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mapping the omnidirectional halo
Jul 27 '11

A speech I will probably not be giving at Uncivilisation unless someone asks me to so I thought I’d better get it up here instead

So maybe what we have today are not problems, but meta-problems. Let me explain.

We all spend time discussing with one another the urgent problems humanity faces at this critical time in history: the imminent decline in rates of fossil fuel extraction; the possibility of near-term phase-shifts effects in global climatic destabilisation; the accelerating destruction and toxification of ecosystems; the continuing, abject, inconceivable, everyday suffering of a third of the planet’s human inhabitants.

And these discussions are not unimportant. It is very useful to confirm our understanding with others, to meet with fellow humans – preferably face-to-face, where we can look each other in the eye and say “Brother! I too grieve for the state of the world, I too scratch at the walls of my social cage wondering how many we number, we who refuse to turn away from reality to immerse ourselves in pixellated distractions and gossip about obsolescent starlets, I too find it harder and harder to continue in my complicity with a defunct and destructive industrial and financial system.” This is an important and valid thing to do – strength flows from this.  

However, when we have finished discussing the problems, and perhaps even possible solutions, a certain disquiet remains. I would suggest that this is the disquiet that comes from the understanding that no pre-catastrophic change of course is in any way likely.

In one sense, this brings us full circle to one of the earliest, and mostly fiercely denounced aspects of the Dark Mountain project. The suggestion that we might need to accept that what we might call ‘Fabian’ environmentalism had failed, that we might need to find ways to live with, to make our peace with, to survive, ongoing, accelerating environmental destruction, was seized upon as ideological heresy by members of a movement who, I would suggest, know, deep down, the same thing as we.

This ‘thing’ is that we cannot imagine, within the ambit of anything like the governmental set-up we have now, anything remotely like a proportional response being taken. This made some sense when we were but lonely voices in the wilderness. When I first began researching Peak Oil back in 2004, there were perhaps 100,000 google hits on the subject. Now: 7,280,000. Then, it made sense to think in terms of ‘them’ and ‘us’ – we the smart, enlightened elite, guarding the flame of truth against the chill winds of mass idiocy.

But now, every mainstream newspaper and news channel has been covering Peak Oil in some form over the last few years - even if only in a bloodless, vascillatory manner, as if it were in no way part of a newspaper’s job to ascertain the true facts on crucial issues of the day.

Jeremy Leggett wrote an article in The Guardian a few months back about the leaked US diplomatic cables revealing Saudi admissions that their oil fields had likely peaked, and called it “We are asleep at the wheel”. But I don’t think we are – for a start, his article was published in The Guardian! Oil companies like Exxon-Mobil and Shell essentially admitted the problem in public several years ago, taking out full-page adverts in US papers to underline the urgency of the problem (or at least to establish plausible deniability for some future date). Dog-whistle talk from politicians about our need to wean outself off our oil addiction is flavour of the day.

It’s the same with climate change – the facts have been reasonably solidly established for the last 3 decades or so. We all know what needs to be done. But no-one actually thinks anything close to proportionate action is in any way likely.

Sure, occasionally a scientist will be so overcome with horror by the magnitude of the issues he is dealing with every day that he will make a public pronouncement on how we need a new Manhattan project for the environment, or how we need to cut emissions by 98% - but it is generally accepted that, once he finishes, he will be forgotten and business as usual will be resumed. It is, in truth, considered a little embarrassing when they do this – like the drunken uncle at a wedding, he may well be saying what everyone knows to be true, pulling the skeletons out of the family closet for all to see, but, well, it just doesn’t do to say that sort of thing out loud at a formal function.

What’s going on here? Isn’t this a little bit strange? John Humphries will read out the news on the Today programme that the future of the human race is in jeopardy due to inaction on climate change - but if a subsequent guest actually suggests doing something about it, he will deride them for being out of touch with reality. There is something here that needs to be dealt with, but it eludes the eye, always slipping just out of sight. Let me take another tack – perhaps we can begin to triangulate the issue here.

