Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Silent Running Fallacy

One of the privileges a wry providence has granted to the arts is that even their missteps have more to teach than the best productions of more sensible men. I was reminded of that a few days ago when a discussion among Druid friends turned to the 1972 SF movie classic Silent Running.

I have no idea how many of my readers remember that film, so I’ll summarize it here. Bruce Dern plays Freeman Lowell, a geeky ecologist on Valley Forge, one of a fleet of orbiting space freighters with domes containing the last wild plants and animals from a future Earth where only human beings and their technologies remain. His fellow crew members simply want to get through their one-year tours and get back to a world where there is no more poverty or disease and it is always 70° F. everywhere, but the forest is Lowell’s obsession and his life.

Then the order comes to jettison the domes, destroy them with nuclear charges, and return the freighters to commercial service. Lowell rebels, kills the other three crew members on his ship, and flees into the outer solar system with only the ship’s robot drones for company. When Valley Forge’s sister ship Berkshire locates him again months later, Lowell rigs lights in the last remaining dome to keep the forest viable, jettisons it on a course into interstellar space, and uses the last of the nuclear charges to blow up himself and his ship.

It’s a powerful and profoundly moving film, and a favorite of mine for many years. Still, even the first time I watched it – I was ten years old at the time, dropping most of a week’s allowance on a tall root beer and tickets to the Saturday matinee at the local movie house in suburban Federal Way, WA – two of the movie’s core plot elements gave me trouble. The first issue was a vague sense of doubt about the premise that there could be a world full of healthy, happy humans with no biosphere to support them. The second was more specific: when Lowell sent the dome into deep space, I wondered, where did the electricity for its lights come from?

It took me more than a decade to realize that these two points both pointed to the same common but disastrous misunderstanding which – with apologies to an excellent movie – I’ve named the Silent Running fallacy. Like most of the garbled thinking that has doomed our civilization and threatens the survival of our species just now, it’s a simple error with profound consequences, and it’s thus best approached indirectly.

Start with some details of the movie’s premise, then. How much energy would it take to maintain the Earth’s entire surface at a steady temperature of 70° Fahrenheit? The Earth’s atmosphere does a relatively efficient job of distributing heat from the sun around the planet via the intricate heat engine we call weather, but even so, the temperature on a hot day in the Sahara can differ from the temperature on the same day at the South Pole by more than 200°F. Balancing that out would be ferociously expensive in energy terms.

How much energy would it take to keep a planet full of people free from poverty? Our current industrial civilization hasn’t even come close; average out today’s income per capita over the population of the Earth and you get a Third World existence – and of course there’s the hard question of just how long we can maintain today’s profligate energy expenditure of 450 exajoules (that’s 450,000,000,000,000,000,000 joules, for the prefix-challenged) per year.

The short answer to both of those questions, in other words, is “more than we’ve got.” That’s generally the answer when the question comes up about the costs of replacing any significant process in the biosphere by human means. When a working group headed by Robert Costanza tried a few years ago to work out the economic value of the free services provided to humanity by the Earth’s biosphere, for example, the mid-range estimate they came up with was around three times the total value of all human economic activity. For every dollar of economic value you get, in other words, 25 cents was produced by human beings and the other 75 cents was produced by nature.

The reality of our dependence on living nature goes well beyond this, however. Consider the oxygen in the air we breathe. It doesn’t just happen; it’s put there, moment by moment, by complex ecological cycles centering on photosynthesis in green plants. If those cycles go away, so does the oxygen, and so do we. The Earth’s supply of fresh water, similarly, is renewed by intricate biogeochemical cycles in which a wide range of living things play a part. The experiment of producing food by treating soil as an abiotic sponge into which petrochemicals are dumped is proving to be a long-term failure; here again, only natural cycles in which countless living things participate put food on our table and keep us all from starvation.

It’s in this context that we can define the Silent Running fallacy; it’s the mistaken belief that human industrial civilization can survive apart from nature. It’s this fallacy that leads countless well-intentioned people to argue that nature is an amenity, and should be preserved because, basically, it’s cute. That sort of argument invites the response, just as stereotyped and more appealing to our culture’s governing narratives, that hard-headed practicality takes precedence over emotional appeals and nature can therefore be ravaged with impunity.

