existentialists usually agree, thus gets its meaning and its value from the fact that it is, for any individual, finite.   Death, likewise, is rendered meaningful or meaningless based on its context (“did he die in vain?” “how can we make something positive come out of her death?”).  With immortality, life loses its precarious, and thus precious, nature (a theme often explored in fiction and myth).  The upshot of this is that life is inherently precarious.  It is a risky endeavor, and the removal of all risk, were it possible, would render it meaningless.   While it would be facile to suggest that mortality is mainly an existential metaphor for everything else—its closure is far too corporeal to be just a metaphor rather than a thing-in-itself—it does nonetheless provide a vivid example of the way finitude, imperfection, and the asymptotic incompletion of any human project is a central part of its value.  “The imperfect,” Wallace Stevens similarly wrote, “is our paradise.”  In contrast, perfection, completion, and total or final fulfillment (despite the claims of our marketers and salespeople) is, like death, a form of stasis.  Humans may struggle to make life less precarious, and one may spend a good bit of one’s life attempting to postpone death; but these are struggles that performed largely in vain.   And that’s a good thing, too, according to existentialists.   Beyond the practical impossibility of making life completely safe (or comfortable), moreover, success would be self-undermining: life becomes un-precarious only upon death.   An entirely safe and completed life, were it to exist, would be a living death, or so the existentialist believes.  This is the existential paradox: we are driven to pursue what we should never hope to achieve.

This paradox has had trouble gaining very much traction in modern bourgeois societies.  Most people don’t pursue degrees in Comparative Literature for the very good reason that these paradoxes don’t capture their imagination enough to displace all sorts of practical struggles and challenges, as well as a host of far more accessible joys and pleasures.   To this general detraction we might add the fact that the existential proposition that truth and reality are constructed fictions, inherently contingent, and developed through a life lived in the face of death, is still a philosophically controversial proposition in Anglo-American philosophy, in large part, as the late Richard Rorty often pointed out, because philosophy departments become increasingly superfluous as this proposition gains traction.  At some level, though, Western philosophy in its classic form seeks the end of contingency (and thus of life?).

But I would also suggest that the bias against existential truths and existential systems of valuation is a feature of a consumer culture.  In consumer culture, consumption postures, poses, and generally sells itself (around the clock) as a principle of perfection, completion, and fulfillment.   This, of course, is how products are sold—on the claim that they will eliminate pain, inconvenience, hardship, loneliness, even old age.  In the omnipresent marketing fictions that fill our lives, the most common of all narrative genres today (and the opposite, mind you, of useful equipment for living), the imperfect is certainly not portrayed as our paradise.   Rather, Corinthian leather, all you can eat, the ultimate driving experience, 4G, innovation that excites, and texting and browsing at the same time are presented as our paradise.  Even though they rarely actually say it (though they do sometimes!) most advertisements have as a sort of subtext the promise that the product in question will help you gain the upper hand in the battle against death–or at least in the battle against weariness, normal human odors, unwanted body hair, aches and pains, and a sagging ass or limp penis.

Supply and Demand

The unacknowledged paradoxes of consumer capitalism, it turns out, can of all places be located in the vicinity of its sacred “law” of supply and demand, according to which so much of our social and political life is regrettably organized.  Supply and demand is, in some ways, a version of the existential “being-towards-contrast” that I have been describing.  And yet, while it informs the organization of our social life, it has yet to penetrate the collective consciousness in a way that might facilitate an acceptance of human limits.  Rather, it goads us into a frenzied pursuit of the impossible—of mountains of crappy stuff that we value, or valuable objects that everyone might afford, of value combined with plentitude, of the motivating force of want in the presence of total satisfaction, of, most absurdly, an infinite supply of energy.  Even the law of thermodynamics, with its insistence on a cold-side for every engine and the essential dynamic of dissipation, tells us that an infinite supply of energy is the effective end of motion.  Physics is more existential than the ideologies of consumerism.

While the existential and post-structuralist proposition that truth, meaning, and reality are constructed according to a linguistic system of differences may be too counter-intuitive to explain without a book-length discussion, it is far easier to show how value is determined, and elevated, by contrast to scarcity.  In addition to the way the gap between supply and demand determines prices within a market system (itself a system of differences without any absolutes), it is easy enough to see how the value of things that we might see as relatively mundane and valueless are or were, in conditions of scarcity, far more precious and, therefore, how conditions of excess diminish value.

