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What if saving the world meant life was tasty, beautiful and just long enough?

Written By: - Date published: 10:43 am, August 4th, 2021 - 22 comments
Categories: climate change - Tags: , , ,

The nasty, brutish and short meme is a failure of imagination.

I often think about why it’s so hard for people to see the value in the Powerdown. If the capitalism-driven climate and ecological crises have the distinct possibility to end human civilisation (this is no longer a fringe theory), and there are solutions that both avert the worst of climate change by mitigation, and at the same time transition us to a resilient society best positioned to weather the storms that are already locked in, why would we not at least consider them?

Why the resistance to even countenance that dropping the excess of our lifestyles might be just the ticket out of this hell?

There are probably lots of answers to that question, but the one that interests me here is the long history of evolution where our ancestors’ ability to improve their lot became hardwired into a creative force that led to bigger brains, walking upright, fire, and farming. Nek minit (in the evolutionary scheme of things), nuclear bombs, the rise and fall of the age of antibiotics, and the fast burn of climate catastrophe.

The antibiotic one is useful to examine, because it illustrates our greatest failing: creative force meets force of hubris meets social and political inertia. We invent a medicine that renders an extraordinary advantage in terms of survivability and quality of life, yet we don’t have the cultural wisdom to protect that advantage for future generations and in a short half century we squander the benefit that should have seen humans through into the future far beyond our current vision. Thanks to overuse in medicine and farming, we are now at the end of the age of antibiotics.

It’s a kind of anti-evolution. And it’s a pattern of collective human behaviour that is repeated in almost every tech advance we make now.

With no limits on our craftiness, we hurl the whole world to the edge of the precipice in multiple ways at the same time. Peak Colonisation. The question remains if we have enough courage, intelligence and imagination to stop short of oblivion. Of course, it’s not that there are no limits, it’s that we are in denial of them. Covid slapped us down a bit, climate and ecology is going to be the really hard hit.

When some of us talk about part of the solution being that we just stop doing so much shit (build less, take less, need less, do less), it seems to upset people. We have some hefty socialisation that says that less = worse, but anyone paying even half attention to the happiest people know that this simply isn’t true. The consumerist cultures of the West have analysed to death the dynamic of consuming not making us happy,

It’s not like we don’t already have alternative tools and pathways. Indigenous peoples retain the cultural practices that the West has lost that build true sustainability into all stratas of human endeavour. Before anyone starts, this is less noble savage and more ‘we fucked up and learnt our lesson early’. But it’s also the difference between cultures that retain the primacy of our relationship with nature as the ground of our being,  and those that see nature as a resource to exploit or somewhere to visit rather than nature being ourselves.

The West hasn’t been devoid of all sense. Among the many useful sustainability techs coming out of the counter culture, permaculture shines as a system of design built on integrating indigenous practice, and science, and translating into a form for the Western mind. Based around a set of sustainability and resiliency ethics and principles (earth care, people care, fair share), and taking its cues from the sustainability in the cycles of the natural world, it offers a set of design tools that can be applied to most problems, and that have been field tested for forty years.

 

This explanation from permaculture co-originator David Holmgren lays out the both/and, third path approach and neatly subverts the nasty/brutish/short meme, opening the door to the West’s redemption.

That we could take the best out of the 3 great lineages of human cultural evolution. The hunter-gatherer, nomad, minimalist heritage, the long history. The ten thousand years of settled agricultural history. And the 200 years of industrial modernity. And we could take the best out of those things to craft new culture that would inevitably need to relocalise as the reverse of globalisation happened, as the wealth of fossil fuel declined, but that that would create different local cultures that all had a unity in being some new stage in human evolution. Built into permaculture was the idea that yes, some notion of progressive human cultural evolution, but also a reworking, a reawakening of the deep wisdom that lay with our ancestors at a different levels.

Most of the leading edge ‘beyond catastrophe’ movements I am aware of understand that human well-being is instrinsic to saving the world. This means that approaches like the Powerdown inherently include humans being ok too. It’s the third path that takes us out of the false binary of nasty/brutish/short versus green/brown tech death cult futures.