Yet nature is not an amenity, and the “practicality” that leads current political and business leaders to ignore the disastrous consequences of their own actions doesn’t deserve the name. If anything, industrial civilization is the amenity, and it’s not particularly cute, either. Nature can survive without industrial humanity, but industrial humanity cannot survive without nature – no matter how hard we pretend otherwise, or how enthusiastically we stuff our brains with science fiction fantasies of electronic reincarnation and the good life in deep space.

What makes this irony mordant is that nature is also a great deal more resilient than industrial humanity. A recent book on global warming, Six Degrees by Mark Lynas, argues that a global temperature rise of 11°F or so would cause global catastrophe. It’s a common claim these days, but Lynas apparently failed – as so many prophets of apocalyptic change have failed – to check his claims against the evidence of history.

A little more than 14,000 years ago, according to recent research on Greenland ice core samples, global average temperature jolted up 22°F in some fifty years. A couple of thousand years later, it lurched back down a similar amount, only to pop back up again 1200 years later. Climate shifts like these are apparently fairly common in Earth’s long history.

Does this mean that we have nothing to fear from global warming? Quite the contrary. We – meaning here human beings living in industrial societies – face dire consequences even from so modest a temperature shift as Lynas’ six-degrees-Celsius rise. In such a future, widespread crop failures caused by unpredictable shifts in rain belts, and the drowning of half the world’s largest cities due to the breakup of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice caps, are likely events. Even without the other causes driving modern industrial society down the long ragged slope of catabolic collapse, a century or more of regular famines and rising sea levels would likely do the trick; added to the rest of the predicament of industrial society, they promise a harsh future with far less room for our species than we have come to expect.

In such a future, on the other hand, the living Earth will be fine. Temperature changes as large or larger than the one we are facing have happened countless times in the last 500 million years or so, and the planet we live on has flourished at much higher temperatures than our mismanagement can produce even in the most extreme scenario. From the perspective of deep time, it has to be remembered, the crises of the present are barely a blip on the planet’s radar. They will pass, and so, in due time, will we.

We have all grown up, in other words, thinking of nature as an adorable, helpless bunny that some of us want to protect and others, motivated by the will to power that is the unmentionable driving force behind so much of contemporary culture, want to stomp into a bloody pulp just to show that they can. Both sides are mistaken, for what they have misidentified as a bunny is one paw of a sleeping grizzly bear who, if roused, is quite capable of tearing both sides limb from limb and feasting on their carcasses. The bear, it must be remembered, is bigger than we are, and stronger; it is also better adapted to survival in the world outside the fragile shell of our industrial society. We forget this at our desperate peril.

The stunningly beautiful final image of Silent Running shows the last of Earth’s wild plants and animals, cradled in a dome of glass and steel, lit by artificial lights and tended by a robot drone, as it moves through deep space toward the stars. Brilliant cinematography though it is, it also makes a perfect image of the fallacy I’ve been outlining here. Long before the industrial civilization needed to build the dome, power the lights, and manufacture the robot can get around to stripping the Earth of its green fabric of life, that civilization will have been overwhelmed by the consequences of its own ecological mismanagement: as predicted in the Seventies,and as beginning to manifest around us right now.

Swap out nature for technology and vice versa in that final scene, in fact, and it becomes a good image of the best hope for what will be left of our industrial civilization in the future we’re making for ourselves right now. In that image, a frail and vulnerable scrap of modern society, surrounded and supported by the strong arms of nature, moves forward through the starry void along with the rest of the living Earth. How that process might be set in motion will be central to the next few posts on this blog.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Triumph of History

Nearly two decades have passed now since Francis Fukuyama announced the end of history. The chorus of catcalls that greeted this claim was by no means undeserved. Still, his theory deserves a second look today, not least because the logic that underpinned it also guides a great many claims about the shape of the future in the age of peak oil.

Fukuyama’s proclamation appeared in a 1989 article titled “The End of History?” and was further expanded a book released later that same year, The End of History and the Last Man. His arguments were misunderstood generally enough that a brief summary of them is probably worth offering here. From the 19th century German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, Fukuyama took the concept of history as a process of repeated conflicts and syntheses between contending forces, leading to a final state of perfection in which the ideal becomes manifest in historical time.

