Archive for the 'anti-modernism' Category

Moloch’s Children: Do Climate Skeptics and Climate Change Activists Need to Agree?

Sharon November 30th, 2009

I’ve gottten literally dozens of emails begging me to weigh in on the East Anglia climate scandal, and for a while, I was reluctant to do so, because ultimately, paying attention to something so inane just gives it credibility.  We’re back, again, to the old battles over climate change – attention to trivialities in the absence of the central issue.

Anyone who made any effort at all knows that no, they didn’t lose or hide the data – it is still out there to be gathered by anyone doing the work.  Yes, they should have kept the raw data, but given that they had a tiny budget, limited storage space and were writing their own code, maybe cut them some slack – maybe some discredit is due the climate skeptics who have kept this subject so wildly underfunded?  Yes, we can still find raw temperature data at both the collection sites and at the several other compilers. 

Yes, the scientists said some stupid and imprudent things – but saying that they were responsible for politicizing the discussion ignores the tens of millions of dollars spent by climate skeptic lobbyists over the last decades to create dissension and attack the scientists.  Is there a religious-like orthodoxy of science that has exerted pressure on poor, hapless political leaders?   Sure…30+ years of not accomplishing jack-shit – wow, those mean and powerful scientists – where do they get their power?  Does an attack on four guys in England undermine all climate data?  Ummm…four guys.  Compared to tens of thousands of peer reviewed papers. 

What’s annoying about this nonsense is that it has overshadowed in the media the much more important news that the IPCC scientists did make mistakes about climate change – and some of that almost certainly due to the enormous pressure to *understate* the climate science.  Accusations of government pressures to soften the conclusion were rife after the IPCC report came out – reported by the scientists themselves.  The idea that political pressure exists only on one side is simply ignorant.  Now the Copenhagen update confirms what has been reported on this blog since before the last IPCC report came out – that in fact, the error has tended to be to understating the dangers of climate change.  We are facing much more serious and rapid climate change than was reported, and we have to respond more quickly.

That said, however, I know that I have quite a number of blog readers who will disagree with the above statements, and I’m fine with that.  I also know that disagreement on this subject makes a lot of people really, really angry.  I can understand their perspective – that is, I understand both why people who are worried about the cost of dealing with climate change are angry at those who understate that cost, and I understand why people who believe sincerely in climate change get angry when people resist their attempts to save lives.  I get the anger.  But I try really hard not to get invested or focused in the battle – for two reasons. 

Now I should be clear here – when  I speak of climate skeptics in this post, I am not speaking of the paid shills and the professionals whose job it is to throw up dust in the eyes of science – there are plenty of them, and I think that they deserve excoriation.  People talk about conspiracy in terms of climate change – ignoring that the track of money goes back to Exxon and Shell and a whole host of companies that have had an enormous interest in making extremely clear science unclear.  I am speaking, instead, of the vast majority of people who for good reasons and bad, disagree with me on the importance of dealing with climate change.

The first is simply that I’ve watched the battles of left and right, the old enlightenment political battles go on my whole life, quite literally, and mostly, I’ve watched scorched earth that left no one happy or satisfied.  Both sides have had their victories and defeats, some good and some bad has come out of this.  But the fixation on means here, rather than ends – that is, the fixation on alliances with political parties and traditional battles has done more harm than good, and cost us many good ends.  

And in fixating on the scorched earth battles, we’ve built up barriers of  anger and contempt to the radical loss of both common ground and perspective about what matters the most.   The perception that the old categories and divisions don’t work anymore seems to cross all political lines.  Evangelical theologian Dr. David Gushee said that we would be ashamed of ourselves later on for the issues that we have allowed to consume our lives while the world burns. 

But more importantly, I don’t believe that people can be easily and accurately divided into enlightment categories – I think they are mostly a distraction.  Nor do I think that the climate change debate exists in the terms that most climate activists frame it, between skeptics and activists/scientists.  There are certainly some people on both sides who come to this with a single, all-encompassing worldview that could be described that way, but mostly, I don’t think that’s accurate.  Instead, I would frame the distinction differently – that the populace is roughly divided into two groups – but not the ones you think they are.

