Agency on Demand? Holmgren, Hopkins, and the Historical Problem of Agency

January 21, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

The recent debate between David Holmgren and Rob Hopkins (and others) has my head spinning.  I am deeply conflicted over which view I support.  More interestingly yet, this last phase “which view I support” now appears in a new light and is itself ripe for reflection.  Does it matter what view I, or any other individual, actually support?  How much, if any, impact can we make on the direction of history?  Are we powerful agents who can help direct the course of history?  Or is my support of Holmgren or Hopkins about as effectively meaningful as my support of the Green Bay Packers, for which my shouts may annoy my wife and alarm the neighbors but do nothing beyond that?  Can the results of any radical action, or the avoidance of it, be predicted?   Can we control what happens to our words and images once we press “print” or “send.”  Even if my beliefs and actions can have a predictable result, to whom does my responsibility lie?  When, if ever, are destructive words or deeds warranted?

All these questions are questions of agency: to what extent, if any, can humans be purposeful agents of historical change.  This question, I will suggest, has up to now been given something like a free pass in much post-carbon discourse, for reasons that I will explain in depth later.  Because of recent changes and revisions in our meta-narratives of historical change, particularly the one surrounding peak oil, the question and problem of agency has now emerged with great urgency.  But it also presents us with the challenge and opportunity of broadening and deepening our thought.  It may in retrospect appear as a crossroads in the discourse of post-carbon sustainability.

Narrative and Agency

Karl Marx famously wrote, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please.”   These two phrases are as good an encapsulation as any of the history of European political philosophy and critical discourse since the Enlightenment.  To our purposes, movements like Transition or other sustainability movements represent a significant, and quite extraordinary, chapter in this tradition.  By briefly reviewing it, we can find a valuable perspective from which the newly opened debate in the worlds of Transition and other post-carbon activists might be understood in some clarifying ways.  For as Marx continues, men “do not make it [history] under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past.  The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”

Image RemovedUntil the Enlightenment, however, the notion that humankind might make their own history would have been unthinkable.   Prior to then, what we might refer to as “historical consciousness” played a much smaller role in European self-reflection, and any changes in society or civilization would be more likely attributed to Divine Providence or some sort destiny or fate.  This all changed when Enlightenment philosophers put the notion of human freedom above all other virtues and values and  began to reimagine the universe in terms of humans as agents of  change.  To the Enlightenment philosophers, at the risk of overgeneralization, men did make their own history and just as they pleased–or at least they could if they became sufficiently enlightened and freed themselves from what Kant referred to as the childhood of previous ages, in which they accepted guidance from another rather than their own reason.   The Marquis de Condorcet represents the most optimistic strand of Enlightenment thought, suggesting that “we shall have the strongest reason to believe from past experiences, from the observation of the progress which sciences and the civilization have hitherto made, and from the analysis of the march of the human understanding, and the development of its faculties, that nature has fixed no limits to our hopes,” which consist of, “the destruction of inequality between nations; the progress of equality in one and the same nation; and lastly the real improvement of man.” 

Despite his unbridled faith in the capacity of reason to create what Thomas Jefferson would refer to as an “Empire of Liberty,” Condorcet  reveals a way of thinking about the past, present, and future shared by even the most pessimistic observers of history’s many tragedies.  In addition to the novel idea that humans might make their own history, is the more specific way in which they might do it—by extrapolating a possible present from the trends of the past, and beyond that dramatizing this historical change by suggesting that the present was the decisive moment at which history’s future course would be determined.  If, by understanding the true nature of history, humankind makes the right choices now, we can expect limitless progress.   If, however, we are weak or timid, arrogant or unwise, or generally unmindful of history’s lessons , we can expect some sort of decline or tragic demise. 

It did not take long, however, for observers to see hopes dashed, freedom turn into tyranny, and reason to become  the illegitimate force of oppression.  This business of creating history as we please, it was soon apparent, was going to be a lot more complicated that Condorcet thought, though it was still widely assumed that the answer to the riddle of the future could be found in the past.  History was henceforth scrutinized all the more closely in search of the underlying patterns, the perennial pitfalls, or the necessary virtues and the poisonous vices.  History would reveal the possibilities and limits of reason and human agency.   One might categorize the responses in any number of ways, but some trends have been widely recognized, and I would isolate three major types of response.