In Fukuyama’s reading, the contending forces are different systems of political economy, and history is the competition among them that ends with the victory of the best. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the intellectual bankruptcy of Marxism, he argued, marked the completion of that process, because liberal democracy – his term for the hybrid corporate-socialist bureaucratic states currently governing most of the world’s industrial societies – has proven to be the best of all possible systems. Thus the historical process is at an end; in the years to come, those states that have not yet adopted liberal democracy will do so, and the world thereafter will bask in an endless afternoon, the closest approximation to Utopia that human nature allows.

A profound irony surrounds this argument, for at every point, it duplicated the Marxist theory Fukuyama dismissed so caustically – a point Fukuyama himself admitted in a later book. Not all that many years before “The End of History?” saw print, quoting Hegel and portraying history as a grand process leading to the best possible society were the distinctive badges of the Marxist intellectual. There was never much that was new, and even less that was genuinely conservative, in the thinking of the neoconservatives who embraced Fukuyama’s claims so enthusiastically, but his proclamation in many ways marked the nadir of the process by which the American right turned into a mirror image of the Marxism it thought it was opposing.

Fukuyama’s claims, though, deserve attention on their own right. In doing this it’s crucial to note the special sense he gave to the word “history.” He was not claiming, as many of his critics suggested, that what might more broadly be called historical events will stop happening; while he claimed that liberal democracy is the best possible system, he admitted its imperfections, and allowed that those imperfections may still lead to wars, political and economic crises, and a great deal of human misery. The end of history, rather, means that no one can ever propose a better system to deal with these difficulties than the one already in place; the challenges faced by the posthistoric world will be matters of management, not of fundamental change or reconsideration.

It’s at this point that Fukuyama’s argument finds common ground with a great many other claims about the future that circulate these days. Most proponents of today’s science, for example, argue that the scientific progress of the last century or so does not simply reflect the maturation of one culture’s way of thinking about nature but, rather, traces the discovery of objective truths that can be refined but not refuted; the more enthusiastic of today’s science writers, in fact, look forward to a time not too far in the future when all nature’s fundamental laws will be known, and researchers will have to content themselves with filling in minor details.

More generally, the collective imagination of the industrial world these days seems increasingly unable to imagine a future that isn’t either a rehash of the present or a sudden, cataclysmically driven lurch backward into the past. Today’s peak oil debates are a case in point. The mainstream consensus these days treats peak oil as a challenge to be solved by finding some other convenient fuel to power the existing machinery of industrial society; move toward the fringes and you’ll find most discussions center on a return to the past, ranging from the moderate – back to the 18th century – through the extreme – back to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle – to the limiting case – back to a world without human beings, or even without life. All these claims, just as much as Fukuyama’s, treat the modern industrial world as the culmination of a historical process that runs in one direction to one foreordained conclusion.

What makes these proclamations of the end of history so fascinating is that they are themselves a historical phenomenon. The assurance of today’s scientists that the universe’s last mysteries will be solved in due time has its precise equivalent in the confidence of medieval scholastics that the nature of the world would be known for good once the last few problems with Ptolemy’s astronomy were worked out. Equally, Fukuyama’s confidence that liberal democracy was the final shape of human society has its mirror in the panegyrists of the Roman Empire, who saw the arrangements of their own time as the last word in human social structures.

As these examples suggest, claims that history has reached its final and unchanging state appear at a distinct stage in the development of cultures, and also in such cultural phenomena as science. Claims that Rome’s empire would last forever surfaced just as that empire’s expansion neared its limit, and took on a more insistent tone with each stage in the following decline. In the same way, Ptolemy’s earth-centered cosmology became steadily more entrenched in medieval culture as the problems fitting it with the observed facts became harder to ignore. Proclamations of an end to history, in fact, are one of the standard phenomena of periods in which the prospect of historical change has transformed itself from a promise to a threat.

It’s worth noting that the same stage of history also gives new impetus to the seemingly opposed belief that total cataclysmic change is imminent, and the existing order of things is about to pass away “in the twinkling of an eye.” The opposition here is more apparent than real, however; the new world waiting on the far side of apocalypse, whether it’s defined as the Kingdom of God, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the neoprimitivist hunter-gatherer utopia, or what have you is just as immune from history, at least in theory, as Fukuyama’s liberal democratic consensus. The only point under dispute is whether the ahistorical world of the future is the fulfillment of the present, or its total repudiation.