Once doomers of any stripe – peak oilers, environmentalists, what have you – have finished discussing the problem, and the possible solutions, amongst themselves, they tend to think “Goddamn, we better get the word out about this! People need to know”. They proceed to do so, and are then dumbfounded by the fact that their epoch-altering pronouncements fail to ignite a global outcry for change - are met, in fact, with little more than a shrug. The problem, they surmise, must be that people have not yet heard the full facts. Scientists duly repeat the facts in interviews. Ex-Vice Presidents give lecture tours. Advertising space in newspapers is bought and filled with dense pages of unenticing text.

Nothing. Perhaps the message needs to be jazzed-up. Environmental organisations duly employ more marketing executives. Vice-Presidents’ lectures are released in cinemas. Leonardo diCaprio furrows his brow at the camera. A bunch of middlebrow writers, artists and underemployed pop singers from the previous decade are sent in a boat to the arctic, for some unfathomable reason. Badly-thought-out youtube ‘feature films’ are cobbled together on Mactops around the country.

But, again, I would suggest that no-one really thinks that any of this will work, in the sense of actually bringing about the kind of change that would be proportional to the problems – and, of course, if it were likely to do so, they very probably would not be allowed to do it. There is a very interesting disconnect here, between the things we say we believe need to be done and what we actually believe will happen in the reality around us. And by ‘we’, I am increasingly referring not just to a small cohort of activists, but to large proportions of the population of industrialised nations.

To reiterate: We understand the problems. Again, it is important that people continue to cover the details, and every new initiate needs to be able to go over the nuts and bolts of the situation to confirm to their own satisfaction that the situation is as they think it is. But for most of us, at this stage, arguing over the average diameter of oil-spigots over on The Oil Drum is not going to advance our understanding of Peak Oil much. What difficulties we have, in fact, lie in grokking the big picture – in understanding how all these different aspects of the convergent catastrophe are likely to interact - but, for the most part, many of us know more than we will ever need to about the big picture as well.

We also, pretty much, understand the solutions. Solve peak everything, solve poverty, solve the environment: 1) Switch away from fossil fuels (and nuclear, thanks all the same!), build out algal turf biopower, nanosolar, offshore wind and wave arrays, insulate the hell out of everything, demand massive efficiency savings across the board. 2) Switch to a global steady-state economic system. Send all the bankers to onion farms in Siberia for re-education by watching video lectures of Herman Daly. Create financial disincentives for activities that increase environmental load. 3) Gently power-down the unjust economic mechanisms which enable the economic exploitation of the majority world.

There are no end of models, technologies, thinkers, systems, boxed up and ready to go, and the funny thing is, its all quite doable, right now.

So the problem must be political, right? Its all very well saying “we need a steady state economy” but how, realistically, do we get there from where we are now with all the powerful interests standing in our way seeking to undermine, demonise, divide the cause, in control of the main systems of communication through which a national consensus would need to become aware of itself. So, presumably, we should switch our attention to the political sphere – that is the point d’appui, the critical leverage point on which we need to exert our efforts.

Or, if we come to believe that meaningful politics is impossible in this mediated environment, perhaps we should be campaigning for media ownership reform, trying to raise awareness about the lies and obfuscations of the main-stream media, trying to build genuinely alternative channels and movements. But to do that we would need a populace ready to hear these truths, so we should be concentrating on educating children. And children won’t be suitably educable unless we alter the cultural patterns of child-birth and child-rearing existent in industrialised countries.

And so on. Its a whole unpickable, integrated clusterfuck and we will identify that part of it as the key focus-point which most resonates with our own perspective and prejudice of the moment. Of course, all of these things need to be done, pressure for change at each of these levels is already being exerted by many brave, committed activists and institutions, and letting up pressure on any of these fronts will just make things worse.

But the disconnect remains. When we campaign on any of these fronts, we are still thinking the same thing. Nothing realistically capable of dealing with these issues, no action actually proportional to the problems has any likelihood of occurring. Nothing really critical to the system is going to change. How could it? This is a matter of survival for the system.

I think there is a level above all this.