Holmgren has spoken about how our job isn’t to know how to do all the things over the long future to make sure we are ok, but that instead we need to attend to what is in front of us with the full intelligence we have at our disposal. Later generations will figure out the next steps of life beyond uber industrialisation and high tech culture. We just have to make the cultural and political changes that put us on the right path, one protects all of life so that we also may survive and thrive. The issue isn’t whether we can make things right, it’s whether we will in time.


Holmgren’s explanation of what permaculture is here.

22 comments on “What if saving the world meant life was tasty, beautiful and just long enough? ”

  1. Stuart Munro 1

    There are, of course, a number of institutional obstacles to overcome before a gracile turn in human consumption is likely to be embraced. One is the crude economic measures used, like GDP, which seems to be designed as much to misleadingly equate unproductive activity like real estate speculation or banking with productive enterprise, as to provide intelligent guidance for future policy.

    Another is the concentration on vehicles, of which the electric copy of the petrol version falls short of a well-designed alternative mode. We would be seeing sensible outgrowths of the electric bicycle for local transport by now, were bureaucratic priorities well aligned with future needs, not to mention growth in rail and shipping.

    We should not be altogether surprised however – even the immediate need for coherent housing solutions is being kicked down the road while our erstwhile leaders exercise themselves with ill-conceived hate speech and gender issues laws for which they have no mandate.

    • weka 1.1

      True. And yet we have other models to work with. Marilyn Waring wrote about women's unpaid work a long time ago, that's been a missed opportunity to rethink mainstream economic models. Kate Raworth's Doughnut Economics is mainstream enough to not scare the horses. Ardern's government is at least nodding in the right direction with a wellbeing budget. These are not fringe ideas. What's stopping us from exploring limits of growth more deeply? Not the politicians, us.

      Systems thinking is not something we are taught, and it's hard to explain, it's like having to learn a new language. Why the big resistance to that?

      • arkie 1.1.1

        Many associate Fredric Jameson’s remark, “it’s easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism” with Mark Fisher. For good reason: Fisher’s account of capitalist realism confronts us with capitalism’s unbearable yet unavoidable horrors. From the genocidal destruction of settler colonialism, through the demolition of cultures and modes of life that accompanies commodity production and exchange, to planet-altering anthropogenic climate change, capital subsumes the world. We can easily imagine an end to the world because under capitalism most of us confront it every day as we are forced to choose our exploitation, dispossession, and confinement. It’s easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism because capitalism is the end of the world. We witness and endure it in the ruins of everyday life—lost lives, lives of loss.

        https://mediationsjournal.org/articles/end-of-world

        The resistance comes from the scale of the task, and the power of the status quo. It is frightening to abandon the known for the uncertainty of a newly-forged path.

        • weka 1.1.1.1

          it’s easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism

          That's a great point. Although I would say that ending capitalism isn't a necessity for our next move and we shouldn't get stuck on that point. But it's true that it's easier to imagine an end to the world than it is to imagine good change to prevent that that involves a paradigm shift. This is why I think we need to be talking about it way more, normalising it.

      • Stuart Munro 1.1.2

        Why the big resistance to that?

        It may in part be the messengers – I think the 2nd worst textbook I ever read was on systems thinking.

        Robert's approach may be better – seed libraries and cutting exchanges. Once people start spending a bit more time with trees, they get the picture.

        • weka 1.1.2.1

          haha, yeah, I think systems thinking has to be matched to the person.

          Spending more time in nature for sure, trees, gardening, wilderness. Anything that pokes holes in the denial of nature as what we are immersed in. Also, that it's primarily a relationship of love.

  2. Cricklewood 2

    Re antibiotics we are see the discovery of entire new classes which are showing great promise in the lab against super bugs.

    Somewhat apt given the post is that we are finding them in soils.

    Just another good reason to take care of the environment.

    • weka 2.1

      what classes of drugs are those?

      • cricklewood 2.1.1

        The class I'm most aware of has been named Malicidens.

        Basically most of our modern antibiotics come from the soil ie penicillin and streptomycin. Because at the time extracting new potential antibiotics was challenging we turned to creating them in the lab based off the original source material which have exhausted the potential of.

        We have now turned back to looking in the soil, and our technological advancements have lowered some of the early barriers. I think human trials are scheduled to start in 2022.

        Obviously I would hope that we are far more careful if we do get a second shot at it.

