Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Great Pruning

Collapses result in considerable cultural loss and there is no reason to think that the coming one will be an exception. In fact it is likely that the losses, in this domain like in many others, will be larger than most. To begin with, we have more to loose. Fossil fuels have enabled us to both feed and educate more people than at any other time in history. More than two millions books are published world-wide every single year. This is far beyond the capacity of a post-peak, presumably agrarian, society to conserve. This is still more true of movies or television films, which become useless once you have lost the capacity to rerun them. Besides, our storage media have a very limited lifespan and can only be accessed with energy-intensive devices we are very likely to lose during the coming energy descent.

Where medieval books are still readable after a century, our CDs, DVDs and hard drives won’t survive ours and even if they do, they will be as readable for our deindustrial descendants as an eight tracks cartridge or a betamax tape is for the average westerner. When we realize this, our first reaction is to follow the tracks of Saint-Leibowitz and try to preserve as much as we can of our civilization’s cultural heritage.

This is definitely a worthy goal and some parts of our culture need to be salvaged and transmitted if we want future civilizations to be more successful than our own. As the Archdruid stated, ours is the first technological civilization in history. Others will come and we must make sure they are in position to build upon the foundations we have laid.

Yet, this strategy of transmission can disastrously backfire. Our society is doomed to collapse because of its reliance on non-renewable resources but also because, despite being aware of the situation, it has chosen to ignore it. The Meadows Report was published in 1972, when we still had a chance to establish a sustainable technological civilization without paying too high a price. There are deep cultural reasons for that, among which our obsession with “progress” and the dominance of what we call liberalism in Europe, that is the neutrality of the states toward values.

As the French philosopher Jean-Claude Michéa convincingly argued, liberalism emerged from the XVIth and XVIIth century religious wars in Europe. Having lived through a period of highly disruptive religious wars. In a civilization where religion held so central a place, such wars demanded an intellectual response lest they tear apart the very fabric of the society.

This response was liberalism, that is the idea that the state was to be neutral not only toward religions but also toward values. Of course, disestablishing organized religions was a good thing, as was the creation of a private sphere, which allows people to pursue their own interests without interference from the state. The logic of liberalism, however, Michea argues, leads to the destruction of the very notion of common values. Since all values are private and that the community represented by the state shouldn’t favor any of them, the only thing which keeps the society together is the relentless pursuit of wealth and the merchant sphere ultimately invades all other social spheres. Besides, since there is no common conception of the common good, conflicts are decided through appeals to emotion, hence the “oppression Olympics” and the shameless exhibitionism which characterize today’s politics – the Femens are a case in point but they are hardly alone.

The availability of cheap and abundant fossil fuels definitely helped the development of the progress myth and the slow destruction of communities and of what Orwell called Common Decency. It made possible for the progress myth to fulfill its promises, at least for a time, which was quite an advantage over, say, traditional Christianity. The enlightenment, however, is older, by at least a century than the Industrial revolution and without it the mythology of progress would not have taken hold and the transition to a sustainable civilization far easier.

Collapses destroy the cultural capital of a civilization, relegating once dominant ideologies to the dustbins of history, erasing whole philosophical schools. This is sometimes unfortunate. What survived of classical Greek culture, for instance, was mostly the product of the aristocratic party. We know very little of the intellectual production of the democratic party and nothing of the anti-slavery Athenian movement postulated by Karl Popper. We know also very little of the competitors of Christianity during the 3rd century BC. The arguments of pagan opponents of Christianity are known only through (probably highly biased) quotations by Christian authors and we know still less of the many heretic opponents of early Catholicism.

This can also be fortunate. When at the end of Bronze Age, the Mycenian palaces were burnt by a bunch of unknown but manifestly very angry people, the ideology which supported the palatial system was also destroyed, not just discredited, utterly destroyed. The palatial economy was a kind of proto-communism in which the ruler collected the production of the areas under his control and redistributed it to his followers. Resources were managed by a bureaucracy of scribes and accountants who controlled also trade and craftsmanship in a semi-centralized manner. Such a system was not very conductive to democracy and personal freedom. It also tended to create a lot of outcasts – the kind of people mid-eastern texts call habiru.

When the system was destroyed, not only physically, but also as a concept, the autonomous village community which emerged from the wreckage, laid the foundations of the city-states of the classical age and with it of the market economy and democracy. Had the palatial system survived, nothing of the sort would have happened.

Of course, the present economical and political arrangements are unlikely to survive the energy descent and the current elites will definitely be replaced by something else – probably in a rather messy and brutal way. This does not mean, however, that the ideological apparatus they have built to justify their rule, will not resurface during some renaissance. That is, after all, what happened when the Italian scholars of the Quattrocento rediscovered Greek and Latin authors and rejected, admittedly only to some extend, the heritage of the Middle-Age.