I believe part of the meta-problem is this: people no longer inhabit a single reality. I mean people collectively and individually: collectively, there is no longer a single cultural arena of dialogue. We have the simulacrum of one, in the form of Question Time and governmental “Big Conversation” initiatives, but in reality we have fragmented off into a thousand little sub-sectors of paradigmatic dissension. Whilst there are all sorts of interesting cultural phenomena that fit this description, this relates most relevantly, in our terms, to the tear-jerking incomprehension of techno-scientists when faced with, for example, climate deniers.

There is, I should add in passing, a problematic tendency with a certain type of intellect – the scientist, the technocrat – which assumes that, because it is prepared to organise and change on the basis of dry statistics and data, then, if only everyone else could be exposed to the same data, there would be instant consensus for change. In fact, of course, the majority of human beings do not work like this.

Nor is it simply a case of a lack of education or experience of logical thinking – for many people, relying on ‘gut instinct’, on intuition, or on the social consensus of those around them, are effective strategic approaches that have been selected for by their experience and environment. Oh, make no mistake, David Cameron makes a lot of play of going by his ‘gut instinct’ in the same way George Dubya did – and he is appealing to the same demographic, who distrust the outcome of logical thinking as somehow ‘tricksy’, pretentious, personally insulting to them.

But there is a positive, indeed, cognitively vital, aspect to intuitive thinking, and this is what computers still can’t do; roaming up and down the ladder of scales, condensing detail into qualitative understanding, making value judgements as to what level of detail is most appropriate for a decision. The Western model of intelligence tends to devalue this aspect – it is very good at details but not at negotiating between the many levels that lie between micro-detail and the macro-picture.

Furthermore, the ‘deep psyche’ – the realm of myths, narratives, paradigms of meaning, purpose and significance – underlies even the worldview of the technocrat-scientist, although he is often the least aware of its presence and its overwhelming influence on his thinking. Without an ability to engage with and understand the deep psyche, the techno-scientist is doomed to repeat his statistics into the ether without meaningful effect.

Anyway, what many techno-scientists fail to understand - and thus find most frustrating - about dealing with the deniers is that the denier has no real interest in engaging at the scientist’s level of reality. The disputed content is not really the issue; if they want, the deniers can always just fabricate an even more complicated and detailed response to the techno-scientist’s latest rebuttal, and the exchange simply becomes an arms race of who can put the most time and energy into producing copy that supports their own paradigm.

The point, for the climate denier, is not that the truth should be sought with open-minded sincerity – it is that he has declared the independence of his corner of reality from control by the overarching, techno-scientific consensus reality. He has withdrawn from the reality forced upon him, (upon us all!) by schooling, government, by our irritating proximity to other industrialised primates, and he has retreated to a more comfortable, human-sized bubble of reality.

To be fair, he has a point - in our own immediate personal space (in the West, at least), we really don’t see much evidence of climate change! To believe in such an abstract concept is necessarily to suborn oneself to larger collectivities of paradigm-production, to cede faith in regimes of knowledge that do not exist on the human scale. And it is possible for me to see how, from a slightly different cultural starting point, I too might have been attracted by the liberation such a rebellion offers, how I too might have revelled in rejecting the negativity, the restriction, the hand-wringing ineffectuality of the climate change movement by adopting such a rogue reality-tunnel.

In these terms, the denier’s retreat from consensus reality approximates the role of the cellular insurgents in Afghanistan vis-a-vis the American occupying force: this overarching behemoth I rebel against may well represent something larger, more free, more wealthy, more democratic, or more in touch with objective reality, but it has been imposed upon me (or I feel it has), so I am going to withdraw from it into illogic, emotion and superstition and from there I am going to declare war upon it.

So, from this point of view, we can meaningfully refer to deniers, birthers, Tea Partiers and so forth as “reality insurgents”, and thus usefully apply the principles of 4GW to their activities – notably, they are clearly operating on a faster OODA loop than the defenders of mainstream reality, and thus able to respond more quickly, with greater innovation, than the sclerotic bureaucracy of institutionalised reality. [Open source bazaars – media-effective denial memes spread virally through community far quicker than effective strategies of rebuttal do.]