The first, I’m going to call “Moloch’s Children” – which isn’t a very nice name, but it is, I think,  accurate.   By this I mean that like Moloch, they devour their own young.  I do not claim that the Children of Moloch do so intentionally – at worst, their seeming god is Mammon.  But the reality is that the worship of consumption leads to the cannibalizing of our future and our children.  

Who are these people?  The children of Moloch consist of the great mass of Americans and other rich world denizens whose central ideology is technological progress and consumption – Moloch is their god, the overarching center of their world is the urge for more and more comfort, more and more possessions, more and more wealth, more and more technology in complete disregard of the fact that these things are not possible.   They do not realize that they devour their own future as they consume.  I realize that most of the people I am describing would fervently deny that this is true of them – but they would mostly be wrong.  At the center of their value system is something empty and deeply wrong, and that emptiness stretches out and empties their world.  They do not know what is missing from their lives, so they seek out more to fill the empty space.

The Children of Moloch cross political, religious, cultural and ethnic lines.  That is, there are plenty of climate skeptics who believe that the climate probably isn’t changing and even if it is, we can just fix it with more free enterprise.  But there are equally many people in the same camp who believe that yes, climate change is a big problem, and someone really should do something about it, but not me, and nothing that impacts my mutual fund statement.   It is possible to be a devout Christian and still hold prosperity, comfort and your game cube at the center of your world in practice, while going to Church on Sundays.  It is possible to be a radical leftist athiest and still hold those same values at the center of your world.  Every shade of middle ground runs through the center.  Moloch knows no political bounds.

The truth is that if you could meaningfully divide the world up into climate skeptics and climate believers and use that information politically, then we’d already be acting on climate change.  The fact is that you can’t – the vast majority of people who believe we should do something about climate change believe that we shouldn’t do anything very difficult, expensive or inconvenient – pretty much what the skeptics believe.  They are different in that if it doesn’t cost them anything substantive, they’d be happy if the problem went away.

The second group I’ve called several things over the years – anti-modernists, sustainability folk (before that term came to mean “people who buy green prada”)…  For this purpose, though, I call them “People of the Center” – that is, anyone who has something other than Moloch at the center of their world: a hope for the future, an investment in the past, the love of a G-d, the love of humanity in general, an ethical paradigm that actually trumps the desire for more –  and thus perceives, sometimes instinctively, sometimes after long study, that we cannot go on this way, and must find something else. 

And this category too crosses all political, cultural and religious lines.   There are devout Christian homesteaders in this group, and indigenous native farmers, radical leftists and radical rightists.  There are aging hippies and crunchy cons.  There are Quakers and Amish, Hasidic and Liberal Jews, Moslems, Buddhist Nuns and Catholic Nuns, Neo-Pagans and Athiests.  There are people who believe that climate change is no problem at all, or not their problem, but who deeply and profoundly believe they are called by their faith or taste or commitment to another principle to live ethically.  There are people who believe that climate change is everything and come to the same conclusions.  And in the end, what matters here are the ends- the conclusions and the life that follows them.

Here, then, I see the people who are already beginning to live the life necessary.  They may think I’m a complete raving loon on the subject of climate change – but they recognize the need to grow their own food.  They may not care at all about peak oil, but they know they need to cut their energy use and energy budget.  They could be, on the right political grounds, supportive of far more radical political changes than most of the moderate people who accept climate change, because their basic premise is that the future is worth preserving.

The truth is that even without acceptance of climate change, tens of thousands of people recognize the essential emptiness of our center and are looking for a better way.  The truth is that even if we disagree on peak oil, or on the face of the financial collapse, we have things to speak about.   Even if we fight over important (I do not claim they are not important, just perhaps not as important as preventing the worst outcomes of our future) issues that are simply secondary – the traditional battleground issues of left and right, for example, we can recognize their secondariness. 

