Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Riot Of Life

Part One: Change is Bad
Yesterday, winter arrived out of nowhere, burying a breezy autumn that I was only just getting used to. Jack frost sends us to his icy bowels around the same time each year, yet always takes us by surprise because like all things stressful we exile it to the furthest limits of our minds. That first heavy snowfall always shocks me to my core. My initial response is universally one of crisis, panic and flight. It’s perfectly normal because of the mantra that repeats itself 24 hours a day in the swampy lizard part of my brain. It’s the mantra playing in every life form, in every life that ever lived: change is bad.

We’re each of us still slinking around the savannah, still lurking in the trees, eyes and ears wide for danger. We’re each trying to stay fed and avoid being picked off by a predator. Part of how we do that is learning the lay of the land and embracing a healthy fear of change. Change means unknown, and throughout most of history the unknown often meant death. So we like things to remain predictably the same. The more predictable things are, the better. The orange berries are yummy, the red berries make us shit wasabi sauce. Hard lesson, but just avoid the red berries and everything is hunky dory. Until the orange berries are gone. Or it turns out that colour isn’t a universal predictor of food safety. No one is ever immune to change, nor would that be a good thing, but it has served as a useful enough rule of thumb to imbed itself in our deepest understanding of the world.

The odd thing that comes to mind when I think how far people will go to avoid change is that for several hundreds of years the very mythos of our species been progress, which means change.

Part Two: Change is Good?
The seed of progress may have formed in science and its seeming limitless ability to learn and discover and in some ways change our destiny on this planet, but science has generally been concerned with predicting and controlling. I think science mostly believes change is bad, and the kind of change we don't see coming is the worst. Economics, on the other hand has had grand designs on the concept of progress for at least the entire industrial age. Progress means change is good. Out with the old, in with the new. Produce, consume, toss, repeat. Progress equals growth, growth equals profit.

But it’s all kind of a scam because its only an illusion of progress, kind of how Disney might portray it. Commercial activities offer us just enough options and improvements to keep up the illusion of progress, hence motivation to buy, while keeping any changes small and controllable(nothing says sexy like control!). This year’s new improved I-pod is pink instead of green, but still plays tunes just like the old one(just like your great gramma's phonograph, and her great gramma's harpsichord--in fact there’s nothing very new about it since the times we beat out rhythms on hollow logs, except now you just press a button). New, but the same. Progress, just the way we like it.

it’s a whole other topic that somewhere along the line there was a revolutionary change in that we went from making music and expressing ourselves, sharing in some social way, to quietly consuming music in a passive solitary way (preferably with noise canceling headphones that keep that pesky outside world at bay). For all our fear of change, we routinely lose thing by pursuing our perverse logic of progress

Part Three: Change is Confusing
For a while now, we have tended to define change, development and progress via technology. We talk about the radio era, the television era and the internet era. We described the technological application of fossil fuel inputs to farming as a green revolution that introduced an era of plenty. We view history through the same lens, calling ages by our tool making abilities—the stone age, the bronze age, the iron age and so on. we act like its reality instead of simply a filter for ordering things. Had we become a religious society we might have named ages differently: the polytheistic age, the monotheistic age, the mystical age, the transcendental age, the rational theology age. As social engineers we might observe the tribal age, the village age, the city-state age and the nation age, and we might more recently look at the suburban era, the urban renewal era, the city of villages era.

I could think of plenty of worldviews, that whatever shortcomings they might have, I would find more comforting than the technological worldview. The technological worldview is all about thoughtless change. The more the better, the faster the better. It got a slow start: wise men resisted the written word, fearful of what it would do to our reasoning abilities and memory. Scholars resisted the printing press, thinking too much decontextualized information was not necessarily a good thing. Pundits to this day scorn the television as a mind rotting cancer(sometimes they do it on television). Who’s to say any of them were wrong?

Either way, things picked up speed once we developed machines and the ability to use concentrated fuels. We made cars and planes and spaceships; Factories and assembly lines; An endless stream of entertainment gadgets. We made powered versions of everything: toothbrushes, lawnmowers, can openers, you name it, if there was a way to make something less skill and labour intensive through the application of fuel or electricity, we did it. Machines raise our chickens and milk our cows. Machines tell us when to wake up. If you believe the medium is the message, then computers define the content of our communications. We adopt new technologies so fast we don’t have time to think about what they bring us or what they take away. Is it good to drink milk from a pillow shaped plastic bag and never see or touch a cow? Does twittering strengthen my social bonds and psychic maturity?

