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Learning to walk again

August 30, 2023

For many years now, I have made efforts to live differently—initially motivated by a sense of resource limits and the recognition that scaling back could have a dramatic effect if adopted widely. I was able to cut my domestic energy demand by a factor of four or five. I changed my habits of diet, travel, heating/cooling, laundry, showering, consumer activity, and much else.

Yet I remain firmly in the grip of modern ways. I am still a member of “normal” society, and don’t (yet) draw stares when I go out in public. I live in a house, drive a car (sparingly), buy food at a grocery store, and eat lunch at the university food court. Yes, I could shed more of these. I could try a living in a yurt, getting by without owning a car, and finding ways to get my food locally without scanning bar codes. But even though I have gone much farther than most, going “all the way” has always felt a little overboard to me. It edged up to seeming performative; to virtue-signaling; to those choices becoming the focus instead of a means. I often think of it in terms of trying to convince a group of hikers to make better progress: you don’t do it by disappearing over the horizon and losing influence. You’re better off staying close enough to encourage others along.

When reading the book Hospicing Modernity, by Vanessa Machado de Oliveira, I came across this great analogy:

There is a popular saying in Brazil that illustrates this insight using water… The saying goes that in a flood situation, it is only when the water reaches people’s hips that it becomes possible for them to swim. Before that, with the water at our ankles or knees, it is only possible to walk or to wade. In other words, we might only be able to learn to swim—that is, to exist differently—once we have no other choice.

I instantly had a new friend in this metaphor. In fact, it filled a gaping hole that had been present for many years. Sure, I could flop down and try to swim right now, but I would look a fool floundering in the muddy water. Yet, I can help prepare myself and others for the day when we must swim.

As much as I love this framing, one thing bothers me about it, and I have a proposed alternative, but it has the downside of requiring a longer telling.

What bothers me about the swimming metaphor is this. The oncoming flood seems like it can’t be a good thing. Having to swim takes us out of our comfortable context. It my be cold—certainly wet—might lead to drowning or hypothermia, and dangers may lurk unseen below the surface. It’s especially distressing as a metaphor if swimming is to become the new “forever.” It implies that what we’re doing now is more natural, and we will be thrust into a desperate and perilous situation with no end in sight.

So, I would like to flip the metaphor to one in which we are currently in the water, and need to get to shore where we can safely walk again. But since we presently find ourselves in water that is over our heads, we can’t start walking yet—and even going through the motions at this stage produces no traction or motion toward our goal.

At this point, I realized that the inverted situation could mesh perfectly with a metaphor I had developed in connection to our unwitting ride to this moment in time—first in The Ride of Our Lives post, and more recently in a more fully elaborated description of the river system that delivered us here.

In this extended metaphor, about 10,000 years ago our cultural ancestors stepped into a gentle stream—pleasant at first—in which we waded for a while before committing ourselves to floating, gently carried by the leisurely current, gaining speed as many tributaries added to the flow, today finding ourselves in a raging torrent approaching a devastating waterfall. We used technology to build a boat called Modernity on which to ride the rapids. It started as a simple raft in gentler waters, arriving at its current form through steady application of ever-more-complex—and always imperfect—constructs intended to patch myriad problems that arose from our unnatural arrangement. The strong current has amplified and elaborated our way of life to the point that it is almost unrecognizably frenetic and tragically destructive to the ecosphere. The waterfall ahead—oddly imperceptible to most—marks the inevitable collision between an inherently unsustainable market system based on growth and a finite planet whose community of life is gasping for breath.

In the face of potential peril, clinging to the boat and trying to make it even better is the most common reaction in our culture: technology and ingenuity will always save us, the thinking goes. But continued reliance on the boat is a bad move. It is structurally incapable of surviving the waterfall, and could even make the plummet more dangerous. Likewise, we are powerless to arrest the progress of the now-behemoth boat against the strong current, or to maneuver it to shore. We would have needed to start such a move long ago, but it’s now too late. Our best move is getting ourselves to shore before the waterfall. As much as we love our boat, it will only drag us toward disaster. We can’t save ourselves AND the boat. The boat itself is doomed to go over, but we’re only doomed if we can’t release our grip.

