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The Long and the Short of It: Existential Comfort in the Age of Hopkins and Greer, Part V

The Long and the Short of it: Existential Comfort in the Age of Hopkins and Greer, Part V

The metaphysical comfort—with which I am suggesting even now, every true tragedy leaves us—that life is at the bottom of things, despite all the changes of appearances, indestructibly powerful and pleasurable—this comfort appears in incarnate clarity in the chorus of satyrs, a chorus of natural beings who live ineradicably, as it were, behind all civilization and remain eternally the same, despite the changes of generations and of the history of nations.

If it happens that the human race doesn’t make it, then the fact that we were here once will not be altered, that once upon a time we peopled this astonishing blue planet, and wondered intelligently at everything about it and the other things who lived here with us on it, and that we celebrated the beauty of it in music and art, architecture, literature, and dance, and that there were times when we approached something godlike in our abilities and aspirations. We emerged out of depthless mystery, and back into mystery we returned, and in the end the mystery is all here is.
--James Kunstler

History’s I; History’s Eye

As I have previously argued, The Ecotechnic Future presents a history that is, in its “mode of emplotment,” Tragic. Tragedy, recall, is characterized by a gain in consciousness for the spectator, realized as he or she witnesses the way in which the protagonist’s failure and ultimate demise reveal the ineluctable laws of fate, nature, history, or human institutions; this comes in contrast to a Romantic mode of emplottment in which the protagonist overcomes these sorts of obstacles, successfully completing his or her quest. The lessons of tragedy thus include the limits of human will and freedom in the face of far greater forces. The effect of tragedy is to elevate our consciousness, freeing it from naivete, nostalgia, and unwarranted hopeful illusions. It fosters hard-bitten realism.

One of the principle arguments in The Ecotechnic Future is in this vein the limited nature of our freedom given the overpowering ecological forces which provide the stage for humanity’s often futile struggle to design a sustainable world: “history is an ecological phenomenon, governed by the same laws as other processes in nature” (241). The purpose of a tragic understanding of history is to dissuade us from the belief---ultimately even more perilous, Greer would say, than the ecological forces to which we must submit--that we can overcome these ecological laws of nature, whether by permanent technological progress, or by the sort of enthusiastic coming-together (at this most momentous moment in history) that the Transition Movement advocates. As Greer coolly puts it: “the human ecology that succeeds best under any set of environmental conditions depends much more on those conditions, and the way they interact with available resources and technology, than on the choices we make” (36).

It is the spectator’s (or in this case the reader’s) ability to become conscious of these conditions, and to accept and perhaps even adapt to them with humility, that rescues Greer’s otherwise bleak and futile vision of “the wheel of life” or of “history’s steamroller” from hopeless despair. But this rescue and the moment of respite that it provides must be carefully constructed, narrated, and dramatized. The spectator/reader must be given a vantage point safe from direct involvement in the tragedy’s merciless unfolding. While the players in the drama fail to satisfy their desires, the spectator/reader must be inspired to adopt a narrative desire that can be realized. The stage for this desire is in part set by Greer’s overemphasis on the perils of utopian longing. In narratological terms, the sort of utopian fantasies that Greer attributes to The Transition Movement provide a “snare,” a false solution or dead end, whose alluring hopes but futile promises are dramatized in order to increase, by contrast, the constructed necessity towards which we are being led. In other words, the reader of The Ecotechnic Future is provided with considerable motivation to avoid being a utopian naïf.

But this is the start of the narrative work performed. Among the most important features of the vantage point that Greer hopes we will assume is that it must stand outside the historical drama that is being narrated. This positioning takes some work: for the drama that is narrated in a story of Peak Oil and the impending collapse of our civilization (maybe) is not just a story of the past, it is also the story of the present and future—of OUR present and future.

Slavoj Zizek has noted that the purest form of fantasy involves a disembodied gaze, one so removed from the world that the fantasy becomes about our absence from the world. Zizek offers as an example Tom Sawyer witnessing his own funeral (who among us has not imagined our own) and Alan Weisman’s apocalyptic The World Without Us, whose impact on the reader is far less troubling than, I think, the more visceral fact of our absence from the world, not to mention the gruesome process by which we might be removed.