If it were only a metaphysical question about the purpose and quality of life, then mouldery luddite academics could debate and polemicise about it over brandy for all of eternity.

But we did stop listening to our mantra. We felt we had out evolved it. We’ve kept changing things while shielding ourselves from any negative feedbacks that would have set off the alarm bells in the old lizards den. But they are coming.

Part 4: Change or Die
This brings us back to the winter of 2009. The leaders of the nations of the world are gathered in Copenhagen, supposedly to talk about change. Drastic and direly needed change. Only they don’t want to change and we don't really want them to change things either. It was one thing to get a little tipsy with lots of little incremental changes that made tasks easier and life more entertaining, but now that we need to make changes that involve hardship and sacrifice, fundamental changes to infrastructure, essential changes to our concepts of purpose and accomplishment, well-being and quality, well it’s not just a salamander in the back of our heads whispering change is bad. No, we have Godzilla pounding the backs of our eyeballs screaming CHANGE IS BAD!

My nation is an energy and resource giant. Our nearest neighbour is an economic and military giant. Together, the two arguably concentrate some of the greatest wealth and influence in the world. Together, the two are primary drivers of global direction. Where they stand on the fulcrum of following known patterns or risking change has a direct and consequential effect for everyone on the planet, and I'm not talking just people.

During the breezy fall that just went the way of the dinosaur, I heard far more about Prime Minister Harper and President Obama courting China than I did about their preparations for the Copenhagen Summit. I heard about increasing trade, promoting growth and generating economic prosperity.

The thing is, there is a direct incontrovertible link between economic growth and fossil fuel use. Economic growth is achieved by burning fuels to produce raw materials, burning fuels to manufacture tradeable goods and burning fuel to cart those goods around the planet. And if those goods are machines, fossil fuels are burned to operate the machines. Fossil fuels keep advertising, accounting and managerial divisions going too. And it is all that fossil fuel that is changing the climate

The scientists have been unequivocal. Our current way of life is on the cusp of making most of the planet incompatible with life: Planet Sahara. Some of the destruction has begun. A lot of it we have ordered and paid for and are just waiting on delivery. But we may still be at the point where we can choose between an altered climate that we can make do with and struggle in, and a climate where everyone and everything pretty much dies.

So, when my leader or yours says they are working hard to increase trade and grow the economy it is entirely, and with no hyperbole, interchangeable with saying I am trying to expedite the destruction of life on earth. When our leaders say they are going to grow the economy they are also saying they will ensure that no useful strategy comes out of Copenhagen

What is called for today far outstrips the imagination and courage of most people. It requires individual efforts and mass efforts. It requires law, and maybe martial law. It requires making sacrifices now to influence outcomes that are years down the road. Most of all it requires resisting the lizard brain telling us change is bad. We can’t afford to get panicky or light headed or fuzzy headed and simply hide in HBO and hope the danger moves on. It’s not going away.

It’s becoming more clear than ever that sitting patiently waiting for international consortia of leaders to pave the way is not going to bear fruit. I'm not sure what to do, especially since so many people don’t even see that something needs to be done, and many that do don’t want to give up cars and plasma TVs and so keep waiting for a technological fix. We’ve lived with so much complacent wealth and plenty, and in north America are so untouched by real events taking place around the globe, that I don’t have the foggiest idea what would wake us up and get us changing.

In Copenhagen this week, activist Naomi Klein said, “Let's not restrict ourselves to polite marches and formulaic panel discussions,” and “we need to be more disobedient”. I believe her, but then I also recall George Monbiot saying “nobody ever rioted for austerity”. But it is essentially what we need. A riot against our corporate governments. A riot against global economics. A riot of activity to wake us up and get us participating. A riot of life or a riot of death, the fruits of all our changes in the last few hundred years are leading inevitably to riots, and the time when we get to choose is quickly passing.

1 comment:

  1. The French say it best: 'Plus ça change,plus c'est la même chose'
    We are at the end of an era, empires rise and fall, and perhaps with the fall of the "Technological Empire" the human species will be far fewer in number. But, for all the dire consequences of our behaviour on this planet for the last 150 years (and they are dire, and, I fear, irreversible at this point), the planet will not die.We (the species) have made the sad mistake of dirtying our nest, but other, better adapted species will be able to take advantage of our folly and continue to evolve.I do not think that global warming will entirely wipe out the human species, but it will drastically cull our numbers, which, I'm inclined to think, is a good thing.What information this pared down evolutionary niche retains will be the basis for how the species evolves in the far human beings seem to be incapable of learning from their own history.Perhaps this will change.