As we slide down Hubbert’s curve, we’ll have to do some ideological triage, burying that part of our heritage which has put us into the mess we are in, and could very well put our descendants into deep troubles should they get seduced by them.

The very idea of ideological triage will probably sound shocking, if not downright offensive to the average American. Europeans tend to be less sanguine, however. We certainly value freedom of expression and consider the free confrontation of ideas as indispensable to the well-being of a decent society. We have also faced, eighty years ago, a cancerous ideology which very nearly plunged our continent into a new dark age. So we have a very limited tolerance toward those who try to revive it.

The French government has recently banned two small far right parties after the death of a far-left activist at the hands of a skinhead. In many European countries, denying the reality of the Holocaust will land you in jail and very few of us have a problem with that.

Indeed, John Stuart Mill, whose seminal book On Liberty, was instrumental in establishing the modern vision of freedom, stated that "the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others." That means that it is perfectly rightful to ban ideas when they cause harm to others. Please note, by the way, that there is a difference between harm and offense. Discrimination against homosexuals clearly harms people. Homosexuality may offense hardline Christians, it does not harm them in any meaningful way.

I think it is obvious to everyone that Nazism and its various fascist siblings are harmful. So are racism and homophobia, as well as ideologies which advocate infanticide and deny personhood to a part of humankind. It is uncertain, however, which part of our heritage is really harmful. While our culture is doubtlessly cancerous, it is far from being universally so. Our habit of treating women like human beings is certainly worth bequeathing to our successors (but not radical feminism), as is our abhorrence for slavery. So are the rule of law (but not the extension of law to the private sphere), government by consent (but not the trampling of common decency in the name of democracy) and the equal dignity of all men (but not the "ideology of the same"), even if those notions predate our civilization, or the concept of representative democracy, which despite its flaws, allows for democratic states larger than your average city-state.

If the mythology of progress, which is at the core of the Enlightenment, is bound to messily collapse, some of its derivatives may be very useful to a future civilization, and may even become a permanent part of human nature – which in a species as ours is as much cultural as it is natural. It is, after all, what happened with the then radical idea that all men are equal in dignity. It arose from Roman imperialism, was formulated for the first time by the Stoics and passed into Christianity then Islam. While its implementation is still, let’s say imperfect, it is accepted, at least in theory, by everybody outside the lunatic fringe.

This handing down of the best of our heritage is not incompatible with the burying of our worst in a great pruning. In fact, it requires it, if we want this best to become a part of future cultures which will have every reason to dislike us. Of course, burying ideas does not mean burying those who hold them. It means not saving them, not transmitting and copying them during the coming long night and the only fire we need for that is the one in our hearths. Lack of resources and the necessity of survival will work for us in that respect. By simply focusing our scarcer and scarcer resources on what absolutely needs saving, we will allow the harmful and the useless to gently slip in the dark. We must, however, be aware of what we do and of why we are doing it.

The cancerous memes in our culture will bring us down. There is little doubt about that, as there is little doubt that future societies will develop their own, probably very different, cancerous memes and succumb to them. That is how civilizations work. We must however make sure that we don’t poison them with our delusions.

The Necronomicon and The Ultimate Resource are probably best forgotten, and if that takes a little help...


  1. If I have read your post correctly, your basic thesis is that declining resources will at some point in the future fail to support all aspects of our culture that are available to us now. I agree with that part of your thesis. The second part of your proposal seems to be that we will have choices about which parts of our culture we will support with our dwindling resources and which we will abandon and that we should choose wisely. Again, I agree that we should choose wisely. However, while we will be able to choose what to hang on to and what to let go of as individuals, we may not be able to choose wisely at the level of politics and industry. The choices at the level of politics and industry are made by a small subset of the larger population and are not necessarily wise. Should orderly governance and large industries collapse, individuals will make choices more or less based on instinct or past habit and the outcome of large number of individual decisions in aggregate will be unpredictable. In other words, we will not know the results of our decisions except in hindsight assuming that we will even have the luxury of hindsight.
    For the most part, we seem to make decisions based on short term goals. We choose what seems to benefit us today and tomorrow because we do not know whether it will harm us in the future. In some cases, it may take us centuries to find out that we made the wrong decision.

  2. Well, supply side choices are certainly made by small groups, but the general population still has the power to choose and can sometimes choose in the fringe. Dune and Lord of The Ring, which stand a serious chance to survive whatever the future has in stock (that's a near-certainty for LOTR).

    Besides, when the current elites will fall, they won't be replaced by anarchy, but by new elites, probably more diverse geographically and better adapted to the new circumstances. The cultural choices will then be made according to the new ideologies, which may be quite hostile to those which dominate our mental field, the same way the choices about what would survive of Roman culture was made not by stoic scholars but by Christian monks.

    Besides, the great pruning will take centuries to be completed, with probably a lot of dissensus, individual choices and polemics about what should be preserved and what should not.

    The result may surprise us. One more reason to be aware of what we do.