Seventy-Five and One

Oh my! Seventy-five! Seems like it happened just yesterday. Actually, it was two and a half years ago. Copper is no longer a puppy. Yet, full-grown now, she still has quite a lot of that puppy playfulness. I have not changed much. When I turned seventy-five years of AGE, three quarters of a century seemed a strange reference to me. Never been there before… In comparison, seventy-seven doesn’t seem to matter…much.

I remember my mother used to say at various points in her later years, “…but I don’t feel like 80 years old; I feel like I’m forty.” She was a vigorous ‘power walker’ until her hips gave out, and she lived until just before her ninety-fifth birthday. She always retained her curiosity. Life’s trajectory remains a mystery in some ways, especially in terms of how we feel and how we categorize , interpret and judge who we are.

Often, I think, people fall into a narrow range of categories by which others defined them most of their lives. They perceive and define themselves by the categories that stuck to them, even though many of the alternatives they refuse to consider may have had better reflected their talent and potential. But if you study language much, you begin to see that all categories are largely illusions anyway.

Some illusions work just fine, some much worse than others. But they are all mental constructions. Language grew out of need and capacity. Before the massive changes of the modern era, language and life were often quite stable for long periods – if not necessarily easy. Now, change is rapid and increasingly catastrophic. The concepts we use to define ourselves and our lives can be liberating or constraining forces, because we believe in them.

So, however mythological we may judge the concepts and categories of so-called “primitive” peoples, they worked just fine for those folks in their own times and places. We live in a different kind of language environment today, just as we live in a different technological and economic environment. In my 77 years, change has accelerated in the extreme, resulting in a New Great Transformation, which I’ve discussed in other blog posts and my forthcoming book, At the Edge of Illusion.

We live in an environment of change, rapidly accelerating change by any historical measure. With this in mind, we need to recognize that most categories are contingent and increasingly transitory. One of the most dangerous things you can do these days is to lock on to some categorization, of yourself or your world, and firmly believe that it is some permanent “reality.”

IMG_0731Copper turned one year old a few days before I turned seventy-five. I noted the contrast. Well, of course, Copper was a puppy then, a beautiful Vizsla whose name matches her color. In puppyhood, of course, she knew nothing of the world, but was open to and sought out all new and interesting things – everything.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all retain much of that openness to the world and the curiosity of youth throughout our lives? But to do that we would have to relinquish the pseudo-control we feel when we retreat into the certainty of the rigid categories that actually stifle us.

I was hesitant at first to get a new puppy “at my age.” But Copper turned out to be quite a resource for me in reflecting on the best outlook for this Mad Jubilado in the coming years – along with being an endless source of joy and frustration. Ah, but that is the nature of puppies, and life too, eh? You cannot become a liberated Mad Jubilado and hang onto the arbitrary social definitions of what it means to be “retired,” or a “senior,” or anything else. Keep moving.

Climate Imperative, Freedom, and Democracy

We are so used to the idea that we must each have the freedom to choose, well, just about everything in our lives. We imagine that we are independently constructing a “life of our own.” We have, in our minds at least, an inalienable right to choose and to live our own unique “lifestyle.” That privilege is seen from within the American consumer culture as a fundamental, even constitutional, right of every “consumer.” With the development of consumerism, the idea of “the consumer,” seems to have replaced the concept of citizen. Many people’s understanding of freedom has narrowed considerably as a result.

Democracy, on the other hand, is an inherently social concept; it refers to a people fully engaged in the decisions that affect their collective lives. Humans, like all other living species, are interdependent for their survival and well-being. As individuals become more dependent on the corporate state, the freedom that is made possible by democracy begins to fade.

Freedom to Consume

Our concept of lifestyle is closely related to our consumer behavior; in fact, each seems to embody the other. Our consumer behavior is our lifestyle. The pursuit of consumer lifestyles has itself become the defining element of our “freedom.” It is hard to imagine that this is exactly what the founding fathers had in mind in shaping the Bill of Rights. Political freedom seems to have receded into a background abstraction – another consequence of the ascendency of the corporate state.

Of course, much of our so called “freedom” is actually conformity to some mass-media generated image of our personal uniqueness and “individuality.” Any potential authenticity in that image is transformed by the corporate mass media to maximize consumption, profit, and, incidentally, waste and pollution.

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Thorsten Veblen described the status-enhancing behavior of the “leisure class” of the booming U.S. industrial society at the end of the nineteenth century as “conspicuous consumption.”[i] Today, conspicuous consumption is no longer limited to displays of excess by the very wealthy. The ever growing productivity of the industrial system requires mass consumption to generate enough demand for its ever-growing supply of products. The desire for consumption beyond need has to be stimulated for demand to keep up with production. The consumer culture is driven by the need of capital investment to expand production and sales so that principle and interest can be paid back and a profit made. The agent of that culture is mass-media propaganda.

Ultimately, in an endless-growth economy, demand cannot keep up. Nor can the supply of raw materials for ever more efficient production.

