It Was the Best of Times, It Was the End of Times

Sharon January 9th, 2009

  Note: This is a revised and retitled version of something that appeared here a while back.  This is the version that will appear in Aaron Newton and my forthcoming book _A Nation of Farmers_.  I promise this is the last rerun for a while – I’m sending off the book today!

In the future, airplanes will be flown by a dog and a pilot. And the dog’s job will be to make sure that if the pilot tries to touch any of the buttons, the dog bites him.”

-Scott Adams

Growing up in the past half century, most of us spent a lot of time exposed to imagined visions of our future. We encountered them in science fiction novels, comic books, or on TV, and we’ve spent much of the past hundred years with our necks craned as far as possible, trying to see into the future. And the future, as portrayed in almost every one of these visions, is progressive, moving forward, solving problems and making things better. Think about it-from the Jetsons (where’s my flying car?) to Star Trek, where all problems except the Klingons have essentially been conquered. Medical and technological journals made projections that describe how magic technologies will fix everything, and economists and their reporters saw us moving toward a perfect, globalized world, united in capitalism. All the visions of the future with which we are familiar entail going forward as we are but becoming better through advancements that make us more homogenized, more technologically advanced, to the logical culmination of our perfection.

Or, they don’t. In the same genre, there’s Battlestar Galactica, in which the remnants of a decimated population have to seek a new world after an apocalypse. There is an entire film genre dedicated to the imagined aftermath of human cvilization gone wrong, from the low-budget classic 1975 A Boy and His Dog and the Mad Max movies of the early ’80s to the time twisted Terminator  series in which people of a devasted future go so far as to send heroes back in time to try and prevent an apocalypse. For every novel that imagines us enjoying our leisure with robots that do all our work, there’s a reciprocal novel like Cormac Mc Carthy’s apocalyptic The Road, which imagines us wandering hopelessly in an utter wasteland.

Ever since we realized, in the 1940s, that nuclear weapons meant that we really could destroy the entire world, we’ve been fascinated by this flip side of our progress-the ability to utterly annihilate ourselves, the logical contrast to the idea that we can become the perfect species, Homo technologicus, roaming the galaxy in our faster-than-light spaceships, civilizing other peoples on other planets.

Thus, it is perhaps no great surprise that if you ask most people about the problems discussed in the previous chapter, you will find that most of us place a great deal of faith in growth-market solutions and new technologies, and a smaller, but equally certain group feels that we are bound for complete and utter self destruction. After all, those are the choices that our culture has given us. Virtually everyone living in Western society grew up with those choices presented to them as starkly as possible.

But as we have discussed before, market and technological solutions are beginning to fail and show no signs of being able to solve our problems. Does that mean we’re bound for an inevitable disaster, an absolute and utter apocalypse? Some people think so. For example, Gaia-hypothesis creator, scientist James Lovelock imagines that within a hundred years human beings will be limited to “a few breeding pairs at the poles.” No wonder most people prefer to believe that something-the market, scientific solutions, divine intervention, extraterrestrial technologies-will fix our problems. After all, what is the point of contemplating the absolute and utter destruction of everything? Why not deny that there are problems at all, or perhaps place our hopes on the assumption that anyone who says they can develop another technology if just given enough money? Moreover, what possible incentive could any of us ever have for overcoming our trained faith in capitalism and technology if the best alternative we can be offered is a chance to hole up in a bunker with some Spam and an automatic weapon?

But like all dichotomies, the choice between “rely on technology and growth to perfect us” and “accept the end of the world” is a false one. There are other options, but we have not been taught to see them. We have been told for so long that all we have is to go forward as we are or accept absolute annihilation that we have come to believe that we cannot change our course and move in some new and different way. But this is not true, and the first step in recognizing this is to learn to see false dichotomy for what it is. Then we can begin to look around at alternatives.

Writer and activist Maria Mies writes in her seminal book (written with Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen), The Subsistence Perspective, about the fixity with which many people believe that these are the only choices. She talks about attending a panel in Germany with a number of scientists prognosticating an absolutely bleak future for the world, and then goes on to answer them by observing,

 ”I looked at the audience: all young people with worried faces. They had come on this Sunday morning to get some orientation from these famous speakers for their own future. But they only painted an apocalyptic picture gloom and hopelessness. The gist of their presentations was that there was no alternative, that we could do nothing. I could not tolerate this pessimism any longer and said, “Please, don’t forget where we are. We are in Trier, in the midst of the ruins of what once was one of the capitals of the Roman empire. An empire whose collapse people then thought would mean the end of the world. But the world did not come to an end with the end of Rome. The plough of my father, a peasant in the Eifel, used to hit the stones of the Roman road that connected Trier with Cologne. On this road where the Roman legions had marched, grass had gown, and now we grew our potatoes on that road.” [ad1] 

I wanted to say that even the collapse of big empires does not mean the end of the world; rather, people then begin to understand what is important in life, namely our subsistence…. The image of my father behind the plough on the old Roman road stands for another philosophy, another logic. For most … scientists this subsistence logic is difficult to grasp. It is neither expressed in the slogan that “life will go on by itself” (nature will regenerate herself, grass will grow by itself) nor by the attitude that we humans can control nature and repair all damage done by our master technology. The difference between a subsistence orientation and scientific omnipotence mania is the understanding that life neither simply regenerates itself, nor is it an invention of engineers; rather, we as natural beings, have to cooperate with nature if we want life to continue.”

