Progress or decline? Or both?

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switters's picture
switters
Status: Platinum Member (Offline)
Joined: Jul 19 2008
Posts: 744
Progress or decline? Or both?

A new member of our local CC group made the observation at our last meeting that it seemed to her the assumption underlying our group is one of decline.  That stimulated some very interesting discussion, but as it was nearing the end of our meeting time, we didn't have time to dive as deeply into it as I would have liked.  I wrote the following response and sent it out to the members of our group.

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I do hold the belief that modern civilization is in decline.

Civilizations rise and fall.  It’s part of their nature.  In their historical studies, Toynbee, Diamond, Spengler, Greer and several other authors have found that, without exception, great civilizations eventually collapse.  Egypt, ancient Rome, the Mayan Empire and the Mongol Empire of Ghengis Khan are some of the better known examples.  Yet equally true is that new civilizations or a new version of the fallen civilization arises to take its place.  The existence of a particular civilization is transitory, but life and human activity in general have (thus far) been remarkably resilient.

Perpetual growth is not possible on a finite planet with limited resources.  Our entire economic system must grow in order to survive, and it requires an ever expanding supply of money, capital, natural resources and markets (population) to fuel its growth.  Therefore, on a planet where such resources have inescapable limits, it is inevitable that continuous growth will become impossible.  Our current economic crisis is a manifestation of this principle. 

I’m not certain whether we’ve reached “peak growth” on a broader scale yet, but I do believe we are there or nearly there.  However, as it concerns the fate of our civilization it matters little whether it happens now, in ten years or in fifty.  If history is any indication of the future (and why should we assume it won’t be in this one case?), the end result will be the same: decline. 

But what does that actually mean?

When I make the claim that modern civilization is in decline, I simply mean that our modern way of life, with its near total dependence on fossil fuels and their derivatives, is coming to an end.  Nothing more, and nothing less. 

It may seem almost impossible to imagine anything other than modern life.  After all, that’s the only life we’ve experienced, and the same is true for our parents and even our grandparents.  But it’s important to remember that this way of life is only 150 years old, and that for the vast majority of human life on this planet, we lived without significant access to fossil fuels. 

That a civilization is in decline doesn’t mean that progress won’t continue.  In fact, I would argue that decline is form of progress.  We see this principle clearly in nature with the cycle of death/decay and birth/regeneration.  If our current way of life is unsustainable, unjust and even undesirable for a majority of people, is its demise something to be avoided or hastened?  Should we mourn its passing or celebrate the birth of the new form that will take its place?

I suspect that most people and almost certainly all of us would ultimately be happier living in the world that is likely to emerge from the compost of our current civilization.  By necessity and design, life will be intensely more local, with a stronger sense of community and belonging, work that is more satisfying and relevant to meeting our basic needs, a more intimate relationship to land and its resources, a more physically active and healthy existence, and more focus on the human activities that are truly rewarding.

Is this decline, progress, or both?

 I’ve often heard people who are raising the alarm about the Three Es (economy, environment and energy) accused of being “gloom & doomers”.  While I have actually encountered some folks who fit that description, my experience is that it’s usually a mischaracterization.  I think it’s crucial to recognize that not all problems can be solved through positive thinking or action.  On an individual level, death is the most obvious example.  We are all going to die no matter what action we take and what our attitude is about death.  On a planetary level, the possibility that the earth could become a ball of ice in a period of 30 years also illustrates this point.

In the same way, our society’s dependence on oil and the inevitable peak in its supply represents a problem that can’t necessarily be “solved” through individual, regional or even national action alone.  Instead of viewing these issues as problems to be solved, we might instead embrace John Michael Greer’s suggestion to see them as predicaments that invite a response.  The distinction may seem academic, but I think it’s really important.  A problem calls for a solution which, once employed, eliminates the problem. A predicament, however, has no solution.  Faced with predicaments, people come up with responses which may fail, succeed, or fall in between, but none of them eliminates the predicament.

For me, the reality that we do not have complete control over the circumstances of our lives highlights the necessity of spiritual practice in living with the challenges we face.  In Kubler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief, acceptance is the final stage and the precondition to healing.  In the context of patients with a terminal illness (which ultimately means all of us!), death isn’t a problem to be solved but a predicament to be responded to.  Acceptance means acknowledging the predicament and healing means, not survival, but coming to terms with impending death and responding appropriately.

