Back to the Future

I’ve been participating in a delightful discussion over on John Michael Greer’s page, the Archdruid Report. He’s recently completed a five-part fictional series about the End of the United States Empire — it’s quite good — which makes a good counterpoint to his ongoing footnote theme (ending this December, I believe) on End Of The World predictions throughout history. There are some entertaining prophecies; terrifying at the time, no doubt, but since these predictions are mostly from long ago and never came to fruition, they are now pretty amusing.

As John is exploring at length in his blog, however, we’re all facing a rather more serious End Of The World prediction: the confluence of a number of inconveniences that total up to a pretty big hit on civilization as we know it. These include peak oil, global warming, declining biodiversity, natural resource depletion, human population increase, and a global economy stupidly predicated upon limitless exponential growth. In the US, we need to add declining world empire to that list.

Separately, these are quite ordinary events that people and villages and nations bump over on their passage through time. Occurring together, they make a somewhat more apocalyptic package.

It’s a bit like looking at the mother of all storms on the horizon. There’s an instinctive urge to turn and flee.

I grew up in the 1960’s. As a child, I was unaware of most of what was happening around me, and I had no “historical context” to frame anything I experienced. My world as a youngster was bounded by The School, The Field, The Ditch, and The Hill Behind The Last Street. Even as I grew older, I remained safely nestled in the arms of Uncle Sam, ruler of the Good Nation, opposed only by the Evil (but inferior) Nation on the other side of the planet, in a world filled with Charming But Unimportant Places that I might visit on holiday someday as a Citizen under the mighty Pax Americana.

There were rumbles of another reality that came through the television: assassinations in Washington, DC, some kind of war in Vietnam, a lot of harsh words about “hippies” and “drugs” and “rock-and-roll.” There was something a bit sinister about the letters FBI and IRS, both of which were mentioned in slightly hushed voices by grown-ups, if they were mentioned at all. There was the ever-present threat of The Bomb, reinforced periodically by our “duck-and-cover” drills in grade school.

But the way I remember those years, apart from summer boredom and the Primate House Hell of school, was a hopeful present and a bright future. I went to Disneyland in 1960 when I was four and it was still new (it opened in 1955), and one of its big attractions was Futureworld — a  magical place of rocket ships and time travel and the triumph of Science over Brute Nature. As I got older, I read a lot of science fiction, which had become a popular and profitable niche market of its own. Star Trek made its debut on television, astronauts flew into outer space, and the Apollo program was going to land us on the moon. The distant future would have flying cars and mental telepathy and robots. It was going to be wonderful.

That has all changed, of course, for me personally and for all of us as a nation. Now we look at the future and see the mother of all storms brewing, and we want to turn tail and hide.

I found myself noticing this particularly during this last political season. Everyone is looking backward in time, away from the coming storm.

The Fiscal Republicans keep trying to relive the 1980’s and their Summer of Love with the 28% income tax rate and the fresh-faced fiscal deregulation of Reagan.

The Democrats want to turn the clock back to the early 1970’s, the already-crumbling peak of the New Deal and the Great Society.

The Neocons want to return to the 1950’s and the glory days of William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater, when the enemy was Communism and there were only three virtues: Faith, Family, and Flag.

The Fiscal Tea Party wants to go back to 1920 and the glitter of the Gilded Age, an era of self-made men who pulled themselves up from poverty by sheer strength of character to become gods in their own time.

The States’ Rights Tea Party wants to go back even further, to the 1850’s and the high point of the Antebellum South and the Constitution That Should Have Been.

The Evangelicals want to skip over the United States entirely and recreate the Puritan Colonies and their City On A Hill — to found the Christian Nation that somehow never quite came into being.

The Catholics want to go back the 1500’s, before the Protestants promulgated their vile heresy and fractured the Church Universal and Triumphant.

The Fundamentalists want to go clear back to first century Palestine: if it was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for them.

No one is looking to the future. We’re all looking to the past and then trying to pretend that we can somehow wrest the present around, like a de Lorean skidding at precisely 88 MPH, then flip the switch on the Flux Capacitor and return to a past — real or fictional — that is somehow projected into our near future.

It isn’t exactly true that no one is looking to the future. People like John Michael Greer and James Hansen are looking to the future. But whatever they see, they tell a dark story. It is the story of the storm coming. It is the story of cold rain beating dreams and fantasies alike into the mud, of winds blowing away all illusion of control.

I find this story disturbing, and at the same time not especially interesting. It’s important to tell, and to hear, but I’ve moved well past overt denial. What is coming is coming. It will break over us, and then it will be gone.

