"It is the highest impertinence and presumption, therefore, in kings and ministers, to pretend to watch over the economy of private people, and to restrain their expence, either by sumptuary laws, or by prohibiting the importation of foreign luxuries. They are themselves always, and without any exception, the greatest spendthrifts in the society. Let them look well after their own expence, and they may safely trust private people with theirs. If their own extravagance does not ruin the state, that of their subjects never will." ~ Adam Smith
The Key to the Future
Exclusive to STR
July 9, 2007
"The task of dramatically changing the world for the better -- specifically, of replacing neurosis and tyranny with love and freedom -- only seems impossible; change happens constantly and large shifts in the character of society have occurred repeatedly in history."
-- from an earlier essay in this series, Opening Up to Paradise: My Journey to an Optimistic View of the Future
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My optimism is a part-time thing. For the moment, it has wandered off.
Surely you can see why: dark times are coming. If you listen carefully, the wailing of despair is almost audible. Raise your face to the wind and the merest hint of desperation teases your nostrils, as the scent of fear quantum-tunnels in from across the present/future boundary. That future, the country we must all soon call home, is writhing against the membrane of our placid, familiar, comfortable "now." The shape of this future is not yet in focus, but a dark chill settles in whenever we risk an uneasy glance in its direction.
You know as well as I what is coming: economic collapse on a global scale from decades of criminal economic and political policies; seismic destruction of industrial civilization (including a breakdown in the division of labor) from peak oil (and from peak metal, for that matter); a catastrophic freshwater shortage that would spell death for hundreds of millions even if we had massive excess wealth and energy to address the problem with; environmental disaster in several forms; and the long-planned, technologically-enabled, and many-faceted national and even global police state -- to name only the better-known problems. There are others.(1)
Ray Kurzweil -- the most famously optimistic of today's futurists -- may be upbeat about the near future, but even he thinks "it would be helpful if we gave [thermonuclear war and artificial or maliciously reprogrammed viruses] a higher priority." In other words, Kurzweil thinks high-tech can solve many of the problems above, but we still might wipe ourselves out with one type of weapon or another. Yeah, that's cheerful, alright.
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The Baby Boomers, and their parents and grandparents, rode the curves of increasing energy-wealth, technology, and prosperity into a future that could, for the most part, overcome or at least ignore the problems it was creating. (Well, those in the developed world had that luxury, but elsewhere, over a billion people still have to get by without even having clean water to drink.)
Western Baby Boomers were better off than their Greatest Generation parents, who in turn were better off than their parents had been. For the most part, the trend for wealth (as with lifespan) in the West has been upward, from the mid-1800s to the early years of the 21st Century.
That optimistic, always-better future is now largely behind us. The trend is already turning, with U.S. men in their 30s now earning about $5,000 less (in real terms) per year than their fathers did. Many factors ensure that children and grandchildren of the Boomers in the West -- not to mention generations further down the line -- will experience diminishing wealth and material quality of life for a long time to come. Nor will other areas of the world escape this great unwinding. In Asia, an economic boom (the direct result of increased freedom) is presently lifting millions out of poverty, but epic levels of pollution and all the other problems listed above, including especially Peak Oil, are set to derail this economic miracle. Asia may do better in the near-term than America, but if future oil production looks anything like this, then China's 1.3 billion people are going to be very disappointed, including the one billion still trying to escape severe poverty.
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So close and yet so far! What was nearly in hand, now increasingly seems beyond reach.
But perhaps I am being too pessimistic. The older generations have made a mess of things, true, and big, uncomfortable changes are coming. (Those changes will be more than "uncomfortable" for many, I am sorry to say). But there may still be time, and reason for hope.
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The hope I am talking about is for something other than modern, energy-intensive prosperity for everyone, with plentiful resources and a reasonably clean environment -- which may or may not be possible in the future. Instead, what I am hoping for is Paradise, by which I mean something largely non-material and entirely non-supernatural.
My conception of Paradise is specific yet open-ended. I see Paradise as a healthy world deeply characterized by love and freedom. Such a world can exist with or without modern technology, although I would strongly prefer "with." But even without modern high technology, we have the tools to make life better than it was 200 years ago, including the germ theory of disease, which clearly points to many low-tech methods of reducing infectious disease, such as washing one's hands and putting antibiotics -- some of which are naturally occurring -- on cuts.
It is not high-tech (helpful though it can be) that will save humanity or make people's lives worth living: only love and freedom can do that.
Love and freedom together form the natural state we were born for, you and I. A world of love and freedom is the Paradise we were all born for.
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What happened, then? Why are things such a mess? Why do we not have the world we want?
Perhaps we did have it, once, in the lush rainforests of our species' birth. There is evidence that even today, in a few hidden places, some people do live in such a world.(2) Even in the "civilized" world there are a few groups that fit my description of Paradise, where both compassion and real freedom are the norm; Summerhill School in England is an example.
But Paradise has not yet been widely and permanently created on Earth for good reason: the time has not been right. Conditions allowing for widespread, ongoing emotional health have simply not been available to most human beings since we came down out of the trees. The average life expectancy for our species during prehistoric times may have been as little as 19 years. So many people died in childbirth (mothers and newborns alike), during infancy, in childhood, and in their teens that despite some people living to be grandparents, the average lifespan'whatever the actual number'was shockingly, horrifyingly low during most of our time on this planet. The amount of grief, fear, and pain caused by problems at birth, infectious disease, predators, human conflict, hunger, and poor conditions of sanitation and housing, among other things, made repression of trauma an ongoing necessity.