One response, which might be disproportionately represented in popular histories, especially those told by a conquering nation, suggests that we can make history as we please if we maintain the proper virtues and qualities of leadership.  Thus history is a battle between great men and presumptuous villains and fools, just nations and misguided tyrannies.  Choice and free-will are highlighted in this version that stays closer to the original Enlightenment ideal as summarized above.   The moral of these stories is be wise, be prudent, be brave, and so on for as many virtues and values as can be imagined.   A second major strain sees history as little more than chaos, disorder, and chance; the historian’s work, which is viewed with suspicion, is the doomed attempt to impose a false order on this chaos.  According to this view, history doesn’t have a narrative; rather humans tell historical fictions by selecting  between details and by choosing a causal connective tissue that serves the interests of his or her story and the will to power it represents.  This view was articulated by Nietzsche and has maintained a strong presence in existential thought and post structuralism, which deconstructs the constructed artifice of narrative.  Agency, in this story, cannot be effectively purposeful, but results in unintended consequences and self-delusions.  But the deconstructive historian is unable to escape the lure of narrative in his or her story about failed historical thinking past.   A third sort of response argues that history has its own underlying logic.  This logic tends to be the product of human activity; but, importantly, it is not the conscious choice of any single or group of individuals making history as they please.  Rather the struggles and interactions of humans follow some sort of progressive or regressive laws of development, growth, or decline.  The easiest analogy  to understand might be the way a plant or animal is created, grows and develops, and ultimately dies, through the interaction of millions of individual cells (though it would be a mistake to over emphasize the historical employment of this “organicist” metaphor).  The most prominent example of this belief in an underlying law or logic to history is, of course, Marx, who following Hegel, believed that history was moving towards some inevitable or nearly inevitable end.  Marx’s contribution was to place the primacy on economic relations and to look at “mode of production” as the ultimate driver of history.   

For the sake of simplicity (and a clear reflection of my own bias and training) I will refer to the first response as the Liberal response, the second as the deconstructive, and the third as the Marxian.  From the perspective of the second two responses, Liberal history is a naïve history, lacking in self-reflection and an awareness of history’s many complexities.  Its historians (and with them the general public), deconstructionists and Marxians would both argue, suffer from false consciousness.  They are unaware of the deeper forces driving their consciousness and/or the artifice of their historical narratives.  While in the Liberal view of history, agency remains relatively intact and unproblematic, for the other two groups, any human agency, any actual ability to make history as they please, is at best limited but is usually fraught with tragedy and farce.  For our purposes, note the way narratives and future projections that focus on climate change more often than not follow the agency-heavy model of Liberal history, while peak oil narratives bear many resemblances to the Marxian view.

Early on in these traditions, to paint with the broadest brush, there remained the hope that through more “realistic” or clear-eyed historical analysis, you might be able to climb on top of history’s logic or accept the chaos of reality, and by so doing regain some agency.  But these philosophers and critics had a pretty difficult time explaining how they, of all people, had now, of all times, been able to free themselves of the false-consciousness that plagued everyone else.  If not careful, they would start veering into a naïve history with themselves portrayed as the wise and virtuous hero who was able to be self-determining in the way no else ever had.  In traditions with a strong belief in an underlying logic of history, it was difficult to describe what sort of agency any one might have.  Marx, for his part, struggled to explain the role of the philosopher or critic: was he just a bystander, watching history’s progressive logic, or did his understanding somehow change or quicken the process?  Whatever his or her role, ignoring the laws of history and attempting to make history as one pleased would never end well.

