Over the last week or so, I’ve heard from a remarkable number of people who feel that a major crisis is in the offing. The people in question don’t know each other, many of them have even less contact with the mass media than I do, and the sense they’ve tried to express to me is inchoate enough that they’ve been left fumbling for words, but they all end up reaching for the same metaphors: that something in the air just now seems reminiscent of the American colonies in 1775, France in 1789, America in 1860, Europe in 1914, or the world in 1939: a sense of being poised on the brink of convulsive change, with the sound of gunfire and marching boots coming ever more clearly from the dimly seen abyss ahead.
It’s not an unreasonable feeling, all things considered. In Washington DC, Obama’s flunkies are beating the war drums over Ukraine, threatening to send shipments of allegedly “defensive” weapons to join the mercenaries and military advisors we’ve already not-so-covertly got over there. Russian officials have responded to American saber-rattling by stating flatly that a US decision to arm Kiev will be the signal for all-out war. The current Ukrainian regime, installed by a US-sponsored coup and backed by NATO, means to Russia precisely what a hostile Canadian government installed by a Chinese-sponsored coup and backed by the People’s Liberation Army would mean to the United States; if Obama’s trademark cluelessness leads him to ignore that far from minor point and decide that the Russians are bluffing, we could be facing a European war within weeks.
Head south and west from the fighting around Donetsk, and another flashpoint is heating up toward an explosion of its own just now. Yes, that would be Greece, where the new Syriza government has refused to back down from the promises that got it into office: promises that center on the rejection of the so-called “austerity” policies that have all but destroyed the Greek economy since they were imposed in 2009. This shouldn’t be news to anyone; those same policies, though they’ve been praised to the skies by neoliberal economists for decades now as a guaranteed ticket to prosperity, have had precisely the opposite effect in every single country where they’ve been put in place.
Despite that track record of unbroken failure, the EU—in particular, Germany, which has benefited handsomely from the gutting of southern European economies—continues to insist that Greece must accept what amounts to a perpetual state of debt peonage. The Greek defense minister noted in response in a recent speech that if Europe isn’t willing to cut a deal, other nations might well do so. He’s quite correct; it’s probably a safe bet that cold-eyed men in Moscow and Beijing are busy right now figuring out how best to step through the window of opportunity the EU is flinging open for them. If they do so—well, I’ll leave it to my readers to consider how the US is likely to respond to the threat of Russian air and naval bases in Greece, which would be capable of projecting power anywhere in the eastern and central Mediterranean basin. Here again, war is a likely outcome; I hope that the Greek government is braced for an attempt at regime change.
That is to say, the decline and fall of industrial civilization is proceeding in the normal way, at pretty much the normal pace. The thermodynamic foundations tipped over into decline first, as stocks of cheap abundant fossil fuels depleted steadily and the gap had to be filled by costly and much less abundant replacements, driving down net energy; the economy went next, as more and more real wealth had to be pulled out of all other economic activities to keep the energy supply more or less steady, until demand destruction cut in and made that increasingly frantic effort moot; now a global political and military superstructure dependent on cheap abundant fossil fuels, and on the economic arrangement that all of that surplus energy made possible, is cracking at the seams.
One feature of times like these is that the number of people who can have an influence on the immediate outcome declines steadily as crisis approaches. In the years leading up to 1914, for example, a vast number of people contributed to the rising spiral of conflict between the aging British Empire and its German rival, but the closer war came, the narrower the circle of decision-makers became, until a handful of politicians in Germany, France, and Britain had the fate of Europe in their hands. A few more bad decisions, and the situation was no longer under anybody’s control; thereafter, the only option left was to let the juggernaut of the First World War roll mindlessly onward to its conclusion.