The rhetorical force and theoretical conviction of these expectations of an end to history cannot be doubted. Equally, though, it’s clear that every such claim that has been tested by events has been flattened by the steamroller force of historical change. The learned doctors who pronounce history dead, and the poets, prophets, and philosophers who write her epitaph, keep on being inconvenienced by the patient’s awkward refusal to lie down and stop breathing. Today’s prophets of history’s end commonly insist that it’s different this time, but then so did their predecessors, right back to the beginning of recorded history.

A meaningful philosophy of history, by contrast, needs to take history itself as its guide – not the few decades of history in which the Marxist-capitalist quarrel played out, as Fukuyama did, nor the few centuries from the end of the Middle Ages to the flowering of today’s technology, as the contemporary myth of progress does, but as broad a view as possible, embracing every human culture and every age of which sufficient details survive to make the exercise worthwhile. One lesson taught by any such broad view of history is that proclamations of the end of history are always premature. Another is that such proclamations are always popular at a time when attentive minds come to suspect that if history continues, the attainments of the present may not turn out to be as lasting as their propagandists claim.

To me, at least, it seems symptomatic that so many historians who attempt such a grasp of history as a whole come to see it in cyclical terms. From ibn Khaldun and Giambattista Vico to Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, the theorists of historical cycles have argued that the historical process has no endpoint. Their logic cuts to the core of the argument Fukuyama borrowed from Hegel, and it also challenges some of the most common assumptions of today’s debates concerning peak oil, anthropogenic climate change, and the other manifestations of the crisis of contemporary industrial civilization.

The central problem with Fukuyama’s argument, from the point of view of a cyclical conception of history, is that it treats the idea of “the best possible society” as an abstraction, divorced from any sense of context and any awareness of the inevitable dependence of human societies on the nonhuman world. What is possible at one time is not possible for all times, and what is good at one point in history may turn out to be far from good at another. Whether what Fukuyama calls “liberal democracy” is the most satisfactory form of human society, then – a point I don’t propose to address here – it depends utterly on radically unsustainable relationships with the planetary biosphere, with the societies it exploits, and with the majority of its own population.

While it’s popular just now to argue that these problems can be fixed without undercutting the system itself, the evidence increasingly points the other way. The American way of life, for example, depends on arrangements that allow 5% of the world’s population to exploit some 33% of its natural resources. The convulsions set off in recent years by modest improvements in China’s and India’s standards of living demonstrate that on a finite planet with rapidly depleting resources, Fukuyama’s vision of a world made over in the image of America is a pipe dream.

Thus, as the theorists of historical cycles have been pointing out all along, history has no end; the consequences of each stage in the historical process set in motion the forces that lead to the next. The question we need to be asking as peak oil makes the transition from a theory to a hard reality, in turn, is not how we can impose an ahistorical permanence on a historical situation that, by its very nature, is unsustainable; nor how we can get ready for an apocalyptic transformation to some other, equally ahistorical future; but instead, how we can cope with the triumph of history over our fantasies of immutability with some measure of grace.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Saving Science

Last week may just find its place in the history books as the point in time when peak oil became a social fact. Combine a drastic spike in oil prices – up US$16 in two days for one widely watched benchmark grade of crude oil –with an announcement by General Motors that the Hummer, that overblown icon of an era of excess, will no longer be manufactured, and you’ve got a snapshot of the transformation now hitting an unprepared and unwilling world.

As this particular milestone takes its place in the rear view mirror of contemporary history, it’s important that we try to glimpse the upcoming milestones on the road ahead. The one I’d like to address here, as I suggested at the end of last week’s post, is the need to preserve the heritage of modern science through the challenges of the coming deindustrial age.

From today’s perspective, mind you, it may seem silly to suggest that science may need saving at all. Not only does scientific research play a huge economic role in modern society, science has become an ideology that fills most of the roles occupied by religion in older civilizations than ours. Scientific institutions have profited accordingly, expanding into an immense network of universities, research institutes, foundations, and publishers, subsidized by many billions a year in government largesse.

Yet the same thing could have been said about the priesthoods of Jupiter Optimus Maximus and his fellow gods in the glory days of the Roman Empire, or the aristocratic priest-scribes of the Lowland Maya city-states in the days before Tikal and Cop├ín were swallowed by the jungle. Civilizations direct huge resources to their intellectual elites, because they can, and because the payoff in terms of each civilization’s values are well worth the expenditure. The downside is that the intellectual heritage of each civilization becomes dependent both on the subsidies that support them and on the ideological consensus that makes those subsidies make sense. In the decline and fall of a civilization, both the subsidies and the consensus are early casualties; thereafter, the temples of Jupiter get torn apart to provide stones for churches, and the intricate planetary almanacs compiled by Mayan astrologers rot in the ruins of the temples where their authors once contemplated the heavens.

