Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Round in Circles: a review of David C. Korten’s The Great Turning

Part Two: The Amphetamine of the Intellectuals

As the first part of this review suggested, David Korten’s widely praised book The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community proposes what amounts to a political solution for the predicament of industrial society. Korten argues that replacing current “developmentally challenged” politicians with new leadership drawn from the upper ranks of today’s progressive social change movements will foster a shift from a society based on the old ideology of Empire to one based on his preferred ideology of Earth Community. This shift, he claims, is the only effective response we can make to the crisis of industrial civilization he surveys so eloquently in the third chapter of the book. Yet it’s only fair to ask just how Korten anticipates that a society guided by his “emerging values consensus” will deal with, say, the immense practical challenges of coping with peak oil

You can read The Great Turning from cover to cover without finding an answer to that question. Look up “peak oil” in the index, and you’ll find that the only places in The Great Turning that mention it at all belong to the section of the book dedicated to showing just how awful Empire is. Like global warming, terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the likely implosion of an unstable economy founded on the smoke and mirrors of hallucinated wealth, peak oil appears only as one of the “sorrows of Empire” for which Earth Community is Korten’s solution. The sections of his book devoted to describing Earth Community never stoop to mention these troubles at all, much less propose solutions to them.

The nearest approach Korten makes to a discussion of such practicalities is a claim that once Empire is replaced by Earth Community, people will no longer want possessions they don’t need, and this will free up enough resources that everyone will be able to have their needs met. As a response to our current predicament, of course, this isn’t even remotely adequate. One of the most inescapable dimensions of the crisis of industrial society is the hard fact that six and a half billion people now live on a planet that can support, at most, two billion sustainably. While today’s wildly skewed distribution of wealth and access to resources certainly won’t help, no amount of redistribution can change the harsh realities that a species in overshoot faces as its resource base falls out from under it.

At the same time, Korten’s suggestion that everything will work out if we just learn to share is more than he has to offer for most of the other dimensions of our contemporary crisis. Quite a bit of his vision of Earth Community, in fact, has an uncomfortable resemblance to sound bites from a political stump speech. His response to the bitter poverty that burdens more than half of our species, for instance, amounts to proclaiming that every human being has the right to a worthwhile means of livelihood, backed up by unemployment, retirement, and health care plans, irrespective of their ability to pay. It’s a fine slogan, but without an awareness of the massive challenges that need to be faced to provide these things to six and a half billion people in a deindustrializing economy – an awareness Korten nowhere displays – a slogan is all it is.

Those of my readers who know their way around the visionary politics of the last half century will likely find these habits of thought extremely familiar. Every decade or so, we’ve had some new book announce the imminent arrival of utopia via a grand transformation of consciousness that will solve the world’s problems, irrespective of the practical details. Charles Reich’s The Greening of America and Marilyn Ferguson’s The Aquarian Conspiracy are two of the most famous of these works, and of course there have been plenty of others. They owe much of their market to the Baby Boom generation’s fondness for seeing its own arrival on the scene as the most important event in history – a habit of thought that crosses party lines, as shown by Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 masterpiece of unintentional comedy, “An End to History?” – and of course The Great Turning draws heavily on this same vein of thought. It’s probably not an accident that the criteria Korten uses to define the natural leaders of Earth Community include an age barrier that rules out anyone significantly younger than the Baby Boomers.

Still, unlike the books just cited and nearly all their equivalents, Korten doesn’t argue that the enlightened can bring utopia about simply by being enlightened, and here his book breaks free of the pack to embrace an older and much more dynamic tradition, one that shares most of his assumptions and nearly all of his rhetorical flourishes. This tradition has been responsible for a great deal of radical social transformation over the last three hundred fifty years, though it must be admitted that very little of that succeeded in accomplishing the good its proponents intended. I’m talking, of course, about the revolutionary tradition of the modern Western world.

Historian James Billington, whose Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith remains one of the classic historical studies of the tradition, suggested wryly that if Marx was right to call religion the opiate of the masses, then revolutionary ideology is the amphetamine of the intellectuals. The moniker fits, and for more than the obvious reasons. The revolutionary tradition emerged at the same place and time as the modern intelligentsia, in 17th century England, and expanded around the world in lockstep with the spread of secular culture and modern education over the three centuries that followed. While the ideological banners brandished at the barricades have varied all over the conceptual map, the core narrative of the revolutionary tradition has remained fixed in place since the Diggers and Levellers first started proclaiming it in the aftermath of the English Civil War.

In its basic form, that narrative claims that all of humanity stands at a decisive turning point of history, facing the choice between the horrors of an utterly corrupt past and the shining possibilities of a future on the verge of being born. The existing order of society, the primary source of human misery, is beyond redemption and teeters on the edge of collapse, and a new social and political system that will bring out the best that humanity is capable of achieving stands ready to replace it. The existence of an ideal society in the distant past shows that a better world is possible, and that society’s destruction by the first forerunners of the present rulers of the world will soon be avenged. The old order is paving the way for its own demise by bringing about social changes that foster the emergence of its own replacement, while it makes its downfall necessary by pushing the world to the edge of ruin. All that is needed is the spread of the new system’s ideology, followed by one great effort on the part of people of good will, and a Great Turning will take place, ushering in a happy future for all of humanity.

You’ll find this same narrative laid out in detail in The Great Turning, of course, but you’ll also find it the writings of every revolutionary of the last three centuries or so. Gerrard Winstanley, the chief theoretician of the English Diggers, told the same story; so did the philosophes whose ideas laid the foundation for the French Revolution and the Jacobins who put those ideas into practice; so did Karl Marx and such 20th century Jacobins as Lenin and Mao, who played the same parts in a more recent remake of the same drama. For that matter, the same narrative crosses party lines just as effectively as the rhetoric of a transformation of consciousness mentioned earlier in this post; you can find exactly the same myth, for example, woven all through the repellent ideology of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

It may be worth noting that Korten’s disavowal of violence as a way to accomplish his Great Turning does not set him outside the revolutionary tradition. Some of the most influential figures in the tradition have also rejected violence and insisted, as Korten does, that peaceful political action is the right way to bring about the transformation of society. What defines a narrative as part of the revolutionary tradition are the claims that the old order of society is the mainspring of human suffering, that it cannot be fixed but can only be overthrown, and that the new order of society will by definition be free from the troubles of the old. Underlying these claims is the fundamental thesis of the tradition, the claim that human behavior is defined by social forms, and that replacing evil forms with good ones will thus cause wicked behavior to yield to virtue.