These philosophical dilemmas might strike some as rather abstract, but they have weighed like a nightmare on the minds of many activists and the plans of most radical politics.  The Liberal history has in the modern era been the official history of the most powerful nations, their powerful  people, and their vested interests.   Critics operating within this tradition tend to be reformist.   While agency is accepted without question, it is confined to the role of voting citizens and leaders working within a legislative process.   Extreme action, in a Liberal context, involves protesting and marching, publishing and petitioning.  The radical, in contrast, believes that the fundamental structures or organization of society need to be changed, something that cannot be done through the “free” agency of a voting populace, most of whom are victims of the myths and beliefs of the Liberal historian and their naïve histories of the triumph of freedom and reason.

But the two main alternatives don’t offer the activist much to work with.  History shows them how little agency humans actually have and how easily it goes awry, while at the same time showing how those who believed they had unlocked the underlying logic of history, or mastered the chaos of unintended consequences, had often ended up as history’s most awful tyrants.   By the end of the twentieth century, then, many activists believed that there were terrible problems with the world, and that its structures needed to be overturned, but it was increasingly difficult to imagine how to proceed except by the slow, but safe, work of reform.  Others might focus on philanthropic work, on community building,  identity politics, or making the liberal vision of freedom more uniformly applied.  If history did have its own logic and inherent direction, however, it seemed to be moving in the direction of increased freedom, expanding technology, and a global market economy.  While radical criticism flourished, any radical politics that might be serious about actually confronting the basic structure or organization of industrial civilization had died.

Narratives of Climate Change and Peak Oil

Hubbert’s curve may remind us of a graph used in middle-school literature classes to diagram the rising and falling action of dramatic narrative.  Rising action (more oil and increased industrialization) leads to a crisis (peak oil, peak society, peak everything); from the crisis follows the resolution or denouement and the falling action and dramatic energy.  The peak oil, we might say, lends itself to easy dramatization.   As in the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment historical traditions, peak oil narratives extrapolate a likely future from the trends of the past, with a moment of crisis occurring in the present.  The four scenarios presented by David Holmgren are an especially vivid example of this: what we do now, at the peak moment of crisis, will determine which future we will create.   Other peak oil narrators will often predict one or another likely outcome or resolution to this story of modernity, whether in the form of a complete societal collapse, a time in which humanity comes to its senses and accepts its limits and acts as stewards in a peaceful descent, or something in between these two poles such as a long emergency or catabolic descent.  It is possible to view some version of this bell-shaped narrative in  writers such as John Michael Greer, Richard Heinberg, James Kunstler, and of course Rob Hopkins and David Holmgren.   In all these peak oil narratives, moreover, when it finds itself at the peak, humanity has differing degrees of possible agency, but in all cases it is somewhat limited.  For some, like John Michael Greer, the rise and fall of civilizations seems inevitable as societies go through unavoidable metabolic and catabolic stages.  Although it won’t, according to Greer, be pretty, regardless of what plausible choices humans make, some of us might find a way to cushion the bumpy road down.   Greer recently summarized his practical advice as a matter of “tackling the uncomfortable job of downsizing their dependence on the absurd amounts of energy, stuff, and artificial stimulation that are involved in an ordinary American lifestyle these days.”  For others, most notably Rob Hopkins, the descent might be an opportunity for humans to come together and use all their creativity and ingenuity to form a world that is peaceful, just, and sustainable.  Hopkins writes, “The key message here has been that the future with less oil could be better than the present, but only if we engage in designing this transition with sufficient creativity and imagination” (Transition Handbook 77).  In other places, sometime in the same writers, we may note a sense of resignation and the mental preparations for a stoical future.

But regardless of the sorts of choices that humans might realistically be able to make as society begins its energy descent, the available flow of oil and other natural resources are the main mover of history.  As Richard Heinberg argues, the industrial revolution “did not come about primarily because of religious or political developments, but because a few prior inventions . . . came together in the presence of an abundant new energy source: fossil fuels.”  Whether on the way up the energy curve, or on the descent, cultures and communities take an adaptive mode.  “Ideas,” Heinberg continues sounding not entirely unlike Marx, don’t drive “the transformation.”  Rather, they achieve prominence “because they served useful functions within a flow of events emanating from infrastructural necessity” (Peak Everything 39).  Just as cultures in ascendance adapt to increasing flows of energy, our job in a post peak world is to make the best of the inevitable crisis or peak and the diminishing energy and consumption that follows.  In neither case is human agency the main or structural driver of events. 