Project the same process onto our own future and the vulnerabilities of science are hard to miss. Imagine, for example, a world forty years from now in which rates of annual production of oil, coal, and natural gas have dropped so low that only countries that produce them can afford to use them at all, and then only to meet critical needs. Half the surviving population in the nations with remaining fossil fuels, and 90% in the others, labors at subsistence agriculture, and most of the remainder work in factories converting salvaged materials into needed goods with hand tools. Worldwide, dozens of nations have collapsed into violent anarchy, and whole populations are on the move as sea level rises and rain belts shift. In America, the old canal network is being reopened by men with shovels, as fuel shortages hit a rail network that never recovered from its 20th-century dilapidation. Meanwhile army units face guerrilla forces in the mountain West, while refugees from starving Japan, packed into the hulks of abandoned container ships, ride the currents en masse toward the west coast.

In such a world, what role will modern science have? Certain branches of applied science, especially those applicable to energy and the military, will get funding as long as anything still exists to fund them. Most other applied fields will have to scrabble for scraps, though, while pure research will go begging, because the resources to support them in their current style won’t exist. The facilities that make advanced research possible will be boarded up when they haven’t been looted for raw materials.

Significant science could still be done in such a future. It bears remembering, after all, that such epochal scientific discoveries as the theory of natural selection and Mendelian genetics were made with equipment would be considered hopelessly inadequate for a high school science class today. The problem is that the entire mindset of today’s science militates against research on this scale. The transformation of science from a pursuit of gifted amateurs to a profession supported by government and corporate funds was complete most of a century ago; today it would be hard to find many scientists who would be able to pursue their research unassisted in a basement lab with homemade equipment, and I’m by no means sure how many of them would be willing to do it without pay, on their own time, after their day jobs.

Thus science faces the same predicament as other elements of today’s cultural heritage: it needs a constituency to carry it through the process of decline and fall, or it risks vanishing entirely. James Lovelock, one of the few scientists to glimpse this problem, has suggested creating a single large book containing scientific discoveries – “the scientific equivalent of the Bible,” in his phrase – that can be printed on durable materials and distributed widely in advance of the crash. This begs a crucial question, though: when we talk about preserving science, exactly what are we trying to save?

That word “science,” after all, includes a great many things under its umbrella. It’s common to divide them by subject into disciplines such as biology, physics, chemistry, and so on. In the present context, though, another division has more value. We need to look separately at science as product, science as profession, and science as process to make sense of our predicament and craft a strategy for its survival.

Science as product is the sort of thing Lovelock is discussing: those facts and theoretical models about the universe currently accepted as true by the majority of scientists in the relevant fields. This is in some ways the easiest part of science to save, since a single book preserved in some dusty library could preserve a huge amount, the way that Ptolemy’s Almagest preserved nearly the whole body of Greek mathematical astronomy intact. Just as the Almagest became a millstone around the neck of later astronomers, though, science as product easily fossilizes into dogma. By treating science wholly as product, Lovelock’s proposal risks reducing science to the rote repetition of doctrines accepted on the basis of blind faith.

Science as profession is the system of trained personnel and infrastructure that keeps today’s science going. This dimension of today’s science is fatally vulnerable to the impacts of decline, for reasons already discussed; the economic troubles, political chaos, and desperate exigencies of an age of decline will shred the support system for today’s science in fairly short order. In a time when the destructive legacies of technology may loom larger than its fading benefits, too, the possibility of a violent popular backlash against science cannot be dismissed out of hand

That leaves science as process: the scientific method, that elegantly simple fusion of practical logic and applied mathematics that was birthed in the 17th century and gave birth in turn to the modern world. This is the dimension that arguably deserves saving ahead of anything else, since it allows science to be done at all; ironically, it is also the most vulnerable of the three, since few people except professional scientists have any exposure to it. Lovelock’s appalling dream of scientific Holy Writ, to some extent, simply reflects current reality; science as product has eclipsed science as process, so that people outside the scientific profession are taught to accept scientific doctrines on faith, rather than being encouraged to practice science themselves. If today’s professionalized science faces extinction over the next century or so, there’s a real possibility that it could take the scientific method with it to the grave.