Here Mies begins to articulate the possibility of something in between apocalypse and progress, a new way of thinking. She and Bennholdt-Thomsen call this “the subsistence perspective,” but it might also be described as a return to cyclical, rather than linear, thinking and living. What she describes is the idea of our integration into history and nature, rather than a choice between our mastery over both forces or our utter destruction at their hands.

Our culture has been dominated by the linear thinking. We have been trained to believe that we are at the “end of history,” as neoconservative thinker Francis Fukuyama puts it. But the history of our thoughts and lives also contains a powerful undercurrent of the subsistence perspective. That is, there’s an existing, permanent tension between two ways of thinking, but in the past century, the progressive narrative, in which we are headed to perfection or doom, has overtaken the cyclical one.

Viewing our thought as caught in a tension between two ways of understanding the world might also help us navigate the question of our ability to change-because, of course, the Big Lie, as we refer to the narrative that says we have only these choices, or none, says that we can’t change course, and while we have plentiful examples of people doing so, it is also true that we are handicapped by  enormous inertia. But if we imagine ourselves as always caught between two urges-moving towards   a more natural and equitable society, while simultaneously being driven away from that goal-we can perhaps begin to see that it is possible that we could alter our course and also recognize the difficulties in doing so. Thus, as we discussed in Chapter 2, it is possible to have multiple simultaneous histories-the histories of ordinary resistance and the histories of the powerful’s attempts to remain powerful.

Cheers,

 Sharon

13 Responses to “It Was the Best of Times, It Was the End of Times”

  1. Susan in NJon 09 Jan 2009 at 2:11 pm

    I missed this the first time. Thanks for the re-run — it made me miss the book club.

  2. Apple Jack Creekon 09 Jan 2009 at 2:26 pm

    The book is going out today! CONGRATULATIONS! :D (Yup I read the italics at the beginning!)

    And thanks for the post, I like the image of the farmer plowing the Roman road. The future is there … even if it’s vastly different than what we might be able to imagine.

    It’ll be interesting to watch it arrive.

  3. Crunchy Chickenon 09 Jan 2009 at 3:05 pm

    Congrats on the book! It’s about effing time :) Just kidding, of course.

    When’s the proposed publish date? I gots to make sure I schedule it into the book club. I’ve got two more on the list after I finish D&A.

  4. MEAon 09 Jan 2009 at 3:27 pm

    Glad to hear the book’s off, off, off!

    On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble
    His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
    The gale, it plies the saplings double,
    And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

    ‘Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
    When Uricon the city stood:
    ‘Tis the old wind in the old anger,
    But then it threshed another wood.

    Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
    At yonder heaving hill would stare:
    The blood that warms an English yeoman,
    The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

    There, like the wind through woods in riot,
    Through him the gale of life blew high;
    The tree of man was never quiet:
    Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

    The gale, it plies the saplings double,
    It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:
    To-day the Roman and his trouble
    Are ashes under Uricon.

    A. E. Housman

  5. ceridwenon 09 Jan 2009 at 3:41 pm

    But then – why would we be at the end of history? Life on this Planet is not some sorta constant upward trajectory – either for Society as a whole or for ourselves personally. It goes more in circles – not a straight line. Society goes through particularly bad times (and maybe to the extent that its the end of another Empire) and then the circle goes round a bit further and we continue. Right now – we are in a downward swing part of this Circle – but (as long as we can avoid the climate Tipping Point!!!) then the Circle will continue going round again….

  6. KatJon 09 Jan 2009 at 5:49 pm

    Loved the poem, MEA! And of course we are not at the end of history. I kind of feel like Mother Earth puts up with our nonsense for a while, and then, when we just get too out of hand, she puts us into time out until we’ve regained our senses (anyone out there with kids knows that sometimes that is what a good and responsible parent does, out of love for the child. And also because they will make you crazy if you don’t.) Life isn’t linear – we circle ’round and circle ’round and circle ’round again. Everything in nature tells us that – the moon cycles, day and night, the seasons – it’s all around us! And that’s a good thing, not a scary one, zombies notwithstanding. We just stepped outside of the dance for a while, and now we are being urged to join back in again.

  7. Kation 09 Jan 2009 at 7:37 pm

    *Grin* I recall just reading this story a couple of weeks back in your _Depletion and Abundance_. I’m looking forward to getting the next one, probably this summer. (Have to ration myself on book purchases to keep my hubby from throwing a fit over me buying books faster than I can read them.) Congrats on finishing the 3rd!!!!

