I have finally come to the last post I want to do inspired by A Double Shadow. I thank everyone for the indulgence they’ve shown in following a rather lengthy series which I’ve posted here, here, here, and here. The last thing I want to discuss is the issue of the “simple life” from the point of view of an advanced society.
As is the case with many of the commenters and some of the bloggers here, I used to be a regular habitué of Rod Dreher’s blogs in their various incarnations at Beliefnet and later, for a brief time, at Big Questions Online, the website of the Templeton Foundation. I was and am a fan of much of his work, and am sympathetic to the “crunchy” outlook (though I’m not a “crunchy conservative”). Over time, though, I’ve decided that there is much that is problematic both in some of Rod’s ideas in particular and in much of ideas regarding environment, self-sufficiency, going back to the land, and so on that are prevalent both on the Left and in some segments of the Right these days.
Two concepts that came up more than once in Rod’s writings are representative here for what I want to discuss. First is the oft-mentioned Benedict Option–the idea that like-minded people will have to find some way of banding together in a more or less insular and self-contained mode of some sort as a way of saving the remnants of Western Civilization from an upcoming crash or dissolution. The concept was drawn from Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, which Rod often quoted. From here:
MacIntyre wrote that our unawareness of how lost we are “constitutes part of our predicament,” one that can only be adequately addressed by “another—and doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”
Another concept is how–and if–one can cleave to traditions in the modern world. From here, with emphasis added:
This discussion reminds me also of something Vigen Guroian, the Armenian Orthodox scholar, once said to me: that you cannot choose a tradition (this, in a conversation in which he expressed skepticism over my conversion to Orthodoxy). I don’t think this is true, because if it was, the last Christian would have died on the Cross. Still, he has a good point: there is something phony about promoting tradition in the postmodern world. How can it be anything more than lifestyle advocacy?
Does the fact that I’m something of a phony with all this crunchy-con, neotraditional stuff obviate the criticism I and my fellow travelers make of our rootless society? Is the alternative to just throw up our hands and accept the world as it is, and offer no protest, or try to chart out a more humane alternative?
These two concerns are what interest me here. Consider this remarkable passage from A Double Shadow, in which Gunther, a scientist and pedantic friend of the couple Michael and Snow (one of the two couples around whom the plot centers), is lecturing them on a “primitive” planet that they’ve visited instantly by matter-transfer:
“Splendid, aren’t they? They’re capable of wonderful acts of heroism. They have epic poets and they go in for revenge, patriarchy, and genocide. Their woodcarving, jewelry, weaponsmithing, and so on are wonderfully vigorous. The general run of them are pretty inarticulate, though. How would you like to live like that?”
“Hmm,” says Snow noncommittally. “They don’t seem to use the Vision. What a sense of purpose they have!”
“Actually, they use the Vision more or less as much as we do: to find new worlds, to hold back cultural innovation, to limit their own technology. They fill up a new world in a century. They breed so much that they’re almost uncountable, and they’ve been going for nine hundred years. If we had only one universe available, they’d have packed every planet solid, with human meat.”
“What do they do when they’ve finished settling a planet?”
“Most of them leave to settle a new one. The ones that stay—-the innovators, the culturally imaginative—develop various different kinds of society and leave their ancestors’ track. They’re the aesthetes, the thinkers.”
Thus we have muscular, simple, primitive, frontier cultures that live life close to the bone, that eschew technology, that are vigorous, artistic, and poetic, that live authentic lives of valor and meaning. Except that in order to do so they use the omnipotent computer, the Vision, which is the very same basis of the Martians’ decadent, high-tech aestheticism. Thus, for all their epic poems and cultural vigor, they are a sham–for them, “primitivism” is nothing more than “lifestyle advocacy”. This is very clear in the way that once a frontier world is filled up, its inhabitants become intellectual aesthetes of the exact same kind as those on Mars.
As Rod says in the quote above, there is indeed “something phony about promoting tradition in the postmodern world.” I think A Double Shadow, among many other things, is a dramatization of this exact point. Later on, Gunther shows Michael and Snow “real” primitives, who use tribal rites made effective by the Vision. They have “gone native” to the extent that they aren’t even aware of the means of their “lifestyle choice”, but it’s a lifestyle choice for all that. The postmodern condition devours everything.
The question then, is, what shall we do? I want the world to be more just, and I worry about environmental degradation, species extinction, global warming, pollution, depletion of energy, and the myriad ills that seem to be assailing our planet and our society all at once. I suspect that whether we like it or not at least part of the solution (if there is one) will be a simplifying of First World lifestyles–fewer cars, more mass transit, more local food production, etc. I am willing to do what I can toward those ends. But–but….