Remember, the boat is called Modernity, and modernity can’t be saved: it’s a system that is fundamentally incompatible with long term life on this planet. People who cling to modernity only imperil themselves and those who depend on them. Those brave enough to let go have a chance to begin a new phase of life. The key here is: people and the boat are two different things. We made the boat, but it does not define us. Conflating modernity and humanity is a common fallacy that is not only wrong, but detrimental. Despair over modernity’s fate need not translate to despair over the fate of humanity. They are simply different things.

The Brave Transition

Okay, so we decide to save ourselves. It’s scary, but we’ll jump into the churning water and make our way toward shore as best we can. We’re in over our heads, unable to touch the bottom, awash in uncertainty. We can’t walk yet. But eventually, we start making contact with the bottom and propelling ourselves awkwardly on each bobbing footfall. As the water gets shallower, our motions begin to more closely resemble walking, bit by bit, until we eventually trudge up on shore—water streaming from our clothes and perhaps the occasional comedic fish jumping out of a pocket.

Once on shore, we find that walking on land is pretty great—as if we were made to do it!  Who knew it could feel so right?  These legs are amazing things, yeah?  Whatever possessed us to put ourselves out on the water?  What were we thinking?  That was crazy!  We don’t belong out there!  Some explain that it wasn’t always a dangerous death trap—or at least it wasn’t clear that it had to turn into one.  But still—yeah—not the best idea, in hindsight.

We will remember some of the old ways of walking on the land, mercifully guided by those who never lost the trail. Should we make our way back to the lands we occupied (and that a few still do) along the headwaters of this river? Well, some may elect to go that way. Others (most?) will be interested in seeing what can be made of life on the shores of River Modernity, inventing a new lifestyle that has elements of the old ways and incorporates the less flawed/dangerous lessons from our time on the river. But in sight of the ominous waterfall, we will presumably be wise enough to refrain from getting back on the water, having realized all the ills and ultimate danger that such a lifestyle brings.

So that’s it: we can’t stay in the water much longer, and need to get to shore and learn to walk again. But we can’t just start walking right now. Getting back to land (safety) seems more promising than the original metaphor of learning to swim for a “forever” flood—although I still use that one, as it has the advantage of a more efficient telling and instant resonance.

We can also tie this perspective to a concept from Wes Jackson that I really like: modern humans are “a species out of context.” Agriculture and modern civilization is a very recent hobby in the long story of human life on this planet. Our culture has installed in each of us a newfangled operating system that has serious design flaws built in. One of the most important steps we can take is in realizing that we are not civilization: humanity is a bigger and more versatile concept than the current mode we’ve stumbled onto (become trapped within). We were not made for the water. Our versatility allowed us to try it out, but it’s now becoming clear that it’s not going to work, and that living in such a way destroys too much of irreplaceable value.

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego. An amateur astronomer in high school, physics major at Georgia Tech, and PhD student in physics at Caltech, Murphy has spent decades reveling in the study of astrophysics. He currently leads a project to test General Relativity by bouncing laser pulses off of the reflectors left on the Moon by the Apollo astronauts, achieving one-millimeter range precision. Murphy’s keen interest in energy topics began with his teaching a course on energy and the environment for non-science majors at UCSD. Motivated by the unprecedented challenges we face, he has applied his instrumentation skills to exploring alternative energy and associated measurement schemes. Following his natural instincts to educate, Murphy is eager to get people thinking about the quantitatively convincing case that our pursuit of an ever-bigger scale of life faces gigantic challenges and carries significant risks. Note from Tom: To learn more about my personal perspective and whether you should dismiss some of my views as alarmist, read my Chicken Little page.

Tags: building resilient societies, collapse of industrial civilization, modernity