Tuesday, 24 June 2014

A New Hope

One of the most challenging aspects of writing a blog is trying to gauge the degree to which my writing is connecting with my audience, or whether my words fall so far outside my readers' experience that I fail to make a meaningful connection at all. This is especially so when I write about a subject as difficult as the death and life of great civilizations, to borrow a turn of phrase from Jane Jacobs. For some of you these concepts are likely quite new and perhaps troubling. For others it might be a new formulation of old news. Still others I know are actively preparing for the end of our present civilization.

In the interest of bringing things home to everyday experience, allow me, just for a moment, to descend from the heights of sweeping historical narrative to tell a personal story. It's something that's been on my mind because it came up during a conversation last week with a friend of my own age, and then again this week with another group of friends. At the risk of moving from sweeping narratives to sweeping generalizations I'd say it's an experience common to many people of my generation.

As a child I had the good fortune to receive a quality public school education, something that has, perhaps more than anything else in my life, shaped me into the person I am today. Thanks to the modern school system, by age seventeen I had a broader knowledge of the world I live in than most Romans would have had by age seventy. Broader, that is, but not deeper, since as a seventeen-year-old high school graduate I didn't have the life experience to make sense of all I'd been told about history, biology, chemistry, literature, philosophy, environmental science, and global issues.

Not that I've got it all figured out at age twenty-four- not by a long shot. But that didn't stop the adults who educated me and my peers from telling us from a young age that we had the power to change the world, and that we could even be the ones to save the world from its current destructive course. It was meant to empower us, and there was some truth to it: if knowledge is power, we were the most empowered generation ever to walk the earth.

But of course, knowledge is power only if you if you have the means to use it. Otherwise, it's a weight that grows heavier the longer you reflect on the tremendous force of the world's currents and your own smallness within them. Toward the end of high school and into my years at university I grew sadder the more I learned about climate change and other global injustices, until deep depression and anxiety dominated my life. My recovery since that time has involved sharing my story and my struggles with friends and family, but as powerfully it has involved changing my hopes and expectations about what my life could mean.

'A New Hope' thus describes the present chapter of my life quite well. Incidentally, it's also the title of a story so influential that it's become one of the great myths of Western culture's collective subconscious. Yes, I'm talking about the original Star Wars film, and no, this isn't an obsequious pop culture tribute for the sake of appearing 'with it'. The Star Wars saga had a powerful effect on me as a young boy, even a young boy growing up twenty years after its first appearance, and there are good reasons why.

You'll recall, perhaps, that the narrative concerns a young man who averts galactic doom with a single well-place torpedo blast, then goes on to redeem the sins of the previous generation, and even to abolish the evil Empire and restore the Galactic Republic. What could be more appealing to a young boy raised on hopes of saving the world? And what could be more appealing to a culture fixated on quick solutions to big problems, ridden with guilt over its own dark side, and longing for the simpler mores of the past even as it lusts after its supposed destiny among the stars?

The truth about Star Wars, though, is that it doesn't describe reality. Neither do other narratives that tell us that the young people will save us because goodness must triumph in the end. The history of Rome shows us quite clearly that bad things do happen on enormous scales, and that 'things fall apart', to borrow a turn of phrase from W. B. Yeats. This doesn't happen because people are inherently evil or inept; it happens because of the laws of thermodynamics.

If you want to know the real secret of empire and of life itself, consider the human body once more. As we grow from infancy we take in more food energy all the time, replacing the tissues in our bodies with newer and stronger tissues before they wear out. As we reach adulthood and stop growing, we don't continue to eat like teenagers without serious consequences, and our energy intake plateaus. The level of entropy in our bodies, however, doesn't, and as we get older a greater and greater proportion of our energy is turned toward basic maintenance. We couldn't live forever unless we grew forever, a condition which would kill us all the sooner as our hearts wore themselves out trying to pump blood throughout our massive bodies.

Similarly, the Roman emperors could have attempted to expand indefinitely, but they couldn't have effectively governed an ever-larger Empire from its heart in Rome. On the other hand, they couldn't accept stable borders without also accepting rising internal entropy and the aging of the Empire. In the modern context, conventional economists are correct to teach that when exponential growth ceases, stagnation follows. They're also mad to suppose that sustaining a growth state indefinitely is possible or even desirable.

That's the angle you'll hear from most environmentalists these days, but my conviction is that most greens aren't taking their analysis far enough. Those who speak of sustainable growth for our societies ignore the fact that growth, by its very nature, is unsustainable, unless it is exponential. And exponential growth on a finite planet is also unsustainable by its very nature, since the limits to growth are firmly set by the scarcity of reliable energy resources.

Thus our civilization's fate is already sealed, though the fact has yet to register for most of its members. We are long past the Augustan age and into the Augustinian age, and a case can be made that the immense psychological blow dealt by the fall of Rome in 410 has precise parallels in the fall of the Twin Towers in 2001. It was a moment when Americans and North Americans were suddenly faced with the mortality of the earthly power they relied on, and most reacted with fear, anger, and blame-casting.