Anyone who has spent extended time in the wilderness can recall the feeling of that first return-to-civilization shower, hot prepared meal, clean pair of underwear, or cold beer, and will also be in a unique position to understand the way it is possible to adapt to life without many of the basic comforts we are taught to believe we cannot possibly do without.  This sort of self-imposed condition of scarcity also reveals the profound shift in satisfaction provided by “normal” comforts when made rare.  It is regretful, to those of us who love doing this to ourselves (equipped with thousands of dollars of the lightest-weight equipment ever devised) that outdoor recreation is an industry, and thus will disappear with industrial society (this loss can, however, be more successfully mourned with existential insights).  

In the meantime, voluntary and recreational self-removal from civilization makes it easier to understand both the trials and pleasures of life in pre and early-modern society.  Being cold, damp, and smelly, eating the same meal day after day while wearing the same soiled and increasingly microbe-infested clothing, it turns out, is not the same thing as misery or unhappiness.  If done with friends and in a nice or wild setting, it can be downright thrilling. The average citizen of an industrial civilization, in contrast, will appear terrified at the suggestion that in order to maintain our planet as a livable habitat, we may have to be a little too cold or a little too hot and may not being able to choose between Thai, Italian, Middle-Eastern, or Chinese take-out whenever the mood strikes.  Tell a group of progressive activists that they may not be able to expect yearly upgrades for their digital devices, and you are likely to be beaten to death with Birkenstocks or kayak paddles.   Many modern people will choose death rather than face the possibility of material constraints, a phenomenon predicted by the rash of suicides that occur whenever “the market” takes a plunge and the paper-wealth of those unlikely to experience real discomfort or want nevertheless hurl themselves out of their Wall Street offices.

Modern plentitude, however, has the unique effect of making pleasures that might seem rare and special a matter of the most basic entitlement.  This in turn, does in fact diminish their pleasure.  In a “deprived” wilderness context, the rare comforts that one can find—a warm day in the sun, a cold bath in a pond or icy stream, an extra day of rest, clean socks—will be all the more enjoyable, delighting the senses in a way that few things can within a life of daily comfort and luxury.  Recall, in this vein, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s description in Little House in the Big Woods of the joys of her family’s simple Christmas.  It is through nostalgic sensory overloads, today, that many Americans foolishly try to keep the “old-fashioned” festive spirit alive with non-stop Christmas Music, fake snow, It’s a Wonderful Life marathons in both black and white and reformatted color, and a complete battery-powered diorama of Dickens’ London, not to mention the twelve-thousand watt Nativity Scene festooned with flashing lights and an inflated animated Santa Claus.  Laura and her family, in contrast, were delighted by a few pieces of candy, a new tin cup, and the novel pleasures of a rare orange, savored and relished in a way that may be all but impossible within modern industrial civilization.   Give most modern American children an orange and a tin cup for Christmas, and you’ll have a full scale rebellion on your hands, and maybe a knock on the door from Family Social Services.  The legitimately felt disappointment and misery that such comparative lack would cause a child taught to expect so much more is an indication of the way pleasure and joy are determined mainly by the social standards with which any situation or event is approached.  This, of course, explains why some parents need to set off fifty-thousand dollars’ worth of fireworks and book Justin Timberlake in order to make little Timmy’s eighth birthday party a minimal success.

Lack, in other words, is largely a comparative concept.   So is plenty.  Eating one orange a year and getting a single new hand-made toy every several years is not, in and of itself, a miserable existence.   In the same way a family that crowded around a 13” black and white television watching Super Bowl I did not experience this as a form of suffering, nor did those who listened to earlier events on the radio.  But see what happens when you take away many of your friends’ 48” plasma screen TV during any given February.  As a final example of the comparative and contrasting nature of lived experience, which even includes something as seemingly physiological as air temperature, researchers note that many people who keep their thermostats set at a balmy 75 degrees in winter will force their air-conditioner to keep that same room at a frigid 68 degrees several months later.  Heat and cool, alike, are in this way a sort of contrast-determined value-concept, a reprieve from a contrasting discomfort.   We feel hot and cold based on the opposite condition that we are attempting to escape.