Illusions of Freedom, Denial of Necessity

The debt and growth driven economy has no viable boundaries within its own operating model. It admits to no natural or environmental boundaries to its growth. But there are limits to growth on this finite planet and they have been known for decades.[ii]  The contemporary dilemma of political economy is of an entirely different order than that framed by conventional economics. We are faced with two directly related imperatives, one economic, the other physical-environmental. The growth economy has reached its natural limit and the expanding consumption of earth’s resources is surpassing the carrying capacity of the planet. Together these two elements of industrial society have come a long way in destabilizing the living earth systems upon which we depend, as well as the climate system upon which their stability depends.

Put aside for a moment the climate deniers — a good idea in itself. Fundamentalist deniers would dead-head us into an earth-bound “end times” in order to retain their faith that only God controls the weather. The more secular deniers won’t give up the corporate largess they enjoy or seek; they are not going to be convinced of scientific facts by rational argument. They want the economic growth of the industrial era to continue forever, or at least while they grab all they can. However, neither the material facts of resource depletion, pollution and waste, nor the climate disruption caused by industrial society will allow continuation on this path. magical thinking cannot overcome the laws of physics nor the overwhelming scientific evidence of climate disruption. Science is not a matter of political opinion or religious fervor.

Ironies of Democracy and Science

The more important issues are found in questions of how to respond to the scientifically verified facts of impending human crisis, knowing their truth. Those facts include a rapidly destabilizing climate, an increasingly unstable overly integrated world financial system, a debt-driven overproducing intolerably unfair corporate dominated economy, and growing cultural chaos and political violence.

Climate destabilization involves an incredibly wide range of variables in an extremely complex system over which humans have had very little control. Diverse human actions, all involving the burning of carbon, inadvertently disrupted that system for two hundred years until the consequences became obvious to those who observed, measured, and analyzed them.

The first major evidence of an impending climate crisis was hidden by the petroleum industry, enabling it to grab a couple more decades of undue profit while the problem grew far worse and now threatens humanity itself. Along the way, it funded large scale climate denying propaganda using the same marketing that the tobacco industry used to delay acceptance of the facts of damaged health from smoking cigarettes. The damage done, however, is global, not just to a single sector of the population.

The scientific ethic of accepting socially verified evidence in the face of prior contrary beliefs has led to countless advances in knowledge and technological innovation. The ability of NASA to land a man on the moon, etc., resulted from the same basic scientific processes that produced the findings of climate science.

Once clear trends from vast amounts of data are confirmed, “theory” is no longer a matter of opinion. The math of verified laws of physics and the evidence of repeated observation that produced aerospace program success were never subject to denial propaganda. And they involved a very focused goal and the development of very specific technologies to achieve it. This allowed an incredibly high degree of control over a very narrow range of variables with highly predictable outcomes. In that respect, climate science is very different. Any attempt to achieve climate restabilization will require the mobilization of entire populations to change their institutions and behavior.

The democratic processes of science have produced knowledge verified by countless data sets and analyses.[iii] Unlike the behavior of nations, those facts are not negotiable. Physics, in that sense, is objective. It is up to humans to respond to reality in a way that improves our chances as the chaos grows. But the formally democratic institutions of the industrial societies have completely failed to take actions to counter the deadly trends we know are occurring. The only chance to overcome the moribund political institutions and achieve the necessary will come from the diverse social movements now building around the world, demanding climate action that goes far beyond COP21 platitudes and international empty promises.

Freedom is Survival

How do we retain our consumerist illusion of unbounded personal “lifestyle” freedom in a new situation that calls for massive social change? We do not. We simply do not have that luxury, even though the corporate state would have you believe you do. If we want to survive without global extreme climate chaos and collapse of society along with the failed-growth economy and climate-destabilized agriculture, we must act collectively and quickly.

Despite the claims that technological innovation within the industrial system can reduce carbon emissions enough to thwart climate catastrophe and all the chaos that entails, only major constraint of industrial production and consumption themselves will be enough. That is not a welcome fact. The power elites are still in denial about the necessity of transformative change, as they seek piecemeal profitable technological fixes. But another way is not only possible, it is undeniably necessary. It must come from people and communities organizing themselves for the change that the large institutions deem impossible. Reorganizing society from the bottom up must happen because the top-down institutions are strangling any serious initiative from the top. This is not a lifestyle choice. Rather, it is the necessity of collectively choosing complex and massive social actions to improve the chances for the survival of our species.

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[i] Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure class. (1899) New York: Penguin Books, 1979.

[ii] Donella H. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis L. Meadows, Limits to Growth: The 30-year Update (New York: Chelsea Green, 3rd ed., 2004), confirms the projections of the 1972 book, Limits to Growth, based on computer models of resource depletion by MIT scientists. Simply put, humanity has overshot the environment’s ability to physically and biologically sustain human life at the scale to which it has grown. This will lead to the collapse of civilization unless radical changes are instituted to reduce the human load on the planet’s carrying capacity.

