Thursday, August 29, 2013

Man is a Mythical Hero who Gives the Civil Religion of Progress its Central Figure

Since the days of Sir Francis Bacon, whose writings served as the first draft of the modern mythology of progress, one of the central themes of that mythology has been the conquest of Nature by humanity—or rather, in the more revealing language of an earlier day, by Man. You aren’t Man, in case you were wondering, and neither am I; neither is Sir Francis Bacon, for that matter, nor is anyone else who’s ever lived or will ever live. This person called Man, rather, is a mythical hero who gives the civil religion of progress its central figure. Just as devout Christians participate vicariously in the life of Christ through the celebration of the sacraments and the seasons of the liturgical year, believers in progress are supposed to participate vicariously in Man’s heroic journey from the caves to the stars by purchasing hot new products, and oohing and aahing appreciatively whenever the latest shiny technological trinket is unveiled by Man’s lab-coated priesthood.

Man’s destiny is to conquer Nature. That’s his one and only job, according to the myth, and when Man’s not doing that, he’s not doing anything worthwhile at all. Read any of the standard histories of Man written by true believers in the civil religion of progress, and you’ll see that societies and eras that devoted their energies to art, music, religion, literature, or anything else you care to name other than extending Man’s dominion over Nature are dismissed as irrelevant to Man’s history, when they’re not critiqued outright for falling down on the job.

You may be thinking by this point, dear reader, that a belief system that likes to portray humanity as a tyrant and conqueror rightfully entitled to view the entire cosmos as its own private lebensraum may not be particularly sensible, or for that matter particularly sane. You may well be right, too, but I’d like to focus on a somewhat more restricted point:  according to this way of looking at things, Nature is not supposed to put up more than a pro forma struggle or a passive resistance. Above all, once any part of Nature is conquered, it’s supposed to stay conquered—and of course that’s where the trouble creeps in, because a great many of the things we habitually lump together as Nature are refusing to go along with the script. John Michael Greer

In both cases, and in any number of others, the myth of progress is the most important barrier in the way of a meaningful response to our predicament. According to the myth, we can’t go backwards to any condition encountered in the past; what Man conquers is supposed to stay conquered, so he can continue his ever-victorious journey from the caves to the stars. It’s unthinkable, in terms of the myth, that the supposed conquest of some part of nature—say, bacterial disease—might represent nothing more than a temporary advantage that the pressures of natural selection will soon erase. Thus when this latter turns out to be the case, those believers in the religion of progress who aren’t forced to confront such awkward realities in their work or their daily lives simply repeat the sacred words “Oh, I’m sure they’ll think of something,” to invoke the blessing of the great god Progress on His only begotten son, Man, and then proceed to act as though nothing could possibly go wrong.
The difficulty, of course, is that an embarrassingly large portion of the territory supposedly conquered by Man over the last three centuries is showing an awkward propensity to ignore Man’s overlordship and do what it wants instead. The much-ballyhooed Green Revolution of the mid-20th century is another case in point. The barrage of fertilizers and poisons the proponents of that movement turned on agriculture won a temporary advantage over the hard subsistence limits of earlier eras, but it was only temporary. The reckless use of artificial fertilizers turned out to have drastic downsides, while the poisons drove insects and weeds into exactly the same frenzy of intensive natural selection that antibiotics brought to the microbial world. Insects and weeds don’t reproduce as quickly or swap genetic material with the same orgiastic abandon as microbes, but the equivalent changes are happening at a slightly slower pace; one of the dirty secrets of conventional agriculture is that herbicide resistance among weeds and pesticide resistance among insects and other agricultural pests are spreading rapidly, erasing the short-term gains of the Green Revolution while leaving the long-term costs in lost topsoil and poisoned water tables to be paid by generations to come.
Farmers faced by resistant weeds and pests, like physicians faced by resistant microbes, are turning to increasingly desperate measures to get the same results that their equivalents got with much less trouble. That’s exactly the situation that’s driving the current fracking boom and bubble, too. Back in the glory days of petroleum exploration and discovery, drillers could punch a well a few hundred feet into the ground and hit oil; now it takes hugely expensive deepwater drilling, tar sands extraction, or hydrofracturing of shale and other “tight oil” deposits to keep the liquid fuel flowing, and the costs keep rising year after year.

The implication that has to be faced is that the age of petroleum, and everything that unfolded from it, was exactly the same sort of temporary condition as the age of antibiotics and the Green Revolution. Believers in the religion of progress like to think that Man conquered distance and made the world smaller by inventing internal combustion engines, aircraft, and an assortment of other ways to burn plenty of petroleum products. What actually happened, though, was that drilling rigs and a few other technologies gave our species a temporary boost of cheap liquid fuel to play with, and we proceeded to waste most of it on the assumption that Nature’s energy resources had been conquered and could be expected to fork over another cheap abundant energy source as soon as we wanted one.

That follows logically from the myth, but it doesn’t follow in reality. Instead, the temporary advantage our species gained by exploiting all that cheap, easily accessible petroleum is being brought to an end by factors even more implacable than the constant pressure of natural selection on niche boundaries: the simple facts that a finite planet by definition only contains a finite amount of any given resource, and that deposits of every resource are distributed according to the power law—the rule, consistently true across an impressive range of fields, that larger deposits are much less common than smaller ones. Those factors are not going away; the fact that Wall Street office fauna are shoveling smoke about, ahem, “limitless amounts of oil and natural gas” from fracked wells, may make them their umpteenth million and keep the clueless neatly sedated for a few more years, but it’s not going to do a thing to change the hard facts of the predicament that’s closing around us all.

Seen in this light, the mythology of Man’s conquest of Nature bears an uncomfortable resemblance to a certain other campaign of conquest launched to the sound of blaring brass bands and overconfident pronouncements in the not too distant past. Like German civilians tuning in to news broadcasts from Berlin in the heady summer of 1941, people in the world’s industrial nations have taken in any number of proclamations about Man’s latest glorious victories in the war against Nature. The conquest of disease, the conquest of hunger, the conquest of air and space and distance itself—is there any scientific or technological success, however temporary, that hasn’t been praised in those fatuous terms?—each had its fifteen minutes of fame as Man’s heroic legions of science and progress pursued their allegedly invincible Drang nach Sternen.

Some time ago, though, the content of the propaganda broadcasts began to change, though their tone did not. Nuclear fusion seems to have played much the same role in Man’s conquest of Nature that Moscow played in that other campaign, the goal that seemed almost in reach time and again, but never quite fell into the hands so greedily outstretched for it. Other campaigns meant to push the frontiers of Man’s dominion further out into Nature’s unconquered territory have had equally mixed luck, and even the immense effort that put an American flag on the Moon turned out to have no more influence on the course of events than the rather less challenging campaign by an SS mountain battalion that put a  different flag on the summit of the highest mountain in the Caucasus range.

It’s what followed that relative stalemate, though, that’s of importance here. Beginning in 1943, the German civilians tuning in to those radio broadcasts from Berlin had to deal with an increasing burden of cognitive dissonance, as the heroic battles and triumphant victories breathlessly announced by Goebbels’ acolytes stopped moving eastwards on the map and started shifting back toward the west. The forces that had been sweeping everything before them in the suburbs of Moscow were now doing the same thing in the vicinity of Smolensk, with no explanation of the change. Nor was there any clearer explanation to be had as Germany’s glorious victories shifted steadily westwards, past Minsk and Warsaw and Breslau, until nervous listeners in the Berlin suburbs, just before the broadcasts stopped for good, could hear the sound of artillery rattling their own windows. John Michael Greer

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