After more than three centuries of experience, though, we have some idea how these narratives work out in practice. The short version is “not very well.” As a way of reducing human misery, revolutions – peaceful or otherwise – just aren’t very effective. Time and again, once the new revolutionary leadership settles into the seats of power, all the problems faced by the old system still remain to bedevil the new one, and the moral renewal revolutionaries expect as the natural result of their triumph somehow never quite happens. The results are as varied as the richly human complexities of politics and culture can make them, but the one thing that has never happened yet as a result of political revolution – be it peaceful, violent, or any of the subtle shades in between – is the arrival of a utopian society like Korten’s Earth Community.

Doubtless Korten and his supporters will argue that it’s different this time. Never before in human history, they might claim, has the choice between utopia and oblivion been more stark, the need for a Great Turning more urgent, or the possibilities open to a worldwide progressive movement more real. Maybe so. Yet this same claim has been made by every other prophet of revolution. Furthermore, treating the contemporary crisis of industrial society as something that can be solved by replacing one set of politicians with another, or one ideology with another, completely misses the hard material realities that make that crisis an inescapable part of our future. To deal with our predicament as a political problem is to fail to deal with it at all. As I hope to show in the final section of this review, politics can play a constructive role in helping today’s societies cope with the coming of deindustrial society, but the way there leads in a direction almost precisely the opposite of the one Korten proposes, and requires a hard look at the ways that today’s mythic narratives influence Korten’s view of politics – and ours.

33 comments:

bryant said...

Excellent essay JMG. I especially liked the following passage:

Underlying these claims is the fundamental thesis of the tradition, the claim that human behavior is defined by social forms, and that replacing evil forms with good ones will thus cause wicked behavior to yield to virtue.

Indeed. It is the nature of people that causes societies to be imperfect; changing the social forms might, or might not, mitigate societal ills.

While I have not read "The Great Turning", many people I know are convinced by it. My response to their descriptions of Korten's ideas is: sounds like wishful thinking.

Loveandlight said...

Yet it’s only fair to ask just how Korten anticipates that a society guided by his “emerging values consensus” will deal with, say, the immense practical challenges of coping with peak oil

The People's Poet shall publicly read a poem about it!

Seriously, that really is about as substantively as Korten deals with the issue, from the sound of it. A New Ager who was big on solar energy told me that solar energy, despite its lower rate of Energy Returned On Energy Invested, would be able to effectively replace fossil fuels because the economy wouldn't be manufacturing things people don't need in the New Age. That doesn't address the fact that the world's food production relies heavily on fossil fuels not just for fertilizer but also machinery for planting, harvesting, processing, and transportation.

And as a Gen-Xer, I have to say that I don't relish the idea of myopic, self-absorbed Baby Boomer ideologues being in charge when "PO" goes down. What we need is some of my generation's hard-headed realism. (Though we would have to find a way to let go of our "truth-owning" vindictiveness, i.e., "I'm absolutely right and if you don't agree you're nothing and deserve to die, die, DIE!")

John Michael Greer said...

Bryant, I see you've joined the crystal ball brigade -- that passage is the bridge to next week's post, the last part of the Korten review. For what it's worth, I believe devoutly that human beings can behave better than they generally do...but it happens on an individual level, through personal change. Changing social systems doesn't do the trick.

Loveandlight, I'm not surprised to hear about your solar New Ager -- the amount of wishful thinking on these issues is staggering. Understandable -- it's a lot easier than dealing with the end of progress and the coming of a harsh new world -- but staggering.

As for Baby Boom ideologues running the world, in the immortal words of Churchy LaFemme, ooog. Mind you, by current definitions I'm part of the boom's trailing edge myself, thus subject to my own critiques! Which is just as well, since I'm no more suited to manage the planet than Korten is.

gaspezio said...

I tried to respond to your earlier part 1 essay about Korten. My comment was very simple. I questioned the validity and/or scholarship of Korten's clearly stated committment to Riane Eisler's Goddesss theory as the unique variable in Korten's process of social change. Eisler's theory is patently false. You removed my blog. Eisler, of course, is critical to understanding how foolish Korten's position is.

Matt Cardin said...

Excellent essay, John (he said redundantly, both in relation to the comments above and to his own laudatory comments on previous posts). I haven't read Korten's book but this post and the previous one make me want to, since it seems likely the man will continue to gather a large and receptive audience regardless of the viability of his claims.

Tangentially, one of my favorite concise demolitions of the modern revolutionary ideology occurs in director Martin Scorsese's film adaptation of The Last Temptation of Christ, where it's latched onto the ideology of the Zealot movement in ancient Israel. (I've read Kazantzakis' source novel, too, but that was longer ago so I don't recall whether the same conversation occurs in it.) Jesus and Judas are talking privately at one point and they get into an argument over the necessary route to achieving a free and just society. Judas is a Zealot whose goal is freedom for the Jews via the military/political overthrow of the Romans. Jesus is mainly a religious reformer whose message is one of absolute love amongst all, for all.

JESUS: We both want the same thing.

JUDAS: We both want freedom for Israel.

JESUS: No. I want freedom for the soul.

JUDAS: That's what I can't accept. That's not the same thing. First you free the body, then you free the spirit. The Romans come first. You don't build a house from the roof down. You build it from the foundation up.

JESUS: The foundation is the soul.

JUDAS: The foundation is the body! That's where you must begin.

JESUS: No. If you don't replace the spirit first and change what's inside, then you're only going to replace the Romans with someone else and nothing ever changes. Even if you're victorious you'll still be filled with the poison. You've got to break the chain of evil.

* * * * *

I find it interesting to observe the way this dialogue hooks up with your focus on mythic narratives and the necessity of addressing the issue at that level. Jesus' mythic narrative (if it can be called that) in Scorsese's film is, of course, love, as indicated by the lines that conclude the above conversation. Judas asks, "How do you do change, then?" and Jesus answers, "With love." This is an archetypal Christian response that I find to be pretty content-less in and of itself. But then again, there's a lot in it to unpack if a person wants to do the work. And in any event, the scene evokes precisely the issue or dilemma that you're addressing here.

John Michael Greer said...

Gaspezio, thank you for reposting -- I welcome your ideas, but as I mentioned in the comments to that earlier post I have some old-fashioned notions about appropriate language in public discourse. You're quite right that Eisler's theory is bad history, and as Cynthia Eller pointed out in her excellent book The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, it's ineffective politics as well. Maybe it's just the fact that I have a Y chromosome, but I've never been able to figure out why reaffirming Victorian gender stereotypes -- "women are gentle and peaceful and kind, while men are violent and brutal and dynamic" -- is supposed to be liberating.

Matt, the bit from The Last Temptation of Christ is very apropos, but there's another dimension -- there's freeing the soul, and there's freeing the body, and then there's freeing the community. The revolutionary tradition starts with the last, and expects the others to follow -- and it doesn't work. As John Lennon sang a long time ago, "Better free your mind instead."

jeff said...