Even if we have nothing in common except our commitment to creating a future for human beings in the world, we can work together at least in some measure – and I would argue that the People of the Center have more in common with one another than they do with the Children of Moloch, regardless of  their opinions on gay marriage and health care funding.  All of us in the center in some measure know, that wherever the disaster comes from, it is coming.  We know that if we do not change, change will be thrust upon us, and will be more terrible than if we step forward and claim our future.

There are a lot more of Moloch’s Children than there are People of the Center, and the odds are good that there will be until the things at the center of their world fall away – until poverty and a changing world unseat their center and leave them seeking something else.  But the truth is that there are converts every single day away from Moloch – not just a few, but thousands of them. I meet them every time I speak, I get emails from them every day and others get even more – “I just realized what we were facing” “My family and I only just became aware” “We’ve been doing this for a year or two…”  The stories overflow – and the paths they take are not all the same.

There are two ways to look at this steady and growing stream of converts – the first is that we are too few.  The second is that it is astounding, given the power of the other side, the place of advertising and wealth and luxury and technology in our world, that so many fall away, and go looking for a new center. 

 They find their place, their center in different ways – some turn back to an old faith, some cast their faith away.  Some place the emphasis in different places, some return to the old ways of their people, or go seeking a new set of old ways.  They agree on remarkably little.  But they are finding their way to something, a place, a center, through a remarkable number of portals – and their commitment to some of the same ends is sufficient to build something upon.  The edifice of our creating is fragile, tenuous, and sometimes the ground yaws forth when a new chasm between us arises.  But there is something there.

In political terms, I imagine there will be shouts of protest at this post – if we give up the battle for the hearts and minds of people on climate change, we’ll fail, I suspect they will say.  Well, the truth is, we’re failing now.  Yes, 57% of the world takes climate change seriously – seriously enough to want some kind of low-grade agreement, maybe, if it isn’t inconvenient.  But the truth is that we’ve failed miserably to explain what exactly would be involved in dealing with climate change – we’ve pandered to Moloch so long, told people that they’d be driving around in electric cars and just as rich as before so long that we’ve lost the battle.  Because people know that it isn’t true – look at the Copenhagen update to the IPCC – even if we dropped emissions to zero by 2030, unless we make radical cuts in the next decade, we’re still past the 2 degree mark.  Anyone think that’s going to happen?  Seriously?

The political reality is that going at this on enlightenment terms has failed miserably – and will continue to fail.  As long as we fixate on what we believe, rather than on the common sense that things are coming down around us, on means rather than ends, there’s no chance that our response will do what it needs to – give the best possible results we can get now *and* simultaneously serve us as well as possible if, as seems likely, we fail.  That is, we’ve been shooting all along for the wrong goals with the wrong allies, painful as that is to admit, and now we need new allies, and new goals – goals that operate to soften the blow as well as try and prevent it as best we can.  Maybe we would have failed had we started with the right allies – but no worse than we have failed now.

I don’t know if the only or rightest way to do this is to concentrate on creating more people of the center, in wooing people away from Moloch.  I know only that the old way, and the old divisions have not worked – that the casualties of those battles are stacked up for miles, and that a new way is needed.  I don’t suggest that this is easy, or that the other battles, the old enlightenment ones I seem to abandon so easily are actually easy to step away from.  But the truth is that we will have little territory for fighting those battles left if we allow the worst outcomes of all our troubles to come to pass – what we need now is a place to stand and build.  I get angry when I see someone believe passionately in something I think is deeply wrong – but I am adult enough to know that what matters is not that you believe as I do, but that we find a way to live and go forward into our common center.


Formulating a Future: The Case for Anti-Modernism, Part I

Sharon April 12th, 2009

One of the best things about life is the strange bedfellows you find in it.  It makes for one heck of a slumber party.

I was thinking about this recently, because I happened to follow out the links that people have been putting in to my posts one afternoon when I had time to kill, just out of curiosity.  I do this periodically, but I’d never done so systematically, or sat down to really sort through them.  And the juxtaposition, say of the black women survivalists with the urban Catholic distributist nuns,  the anarchist social critics and the right wing ones, the Belizian Mennonites, the Mormon food storage people,  the Pagan Fiber artists,  the Baptist farmers, the socialist Baptist farmers,  and the guy who occasionally sticks my pieces in with his essays on South African poetry made for a truly engaging collage.  And it got me asking – what do all of us have in common? 

