Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Social Collapse and Projecting the Future

Check this out:

The world is headed inevitably and unavoidably towards environmental collapse and a corresponding social collapse. Nothing we can do will change this. Therefore, there is no point in getting caught up in urgent or confrontational or radical social change politics, because you are doomed to fail even if you don't just end up locked up or shot. Therefore, what we need to be doing is giving ourselves the skills necessary to survive after a collapse and also doing low-key educational social change work, dialogue, and consciousness raising that is unflaggingly conciliatory in tone and promotes the kinds of values we would like to see reflected in society.

That is not a direct quote, but a summary written by me of a particular person's political analysis as told to me by a third person. I don't know the person whose analysis this is supposed to represent, so it is quite possible I may have misunderstood my informant or my informant may have misunderstood the original source. But let's assume that we both have it more or less correct, and that this fairly (if simplistically) represents an actual person's actual take on things rather than some straw-person construction.

It's certainly not how I see the world, but for some reason my thoughts have kept returning to it. Partly, I suppose, it is because it strikes me as a bit peculiar -- that someone should not just arrive at this conclusion by some sort of unthinking default, but after spending a lot of time learning and thinking about the world, as I know this person has. But perhaps more importantly because I have a sense that, as the contours of the oncoming environmental crisis become more clear, this or similar combinations of pessimistic, apocalyptic, and quietistic politics are likely to have a certain appeal to a small but non-trivial subset of people in North America that might otherwise be doing much more politically useful things. So I feel I should have a better handle on my own response to these ideas.


As far as I understand it, there are two different ways that you can understand "pessimism" in political terms. The first type of pessimistic view is one which concludes that, all else being equal, the world is going to get worse, perhaps significantly worse. The other understands pessimism as relating to our capacity to intervene in the world -- in other words, a view that the political "we" with which the speaker or writer identifies really can't do much about the state of the world.

The analysis summarized above is pessimistic in both senses. My own analysis is pessimistic in the former sense, though perhaps more tentatively so, but leaves the question of the latter to be answered by how tomorrow's history actually plays itself out. I'm not sure how much change we can make, but we can certainly make more by doing than by not-doing.

For example, I am definitely part of the sentient majority and agree that global climate change is happening, and happening because of human activity. I have also seen more and more arguments that not only is it real, but it is already at a stage much worse than the popularized understanding in the mainstream that is being used as a basis for so much so-called "green" capitalism and consumerism. I don't feel I know enough to argue convincingly for that position yet, but given the bits and pieces that I have seen and my pre-existing understanding of how a context shaped by capitalist social relations would be likely to push various people and organizations to respond in various situations, it is feeling increasingly likely to me. Add in all of the serious environmental problems beyond just climate change. Add in my understanding of the likelihood that peak oil and the consequent dramatic increases in energy costs are likely to occur, later or sooner, with corresponding dramatic effects on social organization. Also add in the predictions by some, which I think sound likely, that the U.S. will turn increasingly to armed force to maintain its preeminence over the next few decades.

In other words, my guesses about the near- to medium-term future are hardly rosy. Middle-class life in North America is predicated on a particular sort of mindless optimism about the world -- not necessarily overt optimism in the interpersonal attitudes of individual human beings but tacit optimism in the assumptions underlying the norms which are so important in shaping dominant middle-class behaviours. That optimism is going to be sorely tested in the coming decades, I think. And of course most people in the world, who lack the privilege currently associated with middle-class north americanness, are going to feel impacts a lot more severe than having to give up cherished delusions and entitlements.

At the same time, I believe that through doing we can create change. I have no idea whether the doing of which we are capable will be sufficient to deal with the problems at hand. Certainly the state of movement and community mobilization in North America at the moment is very low and quite depressing, but things are more lively in Europe and much more lively in Latin America, and the resistance to colonialism in West Asia is cause for encouragement even if progressive forces within that resistance are extremely weak. And anyone who has paid attention to the history of social movements, community organizing, popular uprisings, and the like knows that things can change very quickly and unexpectedly. So even though we are at a low ebb in Canada at the moment, it could easily be very different in a year or five, and that's only going to happen if we keep working away at what we can do at the moment.


Another key feature of the analysis summarized at the top of the post is that it posits that environmental and social collapse are inevitable. I disagree.

In part, this difference is just another way of articulating the differences outlined above with respect to the second understanding of political pessimism -- "we can't do anything" versus "we might be able to do something, so let's see." But I think it goes beyond that. I think it also has to do with different understandings of how to deal with uncertainty about the future.

I would be the first to admit that making guesses about the future, even quite vague and general guesses, is a risky business. The world is an extremely complicated place. History has no iron laws of progress. All of my speculation above might turn out to be completely wrong -- perhaps we are early enough in global warming that mainstream reform will be sufficient to defeat it, perhaps enough oil reserves remain undiscovered that peak oil will not occur in my lifetime or other sources of energy will become just as cheap, perhaps unforseen factors will constrain U.S. militarism and allow it to slip quietly into decline, perhaps some unpredicted social factors will put radical social change on the agenda across the globe in unprecedented ways tomorrow or the day after. I don't think so, but perhaps. Because as far as I understand it, once systems reach a certain level and kind of complexity -- and you would have to work pretty hard to convince me that our social world is not this complex -- it is not simply a matter of needing more information to make better predictions, it is a matter that under certain conditions making predictions about what the system is going to do is not just practically difficult but theoretically impossible. There are limits, therefore, on the kinds and scope of predictions we can make about the social world.