>> It’s probably not an accident that the criteria Korten uses to define the natural leaders of Earth Community include an age barrier that rules out anyone significantly younger than the Baby Boomers.<<

Ironically, the boomers I know are the folks least capable of understanding, much less practicing, Korten's earth community. Hyper-individualized and a liftime's habit of seeing only their own needs. The shift Korten is suggesting is one of the psyche/ spirit, and is by definition and individual act, his imagined political leadership won't touch that. So, I too, am a beater of the personal responsibility drum.

Peak oil- and the rest of it is a consumption issue, driven by personal desires. so long as individuals insist on driving the SUV, shopping at Safeway and wal-mart, eating factory meat and whatever the latest widget is, things will remain as is. The individual shift to others-thinking won't come from the top down.

I spent part of yeseterday afternoon with a local beekeeper just up the road. Some of you may have heard of the 40-70% loss of bees this season. I asked him about what is causing this, he said, "It's everything." Mites, disease, climate, predators, GM crops, and finally . . . too many bees. The over-grossed population itself opens thee door to all the other ailments. Bees are weak because there are so many of them, an unsustainable number, which in the end is resolved through big die-offs. People, get ready, prepare yourselves and those around you. and ditto, I'm no doomsayer, but like John says, there are some hard realities that keep getting left out of the conversation.

Great set of posts.

Adrynian said...

"For what it's worth, I believe devoutly that human beings can behave better than they generally do..."

Well, at least we can agree on that, but I have to take issue with the following:

"...but it happens on an individual level, through personal change. Changing social systems doesn't do the trick."

I think your absolute belief in individualism, and nothing but, is a product of the myths of Western society, JMG, and as a recovering believer, myself, I feel I must interject some contrary opinion to this perspective. Basically, there is a *dynamic* here that I think you're ignoring - as in, it's not one or the other, but a combination of both.

For the record, I'm not saying the individual has nothing to do with it; my own perspective is that individual choice is the crucial "randomizing" variable (as viewed from the outside) that explains how two people with similar social backgrounds could go down two different paths.

But, the "social system" (be it the institutions, or other learned patterns of social relation), form the constraints and options from which we can choose our path. (Consider it similar to a particle of light facing a diffraction slit; it is indeterministic exactly where the photon will strike the wall beyond the slit, but when you get enough photons all passing through, a pattern of behaviour becomes visible, and we can then speak probabilistically about how the photon will behave.)

This ties in very much with several of my previous posts where I tried to make the point that we can make it easier or harder for people to behave in particular ways, and for example, given the current social and economic conditions in N. Am., we can say either, "Person A has a ~60% probability of becoming obese," or, "~60 out of 100 people will become obese, given these known risk-factors." In fact, I suspect insurance companies are a hotbed for this kind of approach; macro-societal and statistical approaches to sociology also tend to take this form (oooh, I bet both groups would just *hate* to be put in the same category with each other!). ;)

My point is not to belittle the individual's own willpower, goals, and ability to change, but I really must stress that the social context goes a very long way in facilitating or inhibiting the individual's choices/attempts. This is understood in sports psychology, addiction counselling, and elsewhere. Even you acknowledged this when, several posts back, you made the comment that the stresses of a post-peak society are likely to be counter-inducive to the kind consciousness-raising behaviours that might lead to a better world (I'm paraphrasing; you were talking about how people tend to become less, not more, open, considerate, compassionate, etc. when faced with the kinds of stresses PO is likely to present).

What I'm saying is that "personal change" towards "behaving better" can be facilitated, or inhibited, by different "social systems." Social systems don't belie individual choice, but they do impact it by making certain choices easier and others much, much harder.

(So, I guess I can say that an assumption of this approach is that people will often follow a path of lesser resistance, which I think we can find support for in social and evolutionary psychology: if people don't tend to [prefer to] conform to group norms, at least somewhat, then the group cannot remain a cohesive unit, and thus, people lose the benefits that belonging to such a group might confer - as in, improved access to food, mating opportunities, etc.)

Anyway, I felt it necessary to interject, here, because I just don't agree that it's all individual. Sorry, but I think it's evident that the social does have a role to play in understanding people's behaviour.

Adrynian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
riverbird said...

>> I think your absolute belief in individualism, and nothing but,<<

I don't think we're suggesting "nothing but [individual effort]", but what is being said is that social change is necessarily a bottom up phenomenon.
Certainly 'leadership' can encourage private action and preaching from the pulpit can facilitate and individuals thinking and motivation, but it cannot be the change itself, that must come from one's own self action.
Social leadership is thus limited in it's capacity as a catalyst, but in that we are not advocating it's absence, just its limited nature relative individual effort and self-control.

norlight0 said...

Haven't read the Korten work, but am enjoying the discussion the past couple weeks and how it informs the ongoing discussion about peak oil.

The posts by People's Poet and Jeff bring in the whole issue of the role of generations in Peak Oil. Sweeping generalizations about the baby boomers (I am one) make me a bit uncomfortable. I readily admit our excesses as a group, and there is some truth to our collective persona. After two boomer presidents, I have had enough, and of course, some of the boomers have brought us that great distraction from our real problems, the culture wars.

Not every boomer, however, is a yuppie, or self-aborbed. There were also many thousands who took a different route, Some boomers have spent the past 30 years developing rural life skills such as canning, gardening, raising livestock, heating with wood, etc. Even those who move on in the 70's and 80's and returned to a more mainstream lifestyle, still have these skills, just like you never forget how to ride a bicycle. The presence of these individuals will be a tremendous resource in the years ahead.

But the comments about generations brings us to the larger issue of the role of generations in the era of Peak Oil. Somehow we have gotten through all these months of discussion w/o mentioning Neil Howe and William Stauss' work, THE FOURTH TURNING. They provide a framework for discussing the generations in the crisis that lies ahead. As our collective predicament deepens, the boomers will pass the baton in the political arena, but will remain a cultural force as the "gray champion" Strauss and Howe make it very clear that the boomers could play a positive role, or essentially lead us all off the cliff, with their excesses as John Brown did during another Fourth Turning. Each generation has an important role to play. It is too bad if Korten is excluding or dismissive of some of the generations.

riverbird said...

>> people consume partly because it's an addiction and they enjoy indulging in it, and also partly because they're encouraged to do so by a massive and growing advertising sector.<<

Agreed. But this 'advertising sector' isn't creating anything New, it's merely feeding on latent desires and tendencies already within individuals. When we're talking about sustainable living or peak-oil responses or Korten's earth community, this is a new style of behavior, relative theh majority anyway.

Granted some advertising sector could play on this as well, but that doesn't make as much money, sharing things you know. Korten can stand on the moon and keep shouting that we all must learn to share, but so long as the individual insists on doing the next thing becuase it feels good, or from addiction - it is still a lack of personal will and won't affect the greater means of things, and peak oil will still kick you in the arse [hope that's ok John ;-)]

jeff said...