We certainly don’t share a primary political bond, or religious faith – or at least most of us don’t.   After my post recently on the role of religious communities in the future, I got emails from members of 27 distinct religious groups, not to mention plenty of athiests and agnostics.  My readers cross the political spectrum.

National bonds, cultural ones, racial and ethnic ones – all of these are too variable to provide primary common ground.  Even common belief about climate change, peak oil or the financial situation isn’t sufficient – I have quite a few readers who are climate change dissenters, but who share my perspective on other grounds, and plenty who think peak oil is a hoax, but have agrarian priorities.  And while I disagree with them, I’m truly glad they are part of my readership, since being agreed with all the time is bad for my intellect, not to mention dull.

In the end, there is a common ground, however, and it is simply this – most of my readers come to this blog with a pervasive sense that what industrial society seems to promise them either has not arrived, or is not coming.  They see no future for themselves in the path we’ve been on.

And they are not wrong.  The whole premise of modernity as we practice it now is that future generations won’t mind the fact that we are using resources they will require, polluting and destroying the future capacity of the earth.  The whole and most fundamental premise of modernity is this – that because progress always goes forward, there is no need to consider the future.  And thus we create a culture that reverses the ordinary human desire to pass down to one’s posterity more than one already had – now we arrange life so that the future serves the present – children as yet unconceived will pay our debts and clean our messes.  The future is always and inevitably enslaved to the present, and since we do not wish to acknowledge this, we do not enjoy looking at the moral consequences of this, there is no reason to think much about the future at all.  Thus, modernity at one blow disposes of any future that doesn’t look like a science fiction movie.

I think it is important to realize that we cannot separate out the failures of industrial society in the present from the failures in the future.  That is, peak oil and climate change (and the food crisis, overpopulation and the financial crisis and any other problems you want to pile on to the list up to and including waxy yellow buildup) are fundamentally, symptoms of a larger societal problem – industrial modernization.  I don’t think that the root cause is energy depletion or the side effects (ie climate change and pollution) of energy use – that too is a symptom of a larger mindset that says that all we have to do is pour more and more resources into technologies and “development” and we can create paradise.

I don’t, thus, want to speak, as some people do, of energy as the master resource in this.  Energy is extremely valuable – but the roots of our fossil fuel dependence go deep into our colonial past, and our dependence on the energy of human labor in slavery and colonialism. 

And ultimately, it is this that my readership has in common – anti-modernism, a fundamental skepticism that economic growth, more energy, more technology, more shiny things, minor economic social change and other incremental variations on the same basic themes can resolve the deeper problems.  Fundamentally, most people have either made a leap to the belief that some new model is required, or they are on the cusp of such a leap, struggling to balance the fact that our society views the price of modernity, even the costs to (and of) the future as a reasonable one, a mere side effect of a progress that is simultaneously inevitable and necessary to keep us all from an endless misery and suffering. 

It would be easy to reject the idea of anti-modernity – after all, one could make the case that many positive and noble ideas and advances from longer lifespans and the germ theory of disease to voting rights for women are a product of modernity – reject modernity, the reasoning goes, and we’re back to wallowing in our own filth.  Nor is it particularly politically realistic to imagine a wholly agrarian society, in a world of nearly 7 billion people.  And this is a reasonable point, to a point.  This is one of the reasons I don’t call this agrarianism.

And this would be a fair critique were anti-modernity purely retrospective, the nostalgic longing for a golden past – in that case it would be easy and right to correct it with the reminder that the past was not golden.  That’s the cartoon version of anti-modernism, in which it is simply a longing to go backwards.  But backwards is a direction not available to us, even if we wanted it.  Anti-modernism begins from modernism, from an industrialized society with the germ theory of disease and depleted farm land, civil rights laws and toilet paper.  The idea is to go forward towards a future, not to find another futureless image, in which nostalgia is all.  There are legitimate debates about what of the good of modernism can be carried with us into the future without compromising our future, but as I point out in _Depletion and Abundance_ there are much less modernized cultures that have lifespans as long as ours, literacy rates that are similar and political power for women. 