The limits of agency in peak oil narratives becomes more visible when compared to mainstream liberal environmentalism, for instance.  The latter is likely to believe that human ingenuity and innovation, along with our technical prowess provide limitless choices and opportunities to maintain our pre-peak trajectory of growing material prosperity.  American ingenuity and our spirit of freedom, they will suggest, allow us to make history as we please, especially when confronted with great challenges.   Peak oilers see this view as hopelessly naïve, an expression of ideological false consciousness: it fails to understand that all the technical prowess that most people believe are a result of our ingeniousness or a free society actually have more to do with our plentiful and growing supply of oil and other natural resources.  These techno-optimists don’t, to borrow David Holmgren’s  metaphor, understand that wealth comes from holes in the ground—and worse that these same holes in the ground have made possible our freedoms, our privileges, and everything else that they value. They fail to understand that energy is the true mover of history.

If it weren’t already clear where I was heading, it should be now.  The peak oil narrative is, of course, a historical narrative.  It shows that most other  mainstream historical narratives, even those with a decidedly environmentalist bent, represent a false-consciousness regarding the underlying causes of modern industrial society’s rise and its impeding fall.  Only by misunderstanding that the logic of recent history is an energetic logic does one believe we can continue to operate an industrial society dependent on growth on a finite planet.  Peak oil narratives are brutally aware of the limits on human agency.  What little agency humans might have can only be achieved by understanding the underlying logic of history and by accepting the limits that logic imposes.  When we realize this, we won’t try to grow the economy, develop the “developing world,” depend on genetically modified seeds and chemical fertilizers, look for a new source of fuel on Mars, and so on.  Instead we will accept the coming contractions and adapt to them as best we can.

It is possible to see some of these characteristics more vividly by comparing it to the climate change narrative.  Many interesting comparisons have been made between activist who focus on peak oil and those who focus on climate change as the most pressing challenge to human sustainability.  But none to my knowledge have noted the very significant narrative differences between them.  This narrative difference, moreover, helps explain why climate change has received far more attention than peak oil.  While peak oil is a narrative of historical necessity and the limits of human agency, climate change is a narrative of how a free and independent people must learn how to impose limits on their freedom and power.  We might describe their differences as that between a narrative of tragic necessity versus a narrative of the possible triumph of free will.  Climate change is in this way presented as a moral argument, and moral arguments generally imply free will and agency:  how are we as a society going to make our future?  Are we going to choose power over prudence, prosperity over longevity, ourselves over our grandchildren?

The climate change narrative is far more familiar to most people.  The story of humans not knowing how to control their own power can be seen in Daedalus and Icarus, Faust, Frankenstein.  Our popular culture is full of stories of technology run wild, of our inability to impose moral restraints.  In contrast, it has very few stories about the inherent limits to our power.  Most Americans or citizens of other industrialized nations can imagine destroying the world with excessive technology far more easily than they can imagine that our technology might be dependent on rocks, the ground, and holes in the earth.  One of the most significant myths of American culture, visible in any presidential speech or TV advertisement, is that there are no limits to what we can accomplish.  The lessons taught by the left side of Hubbert’s peak, that prosperity and “progress” is driven by oil consumption, in contrast, are all but unthinkable to a people who believe their way of life is the matter of human agency set free.

I think this may help explain why peak oil has failed to capture the public imagination.  It involves a story about how a consciousness that for all practical purposes is sacred is in fact a false consciousness.  It asks most people to admit that much of what they believe is false.   But even its appeal is limited, the story of western civilization that peak oil tells is highly compelling to a narrow segment of our population.   I think its limited, but strong, appeal can also be explained according to the distinction between narratives of agency versus narratives of necessity, for the very simple but profound reason that the necessity that peak oil narratives predict is a necessity that a certain kind of cultural critic is predisposed to desire but, in the age of excessive historical consciousness, did not know how to demand.   A simpler world, the end of consumer culture, a return to stronger communities, living according to natural rhythms and in closer concert with nature—all these have had strong appeal to a constant sub-culture within industrial societies, right from their beginning starting with The Romantic poets.  Radicals who are suspicious of the way revolutions have instituted a new form of tyranny might be attracted to the way that diminishing oil supplies–and not egocentric tyrants in the making, not religious fundamentalists seeking to impose ancient strictures—might be the prime agents of change.  In this way, peak oilers may resemble the Marx who believed that the structures of bourgeois exploitation would inevitably wither.

