Part 1: Digital Disconnect
Hello, and thank you for coming out this evening. I'm KMO, host of the weekly C-Realm podcast. C-Realm is an interview-based program that I have been putting out every Wednesday since October of 2006. I had only discovered the existence of such a thing as podcasting a few months before that, and as soon as I heard my first few podcasts on topics that were of interest to me but which I knew could never be covered honestly or in any depth in the corporate media, I knew that I had to become a podcaster and that this was the medium of expression that I had been waiting for.
Many people associate the C-Realm podcast with the themes of peak oil and the collapse of industrial civilization, and that is the topic of the first book to come out of the C-Realm podcast: Conversations on Collapse. In one respect, the C-Realm Podcast has grown into a critique of the techno-fix mentality, but back in October of 2006 I had no idea that the podcast would go in that direction. I was a dedicated reader of speculative fiction, and my academic background was in the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of science. I was very much a technophile and was captivated by the notion of rapidly advancing technology. In particular, I was fully invested in the expectation that information technology, advancing at the exponential pace that we call Moore's Law, would soon give rise to fully realized artificial intelligence that would greatly expand our technological capabilities and even lead to the emergence of what futurist Han Morevec calls our "mind children;" our post-human successors whose intelligence, vision, and abilities will transcend the limitations of human biology. According to this vision, these mind children will replace humans as the dominant decision-makers on the planet and become the primary actors in our global, and soon-to-be interstellar, civilization.
My entry into the world of podcasting was very much a product of accelerating technological advancement, a process that not only made technology more powerful but made powerful technology increasingly affordable to people who, like me, were struggling financially. I had a laptop computer which I had purchased on credit to facilitate my failing career in insurance sales, a $40 headset microphone, an open source audio editing program called Audacity that I downloaded for free, and a third-party plug-in for Skype which cost a few dollars and which allowed me to record Skype calls. All of these tools, which I was able to scrape together for not much money in 2006, along with an RSS feed, allowed me to produce and distribute a program that would have required thousands of dollars worth of equipment to create just a few years earlier.
For my very first podcast interview, I took my MP3 player, which had a tiny little built-in microphone in it, to the office of a lawyer in Rogers, Arkansas named Doug Norwood. Doug is a former prosecutor who specializes in DUI and drug cases, and I talked to him about the rights of drivers who have been stopped by the police and how they should talk to police who have been trained to intimidate and bully people into giving up their constitutional rights and consenting to searches that would have otherwise been unlawful. For that interview I set my little .mp3 player to recording and left it on his desk. I sat across the room and projected so that his natural speaking voice and my booming announcer voice from across the room, came out at about the same volume level in the final recording. I recorded a spontaneous and unscripted introduction to the conversation which I tacked onto the front of the interview without any opening theme music, and that was C-Realm podcast episode number one.
By the third episode I had figured out how to record Skype calls, and I recorded the first C-Realm podcast Skype conversation using the Internet connection of the Panera bread Company in Bentonville, Arkansas. At the time, my home Internet connection was not good enough to support a Skype call. That first Skype conversation was with my friend, David McFadzean, who founded a techno-centric, atheistic, on-line religion called the Church of Virus. David was and is very much a Singularitarian and a technophile. If you're not familiar with the term Singularitarian, it refers to somebody who is dedicated to the proposition that humanity is fast approaching a technological singularity. Different thinkers hold various visions of the Singularity, but most of them involve artificial intelligence or an explosion in human intelligence facilitated by information technology. According to Singularitarians, after the Singularity, things will change so rapidly that normal human beings, those not augmented with cognitive enhancements or symbiotically partnered with artificial intelligences will simply not be able to comprehend the changes that will profoundly re-make the world in the seeming blink of an eye.