In the same way, as recently as the 1980s, many people in the United States and elsewhere had some influence on how the industrial age would end; unfortunately most of them backed politicians who cashed in the resources that could have built a better future on one last round of absurd extravagance, and a whole landscape of possibilities went by the boards. Step by step, as the United States backed itself further and further into a morass of short-term gimmicks with ghastly long-term consequences, the number of people who have had any influence on the trajectory we’re on has narrowed steadily, and as we approach what may turn out to be the defining crisis of our time, a handful of politicians in a handful of capitals are left to make the last decisions that can shape the situation in any way at all, before the tanks begin to roll and the fighter-bombers rise up from their runways.
Out here on the fringes of the collective conversation of our time, where archdruids lurk and heresies get uttered, the opportunity to shape events as they happen is a very rare thing. Our role, rather, is to set agendas for the future, to take ideas that are unthinkable in the mainstream today and prepare them for their future role as the conventional wisdom of eras that haven’t dawned yet. Every phrase on the lips of today’s practical men of affairs, after all, was once a crazy notion taken seriously only by the lunatic fringe—yes, that includes democracy, free-market capitalism, and all the other shibboleths of our age.
With that in mind, while we wait to see whether today’s practical men of affairs stumble into war the way they did in 1914, I propose to shift gears and talk about something else—something that may seem whimsical, even pointless, in the light of the grim martial realities just discussed. It’s neither whimsical nor pointless, as it happens, but the implications may take a little while to dawn even on those of my readers who’ve been following the last few years of discussions most closely. Let’s begin with a handful of data points.
Item: Britain’s largest bookseller recently noted that sales of the Kindle e-book reader have dropped like a rock in recent months, while sales of old-fashioned printed books are up. Here in the more gizmocentric USA, e-books retain more of their erstwhile popularity, but the bloom is off the rose; among the young and hip, it’s not hard at all to find people who got rid of their book collections in a rush of enthusiasm when e-books came out, regretted the action after it was too late, and now are slowly restocking their bookshelves while their e-book readers collect cobwebs or, at best, find use as a convenience for travel and the like.
Item: more generally, a good many of the hottest new trends in popular culture aren’t new trends at all—they’re old trends revived, in many cases, by people who weren’t even alive to see them the first time around. Kurt B. Reighley’s lively guide The United States of Americana was the first, and remains the best, introduction to the phenomenon, one that embraces everything from burlesque shows and homebrewed bitters to backyard chickens and the revival of Victorian martial arts. One pervasive thread that runs through the wild diversity of this emerging subculture is the simple recognition that many of these older things are better, in straightforwardly measurable senses, than their shiny modern mass-marketed not-quite-equivalents.
Item: within that subculture, a small but steadily growing number of people have taken the principle to its logical extreme and adopted the lifestyles and furnishings of an earlier decade wholesale in their personal lives. The 1950s are a common target, and so far as I know, adopters of 1950s culture are the furthest along the process of turning into a community, but other decades are increasingly finding the same kind of welcome among those less than impressed by what today’s society has on offer. Meanwhile, the reenactment scene has expanded spectacularly in recent years from the standard hearty fare of Civil War regiments and the neo-medievalism of the Society for Creative Anachronism to embrace almost any historical period you care to name. These aren’t merely dress-up games; go to a buckskinner’s rendezvous or an outdoor SCA event, for example, and you’re as likely as not to see handspinners turning wool into yarn with drop spindles, a blacksmith or two laboring over a portable forge, and the like.
Other examples of the same broad phenomenon could be added to the list, but these will do for now. I’m well aware, of course, that most people—even most of my readers—will have dismissed the things just listed as bizarre personal eccentricities, right up there with the goldfish-swallowing and flagpole-sitting of an earlier era. I’d encourage those of my readers who had that reaction to stop, take a second look, and tease out the mental automatisms that make that dismissal so automatic a part of today’s conventional wisdom. Once that’s done, a third look might well be in order, because the phenomenon sketched out here marks a shift of immense importance for our future.
