This interlude is about what I think will happen in the future.
It is always dangerous to predict the future, and the number of foolish predications about the future are many.
However, it’s obvious things aren’t going to go swimmingly at the moment. As I keep on mentioning it is simply not possible for our global society to continue making the demands that we are making on the ecosystem. What makes this situation worse is that nowhere does it seem that anyone is arguing against the scale of our ecological demands; there are certain moves to, for example, conserve certain species and habitats and to reduce CO2 emissions, but these meet with huge resistance from vested interests, and in any case are likely to be unsuccessful unless in the context of the total human use of biological resources being considered and acted upon.
It’s also obvious that the way society has been developing for 30 years it’s unlikely that people will come together to deal with the ecological crisis, (as people did, say in 1940 in a time of crisis in Britain). It’s far more likely that society will fracture. In the later Roman Empire, in face of barbarian incursions, inflation and social unrest, the government split the previously legally equal class of Roman citizens into honestiores and humiliores. The former were the rich and they continued with all the legal privileges of Roman citizens such as lower taxes, the latter were the poor, and they lost previous privileges, were subject to higher taxes, and were no longer protected from torture if suspected of crimes.
For the last thirty years at least English-speaking western countries have been discriminating against poorer citizens and minorities and it is likely that this will continue. What I think will happen is that corporations and governments will continue to separate society in the rich and poor and control the poor, driving them into the ground.
If you add to this the consideration that people now are less used to making sacrifices, and have fewer useful skills than in the past, in my view is far more likely that people, instead of being in solidarity with all the whole of society, will side with the government/corporate world, hoping they can fit in the lifeboats and fend off those still struggling in the water.
The United States is much further advanced down the path of social disintegration than other English-speaking countries, and whenever I contemplate this I remember the joke in a Simpsons episode where the family returns to US from overseas and sees the sign ‘Welcome to the United States, 133 years without a civil war’.*
In a world of ecological collapse the only thing that can save corporate profits is the ultimate expedient of involuntary euthanasia. At the point at which the poor are no longer useful, and are a threat to corporate profits, then this will begin (already in the US, for example, people without medical insurance have a lower life expectancy than the average, which is a form of involuntary euthanasia). It would not surprise me if government or private labs in various parts of the world are already preparing highly-infectious and deadly viral agents, and of course, vaccinations against these for selected members of society.
These considerations raise the question, why can’t people see the problems that we face and begin to act on them? The reason is that people’s response to the world, although many of our deepest instincts and preferences point to a better way of life than we have at present, is never simply one-to-one. Because we are a social beings with a sense of history our response is mediated by:
- People around us
- How society has progressed up to now
And this gets solidified into an ideology.
Ideologies can be more or less sustainable, but equally can be very long-lasting and persist despite their disfunctionality. The later Roman Empire in the west and Ming and then Qing China are obvious examples of where the cultural prestige of the governing ideology meant that it could not be replaced, despite its shortcomings, so that the culture could respond to the challenges facing it and survive.
Our present ideology, which has graduated towards ecocide, began with mediaeval Christianity and its insistence of the separation of the individual and the world, and has only got worse since.
Its characteristics, as we have already discussed, are grounded in a belief in the capacity of people to develop despite ecological restraints. Unfortunately, the development of first coal then oil, with their seemingly magical quantities of useable energy, fed into the delusion of the special election that modernity seems to have been blessed with, and the belief that whatever problems the economic development of western society came across would be solved by similar magical gifts of nature.
Of course, the development of these fossil fuels came with a lot of concomitant problems, such as the persistence and amplification of the tendency of north-west Europe to over-population (unlike Aboriginal Australia, and other traditional societies, modernity has never secured abundance without an increasing population (Bill Gammage, The Greatest Estate on Earth)). The latest and most intractable problem that these have caused is, of course, anthropogenic global warming.
Perhaps one day we will all wake up thinking, less is better, no need to grow, no need for a growing population, but I doubt it. At the present there is hardly any support for such views and even parties such as the Greens (in Australia) are still talking about growth and prosperity as though such things were possible. (Ironically it is conservative opponents of the Greens who accuse them ‘wanting to shut down industry’ (‘the children of darkness are wiser in their generation than the children of light’)).
I think that, like Confucian ‘old China’, our world will persist in its delusions until it dies, and we with it.
* My respect for the prescience of The Simpsons was increased a few years ago; after season after season of this show satirising the stupid in American culture the Tea Party came along and embodied it perfectly.
Next Week: Grumble 14, an Anatomy of Conservatism