Casaubon's Book

I’m obviously always a fan of Greer’s work, but I thought this week’s post was particularly apt - he addresses the larger question of whether we must keep up industrial civilization until it falls apart (note, I do not say “if it falls apart” – implicit in the keeping up is that it brings us faster to collapse), or whether we can change.

George Monbiot, who’s carved out a niche for himself as the staff pseudoenvironmentalist of The Guardian, had a blog post of his own on much the same theme. His argument is simply that most people in today’s industrial societies are not going to accept anything short of continued economic growth, and so a strategy based on using less is simply a waste of time.

Like many people these days who worry about global warming, he dismisses the issues surrounding peak oil out of hand – the problem we face, he insists, is not that we have too little fossil fuel, but too much – and as evidence for this, he points to the recent announcement from the IEA that world production of petroleum peaked in 2006. Since industrial civilization hasn’t collapsed yet, he tells us, peak oil clearly isn’t a problem. I suppose if you ignore drastic and worsening economic troubles in the world’s industrial nations, food riots and power shortages spreading across the Third World, and all the other symptoms of the rising spiral of peak-driven crisis now under way, you might be able to make that claim. Still, there’s a deeper illogic here.

It’s an illogic that seems highly plausible to many people. That’s because the fallacy that forms the core of the argument made by Kay, Monbiot, and so many others is a common feature of today’s conventional wisdom. An alternative metaphor – one at least as familiar to the peak oil blogosphere as Roger Kay’s yeas – might help to clarify the nature of the failed logic they’re retailing.

Imagine, then, that you’re on the proverbial ocean liner at sea, and it’s just hit the proverbial iceberg. Water is rising belowdecks and the deck is beginning to tilt, but nobody has drowned yet. Aware of the danger, you strap on a life preserver and head for the lifeboats. As you leave your stateroom, though, the guy in the stateroom next to yours gives you an incredulous look. “Are you nuts?” he says. “If you leave the ship now, somebody else will just take your cabin, and get all the meals and drinks you’ve paid for!”

Your fellow passenger in the metaphor, like Kay and Monbiot in the real world, has failed to notice a crucial fact about what’s happening: when a situation is unsustainable in the near term, the benefits that might be gained by clinging to it very often come with a prodigious cost, and the costs that have to be paid to abandon it very often come with considerable benefits. It’s far more pleasant to walk down to the cruise ship’s bar, order a couple of dry martinis, and sit there listening to the Muzak, to be sure, than it is to scramble into a lifeboat and huddle there on one of the thwarts as the waves toss you around, the spray soaks you, and the wind chills you to the bone. Two hours later, however, the passenger who went to the bar is a pallid corpse being gently nibbled by fishes, and the passenger who climbed into the lifeboat and put up with the seasickness and the spray is being hauled safely aboard the first freighter that happened to be close enough to answer the distress call.

The metaphor can usefully be taken a little further, because it points up a useful way of looking at the equivalent situation in the real world. As a passenger on board the ship, your relation to the ship is a relation of dependence. You depend on the integrity of the hull to keep you from drowning, on the fuel and engines to get you to your destination, on the food supply and the galley to keep you fed, and so on. That dependence has very real advantages, but it has a potentially drastic downside: if the systems you rely on should fail, and you don’t have an alternative, your dependence on them can kill you.

I wouldn’t be so hard on Monbiot, because I take his comment about the IEA to be less “we should” than “we will,” but I think Greer’s larger argument is very important – we can change because we have to. It is possible we can’t change in anticipation as an entire world, however we know very well because of the examples of people doing it historically, large chunks of societies can make radical changes.

One of the things that always troubles me about theories that begin from the confiding “Well, you and I recognize the reality of climate change/peak oil/resource depletion/etc… but most people will never change” is the implied theory of exceptionalism. In some ways, I find this just as offensive as narratives of American exceptionalism, or Christian exceptionalism. Those of us who have made possible shifts in our lives and propose to do more know that this is possible *because we’ve done it.* To imply that we are more special, better, more moral or whatever seems wrong to me.

It seems wrong precisely because I know it isn’t true. The honest answer to any claim that I personally am more ethical than anyone else is “if only you knew.” I am an ordinarily greedy, selfish, self-centered person. The only difference in me or you from most people, besides a certain amount of education and privilege is this, as Greer implies: My greed is for greater safety for my kids. My selfish desire is to make the things that matter to me last longer and do better. My self-centered vision involves making the most out of the least and enjoying it. And if my selfishness, greed and self-centeredness can be moved to make this shift, because my life, my future, my posterity depend on it, so can others – period.

