Our current way of life is unsustainable. We are the first species that will have to self-consciously impose limits on ourselves if we are to survive.
“The old future’s gone,” John Gorka sings. “We can’t get to there from here.”
That insight from Gorka, one of my favorite singer/songwriters chronicling the complexity of our times, deserves serious reflection. Tonight I want to argue that the way in which we humans have long imagined the future must be rethought, as the scope and depth of the cascading crises we face become painfully clearer day by day.
Put simply: We’re in trouble, on all fronts, and the trouble is wider and deeper than most of us have been willing to acknowledge. We should struggle to build a road on which we can walk through those troubles — if such a road is possible — but I doubt it’s going to look like any path we had previously envisioned, nor is it likely to lead anywhere close to where most of us thought we were going.
Whatever our individual conception of the future, we all should re-evaluate the assumptions on which those conceptions have been based. This is a moment in which we should abandon any political certainties to which we may want to cling. Given humans’ failure to predict the place we find ourselves today, I don’t think that’s such a radical statement. As we stand at the edge of the end of the ability of the ecosystem in which we live to sustain human life as we know it, what kind of hubris would it take to make claims that we can know the future?
It takes the hubris of folks such as biologist Richard Dawkins, who once wrote that “our brains … are big enough to see into the future and plot long-term consequences.” Such a statement is a reminder that human egos are typically larger than brains, which emphasizes the dramatic need for a drastic humility.
I read that essay by Dawkins after hearing the sentence quoted by Wes Jackson, an important contemporary scientist and philosopher working at the Land Institute. Jackson’s work has most helped me recognize an obvious and important truth that is too often ignored: For all our cleverness, we human beings are far more ignorant than knowledgeable. Human accomplishments — skyscrapers, the Internet, the mapping of the human genome — seduce us into believing the illusion that we can control a world that is complex beyond our ability to understand. Jackson suggests that we would be wise to recognize this and commit to “an ignorance-based worldview” that would anchor us in the intellectual humility we will need if we are to survive the often toxic effects of our own cleverness.
Let’s review a few of the clever political and theological claims made about the future. Are there any folks here who accept the neoliberal claim that the triumph of so-called “free market” capitalism in electoral democracies is the “end of history” and that there is left for us only tweaking that system to solve any remaining problems? Would anyone like to defend the idea that “scientific socialism” not only explains history but can lay out before us the blueprint for a glorious future? Would someone like to offer an explanation of how the pending return of the messiah is going to secure for believers first-class tickets to the New Jerusalem?
To reject these desperate attempts to secure the future is not to suggest there is no value in any aspect of these schools of thought, nor is my argument that there’s nothing possible for us to know or that the knowledge shouldn’t guide our action. Instead, I simply want to emphasize the limits of human intelligence and suggest that we be realistic. By realistic, all I mean is that we should avoid the instinct to make plans based on the world we wish existed and instead pay attention to the world that exists. Such realistic thinking demands that we get radical.
Imagine that you are riding comfortably on a sleek train. You look out the window and see that not too far ahead the tracks end abruptly and that the train will derail if it continues moving ahead. You suggest that the train stop immediately and that the passengers go forward on foot. This will require a major shift in everyone’s way of traveling, of course, but it appears to you to be the only realistic option; to continue barreling forward is to court catastrophic consequences. But when you propose this course of action, others who have grown comfortable riding on the train say, “Well, we like the train, and arguing that we should get off is not realistic.”
In the contemporary United States, we are trapped in a similar delusion. We are told that it is “realistic” to capitulate to the absurd idea that the systems in which we live are the only systems possible or acceptable because some people like them and wish them to continue. But what if our current level of First World consumption is exhausting the ecological basis for life? Too bad — the only “realistic” options are those that take that lifestyle as non-negotiable. What if real democracy is not possible in a nation-state with 300 million people? Too bad — the only “realistic” options are those that take this way of organizing a polity as immutable. What if the hierarchies on which our lives are based are producing extreme material deprivation for the oppressed and a kind of dull misery among the privileged? Too bad — the only “realistic” options are those that accept hierarchy as inevitable.
