Friday, June 29, 2007

The Age of Limits, Limits, Limits

Suppose it was discovered tomorrow that the greenhouse effects has been way underestimated, and that the catastrophic effects are actually going to set in 10 years from now, and not 100 years from now or something.

Well, given the state of the popular movements we have today, we'd probably have a fascist takeover - with everybody agreeing to it, because that would be the only method for survival that anyone could think of. I'd even agree to it, because there's just no other alternatives right now

Noam Chomsky

It's a remarkable coincidence that we should be approaching the crisis of the decline of cheap oil just as we approach the crisis of decelerating the production of greenhouse gases prior to being tipped into an unstoppable warming cycle.

Leaving aside the rather sterile debate of the true extent - or actual imminence - of either, what interests me is the other, largely unrecognised, limit we have simultaneously reached.

While any rational assessment of our situation demands that we should be acting swiftly and decisively to mitigate the negative consequences of either crisis - we have much to gain and very little to lose by doing so - this is decidedly not what's happening. Burning less oil is the obvious first step to resolving either crisis - and yet oil consumption continues to climb. In fact, we are consistently told that any moderation of what is now routinised, 'normal', fossil-fuel-based hyper-consumption is the road to economic ruin. But the development of a post-oil economy is inevitable; the oil must run out at some stage in this century, even by the most 'optimistic' assessments, with the Uranium to follow a couple of decades later! And we need the cheap energy that remains to build the new 'scarcity' economy if it's still going to be something that's recognisably 'modern'.

I submit that we've reached another limit; this is the limit of the capacity of democracy to function as a tool that will serve the greater good in the face of constraints that neither the dominant elites, nor the great mass of the population, wish to accept as realities.

The hysteria surrounding the idea that any economy may ever have to contract is all-pervasive.

For, we are told, to step off the path of fossil-fuel hyper-consumption is to raise the spectre of the end of the associated hyper-production and hyper-accumulation. The days before international air travel and limitless gew-gaws became available to the western working class are now presented as some sort of dark age, never to be suffered to return. The hysteria surrounding the idea that any economy may ever have to contract is all-pervasive. And yet consumer-capitalism is doomed, along with the oil that supports it, whether we also bake the planet or not. This is the elephant in the living room of global politics.

So, lets consider that most definitively modern of extravagances; air travel. (Many readers will even be taking umbrage at my describing it so; lefties and greenies included!) How far did you travel by air last year? Your friends? (In fact, think of all of these questions in light of your friends, too; just in case you really are altruistic and/or don't like flying!) Where's your/their next holiday planned for? If, as is likely, you.they intend to travel by air, would you even consider going to that place if you couldn't fly there, if you had to drive, ride, or even walk?

In the West 'community' has been largely replaced by mutual associations of the self-interested. The ability of citizens who take a rationalist, longer term, less selfish view to influence debate and their peers is extremely limited, even in the face of the explosion of information technologies. Individuals who make choices that benefit the whole community and future generations are routine targets of extreme skepticism and derision. Ironically they are generally presented as anti-social misfits in the squawkier regions of talkbackia and tabloidia. They may end up feeling that their sacrifices are pointless gestures (scarcely an irrational view, in the circumstances.

We will never get out of this situation through voluntarism. Big bad government needs to return - and it will, if not now then - as a direct consequence - even more brutally in the future. The softest landing involves us developing a crisis-management strategy that transcends the partisan, and then consistently returning it to office for the next few decades.

But thinking westerners have become sadly accustomed to watching their fellow nationals voting consistently against the interests of their own living
grandchildren. The notion of seriously considering those overseas who haven't reached our level of prosperity, those about to be starved or deluged, and that other most exotic group of foreigners -future generations - is present only in rhetoric, if at all.

Bugger kids and women in third world factories - give me cheap shoes!

The prevalent mantra runs more-or-less as follows: Cut education and healthcare if it cuts my taxes; spend public money to build bigger freeways for my ludicrously over-powered SUV to roll along rather than public-transport networks; allow teenagers to be herded into exploitative McJobs if that keeps costs down at the big department stores; deride unions and the whole concept of working-class solidarity as old-fashioned because that will remind me that I've 'made it'; bugger kids and women in third world factories - give me cheap shoes!; herd inconvenient refugees and 'illegal' immigrants into squalid concentration camps because they're not 'real' people like us. These are vote-winning policies in every western nation. This is 'reform'.

I acknowledge that this has been facilitated by the corporate media and a relentless propaganda barrage, whether it be in the form of news, advertising, movies, books, magazines, video games, whatever - the whole dreary array. They all sing the praises of the one true remaining creed; being in it for Me, Me, Me. Propaganda is real; more well-funded, brilliantly manipulative, and generally overwhelming than ever. But is the general population really a sad victim of this propaganda, likely to behave itself better the moment it's better informed? It would be nice to believe, as many on the left seem (or profess) to, that this is the case. For many, doubtlessly, this is true. For me it seems that for many, many more it is not. How does this sit with your experience?

Many analysts discuss the politics of this era in the light of Fascism, to the point that the term has become invested with such an air of the histrionic that it's often best avoided altogether. However, there are important similarities between now and the classic Fascist era.

Firstly we have the super-powerful elites atop vertiginous hierarchies. There is brutality or callous indifference to foreign populations should they choose to misbehave, or simply be in the way. The domestic population is fed carefully managed information, or kept dazzled by spectacle.

But one cannot ignore the compliant nature of these populations. Real Fascism (as opposed to the unpopular Third-World dictatorships propped up by great powers that were frequently mis-labelled as such) was hugely popular. While it was winning!

False consciousness this may all be. But if we accept that we now have unprecedentedly powerful elites capable of utilizing the most sophisticated propaganda systems ever developed to play on the fears and manipulate the worst instincts of an ill-informed, selfish, willingly-hypnotised or rather uninterested population, where does that leave democracy?

When it comes to coping with crises of the kind we currently face; nowhere. The Good Times Party - the one that promises guilt-free business-as-usual with giant plasma screens and SUV's for all - has a huge advantage. The demagogracy of infotainment current affairs and talkback radio will back them. And 'the people', when it comes down to it, will also back them.

'I think we should do more for the environment'

'I think we should do more for the environment', 'I'm very concerned about global warming', 'I'm in favour of fair trade', responses are handed out easily enough in surveys. But try asking people to actually get out of their cars and into the buses, pay fuel prices that reflect the actual cost of cleaning up the appalling mess we're in, pay a fair price for sportswear or mobile phones, or buy more expensive green electricity. They may go so far as to say they will do any of these things, but they probably won't. And, crucially, they'll most likely vote for something else.

In fact, it's a reliance on polling - and the sure knowledge that the world's media barons will accept nothing less than strict adherence to neo-liberal party-line - that ultimately shapes all parties into the Good-Times Party. This has been a fairly easy fit for the grotesquely mis-named 'conservative' parties; an uncomfortable and ultimately self-destructive transition for the formerly social-democratic ones.

I despise talk of 'human nature'. Not because I doubt it exists, but because it's almost invariably raised as justification for acting like an utter turd. It's just as much part of human nature to decide that selfishness is ultimately self-defeating as it is to be selfish. Maybe this could become the majority view. Hooray if it does. Perhaps it has been a majority view in some - even many - human societies in the past. Hooray if that's the case. But in the here and now we're dealing with millions of consumers who, when it comes to the crunch, are most-likely going to be happy to damn many more millions, now and in the future, if that means they don't have to sacrifice the lifestyle they feel they're entitled to. 'The American (Australian/Western) way of life is not negotiable' is a chilling and direct statement of intent. Ignore it at your peril!

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