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21 February 2007

The High Cost of High Living

The extraordinary peace and prosperity that we enjoy here in the United States and the rest of the industrialized world comes at an enormous cost - the question is who is paying the price? My friends have often heard me argue that ‘Industrial civilization (and occasionally civilization in general) is unsustainable.’ It’s time to be clear about what I mean by that. From an ecological point of view, unsustainable means that we are consuming material resources faster than the earth can replenish them. This is true not only of fossil fuels, but of every resource that has any value to us whatsoever (metals, wood, soil, etc.). Obviously we can’t continue this pattern forever without eventually facing a catastrophic collapse. What’s not so obvious about this definition however is that in order to maintain our high standard of living here and now we have to steal it from somewhere else.
Historically civilizations have always relied on a periphery to provide cheap labor and resources - the cedars of Lebanon went to build King Solomon’s Temple, the furs of the Taiga clothed the nobles of Europe, the Pax Romana was maintained through the brutal militarization of Europe and the Mediterranean, and now oil from Nigeria goes to heat my shower. As the core consumes the resources of its own land and the land nearby, it becomes increasingly necessary to spread out and find them elsewhere - the rise and fall of civilizations can be inextricably linked to ecology and environmental destruction. The difference with industrialization is that it consumes resources infinitely faster than ever before, leaving social and environmental collapse in its wake.
What we have now is a handful of industrialized cores surrounded by a global periphery. Without the periphery to provide cheap labor and resources, as well as to absorb most of its waste products, the industrial world simply couldn’t exist. Imagine if the United States were forced to rely on its native resources - it would fall apart in a matter of months. The only thing that keeps us going is our ability to exploit the periphery while ignoring the misery and ecological destruction that exists there. A lot of intelligent people who are concerned about the environment and the population problem as well as those interested in human rights believe that universal industrialization is the panacea. Granted, industrial societies tend to have lower population growth, but they also have much higher consumption rates. Think about it, if the whole world were industrialized and lived like we do in the United States it would only speed up the destruction of the environment dramatically. Additionally, there would be no more periphery to exploit, and, as I’ve already established, industrial civilization cannot exist without a periphery.
As time goes by, and resources become more and more scarce, the cores will shrink back and eventually collapse as the cost becomes too much to bare. Civilization is going to collapse - there is no doubt about it. You ask me when? It’s already happening. Most of us aren’t aware of it because we’re tucked safely behind our shroud of peace and prosperity (The American Dream), but our experience is not typical as you look around the world; peace and prosperity is not the norm, poverty and violence is. Just look at sub-saharan Africa, the middle east, Latin America, Siberia, or even southeast asia and you’ll see a world falling apart. Indigenous cultures are being subsumed, poor people are being driven into inhospitable lands, the ecological stability is being compromised - war, famine, poverty, and disease - these are not the symptoms of a healthy culture on a healthy planet.
So here I am telling you that the world is going to fall to pieces, and you say “What do we do about it?” Let me start by saying what won’t work. Most of the environmentalism movement right now revolves around trying to adopt technologies that are less harmful so that we can continue to live the way we do now without causing so much destruction. The problem is that increasing technology always comes with increasing consumption and thus increasing destruction. There is no such thing as a harmless technology, but sometimes they are able to displace the destruction so that they appear to the user as being less harmful. The thing that comes to mind whenever I think about this is a partially fictional example, but illustrates the point well. There was an X-Files once where Mulder and Scully were looking into the invention of a car that ran on water. The obvious oil company suppressing the technology conspiracy came up, but what turned up was that the inventor had realized that there are so many other ways that cars are destructive. If he had allowed the technology to come out people wouldn’t feel guilty about driving cars, more people could afford them, new interstates, and highways would be built, mountains would be strip mined for metals to make the new cars, aquifers would be drained as more water was needed to fuel the cars and so on, in a sense cars would become more destructive than they had been before. I’m saying that we cannot continue to live the way we do now - we cannot continue to have our high standard of living without stealing and eventually facing collapse. Another thing that won’t work is legislation. Laws may be able to enact minor changes or slow some problems like air pollution and oil consumption, but the way governments are set up it simply isn’t possible for them to regulate everything to the extent that they need to be regulated without becoming draconian. They have far too many constituents to please and too many interests to maintain.
So what can we do? Well, we don’t actually have to do anything - the problem will eventually fix itself, but it won’t be very pleasant for those who are alive to witness it. I know it sounds callous, but it’s the truth. As a matter of fact, I don’t really think that there is anything you or I could do about it. What needs to happen is a dramatic culture shift - back to localized, low- impact economies away from the globalized, core-periphery relationship (and possibly a complete reversal of the course of history). This will come about whether we make a conscious choice to do it or not. However, if you really want to do something, I suggest getting yourself a group of friends and doing whatever it takes to slow the spread of industrialized civilization and the destruction of the earth or by helping those who are less fortunate than us who will bear the brunt of the suffering when the collapse comes.
If you want to learn more I suggest the following books and films:
Endgame by Derrick Jensen
A Green History of the World by Clive Ponting
The Power of the Machine by Alf Hornborg
Full Spectrum Disorder by Stan Goff
Darwin’s Nightmare
Life and Debt


Brendan said...

I'm listening to antibalas afrobeat orchestra, logged onto the world wide web, trying to decide when and how I will do my road trip to california, having copied down my banana bread recipe, having searched for the word luddite in wikipedia to get a back round on the movement, I am surrounded by my globalized amenities, eating and reading and consuming little pieces of my world's economy, and enjoying it all, and taking it all for granted.
This peak of global civilization is unsustainable, it is horrible and destructive to the majority of actors in it, but it also has some good points. I like that I can still talk to you Jeremy, even though you are many moons away, and I like that I ever met you, and that I get to meet people from ukraine and slovakia, and people from china and japan, and people from colombia and mexico, and people from uganda and kenya and benin and nigeria, australians have cool accents. I like that I get to meet people from the dakotas. all the foods and music and books I am exposed to thanks to our globalized civilization are amazing, we are very lucky to be alive today.
I say none of this to argue with you, only to offer a broader view of how I think the world is right now. I totally agree that this level of consumption cannot last, and I regret that we must lose our global interconnection, as well as most of our lives, to the coming storm. As far as solutions, or actions we can take today, you and me, in our lives, I would only say ditto, and maybe absorb as much of the globes cultures as you can. It's truly an amazing thing we are privy to, the culmination of so many traditions all homogenizing into the nasty, tasteless, nutritionless commercial grey goo of euro-american culture. Try to find a way to experience a culture, any culture, today. tomorrow is looking kinda grim.

Jeremy Trombley said...

A similar article by Stan Goff: "War and Civilization"

brent said...

Very insightful, "Jemmy". How about an entry for March? You know you wanna!

Jeremy Trombley said...

Brent, Thy Will Be Done...I'll have one up this weekend or early next week I promise.

Jeremy Trombley said...

I just found this quote and thought it might be relevant here:

“Even without the accident of a nuclear war, I predict that the military-industrial state will disappear from the surface of the earth within a century. That belief is the basis of my inherent optimism, the source of my hope for the coming restoration of a higher civilization” -Edward Abbey

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