>> Not every boomer, however, is a yuppie, or self-aborbed. There were also many thousands who took a different route,<<

I dono't intend tp paint witht a permanent and wide brush, only a stereotype of the majority. Certainly there is a culture stream withtin the Boomers, ala the original hippies and the like. Always a minority and room for exceptions.

Maybe a great irony of history will be the old hippies leading the suburbanite boomers, through their organic and low consuming lifestyles, the thier final Salvation!

norlight0 said...

We are covering a lot of ground here.... Jeff, lol at the end of your last post...

Adrynian, your comments remind me of "systems theory" the interplay between the larger system and the individual. I think one of the concerns right now is that the system seems dysfunctional, unable to process or respond to the conditions we face. In cases like that(Katrina), it is a YOYO situation "you are on your own".
In a healthier situation, the system or government could do a number of things to ease the transition in a post-peak world. A VAT would reduce consumption in general, rationing or higher gas prices would reduce energy consumption, and provide funds for mass transportation. Tax credits could be provided to people who go into farming, etc. But none of that is forthcoming at this point. So, if the intiative is isn't comning from within the power centers, then individual action is one alternative.
Peak Oil educator doesn't put much hope in the federal or state governments doing much until the crisis is upon us, thus his emphasis on action at the individual and local community level such as Portland, Ithaca, Willetts, CA. etc.

norlight0 said...

Last paragraph should have read "Peak oil educator Richard Heinberg

Adrynian said...

norlight(), my posts weren't meant to be a defense of Korten. I haven't read his book, and so know very little about his perspective (beyond what I've read here, and also an essay I read about a year ago regarding his Empire to Earth Community idea). (All I recall is finding his idea of consciously re-engineering our cultural stories attractive and that much of his position, at least, seems similar to JMG's - though there is the question of who is doing this and what their power-relation is to the rest of the people in society, which I think is one of JMG's critiques of Korten, if I understand correctly).

As per your other comment, I tend to think of myself as a system's theorist, at least insofar as it is the paradigm I feel most comfortable operating from. That was originally one of the primary reasons I went into cognitive science - it was to be a stepping-stone to further studies in complexity theory (which has no degrees at the undergrad level that I know of). I was hoping/expecting to find the discipline amenable to the system's theoretic perspective. Sadly, I have been largely disappointed, aside from one Philosophy of Mind professor who really liked a paper I wrote applying it to cognitive meta-theory.

On a final note, you wrote, "So, if the intiative is isn't comning from within the power centers, then individual action is one alternative." To this, I agree. My point was simply that social structures can go a long way towards making things easier or more difficult for the individual. Currently, they are making things much more difficult. To which I would like to add, "the community level" that you mention Heinberg focusing on is simply the social system at a smaller scale, and there, too, can it affect the costs and benefits that an individual faces for various behaviours.

Adrynian said...

Sorry, that first paragraph has a very awkward sentence. Should read:

(All I recall is finding his idea of consciously re-engineering our cultural stories attractive and that *that* much of his position, at least, seems similar to JMG's...)

As in, at least that part of his perspective seems similar to JMG's.

Sorry for any confusion.

Adrynian said...

I'm reposting this with the [mild] curse removed. (I didn't want JMG removing it for me, as I thought it contained some meaningful examples.)

Original post as follows:
*****

Not to press the point, but consider recycling. When my dad was my age, he recycled out of a sense of personal responsibility, but he was the anomoly, the exception, not the rule. Then governments, probably out of pressure from environmentalists, decided to push the issue by instituting various incentives (& some punishments for non-conformity), as well as advertisements to encourage the behaviour, and now recycling has become the norm.

(I'm not suggesting that recycling is an appropriate response to PO; rather, I'm simply using it as an example of how institutions can facilitate or inhibit individual choices of behaviour.)

Ditto, for smoking, spitting on the floor, etc.

jeff, people consume partly because it's an addiction and they enjoy indulging in it, and also partly because they're encouraged to do so by a massive and growing advertising sector.

As a counter-example to your assertion, around the turn of the last century there were Polish migrant workers who would leave their families to go to Germany for work. They would make enough money in a season to support their families, frugally, for the rest of the year. When asked why they didn't work the whole year and make more money so that they could "live better," they essentially said they didn't want to consume more & that they'd rather be with their families for the rest of the year. They didn't understand why anyone would *want* to work in unpleasant conditions all year long just so they could have more stuff. My point is simply that *culture* has changed dramatically in the last ~hundred years; people have *learned* to consume and to want to consume, and when necessary, they will *unlearn* it (or rather, the generations will roll over, and the subsequent generations won't be taught hyper-consumerism because it will no longer be an option). A large part of the exit from the Great Depression (or at least, preventing its return post-WW2) was teaching people to consume and to *want* the new gadgets, cars, homes, etc. that had to be continually made to keep the economy moving.

I'm sorry, but while I agree that personal responsibility has a role to play, I must stress that changing our culture does to.

*****
End original post.

New.Orangutang said...

I think that the idea in the end is social change, but it has to begin at the bottom level, with personal change. Social structures, to a certain degree, control what information is available and, speaking of our culture in particular, are excellent at teaching certain viewpoints of the world. So I would definitely agree with Adrynian that it all about what we learn or are forced to learn from social structures, it is our social structures which teach what is acceptable and what is not. Thus first we need change individuals perspectives of these things and then those individuals can create a society that teaches those same values.

John Michael Greer said...

Good heavens. I go offline for a few hours, and a thoughtful conversation breaks out! ;-)

Adrynian, of course you're right that social structures can and do affect human behavior. My comment was brief to the point of oversimplification. I suppose the best way to fill in the largest gap is to comment that social systems can only achieve incremental change on a broad collective scale, and they do it in response to personal change on the part of individuals. Your example of recycling is apropos -- recycling as a common social habit assisted by city and county governments started happening only after a lot of people went out of their way to do it on their own.

So you start from the individual level and work up from there, toward the collective, if you want to make change happen. I think it was Gandhi who suggested that we should be the change we want to see in the world. Or, as the feminists of the 70s correctly pointed out, the personal is political -- change the way you live your life, and that builds the foundation for change on the family, community, and society levels.

Thank you, BTW, for editing your post!

Jeff and Norlight, you're dealing with some fascinating points relative to generational change. As a boomer myself, I consider it my duty to make fun of my generation's pretensions, but it may also be worth noting that the ideas pioneered by the hippies and alternative tech people of the 70s, also very much part of the boom, remain among our best options as we move into the deindustrial age.

Adrynian (again), you're quite right that Korten and I share a sense of the centrality of stories to the way we shape the world, and many more things -- much more than my admittedly crabby review probably makes it seem. The problem, as I see it, is that he's got the situation by the wrong end -- he's trying to impose a political solution on a problem that goes much deeper than politics, and doing it in a way that's failed countless times already. More on this in next week's blog post.