I find myself instead trying to look past the storm, to what lies — or to what might lie — on the other side of all the chaos. I want to see if there is any reason to bother with the future, rather than party on down to the end of the world.

There is only one characteristic of the world beyond the storm that I think is inescapable: the oil economy will be gone. Past that, there aren’t a lot of rules: that world will become whatever we make of it, much as always been the case.

One theme that keeps coming up in “green” writing about the future is the necessity of a lowered standard of living for Americans. This bothers me, because I see it as focusing on an unimportant negative. You might was well talk to me of aging being an increasing pain in the knees. That isn’t untrue, but it’s inevitable and is neither important nor interesting.

The US standard of living will drop, but I don’t see any reason it must drop any lower than the living standard of, say, the year 1800 — fifty years before kerosene became economically important. That time wasn’t so terrible.

But what stands in our future is not 1800. Our future can be better than 1800.

Yes, cars will be gone. Commercial passenger airlines will be gone. Cell phones, video games, computers, and the Internet will probably vanish, along with iPhones, iPods, iPads, and iEnvy. Movies, television, and recorded music will probably vanish.

How will we live without them? Quite well. In truth, we won’t even miss them.

People will move closer to their work. Cities will change shape. Suburbs will vanish, or they’ll reincorporate as towns and make better use of those vast expanses of lawn and those huge, now-empty garages. Parks will become marketplaces. The horse will come back, and the cart and the well-cobbled boot. Entertainment will move back to the stage, the concert hall, and the pub.

We could have some spectacular anachronisms as well — I can easily see a tax-subsidized high-speed transcontinental railway become the normal means of long-distance travel. High technology won’t vanish, not overnight, but it will become expensive, and its distribution throughout society will change.

We’ll still have all our allopathic medical knowledge, if not the fancy diagnostic tools and big pharma drug cocktails. We might lose the ability to cure or forestall complex cancers, but we’ll still have knowledge of basic antibiotics and surgical techniques that didn’t exist in 1800. We’ll still understand that germs cause disease, rather than demons, and that washing your hands is more reliable at preventing disease than prayer.

People will die in the coming storm, and afterward we’ll probably all die a little younger on the average. But people die, anyway. I don’t see the storm breaking until my wife and I are in our seventies, and we’re not going to claw someone’s eyes out for a last moldy crust of bread, should it come to that. We’re watching our elders pass, now, and too many of them have lived too long already: they’ve lost their minds, often their identity. The peaceful death, the graceful death, the noble death, the honorable death will re-enter the social vocabulary.

We’ll replace industrial farming with intensive sustainable farming, simply because industrial farming will become non-competitive. There’s a tremendous amount of research in this field now, and the techniques — all of which are very low-tech — can easily pass intact through the coming storm, as can ongoing research. The results of that research are quite surprising: food production may actually increase in our future. It will necessarily become more varied, more sustainable, and more local.

The marketplace will survive. This is an extremely important point. There’s a bunker-mentality that sets in any time people starting talking about coming hardship. Buy gold, guns, and ammo. Stock up on canned goods. Plant a garden. Learn to butcher a goat. Start spinning your own wool and making your own soap. Compost your own excrement.

If survival truly depends on all of that, most of us will simply not survive. Those who are properly prepared will grow so lonely and tired of daily survival that they’ll give up and throw themselves off a cliff.

We aren’t going to have to become isolated self-sufficient survivalists, however. If you enjoy gardening, by all means, plant a garden. If you want to try composting your own excrement, good luck to you. But none of this will be a necessary part of living in the aftermath of the storm.

What will actually happen is that you’ll go to market, just like you do now. Someone will have taken great pride in growing tomatoes, and you’ll buy them. Someone else will have butchered a cow, and you’ll take home roasts and steaks. Someone who knows how to weave will have fabric for sale, and clothing made from that fabric. Tailors and cobblers will become fashionable again.

How will you pay for anything in the marketplace? You’ll figure that out. It actually isn’t something you can plan. But most people will find something that they’re good at that other people want, and a local economy will spring up before anyone starves.

The coming storm will reshape our civilization. Some cities and towns will thrive. Some will not, and the people will move out, leaving behind a ghost town. There will be violence in places, and death. That much is the story of all civilizations, all nations, all cities.

Our daily lives will change, too, but I believe it will be more like taking a new job in a different city than like trying to learn to scratch out a bleak survival in a post-nuclear wasteland.

It will be a good life.

This entry was posted in General.

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