Contemporary consumer society requires a wholesale denial of this existential truth, even as it exploits the psychological experience of expectations and socially-determined standards.   It operates according to a logic that tells us that if a shower after two months in the mountains feels great, a daily shower will feel sixty-times as good.  And when that daily shower ceases to delight, try a shower with eleven precision-aimed shower heads supplied by a five-thousand gallon water heater.  When it becomes necessary, you can tear that shower out and rebuild its surround with reclaimed Italian tiles, giving your daily ecstasy an edifying European charm.  The same principle extends to the way we eat and celebrate.  If a meal rich with meats, creams, and imported fruits that are absent from one’s daily fare can punctuate a family gathering, think how happy you’ll be if you can have whatever you want three times a day!  If Christmas is a special day, let’s make every day into Christmas—this idea and this phrase, no doubt, have been used by some advertising campaign or another. 

This belief that every day and every experience ought to be special of course ignores the (existential) meaning of “special.”  Special makes sense only against a backdrop of normal or ordinary.  The moment one tries to make every day “special,” special days will seem pretty ordinary.  In terms of both the way we make meaning and the way we experience life, special and ordinary are dependent on each other, and the quest to eliminate the ordinary will be self-defeating.  But consumer society nevertheless pretends that some high level of pleasure and enjoyment might have the same effect day in and day out without, in fact, becoming the ordinary against which a new (bigger, better, and, to our purposes, more resource-dependent) special must be imagined.  The attempt–by showering us with more oranges, more toys, and more unique moments—to reproduce on a daily basis the delight that Laura felt once a year may have as its result the possibility that we may be increasingly immune to such feelings altogether.

That human happiness might, in the first place, reside in comfort and the elimination of want, and, in the second place, that want can itself be eliminated, mark the existential downfall of the American way of life.  This is punctuated by the way consumer society works over time to “manufacture discontent.”  It is not enough that a novelty or luxury will eventually feel routine and provide a new upgraded standard of minimum satisfaction.  This will eventually happen on its own, but not quickly enough to “keep the economy moving.”   The most significant strategy of advertising and marketing is the ability to make us feel bad enough about last year’s model that we will not only throw it out, but sacrifice time with our children, destroy our mental health, and put our planet on a collision-course with environmental limits in order to get next year’s model.    

Post-Consumer Existentialism

It should not be much of a surprise to discover that most critiques of consumer culture employ some version of these existential insights, even if their authors have no explicit allegiance to existentialism.  Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice and Juliet Schor’s The Overspent American come immediately to mind.  Barbara Erenreich,  Arlene Scholnick, and numerous others have written insightful and popular books of social criticism that discuss the unintended consequences of psychological gentrification and the diminish returns of rising expectations.  Schor, for instance, notes that “throughout the 1980s and 1990s most middle-class Americans were acquiring at a greater rate than any previous generation of the middle class” (11).  But despite the “new consumerism,” marked by increasingly lavish and upscale amenities and a profusion of things and even edifying experiences, Americans felt more “materially dissatisfied” than ever before.  How was this possible?  For the simple reason, Schor argues, that there was a decidedly “upward shift in consumer aspirations”–because social “definitions of ‘the good life’ and even of the ‘necessities of life’ continued to expand, even as people worried about how they could pay for them” (12).  Add to this a greater stratification in income distribution, and the way new “lifestyle” based marketing that modeled the lives of the super-rich as a norm to which anyone might aspire (what Schor refers to as “a vertical  stretching out of the referent group”), and the stage is set for a “period of  consumer anxiety, frustration, and dissatisfaction” (12).  The way consumer aspirations and expectations were frustrated by this existentialist paradox is vividly demonstrated by the fact that the higher the income, the more likely one was to feel dissatisfied with that income (17).

