Sunday, July 21, 2013

Epochs and Applecarts

In a previous post I mentioned that I was worried that I had committed the sin of epochalism, which Evgeny Morozov defines as the fallacious belief that one is living in truly exceptional times.  I look at trends involving growing population, resource depletion, energy use, loss of species, changes to the composition of the atmosphere from industrial activity, loss of topsoil, acidification of the oceans, rising sea levels, rapid advances in information technology, and I think that it may not be too much of a stretch to believe that we really do live in exceptional times.  

Certainly previous civilizations have crashed into some hard limits to their expansion and their general way of doing things, but as far as I know, it’s never happened everywhere at once. As the Mayan civilization was dissolving, the European diaspora and the modus operandi and intellectual tradition known as “Western Civilization” was going strong and preparing to shift into an even higher gear. Japanese civilization did not crash along with the Maya, and the farmers in the New Guinea highlands, who had no notion of “the Americas,” carried on unperturbed. Today, Japan is thoroughly integrated into the global techno-industrial civilization. If the global system  were to collapse, that collapse would take Japan down with it. Farmers in the New Guinea highlands, who have supported a dense population with intensive permaculture practices for thousands of years, could probably continue their way of life without too much disruption should the global technocracy go away, but they would be hard pressed to shrug of effects of a 6 degrees Celsius rise in global temperature.  Various geoengineering schemes to curb climbing temperatures would affect global weather patterns and not just the fate of the country that took it upon itself to tinker with the climate.

And it’s not just the trends that point to catastrophe that seem to have little precedent in recorded history. (Granted, “recorded history” is a short span compared to how long tool-using language monkeys have been doing their thing here on planet Earth.) If the improvement in the price/performance ratio of micro-circuitry that we call Moore’s Law continues on course for another couple of decades and then passes the baton to a new computing paradigm which increases the pace yet again, humans everywhere will live in a world re-shaped by this process. The optimists assume this rising power will serve human ends; that it will extend the reach of our minds and hands and bless us with seeming immortality. Collapse fetishes dismiss this as absurd fantasy, but I can’t justify discounting the implications of a potential intelligence explosion. Personally, I lean more toward the concerns cyber curmudgeons like Jaron Lanier and Evgeny Morozov who warn that our current path could lead to the rise of power structures that may well defy the understanding of most human minds, powers that will be nearly impossible to resist and which subordinate such niceties as democracy, empathy, and compassion to their own growth imperative.

I’m well aware that every huckster and true believer peddling time-worn predictions of doom or glorious ascendance responds reflexively to any mention of the long history of failure for their favorite apocalyptic meme by insisting, “But this time it’s different.” Even so,  in some respects at least, we really do seem to have pushed our way into some new territory here, and the scope of the dilemma confronting us strikes me as genuinely unprecedented . Business as usual in the techno-industrial mode appears to lead to a variety of potential discontinuities. It seems to me that we cannot continue this way indefinitely. One way or another, something has got to give.

So, have I given myself a free pass to ignore the danger of epochalism? Not exactly. There is another, stronger formulation of the concept of epochalism which states that the times in which we live are so singularly exceptional that no appeal to history can provide us with any insight as to how best to navigate our current set of challenges and predicaments.  This is the epochalism that I see coming from the Singularitarians as well as from Gaian rage junkies who preach a doctrine of complete environmental collapse and even near-term human extinction unless technological civilization is stopped dead in its tracks.  People who assert that a rapid and unprecedented evolution in human consciousness is imminent due to cosmic alignments, alien intervention, or the widespread use of consciousness expanding techniques like psychedelics, free love, yoga or meditation also seem to be exhibiting signs of epochalism from my perspective.  The mere statement that we've never before found ourselves in quite these circumstances and that things are progressing rather quickly strikes me as a fairly uncontroversial observation. It does not follow that our current circumstances are so divorced from previous human experience that history can provide neither insight nor guidance.

Morozov's warnings about the dangers of epochalism have prompted some self-examination on my part because I do describe the C-Realm project as an investigation and a meditation on how best to behave at what seems like the transition between the end of one phase of human development and the uncertain beginning of something new.  We don’t live or think the way our ancestors did before the advent of language, writing, or the printing press. All of these technological innovations prompted a change in human consciousness, in the way we coordinate our efforts and how we inhabit the landscape.

Morozov's admonitions dovetail with those of John Michael Greer.  JMG notes that, when thinking about the future, people tend to polarize into two main groups.  On the one hand are the believers in the religion of progress who rest comfortably in the faith that we are on the threshold of a perfected civilization; that war, poverty, bigotry and injustice are on the ropes and will soon go down for the count.  In the other camp are those who look at unsustainable trends and assert that the end is near, that human civilization will soon collapse and that we’re set to regress into barbarism should we be so lucky as to avoid the complete extinction of our species.  On this point, JMG, who is a thorough and patient articulator of the Peak Oil narrative, is as dismissive of Peak Oil catastrophists as he is of Singularitarians or those who preach a gospel of impending rapture in the mode of the Book of Revelation. According to JMG, civilizations to do not collapse overnight. Even when they are committed to unsustainable practices that disqualify them from indefinite longevity, they still go through a series of partial collapses and recoveries as they cut their losses and give up some of the societal complexity that they had managed to sustain in the past in the service of keeping the whole project going a little longer. He calls this process catabolic collapse, and it takes a couple of centuries at least for this process to run its course.

