The Politics of Time’s Shape

May 23, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedLast week’s discussion was a bit of a divagation from the main theme of the present sequence of posts here on The Archdruid Report, but it was a divagation with a purpose. The three movements I traced from hopeful beginnings to their final guttering out in fantasies of universal destruction—Christian fundamentalism, the New Age scene, and the environmental movement—each attempted to change the direction in which the industrial world is moving, and failed. Both the attempts and the failures are  instructive, and make it possible to glimpse certain aspects of contemporary life that all parties involved have done their best to keep as obscure as possible.

To begin with, it’s important to recognize that no fixed rule sets apart those changes that get called “progress” from the ones that don’t.  The three competing kinds of progress discussed in an earlier post in this sequence are responsible for part of that diversity, but the majority of it is a function of ordinary power politics.  Any change in any part of society will benefit certain people at the expense of others, and in the bare-knuckle brawl of modern political life, slapping the label of progress on those changes that will benefit one’s supporters and annoy one’s enemies is an obvious and constantly used tactic. Just as common and effective is the gambit of pinning labels such as "regressive" on those changes that would benefit one’s enemies.

At any point in time, as a result, what exactly counts as progress is a fiercely contested matter, and the success or failure of a pressure group in the political sphere can often be gauged to a fine degree by noting where public opinion puts that group’s agenda on the spectrum reaching from most progressive to most reactionary.  Those assignments can shift dramatically with changes in context and the relative strength of different factions. Thus the kind of Protestant religiosity that’s now associated with the far right in America used to be an ideology of the far left—William Jennings Bryan, the radical Democratic politician whose fire-breathing speeches against corporate power make most of today’s anticorporate rhetoric look tame, was also the prosecuting attorney in the famous Scopes monkey trial—and environmental protection was dismissed by the American left of a century ago as a reactionary notion that stood in the way of bringing prosperity to the poor.

These shifts are possible because the concept of progress has no content of its own. In one sense, to borrow a bit of edgy mockery from C.S. Lewis, the contemporary faith in progress can be described as the conviction that the word "better" simply means "whatever comes next."  In the age of unparalleled abundance and technological power that is now passing,  what came next was usually settled by the most recent round of political and economic struggle, and the winners of each round were pleased to see their partisan agenda redefined as the next inevitable step in the onward march of progress.

And the losers?  That’s where things get interesting.

Each of the three movements I sketched out in last week’s post started out as a contender—a movement that might have succeeded in accomplishing the changes it wanted to make to American society, and so in defining those changes as the next inevitable step in that same onward march of progress.  The first surge of what would become today’s Christian fundamentalist movement spun off the youth movement of the 1960s, embracing the teachings of that bearded and sandaled hippie, Jesus Christ, as the next stage in the moral transformation of American society.  The days of the Jesus People, Godspell, and the Good News Bible have been so thoroughly erased from our collective imagination that it can be hard, even for people who were there at the time, to think of fundamentalism as a radical movement, a social force that saw itself as moving forward toward a brighter future.

The transformation of the New Age movement was even more drastic. In its early years, most of what provided the New Age scene with inspiration had at least some claim to be called scientific; quantum physics and a dozen or so avant-garde schools of psychology played a far larger role in the movement than, say, the mutterings of channeled entities.  There was plenty of interest in extrasensory perception, to be sure, but parapsychology hadn’t yet been blackballed by the American scientific establishment, and significant figures in the sciences argued that the possibility of extrasensory knowledge ought to be taken seriously.  Early New Age books such as Marilyn Ferguson’s The Aquarian Conspiracy raised the hope of a convergence of science and spirituality, in which scientific research would put a solid foundation of proven fact under such traditional practices as yoga and meditation.

The environmental movement had much the same flavor in its first flowering. To many of us in the appropriate-tech scene, industrial society’s encounter with the hard reality of planetary limits was at least as much an opportunity as a threat, and the integration of technologically advanced societies with a thriving planetary biosphere—the goal of a great deal of enthusiastic thinking in those days—seemed to promise a future of almost unimaginable richness and possibility.  The coming world of solar panels and geodesic domes, thriving organic farms and lively human-scale cities, in which Paolo Soleri’s arcologies would rise above newly reforested landscapes and dirigibles would move silently through unpolluted skies, set the stage for many soaring hopes and dreams.

It’s instructive to observe what happened as each of these movements followed its trajectory through time. The New Age movement, despite the overblown hopes placed on it by some of its supporters, never had a shot at significant political or cultural power, and it soon found its way to the fringes, where it shed its links to science, mingled with the remains of older alternative spiritualities, and began to take the unwholesome interest in conspiracy theories and apocalyptic prophecies that eventually dominated the whole movement.  Christian fundamentalism and the environmental movement had far more political clout even in their idealistic early phases, and so had to be bought off; in both cases this was done, as it’s usually done, by dangling the bait of money and influence in front of organizations and spokespersons in the movement who were willing to "be realistic"—that is, to scrap any serious challenge to the existing order of society and focus on a narrowly defined agenda instead.