At the time I was still hopeful that a technological singularity was in the cards, but I was also a fan of psychedelic provocateur and philosophical stuntman Terence McKenna, and one of the first podcasts that I discovered which set me on fire and made me want to create my own podcast was Lorenzo Hegarty's Psychedelic Salon Podcast by which he shared a great many lectures by Terence McKenna. Prior to discovering the Psychedelic Salon Podcast, I had heard a couple of Terence McKenna recordings. I owned Terence's Alien Dreamtime CD which had three of his rants on it, and I had also purchased a cassette series of his called History Ends in Green. I had read Terence McKenna's books and attended one of his last public appearances, but it wasn't until the advent of the Psychedelic Salon Podcast that I realized what a treasure trove of recorded Terence McKenna material existed and would incrementally be made available for everyone to listen to via of the Psychedelic Salon Podcast.
Terence McKenna understood the reasoning of the Singularitarians and their very technocentric and hyper-rationalist viewpoint, but he had a much more inclusive understanding; a more creative, nonlinear take on things. You might say he took a psychedelic perspective on the coming of the technological Singularity. I was inspired by Terence McKenna's vision and captivated by his notion that all of the accumulating, accelerating, concrescing novelty of our technological civilization would reach a crescendo on December 21, 2012. And that would be the date of the Singularity or the Eschaton, the Great Awakening or whatever you want to call the amazing transformation that was supposedly hovering on the near horizon. That is the perspective I was coming from with regard to technology when I started the C-Realm podcast back in 2006.
And so here at the beginning before I go any further and while we're on the topic of technology let me just mention these marvelous devices. What I'm holding here is one of the cell phones that AT&T was giving away for free when I signed a two-year contract back in 2008. It has a 2 megapixel camera, a built-in video camera, and it bears the Sony Walkman logo and was designed to double as an .mp3 player. If you could take this phone back in time and show it to someone in the mid 1990s it would be a technological marvel. Today it is an antiquated piece of outdated technology that would be an enormous source of frustration for anyone who is used to having the capabilities of what we now call smart phones. It is very much an example of how quickly technology changes and delivers new powers into our hands and how quickly we come to take those powers for granted and only notice them when theyre not working properly.
Not only do we accept these new technological marvels as normal, but we expect them to continue to get better and better all the time. Well-heeled young people in San Francisco and New York City who spend their days with their noses buried in their iPhone 5s and Samsung Galaxy S4s fully expect to have something much better in their hands in just a few months time… in their hands or even on their faces in the form of Google Glass and the various gizmos that promise to follow in the wake of Google Glass.
But while we're on the topic of smart phones, information technology and being digitally connected right now, I just want to ask you to turn off your phone. Don't just silence it so that it won't make noise and disturb the rest of us, but turn it completely off. As I'm speaking, I'm likely to say things that arouse your curiosity and prompt you to want to divide your attention and send part of your consciousness out into the Cloud to learn more about what you just heard me say, and while you're online, you'll probably want to check your email and take a quick peek at Facebook. You wouldnt be checking out entirely. A portion of your attention would still be here to monitor what I'm saying… just in case I throw out any more interesting tidbits that you might want to chase down online. This is called multi-tasking, and it is something that our employers, our families, and the various people whom we interact with via social media encourage us to do at all hours of the day.
As repeat C-Realm guest, Bruce Damer explained in his 2004 essay called "A Gigantic Unplanned Experiment… on You":
[T]he human brain seems to be wired to operate at two speeds: cognitive (fast gear) and emotive (slow gear). You can make logistical calculations in milliseconds and hand-eye coordinated movements in just a little longer. This is what millions of years evolving in trees and then later on the savanna evolved you to be able to do. But emotional and body memory take much longer to sink in, and is slower to be recalled. Recalled emotion and the sense of the body give you all those important intuitive skills for healthy group social behavior, body and spirit health, and connection to other living beings. As we increasingly become creatures of cognition and stimulus-response, emotion and the sense of the body are being factored out of our life equation.
It is a terrible irony that as beings we are perfectly built for this experiment. Brain researchers are only now documenting this two-speed system and tracking the decline of test subjects' emotional and body memory markers. When people get into states of low emotional and body-sense, and substitute cognitive and speed-sense they enter into a dangerous realm described by these researchers as "emotional neutrality".