Greer proceeds in a similar way, though with a crucial difference that humanity does, in fact, survive. As we learn about the insuperable laws of ecology and the limits of our freedom we are increasingly encouraged by Greer to step back from a usual sort of identification with humanity. There are of course many examples throughout The Ecotechnic Future where the reader is positioned at a distance from the history he or she is witnessing. Or perhaps the reader is positioned to witness history free from human wants, needs, and typical modes of identification. Disembodied, freed from mortality, the reader is encouraged to (mis)identify with the timeless rhythms of nature and ecology. Or as Greer puts it, “to see humanity’s trajectory into the future in this way, ultimately, is to consider ourselves through nature’s eyes rather than our own” (144).

This removal of body, of fear and pain, hopes and aspirations, is achieved by Greer in a variety of ways. “The long view” of history, itself, certainly provides the structure, though the narrative voice helps. Greer overuses phrases like “wax and wane,” “rise and fall,” and “ebb and flow,” which, from a vantage point remote from any specific waning, ebbing, or falling, provide a comforting sense that watching the tragedies and triumphs of history can have the soothing effect of watching the eternal rhythm of waves as they build, crest, break, and wash. From this distance the violence with which natural habitats are being destroyed and with which species disappear, can be described by Greer as the “reshuffling of species going on across the world” (51). History is not good or bad. It just is. Pain and suffering in part of the cycle. Loss is adaptive change.

Similar to this is the cool and unflustered way in which Greer describes the suffering that we, at the moment of Peak Oil and massive resource depletion, are likely to experience:

"Those who live through any significant fraction of this process can expect to witness economic, social, and political turmoil as dramatic as anything our ancestors have experienced. We will all be attending more funerals than most of us do nowadays, and our appearance as the guest of honor at one of them will likely come sooner than most of us expect" (55).

Note the off-handed way in which he euphemizes our deaths, focusing only on the eternal symbolism of the funeral, which he casts with a degree of levity, rather than conditions in which the dying occurred. This sense of eternity, or at least of the repeating cycles of life, is further emphasized by thefrequent mention of our ancestors, which, along with our descendants, play a significant role in the emotional imagery that Greer draws for his reader.

A similar rhetorical strategy can be seen, again, as Greer discusses the geographical history and future of the American contintent.

"The strategies that changed the eastern third of the country from frontier to heartland of the United States failed to work west of the Mississippi. Today, the cities and farm towns that once spread across the Great Plains are facing into memory as their economic basis vanishes and the last residents move away. . ." (45).

Note the move from the local and the present, made unremarkable when considered against long-view of history:

"Like the Mongol conquest of Russian or the Arab Conquest of Spain, the American conquest of the West is proving to be temporary, . . . as the wave of American settlement recedes" (45).

Moments later we are projected into an equally disinterested view of the future:

"Map the Roman model onto the present and it’s conceivable that by the year 2500 or so, the people living in today’s Iowa and Wisconsin might trace their origins to a migration from Brazil, while west of the Mississippi, languages descended from English might only be spoken in a few enclaves in the Pacific Northwest" (45-6).

As a point of contrast, let us consider the way Kunstler, who is also fluent in the existential idiom, describes the same likely events:

". . . how would they sell their devalued houses and what would they move into? If the big-box stores happened to go out of business, and their regional distribution warehouses with them, what on earth would these folks do for a living?" (237).

One may blanche at Kunstler’s palpable elitism and regional biases, and we are not likely to mistake his pity for sympathy. But there is nevertheless feeling here, a sense that WE are part of the coming drama of Peak Oil and everything else. The history of the future, for Kunstler, certainly has real texture. It is peopled with real people, rather than two-legged historical examples of the cycles of ecology.

Despite the fact that it appears indifferent to the trials and turmoil that will knit together the rough fabric of so many lives in the near future, there is nothing false or disingenuous about this long-view. Most of what Greer writes is correct or plausible. But the perspective adopted does perform specific types of work. The act of dis-identification, for instance, can serve a number of purposes. In the passages above, Greer is talking about migration; a certain amount of suffering and turmoil might be prevented if our border warriors in the south-west were to consider the way that migration, when viewed as one of history’s unceasing tides, will always be a force greater than lines on map and fences in the dessert. From this distanced perspective, a useful quiescence and acceptance could be learned. I personally would be relieved if the posses of the southwest would relinquish their belief, structurally not all that different from Transition’s, that we are living at a the most momentous point in history and that our actions will set the course for all future humanity. Far better that they reflect on current events as just another moment in the eternal and unstoppable march of human migration.

