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From Start to Finish: Why We Won and How We Are Losing

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Dreams of replacing the concentrated energy of fossil fuels are just that, dreams. There's nothing wrong with sensible research on, and production of, renewable energy. But whatever might eventually come from those sources, "we must be prepared to live differently. We are not going to run the familiar infrastructures of modernity on any combination of wind, solar, et cetera" (p. 184). Forget the rescue remedies: "our vaunted ingenuity has not produced a revolutionary energy resource to replace the cheap fossil fuel that modernity absolutely requires in colossal amounts" (p. 188).

To think clearly about what to do now, we need to think honestly about what is achievable:

Our longer-term destination is a society run at much lower levels of available energy, with much lower populations, and a time-out from the kinds of progressive innovation that so many have taken for granted their whole lives. It was an illusory result of a certain sequencing in the exploitation of resources in the planet earth that we have now pretty much run through. We have an awful lot to contend with in this reset of human activities (p. 196).

Kunstler is clear-headed in his analysis of resources, but he turns both too rosy and too cranky when he starts talking politics. The too-rosy glasses come on when he reflects on U.S. history and gives into golden-age talk about the good old days when capitalists weren't so greedy and politicians were nobler. He holds up odd examples of great presidents, such as Theodore Roosevelt (yes, a conservationist but also a racist supporter of eugenics and a particularly nasty imperialist) and John F. Kennedy (a conventional politician of limited courage in confronting domestic opponents and dangerous macho posturing on the world stage).

The too-cranky comes when he dismisses anyone with a critique of patriarchy and white-supremacy as "race-and-gender special pleaders" (p. 91). He also can get downright strange, at one point claiming that when working-class people began to prosper in a post-World War II era of economic expansion, culture suffered because "lower ranks of American society were able to despotically impose their tastes on everybody else," which "drove truth and beauty in the arts so far underground that the sheer memory of it, let alone truth and beauty themselves, may be unrecoverable" (pp. 223-224). Much of pop culture is corrosive, but he appears to think this problem is centered not in, for instance, profit-driven media but the very limited democratizing of society in recent years. He has disdain for multiculturalism, which is understandable given the lukewarm version of "diversity talk" that dominates the culture, and he makes the reasonable point that some common culture will be essential for a society facing these challenges. But rather than struggle to understand how we can make sense of the reality of living in a society that has changed culturally, and will continue to change, he seems to prefer to sink into nativist rhetoric.

Kunstler's crankiness is not a trivial concern, but it shouldn't obscure the important point he makes: Under conditions of some abundance, we may find it relatively easy to talk about universal human rights (even if we rarely respect them) and solidarity (even if we rarely practice it). In good times, humans can do a reasonable job of coming together across differences in race, ethnicity, culture, and ideology to work toward common goals. But whatever limited success we've had to date may tell us little about what will happen in a time of contraction and intensified resource competition. Strive as we may to act on the better angels of our nature, the devil may be in the devolution of First World societies, when people accustomed to affluence find themselves facing hard choices. Those who are used to proclaiming the moral superiority of Western "civilization" may find that moral resources of that civilization will be less robust than triumphalism has long asserted.

So, what is to become of us? Tattersall reminds us that the biological process of evolution isn't going to save us; there are too many people crammed too close together for any genetic novelties to emerge that might improve us. We are going to face these problems with the brain we have today, the same one that got us into this trouble. Tattersall holds out some hope for our cognitive abilities, for the possibility that human innovation isn't over. He argues that:

this exploration of our existing capacity is far from exhausted. Indeed, one might even argue that it has barely begun. So, while the auguries appear indeed to be for no significant biological change in our species, culturally, the future is infinite (p. 232).

Certainly human innovation will continue, but Klare's and Kunstler's books remind us that human innovation is not a get-out-of-collapse-free card. To date, the dominant culture in the United States has been unwilling to confront the reality of multiple ecological crises. In our current presidential campaign, the Republicans simply deny there is a problem, while Democrats acknowledge some aspects of the problem but spin techno-fundamentalist fantasies to avoid the hard choices. If we look honestly at the ecological realities and the political liabilities, it's difficult to continue to talk about hope in naïve ways, maybe even to talk about hope at all.

Although he's often portrayed as a doomsayer, Kunstler ends his book with about as sensible a comment on hope as I can imagine:

I certainly believe in facing the future with hope, but I have learned that this feeling of confidence does not come from outside you. It's not something that Santa Claus or a candidate for president is going to furnish you with. The way to become hopeful is to demonstrate to yourself that you are a competent person who can understand the signals that reality is sending to you (even from its current remove offstage) and act intelligently in response (p. 245).

I've heard people try to escape this challenge by saying, "Well, species go extinct, and humans are no different." True enough, but there's a lot of human suffering between today and our eventual extinction. And if we are a uniquely prosocial species with unique capacities to not only live in the world but think about it, glib remarks about extinction are appropriate only for sociopaths. Instead, let's live up to our own bragging about ourselves, and try to be both morally and intellectually honest.

One good first step might be to stop bragging, to resist the temptation to always telling a story about Homo sapiens that casts us at the hero. Tattersall recounts how a first-rate evolutionary biologist, Ernst Mayr, once erroneously proposed there was only one highly variable hominid species instead of several. Tattersall's describes Mayr's thesis as:

intuitively a very attractive proposition to members of a storytelling species that also happens to be the only hominid in the world today. It is somehow inherently appealing to us to believe that uncovering the story of human evolution should involve projecting this one species back into the past: to think that humanity has, like the hero of some ancient epic poem, struggled single-mindedly from primitiveness to its present peak of perfection (p. 87).

But Mayr turned out to be wrong, and Tattersall offers it as a cautionary tale. In another section he points out that in paleoanthropology, the order of discovery of fossils has influenced our interpretation of them; the fact that older fossils often were discovered after newer ones is crucial to understanding the development of the field:

[I]t should never be forgotten that everything we believe today is conditioned in some important way by what we thought yesterday; and some current controversies are caused, or at least stoked, by a reluctance to abandon received ideas that may well have outlives their usefulness (p. 26).

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Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book, All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, was published in 2009 (more...)
 

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