Alternatives to Nihilism, Part Three: Remember Your Name

A bit of retrospective may be useful at this point, as we close in on the core of the argument I’ve been developing here. The first post in this series, “A Dog Named Boo,” explored the sudden turn toward nihilism that seized America’s culture and public imagination in the wake of the Seventies; the second, “Lead Us Away From Here,” analyzed the fantasy of elite omnipotence and public powerlessness that became conventional wisdom straight across the political spectrum in the wake of that shift.

The connection between the shift and the fantasy may not be instantly obvious to all my readers, but it can be made a good deal clearer by looking more closely at what happened as the Seventies ended and our society’s thirty-year vacation from reality began. During the Seventies, a great many Americans came face to face with the hard fact that they could have the comfortable and privileged lifestyles they were used to having, or they could guarantee a livable world for their grandchildren, but they couldn’t do both. The vast majority of them – or, more precisely, of us – chose the first option and closed their eyes to the consequences. That mistake was made for understandable and profoundly human reasons, but it was still a mistake, and it haunts the American imagination to this day.

The impact of that choice is perhaps easier to trace on the conservative end of America’s social and political spectrum. Forty years ago, the Republicans had at least as good a record on environmental issues as the Democrats, and the idolatry of the unrestrained free market that pervades the American right these days was a fringe ideology widely, and rightly, considered suspect by most conservatives. For that matter, creationism and speculations about the imminence of the End Times were consigned to the fringes by most American Christians, who by and large considered them irrelevant to the task of living a life centered on the teachings of the Christian gospel.

All these things changed in a hurry at the end of the Seventies. Why? Because the attitudes that replaced them – the shrill insistence that the environment doesn’t matter, that the free market will solve every problem, that the world was created in 4004 BCE with as much oil, coal, and gas as God wants us to have, and that the world will end in our lifetimes so our grandchildren won’t have to deal with the mess we’d otherwise be leaving them – are all attempts to brush aside the ugly fact that the choices made at the end of the Seventies, and repeated by most Americans at every decision point since then, have cashed in the chance of a better future for our grandchildren, and spent the proceeds on an orgy of consumption in the present.

The squirmings of the leftward end of American culture and politics are a little subtler, since the Left by and large responded to the end of the Seventies by clinging to its historic ideals, while quietly shelving any real attempt to do anything about them. It’s discomfort with this response that leads so many people on the Left to insist angrily that they’ve done all they can reasonably be expected to do about the environment, in the midst of pursuing a lifestyle that’s difficult to distinguish, on any basis but that of sheer fashion, from that of their Republican neighbors. It also drives the frankly delusional insistence on the part of so many people on today’s Left that everyone on Earth can aspire to a middle class American lifestyle if the evil elites already discussed would simply let it happen, and the equally, if more subtly, delusional claim that some suite of technologies currently in the vaporware stage will permit the American middle class to have its planet and eat it too.

Look beyond the realm of partisan quarrels and the same deeply troubled conscience appears over and over again in American life. Consider, as one example out of many, the way that protecting children turned from a reasonable human concern to an obsessive-compulsive fixation. Raised under the frantic surveillance of helicopter moms, forbidden from playing outside or even visiting another child’s home except on the basis of a prearranged and parentally approved play date, a generation of American children were held hostage by a galaxy of parental terrors that have only the most distorted relationship to reality, but serve to distract attention from the fact that the lifestyles chosen by these same parents were condemning their children to a troubled and dangerous life in a depleted, polluted, and impoverished world.

The irony reached a dizzying intensity as tens of thousands of American parents rushed out to buy SUVs to transport their children to places every previous generation of American children proved perfectly capable of reaching by themselves on foot or on bike. It became the conventional wisdom, during the peak of the SUV craze, that the safety provided to young passengers by these massive rolling fortresses justified their purchase. No one wanted to deal with the fact that it was precisely the lifestyle exemplified by the SUV that was, and remains, the single most pressing threat to children’s long-term safety and welfare.