John Michael Greer said...

My turn to post a correction to my own comment. Second paragraph, third sentence: "...social systems can only achieve incremental change on a broad collective scale, and they often do it in response to personal change on the part of individuals." Got to get those qualifiers in the right place...

Adrynian said...

"So you start from the individual level and work up from there, toward the collective, if you want to make change happen. I think it was Gandhi who suggested that we should be the change we want to see in the world."

I don't know that recycling was taken mainstream just because of individuals acting individually. I think it was because individuals who were passionate about it found each other and others who sympathized with them, and they organized collectively to change the structural incentives at the governmental level.

I'm not saying, and never was saying, that individuals shouldn't *try* to act in a manner consistent with the changes they want to see in the social relationships around them, but our social systems have *very* strong negative feedback loops that resist individual efforts, and furthermore, without collective actions, isolated individual efforts are often about as effective as spitting into the wind (consider, all of you, your individual efforts to try to get friends and family to take PO seriously, or for that matter, your own attempts to prepare; it is incredibly difficult to break free from the current patterns of activity, and while some can do it, many, if not most, find it too overwhelming. And there are good reasons for this!).

Thus, I come back to my original point that if you make it difficult for people to do something, only a few diehards will do it, but the easier you make it, the more people will "choose" to do it.

*****

I will have more to post on this later. My girlfriend said that a proper critique would require going into a few key sociological concepts (she mentioned ideology and socialization). Since that's her discipline, and my understanding is too superficial to do it justice, she said she would write up something to post when she gets out of class.

riverbird said...

In permaculture practice, there is a design principle that states, "design from pattern to details; build from details to patterns." definitely a double edged sword.

John Michael Greer said...

Adrynian, while you're certainly correct to say...

"Thus, I come back to my original point that if you make it difficult for people to do something, only a few diehards will do it, but the easier you make it, the more people will "choose" to do it."

...this begs the question of how individuals whose viewpoint is very much in the minority are to have any perceptible impact on whether social pressures make things easy or difficult. Political action is possible only after a large enough fraction of the population has already shifted to the viewpoint in question. That's precisely what happened to bring recycling into the mainstream.

If you'll look over the histories of successful and unsuccessful efforts to bring about social change in the US and elsewhere, you'll find that the successful ones pretty much all started with individuals changing their own lives in the face of social pressure, and grew from there -- while the ones that attempted to cause change without that foundation generally went nowhere. Expect more on this theme in later blog posts.

Adrynian said...

The following is a brief comment on our discussion by my girlfriend, Aleksandra, who is currently doing her Master's in Sociology:

*****

"If you'll look over the histories of successful and unsuccessful efforts to bring about social change in the US and elsewhere, you'll find that the successful ones pretty much all started with individuals changing their own lives in the face of social pressure, and grew from there -- while the ones that attempted to cause change without that foundation generally went nowhere. Expect more on this theme in later blog posts."

I was originally going to comment on the socializing pressures in our everyday lives, starting from birth, that work in conjunction with dominant ideologies and discourses to diminish anti-systemic action. After reading the above comment, however, I could not but point out the assumed ahistorical and decontextualized perspective of resistance and social change.

Precisely when we do look at the history of social change in the world we find that its peaks and troths are consistent with the prevailing historical, political, economic and overall social context. Why the 1848 workers' revolts in Europe? Why the 1968 student protests? Why Seattle 1999? Why the waves of resistance that continue to permeate Latin America? Without getting into the specific social foundations of each of the cases, it's because the economic and political tensions became so pronounced, the reality they observed around them became so contradictory to the messages they received from leaders, schools, other agents of socialization, that many individuals could not but take action.

Now, I don't disagree with the idea that it takes motivated individuals to organize resistance, however, these individuals are responding to their social context. Agency cannot be stripped off of its context -- agency works within the context of structural constraints, it's a dialectic, a long-term relationship, if you will. It's a process of negotiation. What I do disagree with is the assumption that all it takes for a successful project for social change to happen is a group of atomic individuals, removed from their historical and social context. The very fact that one would have this perspective in the first place is indicative of their own life socialized within the context of a classical liberal ideology that is so powerful in North America, particularly in the US.

In short, what I'm trying to say is that society and the individuals that perpetuate it is a lot more complex than the quote above would suggest.

Aleksandra.

Nnonnth said...

This whole conversation is assuming that modern psychology and sociology know how to understand people which I must doubt!

If you change yourself, nothing outside can affect you unless you want it to. Most people simply don't know this yet.

So when Aleksandra says:

"Agency cannot be stripped off of its context -- agency works within the context of structural constraints, it's a dialectic, a long-term relationship, if you will."

... it is really to me the most basic and unregardable truism -something like, 'society consists of everyone in it.'

Adrynian has continually said that people run along the rails that society offers them, or anyway that they tend to. But this is neither here nor there! Everyone is in my opinion not listening to what John is actually saying. Everyone is still trying to argue 'how we build the new society', 'how revolutions happen', and so forth. But no-one seems to be seeing that this all just more attempts at writing stories.

I'm sure John isn't denying that people tend to behave as society expects them to do, and that to change that behaviour a stimulus that makes it appear a natural step must appear to that person. Who could?

But if a person is *permanently and personally* able to follow the behaviour that s/he 'feels is right', without reference to any societal norm, how can the person be controlled by the norm?

Naturally advertising works by appealing to certain parts of oneself. There are some who would say, remove the behaviour by removing advertising. But this is the *long* way round. The *short* way round is to be such a person that no advert has uncontrolled influence over one. Then what difference does it make whether the advertising actually exists or not?

If all people did this, would advertising survive as an industry? I think not! That is why John is saying, the change happens first *inside* the person. Society naturally reflects the change, and gradually those who didn't change themselves bring up the rear, getting changed at the fag-end of the changes so to speak, following the new rails instead of the old ones, but they are still asleep, being herded.

It is a circular argument to suggest, that change can be *initiated* in this manner, by changing society and then having all the sheep follow. Firstly comes the idea for the change, and this is always from someone who is outside what is considered the norm. How could it be otherwise?

There are so many calls on our time today, so many distractions, that most people simply don't know who they are anymore, have lost contact with any sense of freedom inside. This freedom however is available for free, for anyone, and does not depend on society, nor can it be given to anyone by society, because each person has to give it to themselves.

Society, and its level of effectiveness, could thus far more truthfully be said to be a reflection of the level to which each person in it has achieved for him- or herself the ability not to be asleep, than it could be said to be the means of anyone waking up.

So I think John is right - the individual comes first. Don't mistake this for some western concept of individualism that focuses on needs and wants of an individual and their right to have this and that. What I believe John is saying is that the freedom to follow this or that story comes from inside a person. To spoonfeed this or that story to people is not as important as that each attains the freedom to follow what each individually believes is truly right, wherever the story comes from and whatever it is. And this, society cannot ever give. It can encourage it or discourage it, but anyone who is determined to find it cannot be stopped from finding it because it is right there, inside themselves.