Barry Schwartz makes a similar argument about the self-defeating nature of rising expectations.  Though his book highlights the issue of choice, and the way the proliferation of choices has created new types of dissatisfaction like regret and missed opportunity, not to mention the increasing amount of work to select and buy basic items, he also shows how social norms and the expectations they set are far more significant than the amount of stuff or type of consumer experiences we actually enjoy.  “Comparisons,” he argues, “are the only meaningful benchmark” (181), a point made by existentialist philosophy and its proposition that there are no meaningful absolutes, only the contrasts and differentiations we make as we stumble through life.  In a consumer society, where we are given the false promise of satisfaction through increased consumption, our journey through life will be whipped into a frenzied sprint.  But, as Schwartz points out, we are really only running in place—and perhaps running ourselves to death–on a “satisfaction treadmill.”  The result is that “real income can increase by a factor of two (in the U.S.) or five (in Japan) without having a measurable effect on the subjective well-being of the members of society.  As long as expectations keep pace with realizations, people may live better, but they won’t feel any better about how they live” (184).

The solution that Schor, Schwartz, and other critics of consumer society offer is, in Schor’s words, to “downshift.”  “Downshifters are opting out of excessive consumerism, choosing to have more leisure and balance in their schedules, a slower pace of life, more time with their kids, more meaningful work, and daily lives that line up with their deepest values” (22).   This change in priorities and the reworking of one’s life goals is also a primary feature of The Transition Movement, and other similar efforts to “powerdown” (while Schor could not  be considered a “post-carbon” thinker in The Overspent American, written in 1998, ecology and energy do sit at the forefront of more recent work in Plenitude).  Recall the way Hopkins inspires us to imagine a life without oil that is actually better and more satisfying than our current one based on consumption.  In his indispensable Plan C, Pat Murphy similarly encourages us to reorganize our life with a focus on community, and envisions “a society based on cooperation and care of the planet rather than competition and exploitation of planetary resources,” in which we might regain “our souls” (xvii, xviii).

For members of the American middle class who are setting off on a Transition journey into a simpler and less energy-dependent lifestyle–or as early initiators demonstrate to friends, family-members, and their broader community  the satisfactions that Transitioning might offer–this sort of existential insight about our consumer culture gets pretty close to the heart of the matter.  For the average member of industrial civilizations, the prospect of doing without luxuries, comforts, and amusements is all the barrier to realistic and legitimate change they need.  For them, the argument about the self-defeating nature of seeking happiness and well-being through consumption is about all the existential truth or insight that they may initially need and can likely handle.  Aided by the model of others who are few steps ahead in this journey towards lower consumption, the sort of insight offered by Schor or Schwartz could have a meaningful impact.  Increasing numbers of people are becoming disenchanted with the “satisfaction treadmill,” as well as the treadmills of debt and overwork.  There is a substantial audience for this view of things.

But I have not gotten my reputation for being the “doom and gloom guy” by suggesting that we might enjoy lives of joyful and voluntary simplicity and, while we are at it, lead the world away from the precipice of global warming.  I do think that the first steps towards a transition to a future without cheap and plentiful fossil fuels can be the source of great joy and satisfaction, while in fact involving minimal (if any) actual discomfort.  But this vision of the future is a bit superficial and lacks the “whole system thinking” that suggests we are in for a much bumpier ride.  The joys and pleasures of early Transitioning are likely to be put to the test amidst growing wide-scale geopolitical conflict, disintegrating civil disorder, as well as the backlash of highly vested interest that will do everything they can to squeeze out a few more desperate days of business as usual.  The voluntary downshifting performed by generally well-healed people with substantial safety-nets, moreover, is a far cry from the forced sacrifices demanded by government edict or economic circumstances, and may ignite an explosive chain reaction from the already smoldering politics of resentment visible today at the widening fringe of industrialized democracies.   Add to this the prospect of runaway climate change and violent weather events, and Rob Hopkins’ suggestion that life without oil might be better will need to be revised: it might be “better,” but it probably won’t.

As it is presented by someone like Schor or Schwartz, downshifting is clearly portrayed as a free choice that one living in a still-affluent society might make, rather than a necessity required by energy constraints or environmental limits.  Lacking a vision of society as an ecological system, one also gets the sense from reading Schor (much less so in the more recent Plenitude) and Schwartz that one might opt out of consumer society simply in order to evade the empty promises of larger TVs, bigger homes, and around-the-clock recreational electronic stimulation, while at the same time maintaining all the safety, security, and more meaningful luxuries of a fossil-fuel based industrial society.  We may be happy to grow our own food and sample our wacky friend’s fermented burdock root, homemade mead, and dandelion kimchi, but only as long as we can treat the resulting stomach-ache at a local emergency room whose extravagant costs and energy requirements are still considered a basic right for all.  Hand digging that root cellar may be all fun and games, but we fully expect a long hot shower to soothe those aching pre-post-carbon muscles.  Constraints in health-care and all our other emergency-aid systems, as well as the inevitable end of the security provided by the insurance industry, are parts of the future that few have willingly embraced.  And while Schwartz fully understands the existential dilemma of want and expectations, it should be of little surprise that voluntary deprivation is entertained only against the backdrop of continued plenty.  Consider in this vein the way Schwartz explains how we might keep pleasures and satisfactions fresh, how we can maintain the distinct meaning of “special”:

One way of achieving this goal is by keeping wonderful experiences rare.  No matter what you can afford, save great wine for special occasions.  No matter what you can afford, make that perfectly cut, elegantly styled, silk blouse a special treat.  This may seem like self-denial, but I don’t think it is.  On the contrary, it’s a way to make sure that you can continue to experience pleasure.  What’s the point of great meals, great wines, and great blouses if they don’t make you feel great?  (187)

What indeed?  Lest it appear that I am criticizing Schwartz for not writing a book that he had no intention of writing, and probably does not see the need for, I should clarify my point: criticisms of consumer society that focus on consumer society’s psychological shortfalls are valuable in and of themselves and they are of great value to people trying to prepare themselves for a post-carbon future.  But they nevertheless leave a lot of work left to be done as we steel ourselves for a difficult and uncertain future of economic contraction and diminished material surpluses—a world, I’m afraid to announce, that may be one without great wine and perfect blouses.  These psychological and satisfaction-based criticisms don’t, in other words, complete the work promised in my title—namely that of separating gloom from doom.  They only perform the first, and easy, step of separating gloom from previously unimaginable material luxury, unlimited choice, and unprecedented opportunity!

Post-Carbon Existentialism?

The question mark in this section’s heading is very significant.  The quasi-existentialism visible in critiques of consumer society are clearly part and parcel of that very society, and in many ways the “doom” they are able to address requires the continuation of a wealthy society with significant surpluses.  But it is possible that even a more self-consciously and anti-bourgeois existentialism, the kind that pursues whatever dim flashes of light might be found amongst darker regions of being, is also a manifestation of consumer and industrial civilization?  Its historic rise, simultaneous with the dawn of individualism and the proliferation of choices and excess, would suggest this.  And just as a truly sustainable society does not need a city or corporate “sustainability director,” nor non-profit organizations dedicated to “sustainable solutions,” so also a society that is truly suffering from scarcity or in which death is omnipresent will probably not celebrate existential insights about being-towards-death or the pleasures of lack.  Going off to the mountains to face one’s death or the limits of endurance is a hobby reserved for those not undergoing this sort of trial on a daily basis.  The existential insights I have been discussing, in other words, have their own limits.  They may be of little use in the desperate circumstances they might otherwise appear to describe as a vivid and enlivening part of the “human condition.”

To summarize my position, I do believe that the dynamic of pleasure or satisfaction by contrast that I have been discussing will extend significantly beyond the margins of consumer society.  But I also am pretty sure that they do not extend into truly wretched circumstances.  Or, to put it slightly differently, as a white, middle-class American man living through the age of peak prosperity, one of my many responsibilities is to avoid using my privileged access to the means of communication in order to discuss things I know nothing about.  It would, for instance, be obscene for a person of European decent to suggest that Native Americans might have happily accepted their European-caused genocide with a few existential insights, using their degradation and terror as a way of finding rare and heightened pleasures.  The same goes for people anywhere who are enslaved or terrorized, who live without the chance for any self-determination.  I do not know what, if anything, makes or made life bearable in a refugee camp, a Cotton Plantation, the Gaza Strip, or in African diamond mine.  By the same token, I should beware of projecting insights derived out of privilege into a future in which its benefits have begun to disappear.  It is one thing for Wallace Stevens to declare from the comfort of his handsomely apportioned New Haven home that “the imperfect is our paradise,” and another to believe that this truth extends to the truly horrible as well.  