My sense of “doomers” is that they are stuck in anger, fear or depression.  It is actually their inability to accept what is happening and to truly allow all of the feelings that come with that recognition that prevents them from responding and taking action.  I’ve noticed that the people who seem to have the deepest understanding of the problem are rarely, if ever, “doomers”.  In fact, I’ve often heard people ask writers like Richard Heinberg and Chris Martenson how they can maintain such a positive attitude even as they warn us of civilization’s impending decline.  Their answer is that in the process of beginning to respond to these issues we make changes in our lives that bring us satisfaction and joy.  The transformation towards the life they envision has already begun, and they are reaping the benefits.  I’ve found this to be true in my own experience as well.

I think it’s entirely possible to stare the full reality of the Three Es in the face and work towards creating a more sustainable and rewarding life at the same time.  In fact, the latter may even be an inevitable result of the former.

I want to acknowledge that the notion that our civilization is in decline is not a fact, but rather an interpretation.  My goal in bringing this group together wasn’t to convince you that this interpretation is correct.  It was to expose you to at least a significant portion of the evidence I've seen so you can reach your own conclusion.

britinbe's picture
britinbe
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Dec 28 2008
Posts: 381
Re: Progress or decline? Or both?

Hi Chris

Perception and framing play a large part of anyone's opinion.  Ask any older person whether we have made progress when they struggle to program the DVD recorder etc or how they feel about the sense of community as compared to when they were younger.  Ask a teenager about their latest video game and I think you will get a different answer.

I think the doomers are the ones that know that the things they hold dear, the gadgets, the cars, the holidays etc are no longer readily available, however, they see the pit falls.  My wife, when I talked out the crash course to her was very dismissive as to whether we should do anything and accept the consequences if we are all "doomed", and only slowly did she change her tune. 

I prefer to think of this as the start of a program of life simplification that puts us more in touch with nature and the environment rather than being remote from it.

Britinbe

 

 

SamLinder's picture
SamLinder
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Jul 10 2008
Posts: 1499
Re: Progress or decline? Or both?

Chris,

Great letter. Well put and informative. Thanks for sharing it with us.

pir8don's picture
pir8don
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Sep 30 2008
Posts: 456
Re: Progress or decline? Or both?

While I agree with all you say Chris and Britinbe. It depends on your perspective on civilisation. For me you miss the most significant author Daniel Quinn.

http://ishmael.org/index1.cfm.

From his perspective (and mine) the pattern is not just that civilisations rise and fall but what they rise and fall from. What counts only as the assumed background is the steady state. 3 million years of tribalism. It seems that most if not all previous attempts at civilisation have been abandoned voluntarily by their participants. We fit tribal living like wales fit pods, deer fit heards, monkeys fit troops etc.... 

Given that we aren't able to abandon agriculture (nothing left in the environment for billions of people to hunt or fish) then the question we must ask is what is it about tribal living that works for us? There are two very distinctive characteristics; group size and concensus. Tribal groups are on a human scale, civilisations are on a non human scale. In our tens we can know each other and work together for our communal benefit (hopefully) but in our thousands we are simply governed and governable. When we draw identity from a large group size we find that authority and heirachy become expedient. In human scale groups we can reach concensus. There is no heirachy.

The recent progress of our civilisation has witnessed the end of the extended family and human scale groups. While we benefit materially and call our individuallism 'freedom' we yearn for group identity. We need abandon nothing to begin groups based on tens of our neighbours. We might find again our options and benefits are much greater than as individuals or families. We might also find that we can contribute to the welfare of people well known to us and that we spend our time in physical activities with those people. Working together can cut through a lot of verbal dissagreement.

Don

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If the big fix is the only fix then there is no fix

tom.'s picture
tom.
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Aug 18 2008
Posts: 345
Re: Progress or decline? Or both?
Quote:

My sense of “doomers” is that they are stuck in anger, fear or depression.  It is actually their inability to accept what is happening and to truly allow all of the feelings that come with that recognition that prevents them from responding and taking action.  I’ve noticed that the people who seem to have the deepest understanding of the problem are rarely, if ever, “doomers”.  In fact, I’ve often heard people ask writers like Richard Heinberg and Chris Martenson how they can maintain such a positive attitude even as they warn us of civilization’s impending decline.  Their answer is that in the process of beginning to respond to these issues we make changes in our lives that bring us satisfaction and joy.  The transformation towards the life they envision has already begun, and they are reaping the benefits.  I’ve found this to be true in my own experience as well.

Best Part Chris.

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