Let me offer a different view of reality: (1) We live in a system that, taken as a whole, is unsustainable, not only over the long haul but in the near term, and (2) unsustainable systems can’t be sustained.
How’s that for a profound theoretical insight? Unsustainable systems can’t be sustained. It’s hard to argue with that; the important question is whether or not we live in a system that is truly unsustainable. There’s no way to prove definitively such a sweeping statement, but look around at what we’ve built and ask yourself whether you really believe this world can go forward indefinitely, or even for more than a few decades? Take a minute to ponder the end of the era of cheap fossil energy, the lack of viable large-scale replacements for that energy, and the ecological consequences of burning what remains of it. Consider the indicators of the health of the planet — groundwater contamination, topsoil loss, levels of toxicity. Factor in the widening inequality in the world, the intensity of the violence, and the desperation that so many feel at every level of society.
Based on what you know about these trends, do you think this is a sustainable system? When you take a moment to let all this wash over you, does it feel to you that this is a sustainable system? If you were to let go of your attachment to this world, is there any way to imagine that this is a sustainable system? Consider all the ways you have to understand the world: Is there anything in your field of perception that tells you that we’re on the right track?
To be radically realistic in the face of all this is to recognize the failure of basic systems and to abandon the notion that all we need do is recalibrate the institutions that structure our lives today. The old future — the way we thought things would work out — truly is gone. The nation-state and capitalism are at the core of this unsustainable system, giving rise to the high-energy/mass-consumption configuration of privileged societies that has left us saddled with what James Howard Kunstler calls “a living arrangement with no future.” The future we have been dreaming of was based on a dream, not on reality. Most of the world that doesn’t live with our privilege has no choice but to face this reality. It’s time for us to come to terms with it.
The Revolutions of the Past
To think about a new future, we need to understand the present. To do that, I want to suggest a way of thinking about the past that highlights the three major revolutions in human history — the agricultural, industrial and delusional revolutions.
The agricultural revolution started about 10,000 years ago when a gathering-hunting species discovered how to cultivate plants for food. Two crucial things resulted from that, one ecological and one political. Ecologically, the invention of agriculture kicked off an intensive human assault on natural systems. By that I don’t mean that gathering-hunting humans never did damage to a local ecosystem, but only that the large-scale destruction we cope with today has its origins in agriculture, in the way humans have exhausted the energy-rich carbon of the soil, what Jackson would call the first step in the entrenchment of an extractive economy. Human agricultural practices vary from place to place but have never been sustainable over the long term. Politically, the ability to stockpile food made possible concentrations of power and resulting hierarchies that were foreign to gathering-hunting societies. Again, this is not to say that humans were not capable of doing bad things to each other prior to agriculture, but only that what we understand as large-scale institutionalized oppression has its roots in agriculture. We need not romanticize pre-agricultural life to recognize the ways in which agriculture made possible dramatically different levels of unsustainability and injustice.
The industrial revolution that began in the last half of the 18th century in Great Britain intensified the magnitude of the human assault on ecosystems and on each other. Unleashing the concentrated energy of coal, oil and natural gas to run a machine-based world has produced unparalleled material comfort for some. Whatever one thinks of the effect of such comforts on human psychology (and, in my view, the effect has been mixed), the processes that produce the comfort are destroying the capacity of the ecosystem to sustain human life as we know it into the future, and in the present those comforts are not distributed in a fashion that is consistent with any meaningful conception of justice. In short, the way we live is in direct conflict with common sense and the ethical principles on which we claim to base our lives. How is that possible?
The delusional revolution is my term for the development of sophisticated propaganda techniques in the 20th century (especially a highly emotive, image-based advertising system) that have produced in the bulk of the population (especially in First World societies) a distinctly delusional state of being. Even those of us who try to resist it often can’t help but be drawn into parts of the delusion. As a culture, we collectively end up acting as if unsustainable systems can be sustained because we want them to be. Much of the culture’s storytelling — particularly through the dominant storytelling institution, the mass media — remains committed to maintaining this delusional state. In such a culture, it becomes hard to extract oneself from that story.