[iii] The scientific consensus on climate change, while continually being refined, includes some very clear and uncontested trends. Many of these have accelerated faster than predicted. The intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), made up of scientists from around the world, has consistently under-predicted changes. Perhaps that is because its reports are mediated by the nation states that it reports to. The trends are nevertheless clear and increasingly disturbing. Any mitigation efforts that hope to be adequate must also be comprehensive and complex, resulting in significant “lifestyle” changes, mostly in fully industrialized nations where carbon emissions continue to be vastly larger than in non-industrialized regions.

Becoming Indigenous: Settling a Population Adrift in an Unstable World

In the modern and post-modern worlds, we are set adrift. Who now lives fully integrated with a clan, tribe, or other group ‘emplaced’ for many generations in a particular location and fully integrated into the ecology of that place? Nobody on my block! We are all individuated, barely a member of a family, and that family is probably scattered across the country, if not the globe.

Is that a problem? Very much so. For most people in the industrially developed nations – in the U.S. more than most – mobility is a way of life. Rich or poor, people move in response to economic conditions, and not always with much success. We have long passed the point where family or clan, or place for that matter, are more important than our job or a potential job. We are usually located in some corporate setting with hopes for a career path, not a geographic one.

Nevertheless, the coming transformation of the place of humans in the world makes what may now be thought of as “lifestyle” choices a matter of survival. The idea of becoming indigenous may be easily misunderstood. As intended here, it is meant not as a fashion statement, lifestyle choice, or sudden personal adaptation of native folkways. As time runs out for humanity to respond to the extant and looming catastrophic consequences of industrial pollution of the ecosphere, a massive reorientation will be necessary. The remaining indigenous peoples offer a potential source for guidance in designing a new way of living in harmony with the earth that may not otherwise sustain us. The world will be very different in any case.

Indigenous Peoples and Interest Groups

Until the dawn of the Industrial Era, people were organized around kinship. Economic activity and trade were an aspect of the life ways of core social groupings. Human groups existed in stable locations. People were indigenous. Most indigenous peoples left in the world today are the residual elements of populations that were colonized and/or enslaved during the colonial and imperial eras. Almost none are truly isolated from the industrial nations or industrializing nations that constitute most nations on earth. Some ethnic groups have retained a semblance of their traditional culture and stayed together in one area. More and more are reviving their language and cultural practices. But in most cases, the influences of the larger globalized economy are very powerful.

Most of us organize our lives around our jobs. What little time is left may be devoted to some special interest such as sports, hobbies, or other entertainments. As often as not, engagement with that interest is via a ‘flat screen.’ We are a culture of spectators, whether watching NFL games or even while engaged in the unreality of a “World of War Craft.” Our illusions are illusory. The illusions of indigenous mythology are real in their cultural functions of sustaining viable relations with each other and with the natural world. Many of the illusions of the modern/postmodern world are little more than dysfunctional.

Extractive Economics and Indigenous Culture

The displacement of everyone in industrial culture is an inevitable result of the endless extraction of materials for the endless production processes of the endless-growth economy. No place is sacred if profit can be extracted from the land or water. The expansion of industrial production that necessitates more and more extraction of resources for both energy and products has no internal limits. In fact, it requires that there be no limits. However, for decades now the earth’s systems have been showing us their limits increasingly in climate disruption and ecological destruction.

The blindness of industrial culture to the earth’s limits on the exploitation of ecologies and earth systems is precisely the opposite of the awareness inherent in the cultures of indigenous peoples. People who still live intimately with their environments directly perceive the elements of Nature that they must respect. Their long traditions are built around that awareness. The irony of the end of the industrial era is that as the growth economy accelerates toward its catastrophic end, only its victims can show a path to human survival. Only the wisdom of the indigenous peoples who industrial culture defines as “backward,” can even come close to salvaging some semblance of civilization from the fast approaching chaos.

Becoming Indigenous

The globalizing economic/political leviathan is in for a big surprise, and very soon. It continues to minimize the adaptations necessary to convert from fossil-fuel energy production to “renewable” energy production, with nearly no sense of the necessity of energy conservation. Yet nearly nobody involved recognizes that a viable place for humanity on the planet in the near future will require a total transformation far beyond anything currently contemplated. It will be such a vast reorganization of economic activity and social relations that the term “paradigm shift” is hardly sufficient.

The new indigenous activism of native peoples from around the globe has grown rapidly around the principle of climate justice. The connection between the destruction of local ecologies and the threat to the entire planet posed by the globalized economy is obvious to indigenous activists. Protecting local land and resources and defending all earth systems are synonymous to them. Wide cultural divides exist between indigenous peoples from Canada to Brazil, from Uganda to the Pacific islands. Yet they are united and work together in the struggle defending the earth against plunder by the globalizing world economic system.

Significant numbers of citizens in the industrially developed nations must “become indigenous,” but not by merely mimicking any particular native peoples. For us, becoming indigenous must entail a new recognition of the essential relationship of our species to the planet. We must also recognize that relationship outside the paradigm of the industrial era. “The old ways” can help guide us, but it will be difficult, requiring us to abandon many of the ideas and conveniences we daily take for granted and don’t really want to give up. We must build new understandings of the unprecedented transformation that lies ahead by learning what it really means to be an indigenous people. Such a creative reintegration of humanity with our world may be the greatest transformation of the human experience ever.