NN

Adrynian said...

Well, nnonnth, although I'm sure you weren't trying to, I think you just demonstrated a textbook case of the point Aleksandra was making: far from stepping outside of your society's norms and believing "what you feel is right" without reference to the stories around you, the stories are so deeply embedded in your perceptions of the world that you recapitulate them even as you claim to have broken free.

I just have a few other comments to make:


"This whole conversation is assuming that modern psychology and sociology know how to understand people which I must doubt!"

Is there any particular reason why you *must* doubt it? Or are you claiming scepticism simply to bolster your ungrounded opinions?


"If all people did this..."

It's usually beneficial to stop before writing this, and ask *why* everybody doesn't do 'this', whatever 'this' is. The reasons may differ on the particulars, but there inevitably *are* reasons. (Prisoner's Paradox is often a good answer, though not really relevant to our particular discussion.)


"But if a person is *permanently and personally* able to follow the behaviour that s/he 'feels is right', without reference to any societal norm, how can the person be controlled by the norm?"

Here again is the assumption of decontextualized & ahistorical agency, as if the agent could simply step outside the processes of socialization they have experienced and conveniently "break free" of all bonds that may shackle their individual preferences. Unfortunately for you, this simply isn't true; social groups act in various ways to ensure compliance with their norms and failure to do so can result in ostracization, expulsion, or in the worst case, violence against the dissident (when you toss into the mix the deep need - likely evolved - that we all feel to 'belong', compliance is the most common outcome). The stories *you* have been socialized with simply won't allow you to acknowledge this.


Which brings me to my last comment:

"To spoonfeed this or that story to people is not as important as that each attains the freedom to follow what each individually believes is truly right, wherever the story comes from and whatever it is."

The stories people are "spoonfed," as you so eloquently put it, constrain the interpretations one is able to form. In fact, the stories also *enable* the interpretations. Aleksandra's main point was that people reject the stories of their socialization (and struggle for change) when their experiences so blatantly contradict the stories that they no longer function to enable meaningful interpretations of people's reality.

I realize you won't accept any evidence from psychology or sociology, but allow me to attempt an illustration for those who are more open to academic research.

Read the following and try to guess what it is talking about:

*****

The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange things into different groups. Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities, that is the next step; otherwise you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo things. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run this might not seem important, but complications can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well... After the procedure is completed, one arranges the materials into different groups again. Then they can be put into their appropriate places. Eventually they will be used once more, and the whole cycle will have to be repreated. However, that is part of life.

*****

Can anyone guess? Read on, once you're ready to find out.

Of course, this passage is demonstrating the importance of having a *schema* for interpreting and giving meaning to information. I was referring more specifically to the difficulty we all have with unlearning a story/*discourse*, once we have been socialized with it, which is more a sociologically - rather than psychologically - understood process. (By the way, it was talking about washing clothes.) But a discourse can be seen as *a kind of schema* that we share for inter-subjectively understanding our shared reality. Thus, they are *fundamental* to the process of cognition, and breaking free of a dominant discourse you have spent your entire lifetime learning is no trivial process. Of course, it *can* be done, but with difficulty.

John Michael Greer said...

Aleksandra, thank you for your comment! Yours is a commonly held view, of course, and IMO by no means a wholly misguided one. Still, like Adrynian, you've misunderstood or, rather, miscontextualized my remarks. I'm not discussing the abstract issue of the role culture and worldview play in human action, or the theoretical origins of movements for social change. I'm discussing a pragmatic point: given the context we're in, what should we do?

Neither you, nor I, nor Adrynian, nor anybody else talking here has the capacity to change our common cultural context directly. All we can do is consider our own response to the situation, and act accordingly. I have argued that making changes in one's own life is a more effective response to the current crisis than trying to influence the political system. If you disagree with that, of course, that's your right, but please do be aware that that's what the discussion is about.

Your comments actually provide further ammunition for the point of view I'm proposing. If you're right, and movements for social change take place only when driven by major social stresses on the large scale, then none of us have any influence on whether a movement for social change emerges as a result of peak oil and the other aspects of the crisis of industrial civilization. If that is the case, and we don't simply wish to sit on our hands and wait to see what happens, the only option left is individual action -- the option I've been proposing all along as the most pragmatic response to the situation we face.

Nnonth, thank you also. What I'm saying is a bit more nuanced: that while human behavior is influenced by social pressures and culturally derived worldviews, "influenced" is not the same thing as "controlled." One core goal of Druid spirituality, in particular, is to help individuals become something more than the sum of their heredity and environment.

Of course Aleksandra could point out that this goal itself derives from the much-despised worldview of traditional Western liberal thought, and indeed it does; the roots of modern Druidry lie in 18th century freethought and nature spirituality, after all. But the fact that a statement comes from a given tradition of thought, even one that it's currently fashionable to condemn, does not by itself make that statement irrelevant or untrue.

Nnonnth said...

>>Thus, they are *fundamental* to the process of cognition, and breaking free of a dominant discourse you have spent your entire lifetime learning is no trivial process. Of course, it *can* be done, but with difficulty.<<

Well it seems we agree! I don't remember saying anything about it being easy.

And I must point out that if you can remove something from the 'process of cognition' and still have that process continue, then what you removed cannot have been 'fundamental' at all - otherwise, without it, the process would not continue!

>>I was referring more specifically to the difficulty we all have with unlearning a story/*discourse*, once we have been socialized with it, which is more a sociologically - rather than psychologically - understood process.<<

How can this be so? As soon as you say something is 'fundamental to the process of cognition' you are claiming to understand cognition - that makes you a psychologist in my book!

The freedom, even to choose from amongst available options, let alone make new ones for oneself, may be hard-won - there is no doubting that. My point is that no-one else can give it to you.

In our consumer society we are continually told that the answer comes from something manufactured outside ourselves that we then - well, consume. But the mental freedom to be oneself, and the concomitant ability that implies to think free of societal constraints, cannot ever be given to oneself from outside oneself, only from inside oneself.

Best NN

Adrynian said...

Schemas, stories, discourses *in general* are fundamental to the process of cognition (at least in humans), not one or another schema or discourse in particular. Please stop deliberately misinterpreting my points just to make yourself look more credible.

As for the rest of it, you're ignoring the important points and focusing on side issues because you don't have a case. You've ignored the arguments that "thinking free" of a given discourse is strongly influenced by your social and historical context and focused instead on trying to insult me by calling me a 'psychologist.' Oh no, I'm suspect!