John Michael Greer does not use Morozov’s vocabulary of epochalism, nor does he deny that epochal changes have taken place in the history of our species. The flaw he identifies in popular thought is the tendency to compress events that play out over centuries into the span of a single human lifetime. The delusion that these changes will happen before our eyes, and that we will be around to see the other side of the transformation and collect on the bets we made and gloat in our vindication may amount to no more than garden variety wishful thinking.

Okay, fair enough. But here’s what I see from the perspective of my one human lifetime, which, hopefully, isn’t much past the halfway mark. I was born in 1968, when global population numbered around 3.5 billion. US oil production was approaching its peak. The heavy industry and complex manufacturing that provided the basis for “modern living” took place in the United States. Telephones were mounted on the wall, and dialing a telephone number connected you with a place, but not necessarily with a particular person. The ritual was to call and then ask the person who answered the phone if the person you wanted to talk to was there. Long-distance calls were expensive and kept short. International calls were for heads of state and captains of industry. There was a computer lab in my high school, and it consisted of fewer than 20 Apple II computers. In computer class we learned to program in BASIC. As a child, I would take off on my bike and spend hours away from home with no way for my mother to contact me, and unless I missed dinner, a ritual in which my entire family gathered around the kitchen table, my long and unsupervised absence was in no way unusual or seen as cause for concern.  My mother was a “homemaker,” and even after my parents divorced, my father managed to support two households and maintain his bourgeois hobby of keeping horses on his mid-level Secret Service agent’s salary. His career progression stagnated when he stopped accepting transfers to new cities and made an enemy of his immediate superior, but his middle class lifestyle was never in danger. He was neither studious nor technically inclined. He certainly showed no entrepreneurial aptitude and openly despised salesmen. He worked one job for decades, and it provided him with a middle class lifestyle that included health insurance, retirement benefits, and paid vacation. He believed in the moral justice of America’s overseas military campaigns and that John F. Kennedy was killed by a lone and unaffiliated lunatic. He believed in the legitimacy of power . He believed that every generation in America does better than their parents.

I won’t bore you by detailing, point by point, how the previous paragraph differs from the America that I inhabit today. Suffice it to say that things are very different now, and I have every reason to expect that my own sons, by the time they reach middle age, will see at least as much change in their society as I have seen in mine. Hopefully, middle age for them will not be their late teens. Over the weekend, I took a stroll through Greenwood Cemetery, which is just a block from where Olga and I live. I noticed that people living in the 19th Century, men and women whose monuments marked them as people of means and privilege, regularly died in their 40s. It would be common for their 20th Century grandchildren to live into their 80s.

My ancestors have lived through famines and world wars. I grew up in the Cold War, a nuclear standoff that adult authorities presented to me as a fundamental configuration of the world in which I lived; something that could only end in nuclear conflagration. I had only been out of high school for 3 years when the Berlin Wall came down. My fascination with Japan grew out of the 1980 TV mini-series adaptation of James Clavell’s novel Shōgun and out of Marvel comics written by Frank Miller, but I justified my wanting to study abroad there to my father with an appeal to Japan’s economic dominance on the world stage. By the time I graduated and got back to Japan, it had already entered the long period of economic stagnation from which it has yet to emerge. The Japanese, justifiably wary of nuclear power, are now hoping to power their industrial society with methane harvested from seafloor ice. A research project sponsored by the Japanese government has already demonstrated that it is technically possible to harvest methane energy from the bottom of the ocean. The question remains, can the process be sufficiently refined so that they get more energy from the seafloor than they expend in retrieving it? I think the jury is still out on that one, but Jim Kunstler predicts that Japan’s energy woes will see them making a voluntary transition back to pre-industrial feudalism.

I do not know what is going to happen in the future, and I don’t believe that anyone else does either. I realize that people hold a lot of unjustified beliefs, and I have danced with some doozies in my time. Some epochal changes take centuries or even millennia  to manifest, but others unfold much more quickly, and my own experience has led me to expect repeated upsets of the apple cart of our collective normality bias. I also expect that the immediate aftermath of each upset will seem completely normal to the kids whose parents’ expectations were demolished by it.

1 comment:

Bryce Hardy said...

This post really hit home for me on a personal level since, being only one year older than you, I can't help thinking about the country I was born into in 1967 as opposed to the one I live in now, and it absolutely makes my head spin. And like you were alluding to, I frankly doubt any Roman or Greek or Mayan or Easter Islander could have possibly experienced the same phenomenon, since those declines occurred so much more slowly.