Life in this glorious age of constant connection is always prompting us to shift into that cognitive high gear, but I want to encourage you to voluntarily downshift into the slower, emotive gear. Keep your phone turned off so that reflexively chasing the cognitive rabbits as they spring out of the bushes is not even a possibility. If a passing curiosity arises, just take note of it, and rest assured that you will have ample opportunity later to explore and follow-up on the themes you encounter in this presentation. But for now please don't direct your consciousness outside of this room. Stay here with me and with these other people who have assembled here.
Having accesses to that great storehouse of information we call the Internet is the normal condition in your life. Sharing an experience with this particular group of people who are physically assembled in this room with you right now is a more precious opportunity than is the opportunity to go online and follow whatever passing curiosity is beckoning you to shift back into that multi-tasking high gear. And if you feel uncomfortable at the prospect of disconnecting because you fear missing some vitally important communication in the very short time that I'm asking you to be present here in this place with these people, pay attention to that anxiety, because it's telling you something very important about the changes this technology has made to your nervous system. But please join me in turning off the digital devices.
Part 2: Epochs and Critical Junctures
I had some promotional postcards made up that feature my face against a cityscape background Photoshopped into a psychedelic fantasmagoria. On the back of the card is the elevator pitch for the C-Realm Podcast. It reads:
Join KMO and guests for weekly C-Realm Podcast conversations and consider the predicament weve created for ourselves. We have pushed the infinite growth paradigm to the brink of a broken planet. Clearly, transition is upon us, but what sort of transition?
Must humans behave like bacteria, consuming and multiplying to the limits of our resource base and then dying in droves, or will we use our foresight and rationality to curb our appetites and avert disaster? Ultimately, it all comes down to one question: Are we a conscious species?
As the late Terence McKenna put it, If the expansion of consciousness does not loom large in the human future, what kind of future is it going to be?
I was already regretting the design of the card because I realized what a self-important doofus I would seem on those occasions when I would be handing out postcards with my own face on them. Later, as I read Evgeny Morozovs new book, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, I wondered if I hadnt committed an even bigger sin with the elevator pitch on the back of the card.
What sin have I possibly committed? Morozov calls it "epochalism," by which he means the belief that our present circumstances are so unique that they have no historical parallels or precedents and that no appeals to the past can provide us with any guidance. As Steven Poole summarized it in his review …if you think that the age of Twitter and online videos of sneezing cats is so unlike anything that has gone before that we must tear up the rule-book of civilisation, then you are an epochalist.
Am I an epochalist? The epochalism that Evgeny Morozov identifies in his book is the epochalism of techno-utopians who think that the rise of the Internet and ubiquitous connectivity via cell phones and other mobile devices will soon sweep away all forms of corruption, injustice and inefficiency, and everything else that that stands between us and an earthly paradise. There are certainly other varieties of epochalism. I think we have all at least heard of Christian epochalism; the narrative of the Rapture in which the Christian faithful will be taken up into heaven and everyone else will be left here on earth to endure a malevolent global dictatorship and various cataclysms. There are also climate catastrophe epochalists who think that we have so degraded our ecosystems and so disrupted the workings of the climate that the Earth will soon be transformed into something akin to Venus and that all life on Earth will die. Some people say this will happen by the middle of this century.
I've distanced myself from the Singularitarian form of epochalism that I once embraced, and while I'm certainly not sanguine about the on-going mass extinction or the state of the climate, there is another form of epochalism that I realize I have embraced wholeheartedly, and that is the notion of a rapid collapse of industrial civilization from peak oil.
Peak oil theory, as you probably know, starts with the obvious observation that oil is a finite resource. The process which produces oil takes place over geological time scales and so once we have used up whats in the ground now, it is effectively gone. The peak comes when the rate of extraction can no longer increase and we have to adjust ourselves to declining supplies of fossil fuels. Now, our civilizations use of petroleum as our primary source of energy really has produced an epochal change. It changed nearly everything about how we feed ourselves, how we occupy the landscape and how we organize our society. It has changed the definition of the family and allowed for a centralization of power that exceeds any previous empire. Fossil fuel energy replaced human and animal muscle power and thereby transformed nations of farmers and artisans first into industrial workers and eventually into service and knowledge workers in the post-industrial information economies of the First World. All this from fossil fuel energy.
