Saturday, May 3, 2014

Consuming our Problems

I've written before that our current civilization has the familiar reek of a speculative bubble whose days are numbered.  Whenever any of our leaders talk about our future, the combination of bad math, delusional happy talk, and faith that this time it's different just confirms the conclusion.

As far as John Michael Greer is concerned, the decline of cheap energy, combined with our unwillingness to change course until it is far too late, have doomed our civilization to join the many, many others that have fallen hard and left their people to find a way through the hard times and dark ages that can follow.  The destruction of a civilization can take centuries, but in fact it is already under way and has been for decades - a lived experience that more people are starting to intuit.

I have tremendous faith in humans' ability to muddle through, (which is why I gravitate toward Greer rather than many other doomsayers who envision a universally sudden, catastrophic and even extinctive collapse).  But there are reasons to think that our current crop of Americans are exquisitely ill-prepared to deal with the twin calamities of an end of the American Empire and the decline of Industrial Civilization.

I think there are numerous reasons for our terrifying inability to grapple with our upcoming problems.  One ingredient of our current recipe for incompetence is what (in our research work) we call the consumer stance.  The consumer stance stands as an antithesis to the engaged citizen or practical problem-solver and shows up regularly as a obstacle for advocates who are engaged with various public issues.  The consumer creates nothing - neither the end product nor the underlying conditions, but instead chooses among options that are presented to them.  However, in an ironic twist, consumer choice is mythologized as the proper expression of power and individuality.  Wherever you may be in the hierarchies of life, when you are the customer you are the one who holds the cards and the one who has to be catered to.  This delusion of power (trumpeted in each of the thousands of advertisements we face every day) can hide people's actual powerlessness.

In fact, most people don't get much practice anymore in creating their own things and social spaces.  Our tastes, our hobbies, our ways of defining ourselves may seem like they come from a kind of infinite buffet, but they are increasingly commodified and pre-packaged for us in ways we don't even perceive.  From the playground, to the workplace, to leisure, to the community organizations that used to be so central to daily life, most people have been maneuvered into being passive recipients rather than active producers and organizers.  

When it comes to politics, we don't get much practice in being producers of power, compromise, and collective problem-solving.  The problem of the consumer stance has been at the forefront of my mind in recent weeks, as I was researching in California, interviewing chance-met people about their thoughts on government.

There are all sorts of themes that come up, which I won't go into here, but one of the most unsurprising findings is that people do not participate in a democracy as creative, constructive citizens.  Instead they are classic consumers, forever electing between Brand X and Brand Y, and if one brand is mostly useless and the other poison, they don't see what they can do about that.  Vote against the poison or protest their lousy options by not voting at all.  Rather than considering their potential to meet challenges collectively through public, collective institutions, the average American is a dissatisfied customer increasingly giving up on democracy and its unreliable barkers.

In another project we research into how to communicate to farmers and their allies about sustainability.  Normally farmers are an unreceptive audience when it comes to progressive policies, since they skew heavily conservative and tend to regard government with scorn.  But interestingly, when it comes to sustainability they are much more "progressive" than regular people.  

Farmers have been producers and they are much more clued into how and whether systems can be sustained over a year, a lifetime, or through the generations.  They have some inkling about what is involved in protecting or maintaining the generative foundations that we all rely on.  Although they are trapped in an increasingly unsustainable food system and being sidelined themselves, unlike regular people they understand enough to be seeking for a way to keep things going over the long haul.

When I look around at the so-called solutions to climate change, fossil fuel depletion, unsustainability, and economic contraction, I see marketers hawking various bottles of snake oil (e.g. fracking our way to energy independence, SUVs driving on windmill electricity, productivity apps for our phones), but only in those cases where someone sees a way to turn a profit on us consumers.  Otherwise there is a deafening silence, and a population that doesn't fully grasp how and why it isn't being served.

A common thread among the problems we aren't solving - is that we need to consume less and do more for ourselves. We need to use less energy, consume fewer goods, participate in democracy and community (rather than delegating it to others).  We need to wind down the consumer-capitalist juggernaut that is quickly destroying its own foundations.  As long as Americans remain habituated to their consumer stance, and fail to become active agents, we're doomed to the sad spectacle of our current lemming-march toward multiple fiascos.