"A person will worship something, have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming."~ Ralph Waldo Emerson I have often written on the topic of cultural stories, but I am told I have never explicitly addressed on this blog why I feel they are so critically important in our struggle for a future. I am on record as stating that climate change and peak oil represent perhaps the most urgent and significant forces shaping our age, yet in an important sense even these trends are only symptoms of an underlying issue. They are consequences of the choices we have collectively made and continue to make, and these choices are formed by our understanding of the world – by our stories. It is the stories that we tell ourselves about life – both individually and in our wider cultures – that allow us to make sense of the bewildering array of sensory experiences and phenomena that we encounter. They tell us what is important, and they shape our perceptions and thoughts. This is why we use fairy stories to educate our children, why politicians present both positive and negative visions and narratives to win our votes, and why advertisers pay such extraordinary sums to present their perspectives. As John Michael Greer put it, "When people treat, say, fizzy brown sugar water as a source of their identity and human value, their resemblance to fairy-tale characters under an enchantment isn’t accidental" Our cultural stories help to define who we are and they strongly impact our behaviours. One example of a dominant story in our present culture is that of “progress” – the story that we currently live in one of the most advanced civilisations the world has ever known, and that we are advancing further and faster all the time. The definition of ‘advancement’ is vague – though tied in with concepts like scientific and technological progress – but the story is powerfully held. And if we hold to this cultural story then ‘business as usual’ is an attractive prospect – a continuation of this astonishing advancement. The problem with stories comes when they shape our thinking in ways that do not reflect reality and yet we refuse to change them. The evidence might support the view that this ‘advanced’ culture is not making us happy and is rapidly destroying our environment's ability to support us, but dominant cultural stories are powerful things, and those who challenge them tend to meet resistance and even ridicule. Yet as Richard Heinberg comments, "Once we lived with a sense of our own limits. We may have been a hubristic kind of animal, but we knew that our precocity was contained within a universe that was overwhelmingly beyond our influence. That sensibility is about to return. Along with it will come a sense of frustration at finding many expectations dashed." The developing physical reality of 'Peak Climate' will surely change our cultural stories, whether we like it or not, but we can choose whether to actively engage with this process or to simply be subject to it. The powerful cultural story that "real change is impossible" makes it seem inevitable that current trends will continue inexorably on, yet in reality cultural stories are always shifting and changing, often subtly, but sometimes dramatically. Given their importance, then, we should pay close attention when Sharon Astyk argues that there are certain key historical moments at which it is possible to reshape cultural stories rapidly and dramatically, by advancing one’s agenda as a logical response to events: "I think it is true that had Americans been told after 9/11, “We want you to go out and grow a victory garden and cut back on energy usage” the response would have been tremendous – it would absolutely have been possible to harness the anger and pain and frustration of those moments, and a people who desperately wanted something to do" As Naomi Klein highlights in her book The Shock Doctrine, this insight has until now mostly been used to advance cultural stories that benefit a few at the expense of many. Astyk though contends convincingly that as understanding continues to spread, there is no reason why we could not challenge those voices and ensure that we face the next 'threshold moment' with a dominant narrative linking it to the energy and climate context (to which it will almost inevitably be related) and so urging the kinds of attitudinal and lifestyle changes that reality demands. Our work in spreading awareness and understanding until then could give us that chance. This article is a slightly modified extract from my forthcoming book The Transition Timeline, produced in partnership with the Transition Networkand set for publication in March 2009and available now, published by Green Books.