We should remember, however, that between the initial sack of Rome and the deposition of the last Western Roman Emperor in 476, three generations were born and grew to adulthood. By the time the mighty Roman Empire had broken down into the warring barbarian kingdoms that would give birth to medieval Europe, the oldest grandmothers in those kingdoms would have had only dim childhood memories of the beginning of the end. We're used to thinking of sudden calamities and swift victories like the one Luke Skywalker won over the commanders of the Death Star, but that isn't how things work in the real world. Large-scale change takes time.

The other thing movies don't show is that even after massive wars and deep dark ages, life goes on. The reason I began writing out this train of thought by asserting that it's not the end of the world is because I truly believe there will be human people two hundred years from now, living lives as colourful and intense and meaningful as the lives we live today, and I believe their perspective is worth considering deeply. When they look back on the history of our age, what will they remember us for? Better yet, what will they thank us for? If there really is a dark age ahead, as my forecast indicates, we will need to prepare now to preserve the things that are worth preserving from our present civilization.

At around the time I turned the corner from despair into hope I realized that the few of us who see what's coming can't save the world, no matter how hard we try. The best we can do is prepare the soil for the seeds of worlds to come, and that will be my life's work. How empowering, and how cheering, to think of Laura Erb planting her garden seven generations from now, and thanking the people of the twenty-first century for planting the trees that kept intact the soil that sustains her. How good it must feel for her to remember the communities that worked throughout the years of sorrow to keep alive the ties that bind and the memory of what was good and noble.

*       *       *

I'm getting on a train this evening that will carry me across the great expanse of Canada to my family on the West Coast, so I won't be posting next week. When I return on July 8 I'd like to turn to an examination of the world of Laura Erb as portrayed in my story The Messengers, because it will make clear some of the details of what I've thus far been talking about in the abstract. I also wouldn't mind hearing from you about what has stood out to you most from A Wizard of Earth so far. Are there subjects you'd like to hear more about? Angles that surprised or confused you? Leave a comment with your name and I'll happily reply once I'm back from my break. Until then, enjoy the birdsong and ponder on.


  1. 'We couldn't
    live forever unless we grew forever'

    I don't actually see anything logically inevitable about that... There are organisms that neither grow bigger indefinitely NOR decline with age, but just keep renewing and rebuilding themselves over time until chance kills them (weather, something hungry, etc). Continuing growth and decline are both specific survival strategies... Growth allows an individual or species to compete for resources and mates better, decline and aging make a species much more adaptable to change by replacing each generation periodically with a new, slightly different generation. But neither is logically inevitable - an organism could just use its energy intake to rebuild and repair itself. It's not how the human species works - aging and eventual death are deeply encoded in our genes - but it's not, IMO, logically impossible.

  2. Similarly, I'm not yet convinced that an entirely non-industrial society is the only one that can be genuinely sustainable (actually some would argue that even an agricultural society depends on growth). I can, in theory, envision a world where a small amount of very efficient technology goes a long way, and where energy needs are low enough that they can be filled by sustainable sources. Our population size is currently massively out of whack with our surroundings, though. Best case scenario for me is gradual population shrinkage through smaller family size.

  3. Basia, I think you're right about the growth/decay strategy. Some forms of sea life (polyps, jellyfish) do have indefinite lifespans, don't they? Perhaps they'd serve as a better model for the life cycles of civilizations.

    But if I recall correctly, these organisms do go through recognizable life stages. At each stage their strategy is different- growth, asexual reproduction, aggregation with others of their kind to form colonies, disbanding, casting off body parts and reverting to a previous life stage (not necessarily in that order). Any marine biologists out there with more knowledge about this?

    Not every human society has peaked and crashed either- many have gone through gentler cycles of expansion and contraction, or so I hear. China, for example, has maintained cultural continuity over something like three times the lifespan of the Roman Empire. But again, that's something I'd love to know more about. Rome is nearest and dearest to our civilization, so that's what I know best.

    On your last point, I think the distinction between industrial and technological societies is key. The Industrial Revolution got underway well before the invention of the steam engine allowed it to ramp up to fossil-fuel-powered proportions, so maybe a future 'Industrial Renaissance' will resemble the early eighteenth century: large-scale farming and animal husbandry for export, assembly lines powered by waterwheels or windmills. Those are technologies that could survive fossil fuel depletion. But even then sustainability would depend on industry being very careful about key resources like rubber trees, whale oil, and humus, all economic pillars that could bring about a new peak scenario if knocked out.

    I'd be interested to hear more about the 'very efficient technology' you envision. Do you know much about 1970's solar thermoelectric power? From what I've read it seems like a pretty great example of a non-industrial technology (meaning it can be made by a layperson in their own garage).