Once the bait was taken, in turn, the jaws of the trap snapped smoothly shut. The organizations and spokespersons who had swallowed the bait were expected to cooperate in the marginalization of those who refused it, and to buy into the broader agenda of the people who were cutting the checks even when that agenda contradicted the original purpose of the movement, as it inevitably did. Meanwhile, the narrowing of each group’s purpose committed it to an increasingly defensive and reactive stance:  the fundamentalists fixated on defending a handful of sexual customs, the environmentalists on defending a handful of species, and in both cases the larger partisan coalition to which the movement now belonged made plenty of noise about supporting the movement and then did essentially nothing, insisting that the hard realities of politics made it impossible to follow through on its commitments.

Both movements thus became what I’ve called captive constituencies of existing power centers. The current fracas around the Keystone pipeline shows just how much effective influence the environmental movement succeeded in buying by cashing in its hopes, its dreams and its principles.  The Obama administration, if it chooses to do so, can agree to the pipeline and suffer no noticeable backlash from the environmental movement.  There would be some yelling in the media and the blogosphere, to be sure, and a few protest marches in designated free speech zones, but come 2016 the Democrats will wave the scary Republicans at whatever remains of the environmental movement, the leaders of the big environmental organizations will give speeches about how disappointed they are in the Democrats but we still have to support them against the GOP, and rank and file environmentalists will line up meekly and vote for the Democratic candidate despite it all. Obama could as well order the national park system strip-mined for coal and launch a new biofuels program that will turn endangered species into synthetic petroleum, and the results would be precisely the same; it doesn’t help, of course, that the Republicans treat their captive constituencies with the identical degree of scorn.

It’s no accident that when movements for social change fail—whether the failure is simply a matter of banishment to the fringes, as happened to the New Age, or whether the movement is courted, seduced, betrayed and abandoned like the hapless heroine of a Victorian penny-dreadful novel, as happened to the fundamentalists and the environmentalists—apocalyptic beliefs become increasingly central to their rhetoric. Partly, that’s a reflection of the massive role that threats of imminent doom have always had in the rhetoric of social change, especially but not only here in America. Since the Reverend Jonathan Edwards thrilled colonial New England with his famous sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," attempts to move American society in any direction have normally relied on the insistence that failing to make whatever change is being proposed guarantees some awful fate or other. The less effective the movement, by and large, the more strident the threats of apocalypse tend to be, and the decline of a social movement into political irrelevance is normally accompanied by a final burst of rhetoric pushing the movement’s apocalyptic claims to their ultimate extreme.

Still, there’s more going on here than the common tendency of activists at all points on the political continuum to respond to the failure of rhetorical threats by doubling down. The distinction made in an earlier post between the shape of time defined by Augustine of Hippo and the one proposed by Joachim of Flores has a great deal of relevance here. All three of the movements I’ve discussed above started their trajectory with a Joachimist model of history:  the world had arrived at the brink of a grand transformation, and once people embraced the great forward leap that the movement offered, some equivalent of Joachim’s Age of the Holy Spirit would usher in a bright new future.  The New Age movement officially kept that faith—it could hardly do otherwise, having defined itself in terms of a new age that was supposedly about to be born—but as the Aquarian Conspiracy fizzled out and the world kept following its accustomed path, New Age thinkers drifted out of a Joachimist model into an Augustinian one, in which the repeated failures of ordinary history would finally be redeemed by an equivalent of the Second Coming on December 21, 2012.

For the fundamentalist and environmentalist movements, the shift from Joachimist to Augustinian models of time was if anything more sharply defined. Once both movements abandoned the hope of changing society as a whole, they had slipped over into Augustinian time, and they promptly identified themselves with the righteous remnant of the Augustinian vision. Once they did that, their defeat was certain; the role of the righteous remnant in Augustine’s shape of time is to strive to defend the good against the assaults of an evil world, and fail heroically, so that the triumph of  the Second Coming or its secular equivalent can be all the more glorious. Activists in both movements, without ever quite noticing it, accordingly embraced tactics that were guaranteed to fail.

What media activist Patrick Rainsborough has called "defector syndrome"—the fine art of arguing for your side in such a way that only those who already agree wholeheartedly with your viewpoint will be favorably impressed, while everyone else will be repelled—has played a large role in such exercises. I’m thinking here, among other things, of a book on energy issues I got in the mail not long ago, an unwieldy coffee table-sized object that started out with a photo essay in which each page had an slogan in 60-point type, all caps, yelling something or other about the world’s energy situation. It’s hard to imagine that anybody but a true believer in the editor’s point of view would get past the bellowing; I found it unreadable, and I more or less agree with the book’s viewpoint.