So, in summary: The agricultural revolution set us on a road to destruction. The industrial revolution ramped up our speed. The delusional revolution has prevented us from coming to terms with the reality of where we are and where we are heading. That’s the bad news. The worse news is that there’s still overwhelming resistance in the dominant culture to acknowledging that these kinds of discussions are necessary. This should not be surprising because, to quote Wes Jackson, we are living as “a species out of context.” Jackson likes to remind audiences that the modern human — animals like us, with our brain capacity — have been on the planet about 200,000 years, which means these revolutions constitute only about 5 percent of human history. We are living today trapped by systems in which we did not evolve as a species over the long term and to which we are still struggling to adapt in the short term.
Realistically, we need to get on a new road if we want there to be a future. The old future, the road we imagined we could travel, is gone — it is part of the delusion. Unless one accepts an irrational technological fundamentalism (the idea that we will always be able to find high-energy/advanced-technology fixes for problems), there are no easy solutions to these ecological and human problems. The solutions, if there are to be any, will come through a significant shift in how we live and a dramatic downscaling of the level at which we live. I say “if” because there is no guarantee that there are solutions. History does not owe us a chance to correct our mistakes just because we may want such a chance.
I think this argues for a joyful embrace of the truly awful place we find ourselves. That may seem counterintuitive, perhaps even a bit psychotic. Invoking joy in response to awful circumstances? For me, this is simply to recognize who I am and where I live. I am part of that species out of context, saddled with the mistakes of human history and no small number of my own tragic errors, but still alive in the world. I am aware of my limits but eager to test them. I try to retain an intellectual humility, the awareness that I may be wrong, while knowing I must act in the world even though I can’t be certain. Whatever the case and whatever is possible, I want to be as fully alive as possible, which means struggling joyfully as part of movements that search for the road to a more just and sustainable world.
In this quest, I am often tired and afraid. To borrow a phrase from my friend Jim Koplin, I live daily with “a profound sense of grief.” And yet every day that I can remember in recent years — in the period during which I have come to this analysis — I have experienced some kind of joy. Often that joy comes with the awareness that I live in a creation that I can never comprehend, that the complexity of the world dwarfs me. That does not lead me to fear my insignificance, but sends me off in an endlessly fascinating search for the significant.
To put it in a bumper-sticker phrase for contemporary pop culture, “The world sucks/it’s great to be alive.”
About These Crises
I have been talking about multiple crises without naming them in detail. As I have been speaking, I suspect you all have been cataloging them for yourself. For me, they are political (the absence of meaningful democracy in large-scale political units such as the modern nation-state), economic (the brutal inequalities that exist internal to all capitalist systems and between countries in a world dominated by that predatory capitalism), and ecological (the unsustainable nature of our systems and the lifestyles that arise from them). Beyond that, I am most disturbed by a cultural and spiritual crisis, a condition that goes to the core of how we understand what it means to be human.
For me, an understanding of this crisis is rooted in my feminist work on the contemporary pornography industry. Shaped by patriarchy, white supremacy and that predatory corporate-capitalism, pornography provides a disturbing mirror on our collective soul. We live in a world in which large numbers of people (mostly men) derive sexual pleasure from images of cruelty toward and the degradation of women. A smaller number of people (again, mostly men) profit from this industry. And except for a few people rooted in feminism and other radical philosophies on the margins, there is no significant progressive critique of it in contemporary society. Pornography is a place where we can see what the death of empathy looks like; it offers a picture of a world bereft of the fundamental values of compassion and solidarity; it provides a narrative of a people with no sense of shared humanity. Many aspects of the modern world — this mass-mediated, mass-marketed, mass-medicated world — can easily strip us of our humanity in ways that slowly leave us incapable of responding to these crises. Along with fretting about the other crises, I worry about that.
Add all this up and it’s pretty clear: We’re in trouble. Based on my political activism and my general sense of the state of the world, I have come to the following conclusions about political and cultural change in my society:
- It’s almost certain that no significant political change will happen in the coming year in the United States because the culture is not ready to face these questions. That suggests this is a time not to propose all-encompassing solutions but to sharpen our analysis in ongoing conversation about these crises. As activists we should continue to act, but there also is a time and place to analyze.