  3. barry 3

    We are biologically driven organisms, with evolution favouring overconsumption in times of abundance to build strength to tide us over in times of adversity. Village life allowed us to counter this to an extent by allowing us to see the value of self-control.

    However, we are now so disassociated from the consequences of our profligacy that theoretical knowledge is not enough influence our behaviour. That goes for the personal (e.g. obesity, debt etc) as much as societal.

    Given that the non-consumers among us have very little influence on overall behaviour of the rest, we are doomed. The rewards for overconsuming are too great.

    • weka 3.1

      While I appreciate how people end up thinking nothing can be done, I think this is also a failure of imagination.

      Worst case we are forced to change by the environment as climate and ecologies collapse, so having paradigms and systems ready is still very important. But social change can happen fast for other reasons, less extreme, so taking about how to facilitate that is the greatest task we have.

    • GreenBus 3.2

      Great points barry. I love to see manufacturers of retail packaging reined in by regulation to minimise the materials used and massively reduce the recycling load.

      Your right we don't have control as consumers, if you need a product the packaging is not optional.

      • weka 3.2.1

        the parts of the population that have wealth beyond survival do have some control though. Firstly in what we consider is a need. And secondly in choosing items that don't have packaging where that is an option.

        The shifts happening around packaging are fast atm. It's grass roots and consumer pressure, political parties like the Greens being in government, businesses ideologically onboard, and design/manufacturing stepping up and providing what is needed. That's how change happens.

    • Drowsy M. Kram 3.3

      Given that the non-consumers among us have very little influence on overall behaviour of the rest, we are doomed. The rewards for overconsuming are too great.

      Rewards” resonates with me – buy one, get one free. That's get one for FREE people!

      Consider 'retail therapy'; fashion's just another word for 'planned obsolescence'.

      Fashion has a Planned Obsolescence Problem
      My 100 year old grandmother reminisces on decades gone by when clothes were seen as an investment. Items were designed to last many years, and be easily taken in and out. Fast forward to today, and clothes are hardly ever constructed this way.

      I recall Mum taking bed sheets worn thin in middle, cutting them in half and sewing the less worn ends together to extend linen life. But the golden 1.3 billion are so busy now – who has the time, skills or inclination to make items (that) last longer?

      Tisco Waikato 2005 LTD is still operating. Over-consumption is a behavioural disorder, and most of the golden 1.3 billion have it bad.

      Solutions? Plan ahead. Walk (or cycle) when and where you can – make the time. Favour durable, repairable, locally-made products, and (as GreenBus says) mind the packaging. Before each purchase, ask yourself (honestly) – "Do I really need it?"

      Lastly, and most important – treat yourself (and others) occasionally.

  4. Maurice 4

    "Less for Thee … but not for Me" tends to be the blockage in the road to sustainability

    • weka 4.1

      How so? The transitions cultures are already doing less for me.

    • WeTheBleeple 4.2

      I've stopped driving, smoking, using a phone… and life is BETTER than it was.

      I've shifted to part time work because consumption for the sake of it is a tedious bore. That made life EVEN BETTER.

      Then I put some of the spare time into helping others less fortunate – and guess what, happiness was WAY MORE BETTERER THAN THE BETTER BEFORE THAT.

      Excuse the caps, but SHOUT IT FROM THE ROOFTOPS. You'd be surprised just how good it is to slow down and chill out.

      This whole property prices getting JACKED again… I sometimes wonder if it's an artificial thing to keep workers working so hard, because it's a bit of a farce really.

      Bring on the slow down. Fuck the rich stop serving them. Serve the planet and community.

  5. RP Mcmurphy 5

    we have created an acquisitive society where desires can never be satiated and the media is constantly creating new distractions for an infantilised populace.

    • mikesh 5.1

      Thorstein Veblin in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class pointed out that much consumption is "conspicuous consumption", ie it was indulged in to enhance one's status rather than to satisfy needs. A need for status probably has no obvious limits.

  6. RP Mcmurphy 6

    the drive for status in the proletariat to acquire goods is a futile attempt to emulate the ruling class who while they are the first acquirers of luxury goods masks the real motive of the ruling classes which adam smith in his theory of moral sentiments opines is the command over labour. no amount of goods can ever equal having the power to make the workers kiss the bosses bum and like it. DIG?

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