The progressive industrial worldview, combined with the habit of a false dualism (ie, that there is nothing between apocalyptic misery and the technological perfection of the future, what I often call the “Klingons vs. Cylons” fallacy), and between “techno future” and “regression” is very hard to shake off.  Thus it is quite remarkable that as many people have done so as have.  In fact, there are encouraging signs, I think, that the society as a whole is beginning to do so – consider the recent poll data that suggested that just about half of all Americans think socialism either might be better than capitalism or don’t know if it might be.  While I suspect most Americans don’t really know what socialism (or capitalism) are, this is all the more astounding because Americans are taught to believe in capitalism, not as a fully comprehended thought, but as the “home team” that you root for win or lose.  The idea that most Americans are ready to abandon their home team is pretty astonishing.  The poll represents not a reconsideration of socialism, I suspect, but a longing for another choice outside the one that has failed them.  As usual, the only choice presented are a false dualism – other economic possibilities aren’t even mentioned.   But this is no accident – industrial modernity, capitalist or socialist (and both are fundamentally industrial and modernist) is a totalizing worldview, which doesn’t merely affirm one choice, but strives to eliminate alternatives.

And this, perhaps, is what makes me affirm my identity as an anti-modernist, and to think that this might be the right way to think about the common ground that I have with people who I would not ordinarily know or meet, and in many cases, with whom I would ordinarily be discouraged from working.  That is, it is all very well for me to wax rhapsodic about the “diversity” of my readership, but our society, which uses enlightenment political categories as weapons, is very clear in its message that I shouldn’t actually try and work with people (and get them to work with each other) who commit the deep sin of standing on the other side of those political and national barriers from one another.

And there are real reasons to wonder whether people who, say, believe that population is the root problem of modernity and should be constrained at all costs and people who believe that reproduction is a blessing and a gift to be welcomed can work with one another on creating a sustainable future.  There are real reasons to wonder why those who believe that abortion should be illegal and those who believe it should be a private matter for women and their doctors can ally even tenuously on other matters, and how strong those alliances might be.  There are reasons to wonder whether climate change activists and dissenters can work well together on agrarian issues, or how the Global South and North views of ecology might come together.  It is not my claim that anti-modernist ties are sufficient to obviate all other political categories.  But I would claim that they are sufficient to build something upon.

Of course, this has been done before – the agrarian movement is an entertaining mix of aging Hippies and conservative Christians already, the anti-globalization movement has Pat Buchanan and George Monbiot, and any world climate conference will present fascinating alliances between nations that before had little in common.  I’m hardly suggesting anything new. 

But ultimately, what I would suggest is that, without overly eliding essential differences, it is possible to imagine that anti-modernism, that is,  a commitment to and belief in the future both in the abstract and the real bodies of our real posterity, is sufficient to carry the weight of a movement.  If that is not sufficient to bear political fruit, what else is, after all?

I would expect the many and varied debates that are already going on between disparate views of what society should look like to be both engaging and contentious.  I think that if such an anti-modernist identity could collectively arise, and a political rubric be created for at least some alliance, we would have to decide what future vision we all collectively stand in favor of, rather than simply opposing the totalizing vision of modernity.  I suspect hybrids and factions will arise in fascinating and troubling ways.  I don’t know that I will always like what such alliances achieve.

And yet, I think it is necessary.  Agrarianism alone, peak oil awareness alone, eco-village culture alone,  traditionalism alone, anarcho-agrarianism alone,  crunchy conservativism alone, anti-globalization alone, climate activism alone,  survivalism alone, distributism alone, radical homemaking alone, or any of the complex personal identities we create for ourselves alone are insufficient to stand against to the totalizing message of modernity, the one that erases even the possibility of our existence.  All of these identities alone ultimately leave us…alone, too few to make an impact, without sufficient density of culture to draw others together under our rubric.  If we are not to be small outposts alone, dissenting from modernity as it devours our future, our only hope is a unified case to preserve it.