Not only has petroleum replaced human and animal muscles for doing mechanical work but we also use it to make fertilizers, detergents, solvents, adhesives and most plastics. Imagine modern life without plastic. Fossil fuels, particularly coal, are still the primary energy source for our electrical grid, which runs the server farms that give all of our amazing little electronic gizmos something to connect to.
The implication of peak oil is that all of this energy allowed for dramatically increased complexity in our society. In 1700 you didn't have any automotive mechanics or refrigerator repairmen because those devices did not exist. In 1986 when I graduated from high school and was supposed to be thinking about a career path, there was no World Wide Web, and no podcasts. The more complex your society becomes the more distinct job roles there are and, ideally, the better your chance of finding the job that best fits your temperament, your aptitudes and your desires. In my own case, there were no podcasters in the late 80s to serve as role models, so while podcasting is the occupational role that fits me better than any other Ive ever tried, its not anything I could have aspired to before the rise of the web, RSS feeds, .mp3 players and personal computers powerful enough to handle big media files. The society I inhabit today is much more complex and has more unique professions in it than the world I grew up in, and Id be hard pressed to claim that that is an entirely bad thing.
The long-term implication of peak oil is that when oil production peaks and begins to decline all of this increased societal complexity that comes from replacing human and animal muscle power with fossil fuel energy will have to move back in the direction of our pre-petroleum living arrangements. We will not be able to sustain the level of societal complexity that exists now.
The US Department of energy in 2005 issued the Hirsch report which stated, "The peaking of world oil production presents the U.S. and the world with an unprecedented risk management problem. As peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically, and, without timely mitigation, the economic, social, and political costs will be unprecedented. Viable mitigation options exist on both the supply and demand sides, but to have substantial impact, they must be initiated more than a decade in advance of peaking."
Now, people who are very alarmed about peak oil say that we don't have ten years; that conventional oil production peaked in 2005, and that far from having a decade in which to prepare, if we started today we be starting nearly a decade late. The Hirsch report concludes, "without timely mitigation, world supply/demand balance will be achieved through massive demand destruction (shortages), accompanied by huge oil price increases, both of which would create a long period of significant economic hardship worldwide."
I don't believe there's any reason to discount that conclusion, and I do agree with Jim Kunstler that suburbia is a living arrangement that is not viable for a post-petroleum future, but what I do not expect the current viability of suburbia to crash into the far future complete non-viability of suburbia overnight. The peak oil fast collapse scenario is equivalent to industrial civilization running into a brick wall or over a cliff at full speed. Lurid predictions of this sort of crash include a massive internal refugee population, people stranded because they cannot afford fuel for their cars, the sudden imposition of martial law, the breakdown of civil order, banditry, and even cannibalism.
I agree with John Michael Greer that we are living through what he calls a catabolic collapse, which is to say that society is slowly eating itself as it goes through a stair step progression of collapse, partial recovery and reorganization, and that this process takes place over a couple of centuries. It has been happening for most of my lifetime, and it will continue through the lifetimes of my children and grandchildren. This view doesn't mean that we won't encounter hardships, shocks and discontinuities. I certainly believe that we will, but I don't think that we are headed for a Mad Max world in which people who once made their livings selling insurance or working at Walmart turn to living as medieval serfs, or roving bandits.
I want to be perfectly clear about the fact really terrible things and really marvelous and unprecedented things have happened in the past and that they will continue to happen in the future. The way that we inhabit the landscape and the way we organize our societies has changed dramatically over time, and it will continue to change, but the types of sweeping overnight changes that Singularitarians expect or that people who anticipate that any day now the US federal government is going to announce that we have been in contact with extraterrestrials for decades and that the ETs are about to share their technology with us or that we are about to experience an epochal change in human consciousness due to cosmic alignments and the transition to the age of Aquarius; these are not the sorts of changes that we can reasonably expect to see in the near future.
While I take the implications of peak oil seriously, Im starting to consider the fast collapse from peak oil to be yet another version of the unrealistic epochal change that sweeps away the current reality in an instant and delivers us into a fully furnished new world. If we remain fixated on visions of epochal changes like the ones I just mentioned, then were likely to completely miss the actual trends that really do create extreme disruption on the time scale of an individual human lifetime.