To the ordinary citizens and opinion makers in the middle of the road, the people the environmental movement desperately needs to engage, that sort of tirade simply confirms the other side’s insistence that environmentalists are by definition a pack of raving extremists. The same sort of self-inflicted damage is even more common in the fundamentalist scene—think of Reverend Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church, whose shrill ravings about the alleged evils of homosexuality have probably done more to make ordinary Americans sympathetic to gays and lesbians than any other factor in living memory.  That’s the kind of own goal that tends to get scored when a movement for social change embraces the Augustinian shape of time in an uncritical fashion.

It’s important to understand why this should be so.  The shape of time that Augustine proposed in The City of God was ultimately a response to failure—the failure of the Roman state and society to maintain itself against the forces that were dragging it down the road to collapse, and the failure of the Christian religion to make good on the promises of an earlier generation of theologians and save the Roman world from itself. As a response to failure, in turn, it was extraordinarily effective.  If you and your civilization are staring the Dark Ages in the face, a way of thinking about time that treats ordinary history as an evil irrelevance and focuses all hope on a shining vision of a world after history ends is not merely comforting, it’s adaptive. It inspired monks and nuns across Dark Age Europe to preserve the cultural and scientific  heritage of the ancient world, and helped many ordinary people find a reason to keep going even in the harshest times.

A way of thinking that’s adaptive during the decline of a civilization, though, may not be equally so in struggles for influence in an age of abundance. As I suggested earlier in this post, any social change will benefit some people at the expense of others; what counts as progress from the point of view of the winners in any given struggle, in other words, will usually look very like decline from the point of view of the losers.  If the only two ways of thinking about historical change your culture offers you are the Joachimist and the Augustinian shapes of time, in turn—and this is decidedly true of contemporary industrial society—the winners in any given social conflict are likely to embrace a Joachimist view in which their triumph marks the arrival of a grand positive transformation and a great leap forward along the inevitable track of progress, while the losers are just as likely to embrace an Augustinian view in which their defeat will inevitably be paid back with interest by some apocalyptic transformation in the near future.  Those beliefs are comforting, they allow the cascading randomness of history to be forced into an emotionally satisfying shape, and they encourage each side to continue to enact their assigned social roles as winners and losers.

This is one of the core reasons, I’ve come to believe, that peak oil has been the red-haired stepchild of the environmental movement since the contemporary peak oil scene began to emerge in the late 1990s. There have been any number of attempts to force it into a Joachimist patterm—think of all the attempts to claim that we can overcome the challenge of peak oil through some great collective leap to a better world—or an Augustinian one—think of all the attempts to extract a satisfyingly sudden cataclysm from the long slow downward arc of fossil fuel depletion—but the great collective leaps have proven embarrassingly out of reach, and the sudden cataclysms contrast awkwardly with the reality of rising energy costs, disintegrating infrastructure, and economic dysfunction that peak oil is helping to bring about right now.  If peak oil and the wider impact of the limits to growth define the future we actually face, both the winners and the losers are out of luck.

Of course this points up one of the other features of peak oil that’s rendered it so unwelcome:  it provides a basis for accurate predictions. I accept that there are at least a few people on any given side of today’s reality wars who believe, totally and trustingly, that victory for their side will bring about a great leap forward to a new epoch of history, or that the inevitable defeat of their side will be followed by a vast catastrophe that will prove to the rest of humanity just how wrong they were. I find myself questioning, though, just how large a percentage of those who make such claims can be counted among the true believers.  I’ve known far too many people whose belief in the imminent destruction of the world didn’t keep them from putting money into their retirement accounts, or whose loudly proclamed commitment to some cause never quite caused them to live up to the ideals they claimed to espouse.

I commented in a blog post last year on the odd way that mainstream climate activists had reacted to news that the Arctic Ocean was fizzing with methane. Many public figures—iconic climate scientist James Lovelock among them—who had insisted not that long before that releases of Arctic methane meant "game over" suddenly backed away from those claims, making embarrassed noises. Those who accepted at face value the predictions of imminent doom issued by Lovelock and his peers are at least being consistent when they decide that, now that methane is bubbling out of the Arctic ooze, it’s all over.  It may simply be their bad luck to have missed the winks and nudges that signaled, as I suggested in the post just mentioned, that the predictions had more to do with putting pressure on China and her allies than they did with purely objective science.

Peak oil might have become another excuse for such maneuvers, except that it’s shown an awkward capacity for appearing on schedule and causing exactly the sort of disruptions that have been predicted by peak oil researchers all along. It’s hard to threaten someone with a crisis that’s already arrived, and harder still to rouse enthusiasm for a great leap forward when every attempt to make it ends in a messy slide backward.  Both the shapes of time our culture is willing to consider, in other words, have passed their pull dates—and the obvious alternative, though it’s a better fit to the evidence and arguably more adaptive as well, is utterly unacceptable to most people in the industrial world today. We’ll discuss that in the next post in this sequence.

John Michael Greer

John Michael Greer is a widely read author and blogger whose work focuses on the overlaps between ecology, spirituality, and the future of industrial society. He served twelve years as Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America, and currently heads the Druidical Order of the Golden Dawn.

Tags: environmental messaging, peak oil, social movements