But this is not Greer’s main purpose, nor, I believe, is this sort of recontextualization of current political and economic struggles the principle lesson that he’d like us to take with us. What, then, does Greer want? What goal does he pursue? What story would he like to tell about himself, his life, his community, or immediate future?

A comparison with Hopkins, here, is again illuminating. What Hopkins wants is clear—a smooth ride down the backside of Hubbert’s peak towards something resembling a turn-of-the-century British market town. A fantasy, yes, but not one from which he, himself, nor any one else, would be absent. In the meantime he calls for a similar collective presence and engagement harnessed for communal integration and reconciliation: “we need to draw together a diversity of individuals and organizations that has seldom been managed in the past” (Transition Handbook 77).

With great contrast, Greer makes a plea for nearly the opposite. Instead of coming together and uniting, Greer’s more unusual suggestion is that we split, divide, and, to some extent, go our separate ways: “in a situation of this sort, betting everything on one grandiose plan for the future is a poor bet. A wiser approach would encourage many different responses to the situation” (94). Thus the role of dissensus in Greer’s work and the heterogeneity of the Green Wizard project. Given his premise that the future is knowable only in the sense that we can predict the rise and fall or the waxing and waning of our civilization, but radically unknowable in its details and in the specific adaptations that will work as a new human ecology emerges from the ruins of ours—given this, dissensus as a programmatic suggestion makes a lot of sense, despite some questionable assumptions about the way social adaptation and change occur.

But despite the cohesive sensibility of Greer’s argument for dissensus, it is driven by (or drives) a more fundamental hope. While, in contrast to Transition Handbook’s invitation to the reader to be the protagonist of our great collective Romance of overcoming Peak difficulty of a scale that could only have been produced birthed in an age of nearly-free energy, Greer’s reader is encouraged on a narratival level to find a place of remove, and on a practical level, to tinker with self-sufficient pragmatism of green Wizardy. When Greer argues that “a wiser approach would encourage many different responses to the situation,” there is a limited sense of a collective “we.” But Greer is not an egoist; he does not seem dedicated to saving his own skin. Rather, “in situations of these kinds, encouraging people to pursue conflicting and even diametrically opposed options increases the chance that SOMEONE will happen on an answer that works (96; emphasis mine).

While dissensus and narratival remove are not, necessarily, the same thing, we find our way to the heart of Greer’s project if we look at the way in which they are made to mesh in his work. What Greer wants, what drives his story, what accounts for many of his specific arguments and postulations, is, simply, this: that SOMEONE survives, and with him or her humanity itself. Seeing us as a species (rather than a community or civilization), Greer suggests that “in the face of unpredictable change, increasing the range of variation in a species makes it more likely that some members of the species will have what it takes to adapt” (97). Continuing with the metaphor of species adapting (and here it is actually a metaphor), Greer likens the goal of saving and passing down some of our accumulated knowledge to the goals of biodiversity: “the same logic that leads the ecologically literate to do what they can to keep threatened species alive through the twilight of the industrial age, so that biological evolution has as wide a palette of raw materials as possible in the age that follows it, applies just as well to cultural evolution” (238). For this goal to gain a semblance of acceptability for us and our personal futures (or at least the ones we imagine while entranced in Greer’s book), we cannot identify too closely with any specific project or community, but only with the overall project of humanity that is most likely, Greer argues, to continue into subsequent centuries if it places an egg in thousands of different baskets.

There is, of course, a practical aspect to this, as Greer helpfully urges us to “hand down valuable tools and insights to those who will need them” (76). But more significant, or at least an equal part of the structure and the mood of Greer’s work, is an almost aerial view of humanity’s epic sweep, a view from which we find reassurance as we see, far into the distance, our distant descendants, ebbing and flowing towards eternity. A profound existential comfort descends upon Greer’s reader as he or she looks far into the future and sees that humanity has survived, that a few of us made it through and can continue our troubled, but noble, legacy, that one or two of the many different responses that our generation initiated successfully adapted, even thrived.

As I noted above, Greer suggests that to consider ourselves in ecological terms is to view ourselves through “nature’s eye.” While that may be Greer’s fantasy, and while this fantasy is not at odds with the force of the book, its overriding emotional force is, instead, to provide a reassuring glimpse into the future, a respite from fear and anxiety, from even the excessive and unjustified jubilation of newly discovered communities or relocalized zeal, and in its place a calm and steady vision gazing at the distant haze of the horizon, as we begin our dizzy and terrifying descent down the backside of Hubbert’s peak.

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