With its focus on choice (a focus that I think can also be problematic), major existential thinkers have, nevertheless, suggested some of the limits to existentialism’s ability to provide comfort or relief.   Some sort of self-determination, in other words, is a clear part of the existentialist’s philosophical elixir.  I don’t think this sort of self-determination needs to be modeled on the current view that freedom equals freedom to consume, nor on some version of our current quasi-democratic oligarchy.  There are many ways in which people can find agency for themselves or the community with which they identify.  National self-determination, for many people, seems more significant than individual.  Self-expression can balance out restrictions on mobility.  Irony and satire have provided a great sense of voice and purpose in ideologically repressive contexts.   Indeed, the underground journalists who risk all to tell the truth find far more value in their words–as do their audience–than the “free” journalist who prattles endlessly on to an indifferent public. 

One of the criticisms of existentialism, voiced most consistently from a more “politicized” left, is that its focus on acceptance can lead to a political quiescence.  These criticisms are not completely without merit, but as I understand it and would apply it myself, at any rate, the existential focus on agency provides a valuable starting point, and can be readily applied to the way politics, the necessity of limits, and the will of people will all intersect in a post-carbon future.  I will accept contraction, limits to some of my freedoms, the inevitability of making do with less, the necessity of rationing, and the simple fact that contraction and limits will create immense challenges in our current nation, with its current religion of unlimited consumption.  I am likewise prepared to be cold, to scrounge for food, share my space with strangers—if it all comes to that in my lifetime.  If I have to, I will live as cheerfully as I can without recreation or commodified entertainment.  But try to shut me up and I will resist.  The same would go for my ability to make things or create, and my capacity to struggle.   Like almost any parent, I would lay my life down for my children without a moment of hesitation.  Acceptance and stoicism has its limits.

The reason I think many of the sacrifices we are likely to face in coming decades can be performed cheerfully and without gloom—or despair and hopelessness—has to do with my sense that a chief feature of human creativity is the ability to reframe, redescribe, or tell new stories.  An important part of this process, as I have been arguing, is provided by the context we find ourselves in.  Humans are adaptable, and knowing this can be very comforting.  Evidence for the adaptability of humans can be found everywhere.  When I consider the lives of my ancestors, who lived in the shadow of infant mortality and unexpected death, I wonder how they endured.  The journey from native Sweden to America was full of dangers and uncertainty, and they were likely never again to see love-ones left behind.  But they did endure, and in many cases thrived.  I wonder, then, if life lived in the face of such loss was different, punctuated by emotions and experiences I can hardly imagine?  Is this difference the key to their success?  How did their more direct being-towards-death effect the texture of their lives? People who suffer terrible diseases often adjust with unimaginable quickness, finding pleasure and respite in a “good day,” humor in the absurdity of their new condition, joy in brief encounters with loved ones or the sudden emergence of a new community.  Even as if I must break my commitment to never utter the following phrase in full sincerity, the human spirit does appear quite strong. 

As Barry Schwartz points out, psychologist have shown that the anticipation of the future—the sort  of anticipation that causes people both dread and glee alike—almost uniformly underestimates the power of adaptation.  When people are asked to predict the consequences of future events, both good and bad, and how much these events will affect their sense of well-being, they almost always get it wrong.  Most people demonstrate the “mismatch between prediction and experience,” imaging the unfortunate events will destroy them and that fortunate ones will make them happy.  In reality, with the passage of time such events make almost no difference in people’s happiness and sense of well-being.  As Schwartz describes it, “it’s easy to see how results like these would follow directly from the fact that we adapt to almost everything, but ignore or underestimate adaptation in predicting the future” (176).  In this way, “elderly patients suffering from a variety of the most common debilitating illnesses of advanced age reliably judge their lives more positively than do the physicians who are treating them” (175-6).

When dealing with something like global climate change, these words should of course be taken with extreme caution.  We cannot adapt to everything.  And it is possible that I, too, am involved in a contrarian effort that overestimates our capacity to adapt and overvalues the power of comparison and context.  But as long as that overestimation does not lead to acceptance of things we might actually change in the name of human well-being, this is as good a delusion as any with which we might keep our heads up and our hearts open as we face an uncertain and challenging future.

[1] Referring to post-structuralism as an extension of existentialism is controversial, especially to post-structuralists.  It bears repeating that I am describing an existentialist philosophy that I have rendered without attention to any agreed-upon labels or distinctions within “official” schools of philosophy or existentialism