As George Carlin once said, "they call it the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe in it". At the risk of this blog becoming 'review corner', that seems the perfect introduction to the book I just finished reading - Dmitry Orlov's brilliantly enjoyable Reinventing Collapse. This is a true work of dark optimism, with a fair dash of dark humour to boot. In it, Orlov draws on his experiences of the collapse of the Soviet Union to explore the future American residents like him are likely to face as the effects of the USA's disastrous economic, energy and foreign policies take hold. Orlov highlights that economic collapse is not, in fact, the unthinkable end of the world, but rather simply a new set of historical circumstances within which to exist. This is a critically important and inherently dark subject, yet the book is suffused with subtle humour, to the extent that at times you are not quite sure when Orlov is serious and when he's joking. The answer, invariably, is both. This deep humour is an apt way to stimulate further thought in the reader, and after the initial laughter I regularly found myself drawn into a contemplation that led me to Orlov's insights laying beneath. One subtext particularly intrigued me. While Orlov argues that the collapse of the US economy is inevitable (I would agree), and will surely be extremely difficult for most of those living through it, various asides implied to me that it could be considered in some respects desirable. This interests me in the context of the desperate urgency of the global climate change situation. As Dr. James Hansen chillingly put it in his recent paper, it is simply becoming a question of whether "humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted". On his reading of the science (and I trust him) we now have less than seven years to decide. Bearing these stakes in mind, it is interesting to note that Chris Vernon of The Oil Drum quotes the statistic that Russia's carbon emissions fell 31% in the 5 years from the end of the Soviet Union in 1991. Ignoring for a moment all the other effects of that economic collapse, and considering that the weight of evidence tends to suggest that a 'great turning' of the global paradigm may not be likely to take place in time, I am led to ponder whether economic collapse is actually what we should be hoping for - does it represent our best bet for reducing emissions sufficiently quickly to retain a habitable climate on our planet? I have written before about my belief that while climate change and peak oil represent the greatest direct threat facing humanity today, they are really only symptoms of a deeper problem. Humanity’s obsession with growth means that if we could wish away the excess CO2 in our atmosphere and generate unlimited oil we would still quickly find our unsustainable way of life pressing up against the next environmental limit, be it food shortages, air pollution, species extinctions or whatever. And in turn this growth obsession is a symptom of the underlying cultural stories and philosophies we use to make sense of our lives and find meaning. Our cultural stories define us and strongly impact our behaviours. An example of a dominant story in our present culture is that of “progress” - the story that we currently live in one of the most advanced civilisations the world has ever known, and that we are advancing further and faster all the time. The definition of 'advancement' is vague – though tied in with concepts like scientific and technological progress – but the story is powerfully held. And if we hold to this cultural story then 'business as usual' is an attractive prospect – a continuation of this astonishing advancement. Similarly the cultural story that “fundamental change is impossible” makes it seem inevitable. Yet even UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown admitted last week that, “The fact is that a low carbon society will not emerge from thinking of business as usual” The problem with stories comes when they shape our thinking in ways that do not reflect reality. The evidence might support the view that this 'advanced' culture is not making us happy and is rapidly destroying our environment's ability to support us, it might show that dramatic change is both common and inevitable, but dominant cultural stories are powerful magics, and those who challenge them tend to meet resistance and even ridicule. Nonetheless, my work now focuses on changing these dominant cultural stories - and thus changing our patterns of thought and behaviour - as I see this as the key to equipping our society to deal with the pressing challenges of climate change and peak oil. TEQs, the Transition movement and the various other initiatives listed on my links page (as well as this blog of course!) seem to me to provide the best possibilities for starting to shift our cultural paradigm. But perhaps this effort is too little too late? And perhaps by trying to move our society a little closer to long-term sustainability we are in fact just prolonging its existence, and thus prolonging its ability to pump emissions into our atmosphere... Does our need for a relatively benign climate logically dictate that we should be striving to bring about economic collapse sooner rather than later? It is an interesting question, and one that we may need to revisit, but my answer is still no. The human suffering caused by such a sudden collapse is overwhelming, and I believe that kinder options are still open to us. Personally, I believe we still have a chance. I still believe, firstly, that a long-term future for humanity is possible, and secondly that we have a shot at developing a society that responds in a humane way to the crises we face. And I will fight for that possibility for as long as I believe in it and still see a chance that it exists, even as the window of possibility continues to shrink. When it comes down to it, at the deepest level it doesn’t really matter to me whether or not it is probable that we succeed. As Tom Atlee has written, “Probabilities are abstractions. Possibilities are the stuff of life, visions to act upon, doors to walk through.” I will walk through the doors that inspire me. Of course, there is a side of me that asks "but what if we do reach a time when the evidence is clear - when there is no longer any chance of avoiding the devastation of our climate". If we were on the Titanic and we had already hit the iceberg there would be little point in trying to patch the hole as the waters raged in - so what then? Well, the trite answer would be that there's quite enough to worry about now without concerning myself with that. The more interesting answer comes back to what we believe life is fundamentally about, but that will have to wait for a future post. Oh, and just what does Dmitry Orlov suggest in terms of personally adapting to an economic collapse? Well, you'll have to read his book for that!