While I think that a lot of people, myself included, have squandered a lot of time and psychic energy obsessing over developments that are unlikely to come to fruition in our own lifetimes, Im not saying that our current civilization is sustainable or we have arrived at anything resembling a stable developmental plateau. As a species, we have endured a series of catastrophic events some of which could have marked the end or our line. There have been die offs, mega-scale natural disasters, disastrous shifts in the climate and episodes of mass slaughter.
Around 70,000 years ago, as a result of climate change from the mount Toba supervolcanic eruption in Indonesia, the global population of Homo Sapiens was reduced to around 10,000 individuals. That is a hairs breadth from extinction. The Black Death in medieval Europe killed between a third and half of the population. Six million Jews died during the Holocaust, and even in my own lifetime there have been episodes of mass slaughter in Cambodia, Indonesia, the Balkans, and Rwanda. Those were surely apocalyptic events for the people who lived through them, and they were the end of the world for the people who died in them. Still, as events that shaped the development of global industrial and post-industrial civilization, they were but blips.
And make no mistake, in spite of the fact that I have helped propagate some improbable worst-case scenario thinking about peak oil, in the future we will be using less energy, and we will be consuming fewer material resources. I think that the people in the Transition Network, and other people who understand the implications of peak oil and are not scaremongering to grab attention, understand that we have inherited an extravagant and wasteful lifestyle and that material consumption, beyond the level that satisfies our physical needs, does not create happiness. We can simultaneously decrease our material consumption and increase our quality of life. That I fully believe. I've done it myself.
I think that it is important to distinguish between historical epochs or epochal changes and what Robert McChesney, the author of Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy, calls critical junctures. Critical junctures are periods when institutions are amenable to change in a way that they are not amenable most of the time. Robert McChesney writes that critical junctures occur when there is a disruptive new technology, when established institutions are discredited, and when there is an economic or political crisis. The examples he gives mostly have to do with journalism. Around the turn of the 20th Century, American journalism had, deservedly, a very serious credibility problem. Newspapers had open political allegiances. Journalists were obviously for sale and self-interested in their reporting, and few people considered them credible sources of information. In response to this credibility crisis journalistic institutions voluntarily adopted the standards of conduct that we now consider characteristic of professional journalism, which is to say a commitment to objectivity and the separation of editorial content from reporting.
Another example of a critical juncture is the Great Depression. It would not have been possible to institute the New Deal and the extensive reorganization of civic society that took place during FDRs tenure as president without the economic crisis of the 1930s. During that critical juncture, the existing institutions and way of doing things obviously were not working. Social progressives were able to institute wide-ranging reforms which became institutionalized and endured for decades; things like Social Security, Medicare, and the various components that make up the social welfare state. Over the course of my lifetime those institutions have been slowly dismantled in the United States by the forces of neoliberalism, but they were established very quickly at a critical juncture, and they lasted for generations.
Another example of a critical juncture which allowed for sweeping institutional change came on September 11, 2001. Within two months of that day Congress passed the USA Patriot Act which created the Department of Homeland Security and initiated the rapid creation of a high-tech surveillance state.
The legislation that would become the USA Patriot Act was conceived long before September 11, 2001. The neoconservative think tank The Project for the New American Century published a paper in the year 2000 with the title Rebuilding America's Defenses: Strategies, Forces, and Resources For a New Century. The authors of that paper described what they thought needed to be done to preserve American dominance on the global stage. They knew that there would be considerable resistance to their agenda because when the Soviet Union dissolved, there was a lot of excitement in the West over the expected peace dividend that would come with the end of the Cold War. The New American Century authors thought that the path to continuing Americas superpower status was to create a never-ending state of war, and they wrote that a new Pearl Harbor event would open up the possibility to enact the changes they thought necessary to achieve that perpetual war orientation. Just such an event presented itself on 9/11, and the champions of the domestic police state and renewed imperial reach abroad were ready, and now, as a result, we get to pose nude for TSA agents at the airport and can barely be bothered to feign surprise at the revelation that our every phone call, email, text message and Tweet is being intercepted and stored by the NSA in collusion with the all the major telecommunications and internet companies.