This is a hard lesson Obama has learnt in his own transition from insurgent to incumbent, and it is one the newly elected Tea Party congressmen are now also discovering for themselves. The deniers are operating from a different ontological platform – an emotional reading of reality where there are forces wishing to control them and restrict their personal power and agency, and there are the forces of freedom, which is the side they believe they are on.

They are wrong, of course, but it is important to demonstrate to them that they are wrong on the level they are operating from – not by citing more climate statistics at them, but by demonstrating that the forces they are serving (Glenn Beck, the Koch family, the Republican Party, transnational corporations) are actually the most vicious extant representatives of the control they profess to hate.

And all this is but one example of the ways in which the traditional ideological blocs of the Cold War have fragmented into complex multipartite civil reality wars. Reality, you might say, as failed state; its interior collapsing into permanent conflict under the convergent pressures of deviant globalisation, its coasts predated upon by new mutant forms of memetic pirates.

So much for collective reality fragmentation. What the prospects are for bringing Daily Mail readers and Indymedia readers back onto the same page of reality are I don’t know. Suggestions very welcome. The other issue that is apparent to me is that each individual also carries reality-divisions inside their own head.

As a general point, there is a fundamental dissassociation endemic to industrialised humans that results in some deleterious, and, at this critical juncture, very dangerous outcomes. We necessarily develop many internal veils and compartments in order to buffer the fundamental ethical, environmental and cognitive dissonances industrialised existence presents us with.

The clearest example, though, and perhaps the major reality-distinction in most people’s minds, is between their immediate, everyday life – the people they actually see, their bus trip to work, their families, their local – and the magic fantasy world that exists in the media-realm. The late Joe Bageant referred to this latter realm as ‘the hologram’ - I think we can happily call it ‘the spectacle’, and accept that there is far more to say on the subject than I can touch on here.

Sufficient, perhaps, to point out that this is part of the reason why voting is always such a let down. We are promised that our vote is our once-in-four-years opportunity to engage with the world of images we see on television, where all the power lives – the soap-opera cast of politicians and journalists, the simplistic good vs evil narratives. Finally, we are going to be able to throw their malignant, cavilling words back into their gleaming snake-oil faces.

And then all you are confronted by is a nice retired lady in a portacabin in your local primary school, and all your rage evaporates - you mark your piece of paper and walk out and feel cheated, somehow, of the promised connection with the Other world.

Is it any wonder that, unless something in our own, immediate lives goes very wrong, political radicalism lies down to die before the first hurdle is even reached in this country? Is it any wonder that we don’t, really, expect anything to ever come of the political process? How long has it been since any kind of unified political action brought about radical change in this country? 30 years? 60? Can we even imagine what it would feel like to organise ourselves around beliefs, ideas, a particular narrative of reality any more?

And, again, this is just one example of the divisions within ourselves. We dimly recognise the scale of the environmental crises, and then waste moments of our lives fretting about whether our local recycling scheme accepts plastic bottles. We wish to be delivered from our lust for foreign holidays – but, like St Augustine, not too soon. We hope for people in the public eye to speak the truth, then laugh at their naivety when they fail to anticipate how unrealistic, how gauche doing so makes them seem.

I am still just feeling my way into this. But it feels like there is something very significant here, something worthy of open, measured contemplation. Our triangulation suggests that the key to bringing about change must lie somewhere in this region – in the mediated nature of our relationship with each other, in our increasing mutual reality-drift away from one another, and in our own divided, disassociated minds, incapable of actually connecting together the realities we know, the facts and ideas we come to believe in, and the image of power and government which hangs before us in our mind’s eye.

I have no solutions, only leads – the power of unflinching awareness, of looking directly at the crisis we find ourselves in; the natural centrifugal tendency of human consciousness, when it is given the necessary time and space, free from distraction and negative stimulus; our minds’ ability to re-coalesce, despite ourselves, into unified singularity; and, perhaps most importantly, the remediating power of joining together in reality - unmediated reality - with other human beings: of connecting the ideas, the facts, the data, the lonely realities discovered in the long watches of the night lit only by the ghostly lantern-light of a laptop, with the immediate, pulsing, reviving, hope-giving reality of mutual conviviality, of shared human presence.

That is why this festival is so important, and that is why I am so glad to be here today.

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