A number of eloquent voices have argued that this might not be a bad thing. Such writers as Theodore Roszak and Lewis Mumford have pointed out that the practical benefits of science must be weighed in the balance against the dehumanizing effects of scientific reductionism and the horrific results of technology run amok in the service of greed and the lust for power. Others have argued that scientific thinking, with its cult of objectivity and its rejection of human values, is fundamentally antihuman and antilife, and the gifts it has given us are analogous to the gewgaws Mephistopheles brought to Faust at the price of the latter’s soul.

These arguments make a strong case against the intellectual idolatry that treats science as a surrogate religion or a key to ultimate truth. I’m not convinced, though, that they make a case against the practice of science on the much more modest basis to which it is better suited, and on which it was carried on until quite recently: that of a set of very effective mental tools for making sense of material reality. As the age of cheap abundant energy comes to an end, and the reach of our sciences and technologies scales back to fit the realities of life in a world of strict ecological limits, the overblown fantasies that encouraged people to make science carry the burden of their cravings for transcendence are, I think, likely to give way sooner rather than later.

At the same time, the survival of the scientific method will be crucial to the task of creating sustainable societies in the future ahead of us. That process will be very hard to pursue without the touchstone of quantitative measurement and experimental verification. Thus I suggest that preserving the scientific method as a living tradition belongs tolerably high on the priority list as the Long Descent begins around us.

How could this be done? With today’s institutionalized science unlikely to survive, at least two options present themselves. The first is that other social forms better suited to withstand the rigors of an age of decline might choose adopt the practice of scientific research. One example is emerging just now in the movement I know best, the modern Druid community. I don’t think it’s a secret to many people that Druids care passionately about the environment, and are interested in learning about nature; the Druid order I head, for example, requires participants in its study program to learn about the natural history of the area in which they live.

With that as foundation, we are building a framework for Druids to take part in environmental sciences as active participants. It takes very little in the way of hardware to identify pollinators visiting a backyard garden, or to track turbidity and erosion along the banks of a local stream; it takes very little more to turn the knowledge gained in these ways to the work of ecological healing – providing nesting boxes for orchard mason bees, seeding erosion-controlling plants, and many other small steps with potentially huge consequences. A grasp of scientific method will be crucial in this work, and if it proves valuable to the survival of human communities and the ecosystems in which they live – as I am convinced it will – the method will be handed down to the future.

Now it’s only fair to say that Druidry, as one small religious movement among many, has no special privilege in this regard. Any other religious tradition, or for that matter any nonreligious one with enough passion and commitment to survive the coming troubles, could make a similar choice, adopting some branch of science useful to its work. It’s a tried and true method – trace the survival of Greek logic by way of Christian and Muslim religious traditions, or the parallel survival of Indian logic in Hinduism and Buddhism, and you’ll find a similar process at work. I hope other groups rise to the challenge; in the meantime, we Druids are doing what we can.

Yet scientists themselves might explore the possibility of creating new social forms to keep science going as a living tradition once today’s lavishly funded institutions become tomorrow’s boarded-up buildings and another century’s crumbling ruins. How those new forms might take shape, and how they might best cope with the crises ahead of us, is anybody’s guess just now; my own background leads me to imagine something along the lines of Freemasonry, say, or the occult lodges that kept Renaissance esoteric traditions alive during the age of science, using the keys of narrative, symbolism and ritual to turn dry philosophies into unforgettable experiences; still, this is only one option among many.

The crucial point, it seems to me, is to recognize that no special providence guards science, or for that matter any of the opulent cultural heritage we enjoy nowadays. It has been said, and rightly, that nothing seems so permanent as an empire on the verge of collapse, or so invulnerable as an army on the eve of total defeat. Like the broken statue of Ozymandias in Shelley’s poem, a few fragments of today’s science might someday stand in an metaphorical wasteland once filled with the cyclotrons and observatories of a vanished age. Our job, as I see it, is to salvage what seems most likely to be of value to the future while we still have the chance.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Religion and the Survival of Culture

Among the more interesting things I've had occasion to notice, during the time The Archdruid Report has been online, is a common assumption shared by the two popular viewpoints about the future of industrial society -- the belief in a future of perpetual progress and the belief in a future of sudden collapse. Despite their disagreements, both viewpoints embrace the claim that there is nothing to be learned from the past; our present situation, both insist, is unlike anything else in history, and therefore history cannot be used as a yardstick to measure the possible shapes of the future ahead of us.