For well over two centuries now, since it first emerged as the crackpot belief system of a handful of intellectuals on the outer fringes of their culture, the modern ideology of progress has taken it as given that new things were by definition better than whatever they replaced. That assumption stands at the heart of contemporary industrial civilization’s childlike trust in the irreversible cumulative march of progress toward a future among the stars. Finding ways to defend that belief even when it obviously wasn’t true—when the latest, shiniest products of progress turned out to be worse in every meaningful sense than the older products they elbowed out of the way—was among the great growth industries of the 20th century; even so, there were plenty of cases where progress really did seem to measure up to its billing. Given the steady increases of energy per capita in the world’s industrial nations over the last century or so, that was a predictable outcome.
The difficulty, of course, is that the number of cases where new things really are better than what they replace has been shrinking steadily in recent decades, while the number of cases where old products are quite simply better than their current equivalents—easier to use, more effective, more comfortable, less prone to break, less burdened with unwanted side effects and awkward features, and so on—has been steadily rising. Back behind the myth of progress, like the little man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz, stand two unpalatable and usually unmentioned realities. The first is that profits, not progress, determines which products get marketed and which get roundfiled; the second is that making a cheaper, shoddier product and using advertising gimmicks to sell it anyway has been the standard marketing strategy across a vast range of American businesses for years now.
More generally, believers in progress used to take it for granted that progress would sooner or later bring about a world where everyone would live exciting, fulfilling lives brimfull of miracle products and marvelous experiences. You still hear that sort of talk from the faithful now and then these days, but it’s coming to sound a lot like all that talk about the glorious worker’s paradise of the future did right around the time the Iron Curtain came down for good. In both cases, the future that was promised didn’t have much in common with the one that actually showed up. The one we got doesn’t have some of the nastier features of the one the former Soviet Union and its satellites produced—well, not yet, at least—but the glorious consumer’s paradise described in such lavish terms a few decades back got lost on the way to the spaceport, and what we got instead was a bleak landscape of decaying infrastructure, abandoned factories, prostituted media, and steadily declining standards of living for everyone outside the narrowing circle of the privileged, with the remnants of our once-vital democratic institutions hanging above it all like rotting scarecrows silhouetted against a darkening sky.
In place of those exciting, fulfilling lives mentioned above, furthermore, we got the monotony and stress of long commutes, cubicle farms, and would-you-like-fries-with that for the slowly shrinking fraction of our population who can find a job at all. The Onion, with its usual flair for packaging unpalatable realities in the form of deadpan humor, nailed it a few days ago with a faux health-news article announcing that the best thing office workers could do for their health is stand up at their desk, leave the office, and never go back. Joke or not, it’s not bad advice; if you have a full-time job in today’s America, the average medieval peasant had a less stressful job environment and more days off than you do; he also kept a larger fraction of the product of his labor than you’ll ever see.
Then, of course, if you’re like most Americans, you’ll numb yourself once you get home by flopping down on the sofa and spending most of your remaining waking hours staring at little colored pictures on a glass screen. It’s remarkable how many people get confused about what this action really entails. They insist that they’re experiencing distant places, traveling in worlds of pure imagination, and so on through the whole litany of self-glorifying drivel the mass media likes to employ in its own praise. Let us please be real: when you watch a program about the Amazon rain forest, you’re not experiencing the Amazon rain forest; you’re experiencing colored pictures on a screen, and you’re only getting as much of the experience as fits through the narrow lens of a video camera and the even narrower filter of the production process. The difference between experiencing something and watching it on TV or the internet, that is to say, is precisely the same as the difference between making love and watching pornography; in each case, the latter is a very poor substitute for the real thing.
For most people in today’s America, in other words, the closest approach to the glorious consumer’s paradise of the future they can expect to get is eight hours a day, five days a week of mindless, monotonous work under the constant pressure of management efficiency experts, if they’re lucky enough to get a job at all, with anything up to a couple of additional hours commuting and any off-book hours the employer happens to choose to demand from them into the deal, in order to get a paycheck that buys a little less each month—inflation is under control, the government insists, but prices somehow keep going up—of products that get more cheaply made, more likely to be riddled with defects, and more likely to pose a serious threat to the health and well-being of their users, with every passing year. Then they can go home and numb their nervous systems with those little colored pictures on the screen, showing them bland little snippets of experiences they will never have, wedged in there between the advertising.