A great many of the flailings and posturings that have defined American culture from the Eighties to the present, in other words, unfolded from what Jean-Paul Sartre called “bad faith” – the unspoken awareness, however frantically denied or repressed, that the things that actually mattered were not things anyone was willing to talk about, and that the solutions everyone wanted to discuss were not actually aimed at their putative targets. The lie at the heart of that bad faith was the desperate attempt to avoid facing the implications of the plain and utterly unwelcome fact that there is no way to make a middle class American lifestyle sustainable.

Let’s repeat that, just for the sake of emphasis: there is no way to make a middle class American lifestyle sustainable.

That’s the elephant in the living room, the thing that most of a nation has been trying not to see, and not to say, for so many years. The middle class American lifestyle, to borrow and extend Jim Kunstler’s useful decription of suburbia, is an arrangement without a future; it’s utterly dependent on the rapid exploitation of irreplaceable resources, and the longer that it’s pursued, and the more people pursue it, the worse the consequences will be for children now living, and for a great many generations not yet born. It really is as simple as that.

Now it’s not at all hard to find books, films, websites, and speakers who say as much, but it’s intriguing to watch how universally these avoid the next logical step. What do you do if you’re pursuing a way of life that has no future? Well, apparently you read books denouncing that way of life, or heap praise on cultures conveniently distant in space or time that you think had or have or will have a different way of life, or engage in token activities intended to show that your heart really isn’t in that way of life, or vent your rage against whoever it is that you blame for your decision to keep on following that way of life, or fixate with increasing desperation on manufactured prophecies insisting that the Rapture or the Singularity or the space brothers or somebody, anybody, will bring that way of life to an end for you so that you don’t have to do it yourself.

The one thing you apparently don’t do is the one thing that actually matters, which is changing the way you live here and now.

That’s the rock on which the sustainability movement of the Seventies broke, and it’s claimed plenty of victims since then. The climate change movement is a good recent example. Now it’s true that there were plenty of reasons why the climate change movement followed the trajectory it did from apparent unstoppability a decade ago to its current dead-in-the-water status today. The ingenuousness with which climate change activists allowed their opponents to redefine the terms of the debate very nearly at will, and the movement’s repeated attempts to rest its arguments on the faltering prestige of science in an age when most Americans are well aware that scientific opinions can be purchased to order for the cost of a modest grant, did not help the cause any.

Still, I’ve come to think that the Achilles’ heel of the entire movement was the simple fact that none of its spokespersons showed any willingness to embrace the low-energy lifestyle they insisted the rest of the world had to adopt. Al Gore, with his sprawling air-conditioned mansion and his frequent jet trips, was the poster child here, but he had plenty of company. It was because climate change activists so often failed to walk their talk, I suggest, that millions of Americans decided they must be making the whole thing up, just as the obvious eagerness of the United States to push carbon limits on every other nation while refusing to accept them at home convinced China among others that the global warming crusade was simply one more gimmick to prop up the crumbling edifice of American hegemony, and brought the movement toward a worldwide carbon treaty to the standstill where it remains today.

The same blind spot continues to plague what’s left of the climate change movement. Consider former environmentalist Stewart Brand, who used to edit The Whole Earth Catalog, for heaven’s sake. Brand’s current position, retailed at length in his recent book Whole Earth Discipline, is that we have to run our economy on nuclear power because burning coal is bad for the environment. Now of course this argument is right up there with insisting that shooting yourself through the head is good for your health because it prevents you from dying of a heart attack, but there’s a deeper irrationality here. Ironically, it’s one that most people who had copies of The Whole Earth Catalog on their shelves forty years ago could have pointed out in a Sausalito minute: switching from one complex, centralized, environmentally destructive energy system based on nonrenewable and rapidly depleting resources, to another energy system that can be described in exactly the same terms, is not a useful step – especially when it would be perfectly possible to dispense with both by simply using less energy.

Now of course the concept of using less of anything is about as popular in contemporary America as garlic aioli at a convention of vampires. Nobody wants to be reminded that using less, so that our grandchildren would have enough, was the road we didn’t take at the end of the Seventies. Still, the road we did take was always destined to be a dead end, and as we move deeper into the first half of the twenty-first century, the end of that road is starting to come into sight. At this point, we’re faced with the prospect of using less energy, not because we choose to do so but because the energy that would be needed to do otherwise isn’t there any more. That’s the problem with living as though there’s no tomorrow, of course: tomorrow inevitably shows up anyway.