It will not come as an unbearable surprise to readers of this blog that I find this claim unconvincing. It's true, of course, that the current predicament of industrial civilization differs in some ways from the equivalent challenges that faced, and overwhelmed, civilizations of the past. It's equally true that historical patterns never repeat themselves precisely. Still, it's worth suggesting that despite the differences, our predicament is analogous to those earlier examples, and the experiences of the past thus may turn out to be useful as we face our own future.

One pattern found very commonly in the decline and fall of civilizations, as I pointed out in last week's post, is the transmission of cultural heritage from one civilization to its successors through the medium of a newly established religious movement. The classic example, which has seen a certain amount of discussion in futurist circles since Roberto Vacca's The Coming Dark Age (1973) introduced it to contemporary culture, is the role played by monasteries in Europe in preserving Greek and Roman literature, philosophy, and scientific knowledge through the worst years of the Dark Ages.

The same thing has happened often enough elsewhere that Arnold Toynbee made the concept a key theme in the later volumes of his massive A Study of History. In Toynbee's view, the fading years of every civilization form a seedbed for new religious movements; one or more of these movements break free of the others as decline continues, to become a major cultural force; as the civilization that nurtured it collapses completely, the new religious movement fills the vacuum, salvaging what remains of the old civilization's heritage, and the concepts central to that religion become the framework on which a new civilization begins to take shape.

Toynbee’s account of this process, like so much of his historical vision, derives primarily from Roman history, and some of his details do not wear well when applied to other historical examples. In his view, for example, the religions that rise from one civilization to pass on cultural heritage to another are newly minted or recently imported missionary religions with a sense of universal mission, and this is by no means always true.

The Jewish and Zoroastrian religions provide persuasive counterexamples. Both were old religions that underwent major retooling after the collapse of their national communities, the Roman depopulation of Israel after 70 CE and the Muslim conquest of Persia in the seventh century respectively. Both abandoned universalizing ambitions to become ethnic religions, holding outsiders at arm’s length through a formidable body of custom and taboo. Both nonetheless played a significant role in passing on the cultural heritage of the classical Middle East to rising cultures in Europe and the Arabic world, in the case of the Jews, and India, in the case of the Parsis.

Broaden Toynbee’s insight to embrace a wider range of religious phenomena, though, and his basic claim – that religion very often serves as the conduit by which the cultural treasures of one civilization reach the waiting hands of the next – is true much more often than not. It’s easy enough to see why this should be so. In a time of social disintegration, when institutions collapse and long-accepted values lose their meaning, only the most powerful human motives can ensure that the economically unproductive activities needed to maintain cultural heritage will be carried out in the teeth of the difficulties. Religion is the only cultural force that consistently provides motivation strong enough for the job; the same sense of transcendent value that leads martyrs to sing hymns as they are burnt alive can just as easily inspire scholars and scribes to preserve and transmit knowledge to a future they will never see.

Nor was Toynbee wrong to point out that the religions that accomplish this function are rarely identical to the established faiths of the old civilizations. Both Rabbinic Judaism and the Zoroastrian faith of the medieval and modern Parsis differ in significant ways from the forms the same faiths took in the ancient world; the forms of Buddhism that enabled classical Japanese culture to survive the breakup of the Heian period were not the forms that thrived under the patronage of the Nara and Heian courts; even in imperial China, where a cult of cultural continuity persisted for some five thousand years, the end of a dynasty generally meant the rise of a new form of Buddhist or Taoist spirituality.

Here again, the reasons behind this changing of the guard are straightforward enough, though certain features of a civilization in decline have to be taken into account. In Toynbee’s view, as a civilization moves into its imperial phase, it suffers a schism between the dominant minority, which benefits from the imperial project, and the bulk of the population of the imperial state, which does not. As this schism in the body politic widens, the bulk of the population – the internal proletariat, in Toynbee’s terms – becomes alienated from the values of their own culture, which becomes identified with the interests of the dominant elite.

Religion is among the things most affected by this sense of alienation, and so one of the classic signs of a society on its way to collapse is a widening religious schism along class lines. America offers an interesting example of this process in motion. As it entered its imperial phase around 1900, a significant minority of Americans began breaking away from the religious consensus of their culture – a consensus that used the forms of mainstream Protestantism but, in the name of the “social gospel,” transformed that faith into an anthropolatrous worship of progress.

