Solvitur Ambulando

As last week’s post suggested, the crisis of industrial society may just be approaching a critical stage in the near future. This has had an interesting and welcome impact on discussions about the future. Concerns that have been exiled to the far reaches of our collective discourse for most of three decades now – resource depletion, atmospheric pollution, and the other consequences of the fatal mismatch between fantasies of infinite economic growth and the hard limits of a finite planet – have been thrust back into center stage by the press of events.

Look back over media references to peak oil over the last few months, for example, and you’ll notice that the tone of scornful dismissal that once blanketed nearly every media comment on the subject has begun to wear surprisingly thin. We haven’t yet arrived at the kind of turning point in mass consciousness that turns the formerly unimaginable into conventional wisdom, the sort of thing that occurred in the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis and all too briefly put ecological limits on the cultural radar screens of societies across the industrial world. Still, if this example is anything to go by, we may be only one crisis away from that.

If such a turning point arrives, one predictable consequence will be a bumper crop of proposed solutions for the problem. I’ve suggested elsewhere on this blog that this entire way of thinking about the crisis of industrial civilization misses the central point at issue; it’s not a problem that can be solved, if a solution is defined as something that will make the problem go away. Nothing will make the limits to growth go away; the sole question is whether we as a species deal with them, or whether we wait until they deal with us.

Yet this isn’t the only point that ought to be kept in mind when our collective imagination starts chasing solutions to the crisis of industrial civilization. Two other factors are so common in today’s proposals for social change that it would startle me exceedingly to see them neglected once the proposed solutions start rolling in.

First, a great many of the proposals on the table just now have surprisingly little to do with the problems they claim to solve. Not long ago, for example, I read a lively and well-written essay arguing that the best way to bring humanity into harmony with the environment was for nations worldwide to embrace socialism. We can leave aside, for the moment, the fact that this is about as likely just now as a resumption of the Crimean War; the point at issue here is that it doesn’t solve the problem it claims to address. On the theoretical plane, shifting ownership of the modes of production does not affect how those modes interact with the ecosystem. On the historical plane, socialist countries have had at least as bad a track record when it comes to the environment as capitalist countries. Instead of finding a solution to the problem it described, in other words, the essay simply tried to identify a new problem that can be used to promote the author’s preferred solution.

This sort of thing is extremely common. I’ve pointed out before that the rhetoric of survivalism rests on the same dubious reasoning: survivalists identify a problem, insist that it will inevitably lead to the collapse of civilization into a Road Warrior future populated with rampaging mobs convenient for target practice, and present the survivalist answer as the only possible response. Listen to the ritual incantations of politicians seeking office and you’ll hear the same thing in an even more caricatured form: no matter what the problem happens to be, the solution always amounts to throwing out the last scoundrel who got into office promising to solve it, so another scoundrel can take a swing at it. My guess is that in much the same way, once the limits to growth find their way back into common discourse, every project for social change you care to imagine will try to redefine itself as the answer the world is waiting for.

This last phrase points straight to the second factor I’d like to discuss here – the notion that it’s possible to know the right response to our predicament in advance. That’s a very deeply rooted assumption in modern thought, of course. Beginning in the 18th century and continuing with ever more force up to the present, ideology has become the dominant mode in Western social thought, as religious ideas of salvation through belief in correct dogma found themselves secularized into claims that the right man with the right plan could fix all social ills. From French philosophes to American neoconservatives, and out beyond them to the far corners of today’s political space where tomorrow’s ideologies are taking shape, the assumption holds that any valid response to what’s wrong with society has to start with a detailed plan for the new social order that will replace the one we’ve got.

The curious thing about this conviction is that it’s been as thoroughly disproved in practice as any idea can be. Time and again, relying on ideology to respond to reality is a recipe for abject failure. From French philosophes to American neoconservatives, the most common result of applying some new social ideology to the real world has been the awkward discovery that the plan doesn’t work as advertised. Now of course the purveyors of new ideologies insist that their ideology is different because it’s the right one, just as the promoters of old ideologies insist that the situation is different and the failures of the past don’t matter. Still, in the light of so many bad experiences, it may be worth suggesting that the problem goes deeper than that.

In making this suggestion I’m following in the footsteps of one of the most thoughtful and least remembered works from the appropriate technology movement of the 1970s, Warren Johnson’s Muddling Toward Frugality (1978). Johnson argues, in much the same terms that I have, that the end of fossil-fueled affluence is a given, and trying to fight it makes about as much sense as playing Canute and trying to order back the incoming tide. Rather, he suggests, we need to live with it – and in the process, to begin to take the modest, piecemeal, unimpressive steps that will actually get us through the crises of the future.

One of the things that makes Muddling Toward Frugality most interesting to me is that Johnson deals directly with the cultural narratives underlying projects for social change. The habit of relying on ideology, he suggests, unfolds from narratives drawn from the language of tragedy, in which great heroes risk themselves and everything else for an ideal. This makes great literature and drama, of course. Still, since the heroes of tragedy generally die, and not uncommonly take everything they care about down with them, they may not be the best model for constructive change!

As an alternative, Johnson offers the unexpected possibility of the comic hero. Throughout the Western literary tradition, comic heroes have most often been muddlers, stumbling half blind through situations they don’t understand with no grander agenda than coming out the other side with a whole skin and some semblance of comfort. They aren’t especially heroic, and their efforts at muddling through crisis fail to inspire the kind of reverent attention so many proponents of social change seem to long for. Unlike tragic heroes, though, they usually do come out the other side of the story, and not uncommonly bring the rest of the cast with them.

The decline and fall of modern industrial civilization may not seem like promising material for comedy, but the basic strategy of muddling has much more to recommend it than appears at first glance. The fact of the matter is that we don’t know in advance what an ecotechnic civilization – a society that maintains high technology in harmony with ecological processes – would actually look like. We don’t know in advance what steps will be needed to make the transition from an industrial society to an ecotechnic one. We don’t know in advance how fast fossil fuel production will decline, how the resulting economic shockwaves will affect consumption, how soon the effects of global climate change will begin to impact today’s societies in a big way, or any of a hundred other crucial issues. Nor do we know in advance which of the various proposed responses will actually work, if any of them do.

What we do know is that certain things are not working just now, and need to be changed; and that certain other things that still work may not keep working for long, and having a Plan B in place would be sensible. It’s possible, of course, to come up with a grandiose plan to fix all of the current problems at once, along with the changes we expect to come later on, but this may not actually be the best option. Rather, it may well be more constructive to encourage as many different responses to our predicament as possible, in the hope that one or more of them will work well enough to become standard practice in the future. It may also work better to encourage piecemeal responses that focus on narrowly defined dimensions of our predicament, and can be implemented on a small scale before moving to a larger one, instead of trying to change everything all at once. That is to say, our best option may be to embrace an adaptive approach to the situation, and then simply try to adapt.

Solvitur ambulando is an old bit of Latin that still gets a little literary use these days. Taken literally, it means “it is solved by walking;” a more idiomatic English translation might be “you’ll find the answer as you go.” An adaptive approach to the crisis of industrial society might well take this as a watchword. Next week’s post will focus on a specific, and distinctly down-to-earth, example of how this can work.