"Repression of trauma" is the start of neurosis and the end of deep, natural connection to feeling. For an individual, neurosis is the end of Paradise . Widespread neurosis is the end of Paradise for a society or a world.
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That traumatic early events lead to neurosis, and that widespread neurosis leads to unhealthy societies, are fundamental and important truths about the human world.
Emotional trauma can be inflicted by the horrors of war, by genocide, and by other destructive government action as well as by natural disasters (hurricanes, fires, droughts, etc.) and by emotionally damaged individuals, including, most commonly, by parents. A society with high levels of emotional damage is unlikely to remain safe or pleasant for long, even for those who are not strongly neurotic. Alice Miller's writings include substantial detail about this factor, especially in regards to Germany during the Hitler years.
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Whether or not we get through the next few decades without severe problems, we can do this: We can spread the idea of Paradise as being a world of love and freedom.
Neither love nor freedom requires great wealth or high technology. Love and freedom only require an openness to feeling and goodwill towards others, and these two characteristics are the natural outcome of a compassionate, loving childhood. If you didn't have a loving childhood, try your best to find the healthy, centered, real part of yourself: it's in there, believe me.
Good times and bad are both part of the human condition. The healthiest and most fulfilling way to go through either good times or bad is as full human being, open to life and with a sense of connection to and compassion for others -- including respect for every person's self-ownership.
Paradise exists within us, or not at all, and that is the key to making the most of our future.
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Notes (or Bonus Column; take your pick):
(1) Doesn't the market solve all problems? No, although given enough time, markets do solve most problems -- and they certainly do a better job than coercive central planning, AKA "government." But time is always an issue (thought experiment: you fall out of an airplane without a parachute; will the market save you?), and we don't have enough time, it appears, for a seamless fix of many of today's problems even if we did have a truly free market. I'll focus on Peak Oil here: If governments weren't wasting trillions of dollars on wars and other nonsense and if they weren't steering oceans of money into pseudo-solutions like ethanol, then the market might be able to solve the diminishing oil supply problem before TEOTWAWKI. We would still have a very painful transition period, but we might recover and reach a comfortable equilibrium fairly quickly. But governments are doing what they always do -- making things worse and wasting resources on a massive scale in the process -- so I expect a disaster, by which I mean a long period of serious-becoming-catastrophic disruption, including a spectacular population die-off, before things stabilize. For a very detailed look at the supply picture, I can point you to Energyfiles.com, which bills itself as "the world's only B2B comprehensive oil and gas production, consumption and activity forecasting service." The site provides information and forecasts for every oil-producing region and nation in the world [well, it looks like every such nation to me . . .]. Click a few links at the site and check your favorite oil exporter -- try Mexico [peak year: 2004, with production dropping rapidly now] and Saudi Arabia [peak year forecast for 2018, with a nearly-flat plateau for liquid oil -- gas is also on the graph -- beginning in 2010 or so]. These are America's #2 and #3 suppliers, behind Canada. Venezuela, our next largest supplier of oil, passed its peak in 1970, the same year our own oil production in the U.S. peaked.
Energyfiles.com's site overview by Dr Michael R. Smith includes this: ". . . there is no painless way to fill the gap. Of course it will be filled, partly from traditional sources, partly from new alternatives, partly from simple efficiencies, but a large portion will have to be filled by demand destruction. In the real world demand destruction means poverty and conflict so we should be working towards reducing our vulnerability to such destruction."
The good news here, for those who worry about global warming, is that all those charts with the downward curves for oil production are telling us we don't need to do anything to reduce oil consumption: that is going to happen very soon whether we like it or not. Handing control of the Earth to some fascist "third way" authority headed by Al Gore will not be required.
Readers who are now appropriately terrified may wish to look into the many alternatives to oil, such as nano-powdered metal, which may eventually allow for the continuance of civilization more-or-less as we know it. (Surprisingly enough, powdered metal looks like a serious long-term contender as an energy carrier, especially since it can be de-oxidized and reused. Powdered metal is not something you'll be filling your car's fuel tank with anytime soon, however.) Furthermore, some say Peak Oil is a corrupt globalist scam. Some Peak Oil doomers are already backpedaling (not on the fact of a peak, however). Anyhow, the peak is probably years away. Maybe; maybe not. Increasing numbers of experts believe the peak has already occurred, although expensive and energy-intensive replacements for conventional "light, sweet crude" muddy the picture, in part because some need a half-barrel or more of oil-energy-equivalent to produce a single barrel of useable oil.
(2) The link in that sentence is to an interview with Jean Liedloff. I also recommend Liedloff's haunting The Continuum Concept: In Search of Happiness Lost. A sample quote from the book: "The notion of ownership of other persons is absent among the Yequana . . . . Deciding what another person should do, no matter what his age, is outside the Yequana vocabulary of behaviors. There is great interest in what everyone does, but no impulse to influence -- let alone coerce -- anyone." If the idea that freedom is a necessary part of compassion doesn't quite make sense to you yet, Liedloff's book will make it clear. The Continuum Concept is far better, both as a reading experience and as a lesson on human nature, than its critics make it out to be.
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Portions of this column were taken from the author's The Paradise Paradigm: On Creating a World of Compassion, Freedom, and Prosperity.