Confidently predicting the apocalypse is, I would argue, beyond the bounds of what we can even theoretically do. Because that is not just predicting the general direction that complex social and environmental processes will take, which on its own is difficult enough and should always be done with a certain tentativeness, I think. Rather, it is actually predicting an outcome for those processes. Perhaps when Godzilla has already eaten half of Tokyo or a new plague has already wiped out a billion people or there are no cities in the world that do not see regular gun battles between ordinary people -- perhaps then we can predict that collapse is inevitable. But only perhaps. And as things are now, stating that collapse cannot be avoided is not an assertion that can be debated because it depends not on argument but on faith. Yes, there is an element of gut feeling and instinct and even faith in any projection about the future, but once you move from debate about processes to declarations about outcomes you have rendered discussion that does not have a central theological component next to impossible. I think lots of people who will be tempted by analyses such as the one with which I began the post will not see that they are entering the realm of theology, but I would argue that they are.


So why bother talking about the future at all? Well, one of the things that interests me about the analysis I'm addressing here is how effectively it illustrates the ways in which our projections about likely futures influence our actions in the present.

By "quietism" I mean politics that are deliberately inactive or active in ways that are deliberately low-key and avoid high visibility, confrontation, active challenge, and any efforts to actually achieve new forms of social organization. I would distinguish this from ordinary liberalism because it is not based in liberalism's denial of how bad things are or in its illusions about the ability of liberal-democratic forms of social organization to fix things, but rather advances its program for (in)action on an entirely different basis.

In this case, I don't think the apocalyptic projections absolutely require the quietistic program in the present. In fact, I think you could make an argument for quite the opposite -- even if organizing was guaranteed not to ward off some sort of collapse, you could still argue it was necessary based on how the social processes leading up to collapse are likely to happen. In particular, based on my understanding of the last millenium of European and North American history, those with power are likely to use crisis of any sort as an opportunity to reinforce their own power. If the crisis is grave, the efforts to consolidate power by the powerful are likely to be correspondingly blatant and probably violent. So ordinary people would benefit from being organized to defend ourselves, and to push for a distribution of the horrible consequences of collapse that mitigated death and suffering among ourselves. So I don't think the assumption of guaranteed collapse has to mean that no serious organizing needs to happen, though it might make for a quite different focus than what I think is necessary right now.

However, even though the connection is not logically essential, I think accepting the inevitability of apocalypse would make it much easier for people who see the grave state of things to accept that we shouldn't be spending too much of our energy in the presnet actually doing much of anything. After all, why bother? I've made a case above for bothering anyway, but I still think lots of people would see no need. And for those of us who believe that change is possible, every person who disqualifies that possibility a priori is one more person whose energies will not go towards creating the better world that might, just might, be possible, which means social transformation becomes that little bit less likely.

This illustration of the dependence of present action on projected futures is more broadly important, too. The two projections of the future discussed in general terms here are far, far from the only two that exist. It is very easy for activists of my generation to flinch away from too much attention to explicit discussion of such questions, mostly because of witnessing the ridiculous polarization and sectarianism of our elders (and some of our contemporaries) based in part upon vicious arguments about projected futures. But I think this situation illustrates why flinching away is not an adequate solution to the problem. Yes, we need to be careful and avoid the pitfalls of needless ideological division, but we have to be able to talk about it, too.

I am, as I suppose this post and this blog more generally have already amply shown, not at all quietist in my outlook. I don't believe that collapse or any other dramatic endpoint of history is inevitable at this point. We, each and everyone of us, in every moment we are alive, in ways shaped by our location within social relations, shape tomorrow's history. I don't know how we will get there, and particularly in our current depressing moment in North America I am constantly returning in critical ways to the question of what I should be doing as an individual, what "we's" we should be trying to create, and what those "we's" should be doing as we form them. But one thing that I do not hesitate to declare strongly and without reservation is that if ordinary human beings do nothing, the future is not at all bright.

1 comment:

Red Jenny said...

Interesting post. I have been pondering something similar recently. Some environmentalists are becoming more and more similar to survivalists. In other words, for them the individualist "save yourself" mentality outweighs the collective drive to save all of us. This really bothers me, but it is hard for me to articulate why. Going off the grid, learning how to live lightly, these are all noble in their own way, I suppose, but to me they don't help anything. Also, the ability to make such a choice is in itself proof of privilege. Most people who live off the grid do so because they are part of the informal economy, subsistence farmers, or perhaps squatters, and this is certainly not by choice. In addition, the difference one family off the grid makes is so minimal (equivalent to, say, if that same family were to die or otherwise disappear), compared to, say, fighting for stronger regulations or other collective action. Going off the grid could be a fulfilling personal experience, but we should not delude ourselves into thinking that is any kind of answer to environmental problems which are, let's face it, collective problems. We really need to update our individualist world view - I think that would also help people feel less pessimistic and isolated.