- It’s probable that no mass movements will emerge in the next few years in the United States that will force leaders and institutions to face these questions. Many believe that until conditions in the First World get dramatically worse, most people will be stuck in the inertia created by privilege. That suggests that this is a time to expand our connections with like-minded people and create small-scale institutions and networks that can react quickly when political conditions change.
- It’s plausible that the systems in place cannot be changed peacefully and that forces set in motion by patriarchy, white supremacy, nationalism and capitalism cannot be reversed without serious ruptures. That suggests that as we plan political strategies for the best-case scenarios, we not forget to prepare ourselves for something much worse.
- Finally, it’s worth considering the possibility that our species — the human with the big brain — is an evolutionary dead end. I say that not to be depressing but, again, to be realistic. If that’s the case, it doesn’t mean we should give up. No matter how much time we humans have left on the planet, we can do what is possible to make that time meaningful.
Globalized Tribal Animals
I want to end by celebrating human beings. That may sound odd, given the rather grim nature of my remarks. But I think there’s a way to put all this in a perspective that is heartening. I return to Wes Jackson, who doesn’t shy away from naming the problems we face and holding humans accountable for our mistakes, individual and collective. But Jackson also often says we also should go easy on ourselves, precisely because we are a species out of context, facing a unique challenge. He reminds us that we are the first species that will have to self-consciously impose limits on ourselves if we are to survive. This is no small task, and we are bound to fail often. I believe that our failures will be easier to accept and overcome if we recognize:
- We are animals. For all our considerable rational capacities, we are driven by forces that cannot be fully understood rationally and cannot be completely controlled.
- We are tribal animals. Whatever kind of political unit we live in, our evolutionary history is in tribes and we are designed to live in relatively small groups, some would say of no more than 150 persons.
- We are tribal animals living in a global world. The consequences of the past 10,000 years of human history have left us dealing with human problems on a global scale, and we can’t retreat to gathering-hunting groups of 150 or smaller. Even if our future is going to return us to life at a more local level, as many think it will, at the moment we have a moral obligation to deal with injustice and unsustainability on a global level. That’s especially true for those of us living in imperial societies that over the past 500 years have extracted considerable wealth from others around the world.
What does this mean in practice? I think we should proceed along two basic tracks. First, we should commit some of our energy to movements that focus on the question of justice in this world, especially those of us with the privilege that is rooted in that injustice. As a middle-class American white man, I can see plenty of places to continue working, in movements dedicated to ending patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism, economic domination by the First World, and U.S. wars of aggression.
I also think there is important work to be done in experiments to prepare for what will come in this new future we can’t yet describe in detail. Whatever the limits of our predictive capacity, we can be pretty sure we will need ways of organizing ourselves to help us live in a world with less energy and fewer material goods. We have to all develop the skills needed for that world (such as gardening with fewer inputs, food preparation and storage, and basic tinkering), and we will need to recover a deep sense of community that has disappeared from many of our lives. This means abandoning a sense of ourselves as consumption machines, which the contemporary culture promotes, and deepening our notions of what it means to be humans in search of meaning. We have to learn to tell different stories about our sense of self, our connection to others, and our place in nature. The stories we tell will matter, as will the skills we learn.
In my own life, I continue to work on those questions of justice in existing movements, but I have shifted a considerable amount of time to helping build local networks that can create a place for those experiments. Different people will move toward different efforts depending on talents and temperaments; we should all follow our hearts and minds to apply ourselves where it makes sense, given who we are and where we live. After starting with a warning about arrogance, I’m not about to suggest I know best what work people should do.
I am, however, reasonably confident that if we are to make a decent future for ourselves and our children, we have a lot of work to do. John Gorka also expresses that in his song: “The old future’s dead and gone/Never to return/There’s a new way through the hills ahead/This one we’ll have to earn/This one we’ll have to earn.”
We should not be afraid to face the death of the old future, nor should we be afraid to try to earn a new one. It is the work of all the ages, and it is our work today, more than ever. It is the work that allows one to live, joyously, while in a profound state of grief.