The vehicle for the countering schism was Christian fundamentalism. Twice, however – in the 1920s and then again in the 1980s and 1990s – fundamentalist leaders proved all too eager to cash in their ideals in exchange for crumbs of political power from the tables of the dominant minority; the result in the first case was a near-total implosion of the fundamentalist movement, and a repeat of that process seems increasingly likely today as fundamentalist churches move further away from their once-challenging role as social critics to embrace unthinking partisan loyalties nicely calibrated to support the status quo.

The failure of fundamentalism to establish itself as an alternative to the values of the dominant minority left the field open to other new religious movements. Some of those have proven just as willing to sell out as their fundamentalist equivalents; others never did veer far enough from the values of the mainstream to attract a following outside the privileged classes.

At the same time, the mainstream Protestant-progressive religiosity of the elite has widened into a consensus shared by most varieties of American Judaism, much of the English-speaking wing of the American Catholic church, and several forms of Americanized Buddhism, not to mention a very large number of people who would insist they follow no religion at all. What is often portrayed as a rising tide of tolerance among these traditions actually marks the widespread embrace of a common ideology of social progress unrelated to the central historic commitments of the faiths in question, but easy to insert into the shell of any religious (or irreligious) tradition once awkward questions about transcendent values are quietly put on the shelf.

Thus it’s hard to name a religious movement in contemporary America, or for that matter most other parts of the industrial world, that is well placed just now to rise to the occasion as industrial civilization begins the long slow process of its decline and fall. At the same time, it’s crucial to remember that we are still in a very early stage of that process. A Roman scholar of 150 CE, say, who tried to guess at the religious forms that would rise to prominence during the empire’s decline, would have faced a ferocious challenge in sorting through the contenders; his world was awash in new religious movements, some homegrown and many others from elsewhere in the Mediterranean world; nothing special marked out the destinies of Christianity and Judaism from those of their many competitors, and the religion that arguably played the largest role in passing classical culture to the medieval world, Islam, didn’t even exist yet.

Thus one of the religious movements that will pick up the remnants of modern culture and pass them on to the future might well, at the present time, consist of a few dozen people gathered around a charismatic teacher in a commune in Kentucky. Another might have been founded fifty years ago in Brazil or Bangladesh, and still awaits the brilliant missionary who will bring it to Europe or America and transform it into a mass movement. A third might still be an inchoate current of ideas that will not find its prophet for another two hundred years. The one thing that can be predicted in advance is that those movements will draw on the religious heritage of contemporary culture, but reshape it in unexpected ways that will inevitably be at odds with the conventional wisdom of our age.

Yet new religious movements there will be, and it’s far more likely than not that they will attract a growing number of followers as the industrial age stumbles toward its end. It’s often said that there are no atheists in foxholes, and there tend to be very few in times of social decay and collapse. In every age in which people believe that their own efforts can bring them the material goals their culture sets before them, it’s common for them to stop worrying about the transcendent dimension of life; it’s only when those goals become too obviously unreachable that the majority will raise their eyes to other possibilities and, as Augustine of Hippo phrased it, perceive a difference between the City of Man and the City of God.

Efforts to turn this religious impulse to foster the survival of today’s cultural heritage will succeed or fail, I think, on their willingness to let go of the assumptions of contemporary culture, and to make peace with religious forms that offend modern sensibilities. Thus, for example, there seems to be little hope in the suggestion made now and then that today’s scientific thought ought to redefine itself as a religion for this purpose. The raw material of religion certainly exists in modern science, or rather scientism, the belief system that has grown up around the simple but powerful logic of the scientific method; Carl Sagan, who did more than any other recent thinker to cast that belief system in religious terms, is arguably one of the significant theologians of the 20th century.

Yet scientism as it exists today, certainly, embodies the attitudes and values of the dominant minority at least as well as any of the more obviously religious forms mentioned above. From its long struggle to seize intellectual authority from religious institutions, too, the culture of contemporary scientism embraces a bitter hostility to more explicitly religious belief systems. This no man’s land of the Western mind forms perhaps the single most troublesome barrier to the survival of science in the deindustrial world of the future. The prospects of crossing it, and transmitting the modern world’s greatest intellectual adventure to the future, will be the focus of next week’s post.