So, I think that it is important that we distinguish between epochal changes which actually unfold over centuries but which wishful thinking has us compressing in our imaginations so that the outcomes are visible within our lifetimes and critical junctures which do create moments of instability in which major institutional changes occur which can endure for decades. We should be ready to act on critical junctures when they present themselves. I'll say more about that at the end of the talk. But first I want to talk about why people are so susceptible to epochalism and, in particular, the epochalism of the fast collapse from peak oil narrative.
Part 3. Autonomy and Rage
Why are we so susceptible to epochalism, and what does it tell us about how to thrive in an age of instability, economic decline and rapidly advancing technology? Does anyone remember which film won the Academy Award for best picture in 1999? No? It was Shakespeare in Love. There were a couple of other films released that year which made a more lasting impression on me than did Shakespeare in Love. Im talking about The Matrix and Fight Club; two films which get referenced endlessly in discussions about contemporary culture and technology.
The Matrix has been a little over-harvested, I think, for cultural metaphors, so I wont be making any references to Agent Smith or choosing between the red pill and the blue pill. The other of those two films from 1999, Fight Club, certainly hasnt been overlooked or underappreciated. It continues to be a cult favorite, I think, largely because it provides an excellent illustration of how industrial civilization, while providing us with historically unprecedented levels of comfort and personal security, leaves so many of us feeling frustrated, alienated, and dissatisfied. In the book and the film adaptation, we follow a character who lives a soulless existence, but one that, on paper, at least, seems quite enviable in terms of late 20th Century standards of living and career. Our unnamed protagonist has a job in which he is constantly flying around the country, investigating auto accidents, and performing a simple calculation to determine whether it is cheaper to continue to settle out of court with the families of people killed by defective automobiles, or whether it would be cheaper to issue a recall.
Narrator: A new car built by my company leaves somewhere traveling at 60 mph. The rear differential locks up. The car crashes and burns with everyone trapped inside. Now, should we initiate a recall? Take the number of vehicles in the field, A, multiply by the probable rate of failure, B, multiply by the average out-of-court settlement, C. A times B times C equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don't do one.
The narrator has no choice in the matter. He exercises no independent judgment. All he does is travel, observe the carnage, collect data and apply a cold formula, and for this he is well-rewarded. He has a well-appointed high-rise condo that he returns to from time to time, and when hes not working he spends his time either
1) trying to define himself through consumption, pouring over the Ikea catalog and phoning in his order and waiting for the items he has selected to be delivered to his home.
or, much more tellingly
2) he goes to support groups for people suffering from maladies that he does not have.
He starts off by attending a support group for me with testicular cancer. Later, he goes to meetings for people suffering from blood parasites and traumatic brain injury, but regardless of what group he attends, he wants to share in the emotional catharsis of the people who share their stories, embrace each other and cry.
When hes there, he can feel his emotions, and he needs this because when he is traveling and doing the soulless, mechanistic job for which he is well-rewarded, he cant sleep. He spends sleepless nights in hotel rooms watching brainless television. He is always rushing to catch a plane, and he operates in a sort of twilight consciousness, neither fully awake nor fully asleep. Sometimes he comes to his senses in an airport and doesnt remember how he got there. He lives a life where everything comes prepackaged in single servings.He has conversations with people on planes or in transit lounges or hotel lobbies which he calls single serving friendships because he will never see these people again. He travels and works in a sleepless haze, but when he gets back to his home city and he goes to the support group meetings and embraces and cries with people he doesnt really know, and enjoys the emotional bond that they form, based on a lie — the lie that he has the same malady that everyone else in the group has, then he can sleep.
Youve probably all seen it, so I wont recount the plot of the whole movie, but the world that it depicts, the United States at the end of the 20th Century, shows no signs of instability or incipient collapse. There is no mention of peak oil. No mention of disruptive technological changes. The film is based on a book written before even the dot com bubble of the late nineties. The economy seemed strong at the time. There was little indication to lead the casual observer that we were entering into a long period of decline punctuated by serial boom and bust cycles. Everything that the narrator needed, all of his material needs, were provided for. His security was provided for. His comfort was provided for. The ongoing opportunity to define himself by his purchases was provided for. His society is not depicted as cruelly exploitative of him. It just asked him to do a job and rewarded him handsomely for doing it. This situation was so intolerable for him that a shadow psyche arose from his unconscious and took control of his body and made him the leader of a revolution that aimed to bring down the system starting by destroying the records of credit card companies and eliminating debt.
