Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Can Civilization Survive? And if so...What Will That Mean?

The 2009 State of the Future Report -- a Millenium Project co-production of UNESCO, the World Bank, the US army and the Rockefeller Foundation -- has been released, and it contains a grim warning: that "billions of people will be condemned to poverty and much of civilization will collapse". According to the Independent,

"Although the future has been looking better for most of the world over the past 20 years, the global recession has lowered the State of the Future Index for the next 10 years. Half the world could face violence and unrest due to severe unemployment combined with scarce water, food and energy supplies and the cumulative effects of climate change.And the authors of the report...set out a number of emerging environmental security issues. 'The scope and scale of the future effects of climate change – ranging from changes in weather patterns to loss of livelihoods and disappearing states – has unprecedented implications for political and social stability.'"

The Millenium Project is not alone. James Lovelock writes in his new book The Vanishing Face of Gaia that it's too late to do anything about climate change, that cap-and-trade schemes are a scam and that humanity will be "culled" by billions of souls in this century. He does believe, however, that some form of urban civilization will survive:

"Those who survive will be responsible for maintaining a high-tech, low-impact, low-energy society advanced enough to keep the flame of progress alive but small and smart enough to carefully husband what arable land remains. Lovelock guesses the rump human race will cluster around a few temperate islands in the far northern hemisphere, including his native U.K. He believes that if emergency preparations are made in time—he compares the present moment to 1939—and if the worst-case scenarios of geopolitical conflict are avoided—namely resource scrambles leading to global thermonuclear war—then something resembling a modern and even urban lifestyle could await the survivors."

If the Millenium Project and Lovelock are correct -- that "much" of civilization will collapse, but that some form of civilization will survive -- then it would seem pretty essential that we start thinking now about what that would mean. What would such a civilization look like? How would it be structured? How would it function? Most importantly, how would it avoid the sheer unsustainability of the one that preceded it?

Roger Osborne, in his 2006 book, Civilization: A New History of the Western World, argues early on that we err when we equate the term civilization only with the "positive" aspects of human societies, such as our arts and cultural productions. Any discussion of civilization must also include in his view the less savoury aspects, such as the will to power and militarism. In this he echoes Lewis Mumford, who, in his 1961 book The City in History, acknowledged these violent “unbuilding” tendencies inherent in metropolitan civilization. However, Mumford stressed that the will to dominate and exterminate that originally came with the institution of kingship and forms of political hierarchy have always coexisted with life-affirming reciprocal relationships, spiritual aspirations,arts and learning. These contradictions are expressed in the web of our social,religious, economic, political and spatial arrangements.

As such, a "post-apocalyptic" civilization will need to be a self-conscious one. It will need to re-evaluate what civilization is going to mean when all those values and accomplishments we cherish as life-affirming face unimaginable pressure under the exigencies of crisis. For, under such conditions of crisis, it will be all-too easy to lose our tenuous grasp on those things that will be most needed to save us -- and make our societies worth preserving.

For a glimpse of what I'm talking about, one could do worse than consider the new book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith. It's a postmodern "mash-up" of Jane Austen's classic novel and a zombie apocalypse. While it is on the surface a patently ridiculous proposition, Grahame-Smith noted in a recent interview that

"Many of Austen’s characters are rather like zombies...They carry on single-mindedly in their bubbles of immense wealth and privilege, no matter what’s going on around them. They pride themselves on discipline and politeness and repression and subservience. These people simply carry on with their gossip and romances and manners and balls, despite the fact that people are being gored and eaten alive. You get the sense that they would act the same way even if the rest of England was falling apart around them. In this version, it just so happens that England IS falling apart around them."

As a result of these conditions, Austen's characters recede from recognition. Despite their impeccable manners, fine speeches and good breeding, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy are brutal and skilled killers, inured to death and mayhem. At one point Liza even thinks to herself that the occasional slaughter of innocents is of no concern, as long as zombies are being dispatched.

As a thought-experiment, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies illustrates the tension between the veneer of civilization and the threat of calamity. Against such threats, a civilization must respond, but to do so in such a way that it does not become coarsened, cruel and lose sight of those very things that make it worth preserving.

No "rump" of civilization (as Lovelock puts it) will long endure if all it seeks to preserve are the material productions of civilization. An entirely new set of civilizational processes -- including non-exploitative social and environmental relations -- will be required.

By Michael Dudley

No comments:

Post a Comment