First, we got to where we are now for a reason. On the discussion thread on one of the earlier installments of this series, we went back and forth a bit as to whether the old canard about suffering building character and simpler societies being preferable is really valid. I’m sort of in the middle on it, but if we recall things like influenza epidemics that killed millions, polio, famines, back-breaking work by most of the population, etc. etc., there’s a reason that people embraced technology, modern medicine, convenient food, and machines that eliminated much of the heavy labor of everyday life. It’s easy for us moderns to rhapsodize about the simple life when we’re not living it and dying from cholera or worrying about what to eat if the crops fail.
Similarly, a plurality, if not a majority, of those pushing for a cleaner environment, for the “slow food” movement, and other such “crunchy” causes are the “bourgeois bohemians” who do not, in fact, live simple lifestyles, who are disconnected from working-class people, and who are wealthy enough to shop for expensive artisanal “sustainable” foods, and so on. They are much like Gunther admiring the primitives while still living their Martian lifestyle. Even for those few who really do go back to the land, embracing subsistence or sustainable farming, they can do so because they have the resources to start over, and the cushion of family and other career options if it doesn’t work out. In short, they are like Martian primitives who use their technology to be non-technological. In both of these cases, it comes back to lifestyle advocacy rather than actually affecting the world outside.
I used to worry a lot about peak oil and its ramifications for the world. As the father of a young child, this livability of the future is of particular concern to me. I obsessively followed news, kept up with the websites, tried to expand our garden, got strips to reduce power use from our “vampire” appliances, installed fluorescent bulbs, and on and on. I often got quite depressed. My wife would gently suggest I surf somewhere else every time she saw me at a peak oil site. Finally I saw the light; well, not quite that, but a light bulb did go off over my head.
I realized that none of it will make the least bit of difference–or what difference it makes will indeed be least. Without large-scale societal change, my actions are a tiny drop in a very vast bucket. Until such change occurs, we will continue careening on along our seemingly disastrous course. A long time ago, I had a bumper sticker that said, “Think Globally, Act Locally”. I realized that neither of these was likely to do much good. Even in my own life, there’s no way I can realistically get off the grid or grow enough food to sustain me and my family; and I’m too old and unskilled to “go Amish” and get completely off the grid. Even if I could and did, societal collapse, if it occurs, could still have massively unpleasant effects. Chance and fate happeneth to all, crunchy and otherwise.
Even regarding the “Benedict option”–we forget that St. Benedict lived in a society already collapsing, and did not go to Montecassino to save the West. He was, in fact, fleeing late Roman civilization, and probably didn’t have much concern for whether it collapsed or survived, as long as the faith could be preserved. A compelling literary portrait of what saving Western culture again would really be like, and a meditation on whether it would work, is the magnificent and melancholy A Canticle for Leibowitz, which I’d recommend to all and sundry, and which I may write about in the future.
Meanwhile, while not exactly “throwing up my hands”, I’ve come to a certain peace. I still recycle and buy sustainable or ethical foods on the (relatively rare) occasions I can afford to do so. I still save power as much as I can (to reduce my electric bill, if nothing else) and try to combine car trips. I try to lower my carbon footprint. But I do not labor under any illusion that I am making the world a better place, and for the most part I no longer harbor any feelings of patting myself on the back for being more eco-ethical than my peers. I realize (as if using a computer to post to a blog weren’t enough proof!) that I am committed by my lifestyle to the continuation of our technological, energy-dependent society, and that that fact isn’t going to change. I can vote for people who (I hope) might institute better policies, but there seem to be few of them, and my disillusionment with politics in general over the last several years has led me to curtail almost all of my political activism.
In short, for any of the minor areas in my life in which I am a “primitive”, I do not deny or renounce my dependence–and that of our society–on the Vision, or our equivalent of it in the high-tech, high-energy culture we live in. I try to live as little like a decadent Martian dandy as I can, but until the right confluence of forces beyond anyone’s control or ability to predict occurs which will, if we’re lucky, bring about a better restructuring of society, I don’t delude myself that I’m going to make much of a difference. When and if such a confluence occurs, I’ll try to help it out as much as possible. Certainly, for the sake of my daughter, I have to hope and pray that our society doesn’t face a collapse. For now, though, my choices and such activism as I participate in are my lifestyle advocacy, and I’m not going to claim them as anything more (well, not too much).
It occurs to me that I’m ending on a bit of a downer, so to speak; but I still try to have as much hope for the future as I can. I don’t think my actions make much difference, but I’d feel worse if I didn’t try at all (though I don’t feel nearly as guilty as I used to if I don’t drop an aluminum can in the recycling bin or if I go to McDonald’s for non-sustainable food that’s bad for me). We all have to choose our lives and our choices as best we can, hope (and for those of us so inclined, pray) for the best, try to be prepared as much as we reasonably can for the worst, and then say “que será, será“.