What this film so eloquently illustrates is an idea that Theodore Kaczynski, otherwise known as the Unabomber, articulated in his manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future. He argued that what human beings require in order to feel satisfied with their lives is the opportunity to go through what he calls the Power Process, which is to say that in order to feel satisfied we must apply ourselves to the attainment of challenging yet achievable goals. If our goals are truly challenging, then we wont attain them all the time, but to feel a sense of satisfaction with our lives, we must rise to meet challenges and apply ourselves using our natural gifts and our acquired skills, and we have to succeed at least some of the time.
For humans living in small bands before the advent of farming, just providing oneself and ones immediate social group with food, shelter, and protection required enough effort, knowledge, and resourcefulness to satisfy the need for the power process. The psychological need to go through this process contributed to our survival and successful reproduction. In contrast, life in technological society does not offer us many opportunities to pursue our goals autonomously. It requires very little of us other than obedience.
According to this view, self-confidence, self-esteem and a sense of power come from making an autonomous effort in attaining our goals, but when we work for big corporations, we dont select our own goals, and our efforts are not autonomous. The goals are chosen for us and the actions we take in the service of those goals are determined and coordinated by people we dont know and will likely never meet. Our job roles are strictly defined and our interactions with other people are scripted for us, and only the most trivial decisions are left up to us. We know that when we stop doing the job, which eventually we will, that the operation will continue without us. We know that nothing that is unique about us… nothing about the parts of ourselves that we value most, is at all necessary to the performance of our job. We operate as interchangeable and replaceable parts in a vast and anonymous machine.
Theodore Kaczynski argued that this is the inevitable result of the accumulation of scientific knowledge and advancing technology. The cohesion of the larger societal system requires that humans and local communities subordinate their own goals and values to those of the larger system in which they operate. The people working in these corporations, the people working for the various governments that do so many horrible things around the world… The individual people value freedom. They value love. They value the opportunity for individuals to develop the best parts of themselves, and yet every day, they have to go and pursue a program aimed at maximizing corporate profits and maintaining the vast inequalities of our society, squandering natural abundance and the vitality of the living world that sustains us.
When one does not have adequate opportunity to go throughout the power process the consequences are (depending on the individual and on the way the power process is disrupted) boredom, demoralization, low self-esteem, inferiority feelings, defeatism, depression, anxiety, guilt, frustration, hostility, spouse or child abuse, insatiable hedonism, abnormal sexual behavior, sleep disorders, eating disorders…
And I would add to that list, a strong motivation to gravitate to any narrative that promises a near-term end to this demoralizing existence. Example narratives include modern interpretations of the Book of Revelation, the New Age narrative of the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, the techno-utopian vision of the Singularitarians, and the fast collapse of industrial civilization from peak oil.
While collapse and the hardship it would bring might seem like a scenario to be avoided, it appeals to us with its promise that in a short time, unjust hierarchies will fall apart, the powerful will be laid low, and we will live in a true meritocracy where people are rewarded for knowing what is truly important: how to raise food, how to fix things, how to make music and create art, how to do things other than manipulate money and systems of political power.
I think this is one reason why zombie movies are so popular. The Zombie Apocalypse narrative provides people who are dissatisfied with techno-industrial civilization but are not familiar the peak oil narrative with a framework for envisioning a rapid collapse of industrial civilization where everybody has to fight for their lives, and everybody has to struggle just to secure the basic necessities for living. For so many people, that scenario is more desirable than continuing in the current mode where we have no autonomy and where we work jobs that we hate in the service of institutions for which we care nothing.