Many disciplines have something to say about this - if you would only take the time to understand - and sociology is an important one. Consider groups that are oppressed as a result of some pattern of relations, including the accompanying discourse(s): they are more likely to face the contradictions of these discourse(s) on a daily basis, and are thus *more likely* - though still not guaranteed - to construct alternative worldviews (this is called "standpoint theory"). However, since they and their views are already marginalized, such alternative perspectives are still unlikely to be accepted and adopted by the mainstream without wider acknowledgement of the contradictions. Furthermore, they're going to be influenced by other discourses whose contradictions they can't see. One can see this in feminist writings like the following (BTW, this is not an argument against feminism, and in fact, later - often ethnic-minority - feminists critiqued early - often white, upper-class - feminists on just this point):

***
Mary Astell (1666-1731), while holding enlightened views on the education of women, and “satirizing the submissive role of women in marriage” believed in the divine right of kings, and was a “sincerely devout woman of high Anglican and Tory sympathies.” A hundred years later, Gail Hamilton (Mary Abigail Dodge, 1833-96), an American feminist who believed in equality for women, still believed that voting rights should be reserved for only the educated man or woman.

From: http://www.naminggrace.org/id64.htm
***

I just pulled this quickly from the web. There are plenty of other examples with perhaps more authority - though she does cite sources - and there are many contemporary discussions of this phenomenon. Another example is the founding fathers of the USA, who, despite being oppressed by the British, believed that all [but only] *land-owning men* should be free to vote. Oh, and there was nothing wrong with owning slaves.


Let me just stress this point, so that you can’t keep ignoring it: "freeing oneself of societal constraints" ultimately implies not participating in society. Perhaps I haven't been making myself clear; if you reject some social group's norms, then that social group will reject you (if it hasn’t already). Only someone living in the highly individualistic West could think survival as an isolated individual was possible and/or desirable. (Post PO, it will be even less possible and/or desirable.) Otherwise, sooner or later, *everyone* has to conform to *some* social group’s norms - and from birth we grow up learning those of our parents, friends, schools, medias, etc. That doesn’t mean you can’t participate in shaping (at least some of) them, in negotiating for what you prefer, but since it *is* a negotiation, you won’t always get what you want. In fact, in many cases where you hold virtually no power, you *often* won’t get what you want, and failure to conform to the most fervently held norms/values can quickly get you ostracized, expelled, and/or injured. (Homosexuality comes to mind, for example.)

In order for us to even be having this discussion, we must share a language, and thus at least conform to *some* shared norms about how to interact, name things, etc. But it goes further than that, because two people can both speak "English" and *still* not understand each other, as in when their worldviews are so drastically different that they can't find sufficient common ground for conceptual agreement, let alone for functioning together as a cohesive unit/social group. (In fact, one might suggest that that is what is occurring between us.) Thomas Kuhn outlines how this works as it relates to different scientific paradigms. The same case can, I think, be made for discourses.

The following is from Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”:
***
[S]cientific revolutions are inaugurated by a growing sense, often restricted to a narrow subdivision of the scientific community, that an existing paradigm has ceased to function adequately in the exploration of an aspect of nature to which that paradigm itself had previously led the way…

[The choice] between competing paradigms proves to be a choice between incompatible modes of community life. Because it has that character, the choice is not and cannot be determined merely by the evaluative procedures characteristic of normal science, for these depend in part upon a particular paradigm, and that paradigm is at issue. When paradigms enter, as they must, into a debate about paradigm choice, their role is necessarily circular. Each group uses its own paradigm to argue in that paradigm’s defense… The man who premises a paradigm when arguing in its defense can nonetheless provide a clear exhibit of what scientific practice will be like for those who adopt the new view of nature. That exhibit can be immensely persuasive, often compellingly so. Yet, whatever its force, the status of the circular argument is only that of persuasion. It cannot be made logically or even probabilistically compelling for those who refuse to step into the circle. The premises and values shared by the two parties… are not sufficiently extensive for that… [T]here is no standard higher than the assent of the relevant community…

There are, in principle, only three types of phenomena about which a new theory might be developed. The first consists of phenomena already well explained by existing paradigms, and these seldom provide either motive or point of departure for theory construction. When they do… the theories that result are seldom accepted, because nature provides no grounds for discrimination. A second class of phenomena consists of those whose details can be understood only through further theory articulation. These are the phenomena to which scientists direct their research much of the time, but that research aims at the articulation of existing paradigms rather than the invention of new ones. Only when these attempts at articulation fail do scientists encounter the third type of phenomena, the recognized anomalies whose characteristic feature is their stubborn refusal to be assimilated to existing paradigms. This type alone gives rise to new theories. Paradigms provide all phenomena except anomalies with a theory-determined place in the scientist’s field of vision.

But if new theories are called forth to resolve anomalies in the relation of an existing theory to nature, then the successful new theory must somewhere permit predictions that are different from those derived from its predecessor. That difference could not occur if the two were logically compatible. In the process of being assimilated, the second must displace the first. Even a theory like energy conservation… did not develop historically without paradigm destruction… Only after the caloric theory [of heat] had been rejected could energy conservation become part of science. And only after it had been part of science for some time could it come to seem a theory of a logically higher type, one not in conflict with its predecessors …

Successive paradigms tell us different things about the population of the universe and about that population’s behaviour… But paradigms differ in more than substance, for they are directed not only to nature, but also back upon the science that produced them. They are the source of the methods, problem-field, and standards of solution accepted by any mature scientific community at any given time… And as the problems change, so, often, does the standard that distinguishes a real scientific solution from a mere metaphysical speculation, word game, or mathematical play. The normal-scientific tradition that emerges from a scientific revolution is not only incompatible but often actually incommensurable with that which has gone before.

(From chapter IX.)
***


If you really can't see my point, then let's simply agree to disagree. I wasn't really expecting to convince you anyway, nnonnth, as the socialization processes you’ve undergone have obviously been very effective at shaping your worldview. Although, to be fair, it’s not just that; in many ways, we seem to be operating from different paradigms, so as long as you don’t “step into the circle,” as it were, and try to see the argument as I’m framing it, you’ll never see my point. And I don’t really expect that of you, since you’re very visibly committed to believing that people can pick and choose the discourses they use, with no consideration of, or reference to, the influences they experience from their social, historical, economic, etc. context. As this is a dominant view in the West, presumably following from the ideology of individualism, I don’t really expect you to be able to step outside of it and see its contradictions – no matter how much I might desire it.

On a lighter note, thank you for providing this forum for debate, JMG. I may not agree with everything people say here, but I appreciate hearing your (and others') perspective and discussing the various ideas that are presented. My apologies for the length of this post.

Rabbit said...

adrynian wrote: "Each group uses its own paradigm to argue in that paradigm’s defense… Yet, whatever its force, the status of the circular argument is only that of persuasion. It cannot be made logically or even probabilistically compelling for those who refuse to step into the circle."

