Problems and Predicaments

One of this blog’s regular readers posted a comment a few weeks back hoping aloud that I would say a few words about what people can actually accomplish in the face of the present predicament of industrial civilization. It’s a fair request. So far, most of what I’ve put into The Archdruid Report has focused on exploring the predicament itself, tracing its roots among some of the commonplaces of modern thinking, and showing that too many of the usual assumptions about what is happening and how to deal with it are founded on fantasy and misunderstanding. That’s crucial work; as Buckminster Fuller was fond of pointing out, it’s a mistake to get down to brass tacks when you haven’t yet settled whether you need tacks at all, much less whether brass is the best choice of metal for them. Still, sooner or later these theoretical issues need to give rise to proposals for action.

Such proposals are common enough these days, to be sure. There are plenty of people who insist that replacing the rascals in power with some other set of rascals more to their liking is the first step toward solving the problems facing industrial civilization. There are plenty of others who insist that the problems can’t be solved at all, industrial civilization is doomed to crash and burn, and the only appropriate response involves holing up in a cabin in the hills with a cache of assorted Road Warrior paraphernalia. A third approach envisages a partial solution via the construction of ecovillages and a sustainable economy, supported and funded by individuals and local communities, in the hope of having enough of an alternative infrastructure in place before the existing set falls apart. I’ve argued elsewhere that the first two projects are futile at best. I’m minded to be less dismissive of the third, so long as it steers clear of the temptation to fantasize that the American middle class can maintain the privileges and perks of its lavishly subsidized lifestyle for much longer.

Despite the differences between them, though, all three proposals conceptualize the situation in the same way – as a problem in need of a solution. This may seem like common sense. It’s not, and a historical parallel may help point up what’s going on here.

Imagine, then, that some ancestor of mine shows up in a prosperous farming village in the English Midlands on a bright autumn day around 1700. It’s a peaceful scene perched on the edge of catastrophic change, courtesy of the imminent arrival of the industrial revolution. Within a century, every building in the village will be torn down, its fields turned into pasture for sheep, the farmers and cottagers driven off their land by enclosure acts passed by a distant Parliament in order to provide wool for England’s cloth industry and profits for a new class of industrial magnates. For the young men of the village, England’s transformation into a worldwide empire constantly warring with its European rivals prophesies a future of press gangs, military service, and death on battlefields around the globe. For a majority of the others, the future offers a forced choice between a life of factory labor at starvation wages in the appalling urban slums of 18th-century England, and emigration to an uncertain fate in the American colonies. A lucky few will prosper beyond their wildest dreams by betting on ways of making a living that nobody on that autumn day has even imagined yet.

Imagine that, improbably enough, my ancestor has figured all this out in advance, and has come to warn the villagers of what is in store for them. There on the village green in the shade of an old oak, with everyone from the squire and the parson to the swineherds and day laborers gathered around him, he tells them that their way of life will be utterly destroyed, and tries to sketch out for them how the coming of industrial society will impact them, their children, and the land and life they love. Imagine that, even more improbably, they take the warning seriously. As the afternoon passes, the villagers agree that this is a serious problem indeed. What, they ask my imaginary ancestor, does he think they should do about it? What solutions does he have to offer?

If the question were put that way, what could he say in response? From today’s perspective, it’s clear that nothing the villagers could have done would have deflected the course of the industrial revolution even slightly. Causes far beyond their control – geological events millions of years in the past that laid down huge coal deposits in the shallow seas that would someday become England, economic patterns going back most of the way to the fall of Rome, political shifts that had been shaking all of Europe for two centuries – drove England toward its industrial transformation. If by a solution, his listeners meant a way to change the whole situation for the better, my imaginary ancestor would have had to say that there was none.

At most, he might be able to give the villagers advice on how to cope with the torrent of changes about to break over their heads, and it would have to be general advice. The consequences of the industrial revolution were just as complex as its causes. The destruction of England’s traditional rural economy and the society that depended on it drove waves of change that moved out in all directions. Successful responses to it followed the same divergent paths. Some prospered by abandoning their old lives completely and making the crossing to a new continent or a new economy, some by digging in their heels and maintaining their old way of life as long as possible, others by staying flexible and keeping their options open. At the same time, others found that one or another of these strategies led only to impoverishment and an early death.

The question itself, of course, is the difficulty. What those English villagers faced in the years after 1700 was a predicament, not a problem. The difference is that a problem calls for a solution; the only question is whether one can be found and made to work, and once this is done, the problem is solved. A predicament, by contrast, has no solution. Faced with a predicament, people come up with responses. Those responses may succeed, they may fail, or they may fall somewhere in between, but none of them “solves” the predicament, in the sense that none of them makes it go away.

For human beings, at least, the archetypal predicament is the imminence of death. Facing it, we come up with responses that range from evasion and denial to some of the greatest creations of the human mind. Since it’s a predicament, not a problem, the responses don’t make it go away; they don’t “solve” it, they simply deal with the reality of it. No one response works for everybody, though some do tend to work better than others. The predicament remains, and conditions every aspect of life in one way or another.

The difference between a problem and a predicament has particular relevance here and now, because the last three hundred years or so have witnessed a curious shift in the way some of the basic factors of human life have been conceptualized. Since the dawn of industrial civilization, the predicaments that define what used to be called “the human condition” have been reframed as a set of problems to be solved. Death itself falls into this category; on the one hand, we’ve got transhumanists such as Alan Harrington in The Immortalist proclaiming that death is “an unacceptable imposition on the human race;” on the other hand we’ve got a medical industry willing to inflict almost any amount of indignity and pain in order to preserve bare biological life a little longer at all costs. Our culture’s mythology of progress envisions the goal of civilization as a Utopian state in which poverty, illness, death, and every other aspect of the human predicament have been converted into problems and solved by technology.

I’ve argued elsewhere that the crisis of industrial society means an end to such fantasies, and a return to a world our ancestors before 1700 would recognize. One aspect of this return to reality is the recognition that many things we’ve conceptualized as problems are actually predicaments, as our ancestors were well aware. We cannot solve these things and be done with them; we have to respond to them and live with them. Death, for example, is not an “imposition;” it’s an inescapable part of the human condition. A good case could be made, and indeed has been made, that it’s also one of the prime driving forces behind human art, culture, and wisdom, and that the confrontation with the inevitability of one’s own death is an unavoidable step on the path to human maturity.

Could the predicament of industrial civilization push us in the same direction – toward a maturity of spirit our culture has shown little signs of displaying lately, toward a wiser and more creative response to the human condition? It’s anyone’s guess. Still, the irony of the current crisis is that a civilization that tried to turn all its predicaments into problems has been confronted with problems that, ignored too long, have turned into predicaments. As I’ve suggested more than once, a controlled, creative transition to sustainability might have been possible if the promising beginnings of the 1970s had been followed up in the ‘80s and ‘90s. That didn’t happen, and so our predicament in the early 21st century includes the very high likelihood of an uncontrolled transition to sustainability through catabolic collapse.

It’s worth talking about possible responses to that predicament, so long as they’re not mistaken for solutions to a problem. In the months to come, The Archdruid Report will try to map out some of the ways our predicament will likely unfold, and some of the responses that could deal with those. My readers should not expect a step-by-step program of the How to Survive and Prosper in the Coming Apocalypse variety. (Not having survived and prospered through any apocalypses lately, I’d be the wrong person to write such a thing, anyway.) Just as my imaginary ancestor in the example above would probably have been able to come up with some good advice for villagers hoping to weather the dawn of the industrial age, I’ll do my best to offer advice to those who want to survive its twilight. In the presence of a predicament, though, there are no certain bets.