One consequence of the belief that our current way of life will soon come to an end and that it is unreformable and unredeemable is that it justifies a complete withdrawal from politics. The belief that the current order will soon come to a catastrophic end and be replaced by something completely different, whether by technological singularity, divine intervention, zombies, environmental catastrophe or the consequences of running out of cheap, high-quality sources of energy, is that it gives us permission to withdraw from politics. If there is an enormous mess that we didnt make, and if its going to take a Herculean effort on our part and a very long time to make even a little bit of headway in getting that mess cleaned up, then stories about how there is nothing to be gained by trying to clean it up become very attractive.
Alluring as it may be, this is a narrative that we should recognize as disempowering. The depoliticization of the population is completely fine with the corporations and the incredibly wealthy people who have captured the institutions of democratic government and subverted them to serve the needs of the powerful. If we believe that its all going to crash soon, that politics is wholly corrupt and despicable, and that were better off not debasing ourselves by our involvement with it, then we have relinquished one of the means available to us, small as it may be, to influence the sprawling and impersonal systems that govern so many elements of our lives.
So what can we do?
First, I think that it is important that we each engage in the political process in some way. Vote if you want to, but recognize that just voting, particularly in high profile elections like Presidential elections, wont accomplish much. To my way of thinking, if you didnt vote in the primary, then you didnt vote.
What any particular individual can do to influence the political process is going to depend on where they are, who they are, what their skills are, what sort of access they have to financial resources, and really what sorts of political activity and engagement energizes them. Finding your high-leverage activity may require a life-long process of investigation. The starting point is to cultivate a particular sensitivity, to recognize when a narrative is beckoning to you to relinquish whatever political agency you might have left and check out because the system is corrupt, irredeemable, and soon to fail.
I think that, politically speaking, your points of highest leverage are going to be local. Situations where you can meet with people, face to face, people that you will have the opportunity to see and interact with again in the future, are probably good places to begin your search, but Ill say no more about that because it is so dependent on your particular situation.
Im nearing the end of my prepared remarks, and Ill be happy to answer your questions and expand on anything Ive said here, but I want to end with a word of warning. The prospect of a long, difficult, arduous process of struggling against powerful entrenched interests and trying to achieve incremental improvement with participation in the political process, isnt nearly as sexy or appealing as the idea of a revolution that sweeps away corruption and injustice and replaces the current system overnight. The vision of political revolution serves as another way to scratch the epochalist itch, and it deserves to go into the same mental category as the Rapture, the Singularity, and the fast and permanent collapse of industrial civilization from a global pandemic, solar storms, or peak oil.
Revolutions do happen, and we may see one in our lifetimes. When the revolutionary moment is upon us, it will happen, and full participation in life will mean full engagement with the revolution. That said it would be foolish to wait for the revolution to provide you with that missing feeling of camaraderie, common purpose and shared destiny. By the time the revolution gets here, you may be too tired to recognize it or even care. Even worse than pining for the revolution would be trying to will it into existence through sheer moral outrage. Revolutions lead to score-settling and power struggles between former brothers in arms. There are more pikes wanting heads than there are tyrants.
You may be tempted to use anger to motivate you and galvanize your troops. This is the path to the Dark Side. Rage always feels righteous, but it has an agenda of its own, and its not an agenda you would agree to serve in moments of calm self-examination.
Rage doesn't want what you want. You may see the parasitic 1% as the obstacles to a better tomorrow and the terror that you and your revolutionary comrades would visit upon them as a brief but necessary phase on the way to the full manifestation of your utopian vision, but the part of you that calls for the slaughter of the masters, hungers for terror, rage and vengeance as their own rewards.
When you read something on Facebook or Twitter that sparks moral outrage, do not share it. Do not give it any power. Understand that in the same way that people only lie to you because they want you to act in some other way than how you would act if you knew the truth, people will try to stoke your moral indignation because they want you to act other than you would if you were proceeding from a place of equanimity and compassion. The next time you get really angry about the evils of the system, notice how good it feels, and understand how that feeling takes power away from the better angels of your nature and turns it over to something that longs for destruction, conflict and brutality as goods unto themselves. Understand that the best practice is the cultivation of your own consciousness.
Thank you for your attention.
Image by Saad Faruque, courtesy of Creative Commons license.