The Transition Movement has, in particular, pinned its hopes to this sort of historical necessity.  This has allowed it to engage only in small-scale, unobjectionable, moderate, and peaceful activities, most of them with a positive message, and yet at the same time hold out the hope for radical, revolutionary changes.  If previous revolutions provide a record of radical, destructive, and violent means being used to achieve what turn out in the end to be very minor, often retrogressive changes, peak oil provides the promise of profound and revolutionary changes, even as human agents have only to employ moderate, productive, and peaceful means.  History–not fallible and corruptible humans–would do the dirty work.  Our job would be to adapt, adjust, and provide a cheerful response.  To put it another way, the decline of world oil production and the ensuing economic collapse or contraction would do the destructive work that has ruined so many radical or revolutionary efforts.   Local Transition initiatives would, in this case, be free to perform only the constructive and productive work of building a better alternative.  There would be no Transition Reign of Terror.

The Demise of Peak Oil Narrative

Thoughtful and informed commentators always warned us that peak oil would not solve the problem of global climate change.  Many, in fact, told us quite the opposite.  I nevertheless believe that evidence as well as introspection will reveal that many of us nevertheless held out hope that peak oil would save us from all sorts of other problems, or that it would be a catalyst to push us in the right direction.  At the very least, as a quick review of most “post-carbon” sustainability forums will suggest, peak oil helped us avoid climate change as the main topic of conversation, even while climate change is ultimately more perilous with far few hopeful options than peak oil alone.

Now, however, it is pretty clear that the peaking of world conventional crude will not usher in a meaningful energy descent in a timeframe necessary to avoid run away climate change.  This, at any rate, is what I take to be David Holmgren’s main concern in his report that started this recent and rather frenzied discussion on the pages of forums like “Resilience.” Indeed Holmgren comes closer to admitting that he hoped peak oil would solve our climate crisis than I would have expected.  When I talk of the demise of the peak oil narrative, I am not trying to discredit the notion that oil and other natural resources are peaking and will commence a decline at some point.  More importantly, I am not trying to discredit what I like to refer to as the left side of the graph—the side that tells us of the important driving force of oil and energy in industrial culture, the side that explains where our ingenuity and much of what we take to be normal and inevitable actually comes from, the side that reveals where our myth of limitless prosperity comes from, the side that shows how it is that Americans came to believe that we might make history just as we please.

I do, however, believe that a hopeful narrative of a peaceful energy descent is increasingly hard to maintain.  Rob Hopkins is one of my heroes, but I read his response to Holmgren as a rather desperate attempt to maintain a course set by a narrative that is crumbling beneath us.  For the Transition Movement, in many of its details and specificities—its tone, its inclusiveness, its optimism, its scale, its focus, its projects—was built around a peak oil narrative that goes something like this:   When oil peaks there will be a global shift in consciousness; the scales will come off the eyes of many who will see that a luxury, consumption-based, growth-dependent civilization is no longer feasible.  Although some will resist this insight, because of the ground work performed by nascent Transition Movements around the world, enough people will find the joys of community and simple purposeful living far more compelling than the collapsing and increasingly alienating industrial structure of society.   This groundswell of enthusiasm, fueled by the now irrefutable inevitability and publically accepted fact of a global energy descent, will change the course of human history, help us evade the worst aspects of climate change, recreate spiritual connections with the earth that allow humans to live on a sustainable diet of a solar-powered carbohydrates.  If we are ingenious, upbeat and optimistic, inclusive and constructive, this might be a bloodless revolution.  Even if the odds are against it, it still represents humanity’s best hope for a peaceful adaptation to radically changing circumstances.