That’s the world that progress has made. That’s the shining future that resulted from all those centuries of scientific research and technological tinkering, all the genius and hard work and sacrifice that have gone into the project of progress. Of course there’s more to the consequences of progress than that; progress has saved quite a few children from infectious diseases, and laced the environment with so many toxic wastes that childhood cancer, all but unheard of in 1850, is a routine event today; it’s made impressive contributions to human welfare, while flooding the atmosphere with greenhouse gases that will soon make far more impressive contributions to human suffering and death—well, I could go on along these lines for quite a while. True believers in the ideology of perpetual progress like to insist that all the good things ought to be credited to progress while all the bad things ought to be blamed on something else, but that’s not so plausible an article of faith as it once was, and it bids fair to become a great deal less common as the downsides of progress become more and more difficult to ignore.
The data points I noted earlier in this week’s post, I’ve come to believe, are symptoms of that change, the first stirrings of wind that tell of the storm to come. People searching for a better way of living than the one our society offers these days are turning to the actual past, rather than to some imaginary future, in that quest. That’s the immense shift I mentioned earlier. What makes it even more momentous is that by and large, it’s not being done in the sort of grim Puritanical spirit of humorless renunciation that today’s popular culture expects from those who want something other than what the consumer economy has on offer. It’s being done, rather, in a spirit of celebration.
One of my readers responded to my post two weeks ago on deliberate technological regress by suggesting that I was proposing a Butlerian jihad of sorts. (Those of my readers who don’t get the reference should pick up a copy of Frank Herbert’s iconic SF novel Dune and read it.) I demurred, for two reasons. First, the Butlerian jihad in Herbert’s novel was a revolt against computer technology, and I see no need for that; once the falling cost of human labor intersects the rising cost of energy and technology, and it becomes cheaper to hire file clerks and accountants than to maintain the gargantuan industrial machine that keeps computer technology available, computers will go away, or linger as a legacy technology for a narrowing range of special purposes until the hardware finally burns out.
The second reason, though, is the more important. I’m not a fan of jihads, or of holy wars of any flavor; history shows all too well that when you mix politics and violence with religion, any actual religious content vanishes away, leaving its castoff garments to cover the naked rule of force and fraud. If you want people to embrace a new way of looking at things, furthermore, violence, threats, and abusive language don’t work, and it’s even less effective to offer that new way as a ticket to virtuous misery, along the lines of the Puritanical spirit noted above. That’s why so much of the green-lifestyle propaganda of the last thirty years has done so little good—so much of it has been pitched as a way to suffer self-righteously for the good of Gaia, and while that approach appeals to a certain number of wannabe martyrs, that’s not a large enough fraction of the population to matter.
The people who are ditching their Kindles and savoring books as physical objects, brewing their own beer and resurrecting other old arts and crafts, reformatting their lives in the modes of a past decade, or spending their spare time reconnecting with the customs and technologies of an earlier time—these people aren’t doing any of those things out of some passion for self-denial. They’re doing them because these things bring them delights that the shoddy mass-produced lifestyles of the consumer economy can’t match. What these first stirrings suggest to me is that the way forward isn’t a Butlerian jihad, but a Butlerian carnival—a sensuous celebration of the living world outside the cubicle farms and the glass screens, which will inevitably draw most of its raw materials from eras, technologies, and customs of the past, which don’t require the extravagant energy and resource inputs that the modern consumer economy demands, and so will be better suited to a future defined by scarce energy and resources.
The Butlerian carnival isn’t the only way to approach the deliberate technological regression we need to carry out in the decades ahead, but it’s an important one. In upcoming posts, I’ll talk more about how this and other avenues to the same goal might be used to get through the mess immediately ahead, and start laying foundations for a future on the far side of the crises of our time.