    FWIW, I got a chuckle out of your chapter on kids not calling food yucky, and adults retraining their own taste-buds. I made the choice about a year ago, that as much as I dislike mushrooms, it’s rather ironic that my daughter will eat just about anything and everything, but my hubby and I are reasonably picky eaters. (Myself, less so than the hubby, actually.) I determined that while I’m still not ready to tackle the challenge of liver, I’ve liked onions for a long time (that was my trio: liver with mushrooms and onions, Dad loved it, I hated it), but maybe I could get past the dislike of mushrooms. After all, mushrooms mix so well with so many of the other earthy flavors that I love (sauerkraut, apples, meat, onions, potatoes, etc) that it seems strange to me that I could like THOSE earthy flavors but dislike mushrooms. I determined to try them 15 times, before I write them off again. I’ve now tried them 9 times, and while I cannot yet say I look forward to the thought of mushrooms on the table, I AM to the point where I’ll take a whole serving, instead of just one bite. The last couple of bites are still a stretch, but I’m actually EATING mushrooms now. The last time, I purposefully bought a bunch of button mushrooms and sauteed them up with butter and onions and they weren’t intollerable. (I always have in the back of my mind that they grow on decay in a very prominent sense, a thought ingrained in my head well before I ever grasped the concept of compost.) FWIW, I still get somewhat queasy at the thought of canned mushrooms. Worst comes to worst, I think I’ll do without rather than go without a 2 Tbsp serving of slimy commercially canned mushrooms. Maybe I’ll have to find a recipe for home-preserving extra mushrooms, though they’re kinda cost prohibitive around here, except for special occasions.

    But, now my daughter doesn’t get all the mushrooms on my plate, when I find them in a dish. I eat some of them myself. (My 11 year old daughter’s list of what she won’t eat is tiny: brusselsprouts. And she has yet to try liver, though. My hubby and I dislike the stuff intensely enough that we’ve never introduced our child to this “delicacy”.) Baby steps.

  8. [...] Casaubon’s Book » Blog Archive » It Was the Best of Times, It Was the End of Times Growing up in the past half century, most of us spent a lot of time exposed to imagined visions of our future. We encountered them in science fiction novels, comic books, or on TV, and we’ve spent much of the past hundred years with our necks craned as far as possible, trying to see into the future. And the future, as portrayed in almost every one of these visions, is progressive, moving forward, solving problems and making things better. Think about it-from the Jetsons (where’s my flying car?) to Star Trek, where all problems except the Klingons have essentially been conquered. Medical and technological journals made projections that describe how magic technologies will fix everything, and economists and their reporters saw us moving toward a perfect, globalized world, united in capitalism. All the visions of the future with which we are familiar entail going forward as we are but becoming better through advancements that make us more homogenized, more technologically advanced, to the logical culmination of our perfection. [...]

  9. Don in Maineon 10 Jan 2009 at 1:20 am

    Great post Sharon, upbeat at the end of the empire. Brings to mind the piles of Roman coins that are still being found, I think a pile were just found in Scotland.
    The hoard the original owner buried for hard times and never made it back to. Many of the more wealthy Romans headed out and set up small self-sufficient fiefdoms. The image of plowing the Roman roads is just total brain food.

    There is really no way to tell how much knowledge was lost, the classic example is the formula for roman concrete, it lasts longer than anything we have come up with since, what else did we lose? Nobody can really say. My ancestors were some that headed for the woods and ended up in Scotland.

    The only thing that worries me, while life does go on, the period after the fall of Rome is known as “The Dark Ages”. 450 AD to 1000 Ad.

    “The beauty of the Greek and Roman Empires is long gone! The ruling system has collapsed and taken with it stable government, schools, libraries, a uniform currency, and a common language. Barter now replaces money as the major purchasing system. Cities and towns have been destroyed and transportation between them is extremely difficult, if not impossible.”

    So do we face a new ‘Dark Age”?

  10. Colleenon 10 Jan 2009 at 2:20 am

    Yeah, Sharon!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    I’m looking forward to the book’s release.

    I’m also looking forward to you sharing your ideas, thoughts, tips, enthusiasums and encouragements with us here at the blog (and the wider low-energy community -Hen & Harvest, Riot for Austerity, CTOL, etc.) as you embark on new adventures And discoveries away from your intense book writing jag. : )

    Enjoy!!!

  11. Colleenon 10 Jan 2009 at 2:25 am

    Oops..CTOL was meant to be TOL. The C was the start of Crunchy Chicken’s blog.

    Time for bed.

  12. Michelleon 10 Jan 2009 at 12:53 pm

    Don, don’t worry too much about the “Dark Ages” as that’s a misnomer. They are dark to US because the Germanic tribes who overran the Roman empire were not literate and did not leave written records. They were not “dark” to the inhabitants!

    Cheers,
    Michelle
    BA, Medieval History
    Masters student, Medieval Literature

  13. Kateon 12 Jan 2009 at 10:50 am

    This is the first time I have browsed your blog. Great job. I recently listened to some very nice musings on the idea of an empire voluntarily declining and doing so with grace, humor and creativity… not leading to the end of the world just the end of a world view. Both it and your article are very refreshing perspectives. Thank you.

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