What a concise description of the debate you have brought to this thread.

Personally, I am inclined to think that JMG's assessment is the more relevant one given the circumstances. Because our society values the individual and despises anything "collective," it will value individual efforts above attempts to change the social order.

Our conditioning dictates the starting point for social change: the individual. So if we want to get anything done, that's where we have to start -- trying to change social institutions won't do the trick, because all those individuals who've been conditioned by our society will resist it.

In any event, this whole debate is really irrelevant as far as I can tell. Do you want to ensure being able to eat fifteen years from now? Better learn on your own individual level how to grow some vegetables and butcher small game, because there is no guarantee at all that the fragile, centralized, globalized, highly debt-leveraged and largely hallucinatory economy is going to keep delivering processed food-like calories to your grocery store. Waiting for society to change to make the future less dire will almost certainly result in your malnutrition and/or starvation. And working to change western society on a vast scale so that it will distribute food equitably as civilization itself comes apart at the seams is truly like trying to hold back the sea.

Within our society, social movements happen when a critical mass of individuals get on the bandwagon. And if individual efforts to live sustainably never reach critical mass, then at least those individuals who've learned how to do it may have a chance of feeding and clothing themselves in the face of permanent infrastructure deterioration. It matters not at all whether sociology is right or wrong; it matters whether any given individual has the skills to survive.

Adrynian said...

I'm sorry that you feel my posts are irrelevant, rabbit. They were not intended to be.

I do, however, find it amazing that you – and therefore, presumably others – continue to misinterpret what I’m saying in order to protect an individualistic perspective.

Let me say this one last time in clear, concise language so that you will not continue to misunderstand: I have never said that people should “wait around for society to change” and I have never denied the *necessity* for individual action. Your binary interpretation of my argument (a common enough event in debates, although I would appreciate it if you try to reign it in) leads you to conclude this – as in, “You’re either completely with our approach or you’re completely against it!” Please give me the benefit of the doubt that I’m not simply being a troll. I was critical of the almost unanimously accepted individualistic perspective on change that was being advocated because I feel it is important – and maybe you don’t, which is perhaps where we differ – to gain, & spread, a deeper theoretical understanding of the dynamics of social change, and therefore also an understanding of how a successful approach to *consciously reorganizing* our society *away from* “the fragile, centralized, globalized, highly debt-leveraged and largely hallucinatory economy” might be undertaken.

So, to quote Aleksandra, “I don't disagree with the idea that it takes motivated individuals to organize resistance; however, these individuals are responding to their social context. What I do disagree with is the assumption that all it takes for a successful project for social change to happen is a group of atomic individuals, removed from their historical and social context.” I also hold this position. Individual action is *necessary* but *not sufficient* for social change to occur. To reiterate, *of course* people should be learning the skills that will become necessary and/or valuable as our global economy unwinds and relocalizes. I have never denied this! Let me stress this again: I agree that individual action is necessary, but it is simply not sufficient. Without addressing the social context, individual actions that one might otherwise think *should* be successful, can be doomed to failure without anyone realizing it beforehand. Don’t you think it would be valuable to understand the implications of a given action *before* attempting it?

Now, JMG posted a comment in response to Aleksandra, saying, “I'm not discussing the abstract issue of the role culture and worldview play in human action, or the theoretical origins of movements for social change. I'm discussing a pragmatic point: given the context we're in, what should we do?”

This is an excellent question to ask! But he wasn’t sufficiently clear on this purpose in his post, wherein he critiqued the entire history of social movements as being just a bunch of hopelessly na├»ve idealists pushing one or another version of utopia. This was perhaps overly simplistic on his part, but the implication – which many seem to have swallowed whole, whether he explicitly advocated it or not – was a rejection of attempts at social change that weren’t merely individual’s personal changes scaled up to the whole population. This ignores, & thus implicitly denies, the value that changes in social structures – & institutions, which aren’t necessarily the same thing – can have in the overall process of changing our societies and social relations. *That* is what I was critiquing!

Also, since JMG was also promoting the reengineering our cultures’ myths, he inherently is discussing a sociological phenomenon dealing with social change, which is not just a pragmatic point about what practical skills one should learn to cope with PO. Given that this is the case, I don’t feel that my points about social change are irrelevant or off topic. In fact, I see them as decidedly *on* topic: what would be the most effective methods for pursuing such a reengineering; what aspects of our current social structures are likely to facilitate and/or inhibit efforts at such myth-remaking; and what new patterns of social relation need to be developed concurrently to provide the positive feedback loops necessary to sustain the desired myths and behaviours? If we fail to ask these and similar questions, *and* attempt to answer them coherently, consistently, and with an eye to what we already know about current and previous social movements, then we are simply leaving the process up to chance and intuition and hoping that we get it right. If evidence from systems theory is any guide, people are notoriously *bad* at intuiting the “right” way to push a complex system to get a desired effect, and *that* is the value of asking these questions *before* we just start attempting to make changes willy-nilly. Like sailing a boat, you don’t just point in the direction you want to go; rather, you learn how to work *with* the winds and currents around you.

As a side note, I do personally think that PO and climate change will expose the contradictions inherent in our current socioeconomic patterns (they already are, or most of us wouldn’t be here); among other things, how about the assumption of infinite growth of our economies – & energy-consumption – and the expectation of continued hyper-consumption that accompanies it? An important consideration for me, then, is: Given that we can likely expect to see people questioning and rejecting some of the currently dominant discourses of today, what will they be replaced with? Hate-mongering and authoritarian patterns are already being asserted by some fairly organized groups in societies around the world – including Canada, though we’re not quite as far along as the US in restricting personal liberties, rolling back social programs, etc. – so will their messages & preferred discourses dominate?

If the only message we have to offer is a disparate collection of changes in personal lifestyle (arguably the biggest failure of vision in the environmental movement), I can easily see this being overwhelmed by a reactionary furor as people realize they can no longer have the “Dream” while simultaneously being told that the Chinese (or whoever) are to blame for our problems, and that we need to turn our entire society into a police state in order to get back to the “good ol’ days.” Without even an attempt to organize and promote alternative social patterns, memetic and physical resistance to such discourses will be isolated, divided, and susceptible to being conquered. I’m all for learning valuable post-PO skills, but I also recognize the necessity of linking people together for sharing those skills, as well as the necessity of developing and reinforcing alternative patterns of relation that will become viable alternative organizations of our societies in the post-PO future. And I see developing an understanding of social change as a crucial contributing factor to that goal.

Adrynian said...

I should also point out that survival as an isolated individual isn't likely to be any more possible post-PO than it is today. We all depend on other people to survive - and always have - so all the post-PO skills in the [over-populated] world aren't likely to get you anywhere (except perhaps exploited or enslaved) unless you have a community around you to back you up and protect you when you sleep.