March 29, 2009

Size, Complexity, and Gluttony (2 of 2)

Filed under: Relocalization, Scientism/Technocracy, Tower of Babel — Tags: , , , , — Russell Bangs @ 5:19 am

Yesterday in this post I discussed the inherent instability and proneness to systemic failure of the immense, ramified, Rube Goldberg structures which have come to dominate the world, and which threaten to be imposed as the only conceivable solutions to the problems we face.

The result is a Tower of Babel whose every tottering is met with the call, “Build another layer!”, as every layer renders it only more top heavy, more of an inverted pyramid.

Therefore we have a tottering pyramid of systemic debt, on top of which the technocrats want to build another pyramid of geoengineering, GMOs, aggrofuels, and nuclear reactors. This debt-funded technolgical structure will allegedly allow us to continue with economic, automotive, and consumerist business as usual without starving the world’s non-rich or further aggravating the climate crisis.

And on top of this, as the alleged purpose of the Tower being built so high already, everyone is to continue building his own personal debt pyramid of consumer and carbon debt. The technology will provide the carbon debt jubilee, while the consumer debt, even in the face of everything we see happening now, is still religiously assumed to be sustainable.

This is supposed to allow exponential growth to resume, and the high-impact, materially gilded consumer lifestyle is supposed to be so enabled to continue unchanged, and not at the expense of the world’s poor.

I’ll argue elsewhere that none of these three propositions are likely to be realized, and that the first two at any rate are in a zero-sum game against the third. For now I’ll just say I don’t believe it’ll be possible for the West’s automobile-intensive lifestyle or its extreme carbon emissions to continue except at the direct expense of the world’s poor. This will be the subject of future posts.

For now I want to say a few words on the underlying moral assumptions of the consumer economy and lifestyle. The core of this decadence is the will to buy as much as possible of useless material junk whose only purpose seems to be as sort of psychological salve. Nobody could articulate why America “needed” to stupidly gigantize its vehicles and houses, or why it had to accumulate such a plethora of electronics and machines whose new versions added nothing but bells and whistles, but whose planned obsolescence seemed to trigger a kind of anxiety in people who have been less and less able to define themselves in any way but by their material “things” – the sheer quantity, the literal size, the expense, and the hipness factor. That this psychology existed in the first place, and had such need of being salved, bespeaks a deeper spiritual crisis.

The nature of this crisis is that over the post-war decades Americans developed a smugness and sense of entitlement both morally and materially. They became less willing to do real work, but rather felt the world owed them a living on account of their self-evident moral grandeur and evident ability to generate a consumerist utopia which materialists all over the world aspire to to this day.

Since Americans didn’t want to really work but still wanted to “have it all”, the answer was debt. America used the status of the dollar as reserve currency to financialize the global economy (goosed with petrodollar recycling; in this way America’s debt fixation and its oil addiction attained synergy), and on the domestic front the people more and more racked up debt to pay for a lifestyle binge. (Much of this debt exists in the form of integenerational warfare as the baby boomers waged war on their own children and grandchildren. This battlefront still rages today.)

They developed a psychotic sense of entitlement regrading all these things. And commensurate with all this came a refusal to recognize that all this was founded upon cheap, plentiful fossil fuels and the mining of other abundant resources; but that now we were starting to run up against the limits of these resources.

Faced with these limits, refusing to consciously acknowledge them, refusing to recognze the necessity for devolution and relocalization, America instead seeks to step up the building of the Tower of Babel. The red thread that runs through it all is (1) the refusal to end the binge, to recognize the party’s over; (2) the will of the power structure and its mercenary scientific water carriers is to serve this refusal, and seek its own profit, however crazed.

The whole situation is like in Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, where there’s a materially lavish but morbid, necrophiliac party as right outside the door the plague rages. Of course it soon finds its way in.

America went into debt to buy junk it didn’t need which nobody should really want, and which it didn’t deserve anyway. This is why America’s moral character has become so flabby. On account of the temporary plenty provided by rich natural resources, America got an undeserved windfall, and has mostly lived on the interest.

Between this handout from fate and the vulgar frauds of mass pseudo-democracy, America’s character became completely gutted, as both in attitude and (for a while) in reality it developed its religion of entitlement.

Now that the material wave is receding, all that’s left is the bad attitude, and a social system based on rationing by aggression and stupidity.

One of our paramount needs in this new day of crisis and opportunity is for a character renewal. There are many reasons to reject the green cornucopian siren songs of geoengineering and biofuels, GMOs and nukes and CCS. On an economic level surely the age of monumental architecture is over. It would be an insane waste of effort and wealth to even try such things. 

But we should also ask, what’s the moral quality of a sense of entitlement which says we should burn food to fill our gas tanks, when this causes the price of food to rise unendurably for the world’s poor? When it even leads to shortages, riots, and mass starvation? Wouldn’t such selfishness be evil?

There’s also the the morality involved in an environmental and social baseline. I never had to treat with the costs, logistic boondoggles, and risks of CCS (although these are immense and render the project irrational), since the environmental and socioeconomic ravages of mountaintop removal mining by themselves rule out coal as a constructive part of civilization. Indeed, I don’t even have to reach the carbon issue here. We can say the same vis nukes and the ravages of uranium mining.  In these cases we see how there are many levels of moral, practical, and rational disqualifiers for all these Tower of Babel projects. Different people will place different emphases at different levels of critique, but my point is I don’t see how anyone can with integrity accept the Tower. It is the monumental architecture of terminal decadence.

Debt consumerism’s moral and corrosive effects heightened the environmental devastation and resource depletion it fed off of in a vicious circle. The giant political and social structures this dynamic raised up – centralized, concentrating and intensifying power and wealth – have been used for social and geopolitical domination.

Materially, politically, and spiritually the motion has been away from the freedom this country was supposed to embody. We aren’t living the good life of classical leisure and intellectual fulfillment the apostles of technology promised. Politically we are simply not free. Rather, any voice which does not join in the hymn sung by big government/big business/big media is marginalized. We in the blogsphere are trying to make inroads on this, but as we all know it’s slow, arduous going at best, and it’s unlikely our ideas can achieve “mainstream” status in time. 

Spiritually, we have to rebuild from the ground up. Here too we need to relocalize. Any good idea, and any way of living with integrity, started locally and never got very big. The catch-22 we face is that by the time a truth becomes mainstream it’s no longer a truth, and by the time an idea becomes mainstream it’s been leached of all vibrance and is just the wraith of an idea. We’ve seen what’s happened with the “green” theme as consumerism and the big profit motive got ahold of it. Does this have to be true of relocalization as well? Is a mainstream relocalist idea a contradiction in terms? Or is relocalization not so much an idea as a template for action which can be invested with a great variety of ideas, rhythms, tones? I look forward to finding out.


  1. Hi Russ,

    I really like this post. It makes many important points, while being easy to read 🙂

    Comment by DualPersonality — December 30, 2011 @ 12:56 am

    • Thanks DP!

      Comment by Russ — December 30, 2011 @ 6:04 am

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