This late in the game, our remaining options are starkly limited, and most of the proposals you’ll hear these days are simply variations on the theme of chasing business as usual right over the nearest cliff. Whether it’s Stewart Brand’s nukes, “Drill Baby Drill,” ethanol or algal biodiesel or some other kind of energy vaporware, the subtext to every widely touted response to our predicament is that we don’t need to use less. The same thing’s just as true of most of the ideologies that claim to offer a more global response to that predicament; the one common thread that unites the neoprimitivists who claim to long for a return to the hunter-gatherer life, the conspiracy theorists who spend their days in an increasingly frantic orgy of fingerpointing, and the apocalypticists who craft ever more elaborate justifications for the claim that somebody or other will change the world for us, is that each of these ideologies, and plenty others like them, function covertly as justifications to allow believers to keep on living an ordinary American lifestyle right up to the moment that it drops away from beneath their feet.

The one option that doesn’t do this is the one next to nobody is willing to talk about, and that’s the option of using less.

Mention that option in public, and inevitably you’ll hear a dozen different reasons why it can’t help and won’t matter and isn’t practical anyway. Can it help? Of course it can; in a time when world crude oil production has been bouncing against a hard ceiling for most of a decade and most other energy sources are under growing strain, any decrease in the amount of energy being wasted on nonessentials makes it a little easier to keep essential services up and running. Will it matter? Of course it will; as we move into a future of hard energy constraints, the faster at least a few people get through the learning curve of conservation, appropriate tech, and simply making do with less, the easier it will be for the rest of society to follow their lead and learn from their experience, if only when all the other choices have been foreclosed. Is it practical? Of course it is; the average European gets by comfortably on one third the annual energy budget as the average American, and it’s been my experience that most middle class Americans can slash their energy use by a third or more in one year by a relatively simple program of home weatherizing and lifestyle changes.

I’d like to suggest, in fact, that at this point in the trajectory of industrial civilization, any proposal that doesn’t make using less energy a central strategy simply isn’t serious. It’s hard to think of any dimension of our predicament that can’t be bettered, often dramatically, by using less energy, and even harder to think of any project that will yield significant gains as long as Americans cling to a lifestyle that history is about to relegate to the compost bin. I’d also like to suggest that any proposal that does start out with using less energy should not be taken seriously until and unless the people proposing it actually do use less energy themselves, preferably by adopting the measures they urge on others.

That’s how effective movements for social change happen, after all. Individuals start them by making changes in their own lives; as the number of people making those changes grows, networks emerge to share information, resources, and encouragement; the networks become the frame of a subculture, and as momentum builds, the subculture becomes a movement. It’s indicative that the two movements that had the most impact on American culture in the second half of the twentieth century – feminism and Christian fundamentalism – both emerged this way, starting with individuals who changed their own lives, while any number of movements that tried to make change from the top down – again, the climate change movement is a good example – failed to achieve their ends.

That’s the core concept behind the “green wizardry” I’ve been discussing here on The Archdruid Report for almost a year now. It’s entirely possible for each of us to kick the process just described into motion by using less energy and fewer natural resources in our own lives. There are proven methods and mature technologies that will accomplish that. It so happens that I learned some of those back in the early 1980s, and have a couple of decades of experience applying them in my own life. That’s been the basis on which I’ve selected the tools and techniques discussed here; for reasons already explained, I don’t think it’s useful to advocate things I haven’t used myself.

The one great barrier in the path of starting a movement the right way, beginning on the individual level, is that it requires each person who takes up the challenge to break with the conventional wisdom and do things that others aren’t prepared to do. That’s a lonely journey, no question, and since this series of posts began with a bit of Seventies music, I don’t think it’s out of place to end it with the most famous desert journey from the music of that era. To borrow a turn of phrase from the song, that loneliness can be a place to remember our names or, more precisely, to recall that we have names other than "consumer" and "victim."

It’s my hope that at least some of the people who read this post will rise to that challenge. We’ve got a lot of work to do, and there may not be much time to get it started before conditions become a good deal more difficult than they are right now. I’ll be discussing that last point in more detail in the weeks ahead.