Read Greer’s whole piece – it is excellent.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Andy Brown
    May 9, 2011

    It’s true, he’s been on a roll the last few weeks.

  2. #2 risa b
    May 9, 2011

    Ultimately, exceptionalism = eugenics = genocide.

  3. #3 Gary Rondeau
    May 9, 2011

    Sharon,

    I had a similar take on Greer’s piece. I guess I look at the present time as an opportunity to “practice” for the real thing, whatever that may be. Greer’s “green wizardry”, your “adapting in place” are all responses we can make today toward an uncertain world tomorrow. But change comes in uncertain form. Our hope is that the notes we practice today will make improvisation easier when we don’t know the music.

  4. #4 GregH
    May 9, 2011

    “if the systems you rely on should fail, and you don’t have an alternative, your dependence on them can kill you.”

    This is my view as well. I was talking to a friend yesterday about this stuff, and he said, “well, we’ll adapt because we have to. I don’t know how, but we will.” He’s a senior geologist at an… oil company. We didn’t have time to flesh out the details, but I’m pretty sure he thinks that The Market will come up with solutions, and here in Canada we’ll just adjust our agricultural practices and start growing pineapples or something.

  5. #5 Dan
    May 9, 2011

    Why is this turning up in Brains & Behaviour feed? If I wanted to read misunderstandings of Monbiot cobbled together with third-rate clich├ęs, I’d stick with CiF. I gave up reading The Archdruid (*snigger*) report years ago and, strange, I know, I have no desire to irritated further by that twat.

  6. #6 Julie
    May 9, 2011

    “My greed is for greater safety for my kids. My selfish desire is to make the things that matter to me last longer and do better. My self-centered vision involves making the most out of the least and enjoying it. And if my selfishness, greed and self-centeredness can be moved to make this shift, because my life, my future, my posterity depend on it, so can others – period.”

    Exactly my response to those who treat me like some kind of martyr because I homeschool and say “I could never do that” or “I am sure you do a good job but most people wouldn’t.” My view, just try them and see how well most people can do.

  7. #7 D. G. Bokare
    May 10, 2011

    “Modern civilization of industrial capitalism in its monopolistic form is bound to collapse. Presently many signs are visible like, peak oil, global warming, tsunami, etc. An economic architecture developed on the false theorem is bound to collapse. This is the lesson of communist countries. If the lesson is valid for monopolistic economies of developed and also developing economies, there are alternative courses (as suggested by Greer). Either we helplessly wait the collapse of the industrial civilization or take steps to systematically dismantle the same before it is too late. The former will bring catastrophes and pains. The latter will prepare us for change. Choice is of mankind”. Said by Dr. M. G. Bokare, economist from India in his books Hindu Economics (1993) and The Taxless Economy (2010).

  8. #8 Sharon Astyk
    May 10, 2011

    I’m always impressed by the thinking of people who a. don’t even want to see anything they don’t agree with and b. who use the word “twat” in a sentence. Ah, 15 year olds.

    Sharon

  9. #9 TTT
    May 10, 2011

    Unfortunately for Greer’s analogy, we have no way of knowing whether the “ship” will “sink” three years from now or thirty years from now, and there is no “lifeboat” and never will be.

    People are never going to make real and hard sacrifices now for the sake of uncertain benefits across an uncertain timeline. It’s not in human nature. It’s hard enough to get the average person to go to the dentist every year if they don’t have toothaches. Why and how are they supposed to incur extra lifestyle costs–in terms of both money, convenience, and time–to reduce their energy dependence when you can sure bet that all their other costs (work, taxes, time commitments) are not easing up on them? This doesn’t mean they’re bad, or ignorant, or living in denial. It just means they’re people.

  10. #10 Brad K.
    May 11, 2011

    @ D. G. Bokare,

    That is an interesting option you mention, “or take steps to systematically dismantle the same before it is too late.“. There is another alternative, one that Greer points out in his analogy – don the lifejacket, head for the lifeboat. Viable and vital lifeboats are available today if you simply choose a different part of the system to depend upon. Options include Sharon’s Adapting in Place, Greer’s Green Wizardry which revives the 1970s “appropriate technology” tech, or even the Amish, who have been living off-grid for centuries, now, and they seem to be doing OK. Buddhists and other modern monasteries practice minimal dependence on stuff of corporate manufacture. Of course, you could go cold turkey and fully independent of this crumbling edifice, and eschew it all in your own fashion.