Before going on, allow me a personal statement:  I am not ruling out the possibility that this script, or one like it, still represents the best hope for humankind, as the least bad of other alternatives.  I still support Transition internationally and in my local group.  But that being said, its initial implausibility has only been increased by recent events, to put it mildly.   I would characterize its recent erosion in two ways.  First is the fact that the peaking of oil and other natural resources will not cause the scales to come off more than handful of eyes.  This should have been more predictable than it was predicted.  The bumpy plateau, the one that the best oil analysts projected all along, and its economic consequences, is far more likely to cause confusion, retrenchment, last-minute grabs for power and for all remaining resources.  The popular view that wealth comes from great ideas will not go away, but will find further, and politically divisive, explanations for the failure of new great ideas to emerge or be implemented (watch 15 minutes of Fox News and 15 minutes of MSNBC).  Blame will be placed on immigrants, regulation, lack of regulation, wealthy elites, the GOP, liberals, even the Transition Movement and the Post-Carbon Institute.  There are almost no vested interests that will benefit by having the energetic logic of historical change be revealed, especially to themselves.  Fascism of some sort is far more likely to emerge than are millions of self-sufficient Transition Towns.  I don’t like to admit this, but I think it is true.

The second reason why the idealized peak oil narrative is no longer credible has to do with the recent research on the speed of climate change.  We don’t have time for the Bristol Pound to change the local economy, and that local economy to model new ways of living to other cities, and the policies of cities to spread to counties, states, and Nations.  We don’t have time enough for a small and relatively obscure movement to gain widespread support and rework the wants, wishes, and expectations of the industrialized world, especially when the vested interests that control most media and spend trillions of dollars a year on advertisements will do everything in their power to stop it in its tracks. 

The Return of Agency?

I think much of the debate precipitated by Holmgren’s  “Crash on Demand” comes down to the sudden realization that if there is to be radical change of the sort necessary to avert a climate disaster of unimaginable scale, we can’t depend on some sort of historical necessity to make this change for us.  The moral narrative of climate change is eclipsing the peak oil narrative of respond and adapt, even as the more sophisticated students of peak oil remain ruefully aware of the limits on agency.  The trepidation, fear, even anger that has been breaking out in recent commentaries has to do with emerging possibility that we, as a subculture of activists, may have a series of unbearable decisions in the days and years ahead.  Most of us are, I believe, of peaceful demeanor.   I think this is a great blessing.  Many of us understand the perils of revolution and violence, the simple fact that it has so infrequently worked.  We understand, moreover, that the collapse of global economies, of civil society creates its own predictable violence.  We understand that the result and consequences of any action that pursues radical, human designed change is neither controllable nor predictable.  But at the same time, refraining from radical, potentially destructive, action is also a choice whose results are unpredictable and almost certainly dire.  The stakes are as yet beyond comprehension.   The question is no longer whether we can make history as we please, but whether history itself will continue to exist.  This is difficult.  Let us be patient and tolerant with ourselves and each other.

Beyond this, I have very little to offer at this time.  I don’t know what I should do, nor how I should recommend my friends and family to act and react.  I do, however, believe that we in the post-carbon world need to reassess where the lines between hope and possibility, reality and fantasy might lie.  We need to start thinking more deeply about politics and the discourse of power.  We need to reflect upon the possibilities and limits of human agency, the logic of collective action, the mechanisms of social change.  Moral philosophy and deep spirituality may be our solace and salvation.

Erik Lindberg

Erik Lindberg received his Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature in 1998, with a focus on cultural theory. After completing his degree, Lindberg began his career as a carpenter, and now owns a small, award-winning company that specializes in historical restoration. In 2008 he started Milwaukee’s first rooftop farm, and was a co-founder of the Victory Garden Initiative, as well as a member of Transition Milwaukee’s inaugural steering committee. He lives in Milwaukee with his wife and young twin boys.

Tags: 2014, climate change, Crash on Demand, David Holmgren, energy descent, peak oil, Rob Hopkins, social movements, Transition movement