    I recall reading in the Small Farmers Journal (Sisters, Oregon), nearly a decade ago, of the number of people choosing a quieter, lower-pace life with a hobby farm or going purely rustic, like Robert Redford’s “Jeremiah Johnson” movie story (Johnson was a disillusioned Civil War veteran).

    So what if the Lifeboat Option still leaves you dependent on some part of the system (Internet, Sharon’s continuing insights, libraries, local roads) to make your personal transition. There is a more fundamental choice, to eschew the ship voyage entirely, managing directly all of your personal dependencies. But that closes a lot of doors, some of which might improve your personal future – or lead you to empower and enable the survival of part of your family or community.

    I am convinced that individuals dropping out of the formal economy to pursue alternative ways to live — relieves pressure on the greater economy. I don’t see enough people doing something all that different, at any given moment, to ‘crash the system’. And I don’t want to see the system crashed, because at the moment there are not enough alternate resources in place to replace what the system is doing for the masses.

    @ TTT,

    Greer’s point is that no one knows what date and time that the waves will roll over a specific individual. As I read the analogy — the damage has been done, the fact that the voyage will never be completed, that the ship will not be carrying anyone to port, ever — that has already happened. The choices are to jump ship in the hope of finding an alternate path to somewhere, or refuse to change and marry your future to the sinking ship.

    I think it is implied that getting to the lifeboat, and getting far enough away before the ship sinks (and pulls down anything too close), improves your chances of surviving. If you think of surviving as living a life with less dependence on a corporate-nurturing economy as the lifeboat, then certainly, getting onboard that changed life cannot start too soon. The panic of rising waters will make thinking more frantic, and make choosing well more difficult. The first ones into the lifeboat are better able to help others, and partake in early group decisions. By changing early, you have more control over what happens to you.

    It is less obvious, maybe, to Sharon’s readers on ScienceBlogs than at her Chateleine’s Keys blog, that the focus is first on your own choices, on what you perceive is required of you. Back to the analogy — the Captain of the ship already made his/her last effective choice, resulting in the ongoing wreck. What the rest of the passengers do, eventually, has nothing to do with what you choose at the moment.

    As the airline admonition goes, “Adjust your own oxygen mask first, then assist any children or other traveling companions.”

  11. #11 TTT
    May 11, 2011

    Brad K:
    Past some point of poetic ridiculousness, analogies must be abandoned. I am reminded of the “God’s Egg” essay–author’s name escapes me–which argues that humankind need not worry about environmental protection because, just as birds hatch out of eggs that nurtured their early development in order to spread throughout the world, humans are in the process of “hatching” from primitive dependence on Earth’s resources and will simply colonize other planets when we need to.

    If there is no indication that the “ship” will “sink” for 30 years or more, no one will get off. Nondefined and non-urgent problems do not get solved.

  12. #12 ChrisBear
    May 11, 2011

    Been mulling your post and Greer’s post for a few days now, trying to find a way to say why I do not like his post. I think he’s stuck. If it isn’t from the 70’s, if he does not approve of it, then it is stupid, silly, and doomed. Be independent (he says), but _my_ way. And I do not think he actually read all of Kay’s post before writing about it.

    To the point- drink at the bar, or run for the lifeboat is a false choice. Did nobody think to bail? Patch the hole? A wise sailor once told me, “Step up into your life raft.” We are not cargo to sit passively or move to another vessel.

  13. #13 vera
    May 11, 2011

    Over at Leaving Babylon, we’ve had a lively discussion on some aspects of Greer’s recent posts, particularly whether or not collective action is possible, and whether it should be added to the green wizard repertoire. Just click on my name to go there… all points of view welcome.

  14. #14 Jonesy
    May 12, 2011

    Unfortunately for Greer’s analogy, we have no way of knowing whether the “ship” will “sink” three years from now or thirty years from now, and there is no “lifeboat” and never will be.

    People are never going to make real and hard sacrifices now for the sake of uncertain benefits across an uncertain timeline. It’s not in human nature. It’s hard enough to get the average person to go to the dentist every year if they don’t have toothaches. Why and how are they supposed to incur extra lifestyle costs–in terms of both money, convenience, and time–to reduce their energy dependence when you can sure bet that all their other costs (work, taxes, time commitments) are not easing up on them? This doesn’t mean they’re bad, or ignorant, or living in denial. It just means they’re people.

  15. #15 Silvia
    May 12, 2011

    So true Sharon. I get tired of the “Oh well. I could never do that.” drivel. I am now just continuing to quietly change my life and my family’s, but am available to those who are interested.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.