below is the first of my regular article contributions to the new magazine SHIFT
see more at http://www.sustainabilitysc.org/magazine/the-human-race-the-joy-of-the-blackout/
The Human Race: The Joy of the blackout
By: Sean Crawley
Dare it be said, but, the good news is that with the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather the electrical power grid is destined to be out of action more and more, and for longer and longer durations. The really good blackouts, those bitchin’ two or three day outages that annoy the crap out of the power junkies, will render your workplace totally inoperable. When the whole circus comes grinding to a halt, in our new climate where the best thing about work is the air conditioning, some unexpected time off is surely a bonus. Mother Nature is stepping up to bat and giving you a well-deserved break. This is just one of the benefits we can expect from nature’s payback for our mindless exploitation of so much easy energy. So when the boss says “well nothing’s going to get done here so you may as well go home”, the staff morale is guaranteed to be the highest it’s been in the years since KPIs were introduced.
On the domestic powerdown scene, once the fridge and freezer contents have been prioritised for maximum consumption and minimum wastage, and when the laptop, iPod and iPhone batteries have given up sucking electrons, a whole new world of kilowatt-hour free fun and leisure awaits to be enjoyed. Getting out the candles so you can see at night and putting on that hand-knitted jumper to keep warm are just some of the simple pleasures of doing without power for a while. The wind-up radio, the solar barbeque and the camping shower, which yesterday seemed so archaic, are now treasured for their ingenious ability to provide simple creature comforts. Books, photo albums, playing cards and acoustic instruments are resuscitated back to life as the grid-dependent plastic gadgets sit powerless in the corner.
On the personal front, the long lost art of face to face human interaction is rekindled as the internet’s virtual worlds and social networks collapse at the speed of light – exactly as predicted by the theorems of Maxwell and Faraday. Family members get to know each other again, or for the first time, and some of those neighbours who you invited over to share the now-thawed side of lamb are actually not weirdos at all. People share food, stories and human-powered tools. Previously unknown and ignored skills and talents arise from the unique humans that surround us. Getting to know each other on deeper and more meaningful levels for some reason didn’t seem to be possible when everyone was rushing frantically just to keep up in the human race. The spike in number of births 9 months after major blackouts may not be a great outcome for an already overcrowded planet, but when the telly’s redundant, the light is soft and the music is live, then romance and connection are inevitable.
Perhaps most important of all is the realisation that without electricity life goes on. The fear that we cannot survive, let alone thrive, without an ever-increasing array of high tech devices and the energy to drive them is debunked every time there is a blackout. The blame game and calls for compensation that go on, when the power does kick back in, from all levels of government and from the perennial whingers is not worth the media air time it is given – unless of course you tune in for the comedy relief. The fact is that we are quite capable of caring for and enjoying ourselves without being plugged into the grid. An electrical blackout, as it turns out, is the perfect test case that exposes some of the major lies that underpin our ever-increasing appetite for more and more energy.
The illusion of civilisation
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that any reasonable human would be in want of all the latest electrical appliances and the very latest and most powerful model of automobile. However little known the feelings or views of such a human may be on their entering into civilisation, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of everyone else, that they would be considered stark raving mad if they shunned the fruits of the modern age.”
Civilisation, as commonly perceived, is inconceivable without electricity to power our homes and some form of hydrocarbon to power our cars. The nations of the world can roughly be divided into those with abundant and continuous supplies of energy and those without. Those with the energy, the first world, rank themselves as superior, or for want of a better term, more civilised, than the third world. The lowly status of the third world, and its intolerable primitiveness, is published and broadcast to us all with frequent images of the “miserable and unfortunate” people who are barely subsisting without domestic electricity and/or private motor cars. Unfortunately, the third world itself seems to have fallen for this negative portrayal of their own lifestyle and are convinced that the only pathway to a more civilised existence and acceptable place in the world is the acquisition of the very same standard of electricity supply and private car ownership that the developed world enjoys. Consequently, major industrialised nations cling in fear to their privileged status of “developed”, whilst the “developing” nations demand their right and entitlement to exploit the planet’s resources needed to lift them from their unacceptable second rate status. Unlimited and uninterrupted energy is the universal hallmark of civilisation regardless of which side of the tracks you find yourself.
So the global cultural myth is that because we have the technology, 24/7 access to limitless energy is an absolute prerequisite to consider, or classify, ourselves as civilised. The goal for “energy on tap” directly, or indirectly, drives all human activity in a relentless and unethical pursuit of low entropy. The laws of physics and the limits of our finite planet have become trivial problems, for idealists to complain about and for the realists to solve at some unspecified time in the future. The panic that sets in when the power does go down is a true sign of both our ignorance of reality and addiction to unlimited energy affluence. Denial of an end point to exponential growth and consumption is the fundamental obstacle we face as we ever increasingly are forced to confront reality as it bites us hard on the arse. Sober friends and family of the addicted are presently a minority who frequently find that their planned interventions or pleas for sanity are deemed unrealistic, even illegal, by the ignorant addicts.
The extraction, purification and distribution of the energy drugs such as coal, gas and oil is an ugly and toxic business. The inequality that has resulted from the unprecedented plundering and exploitation of fossil fuels, catalysed by Laissez-faire capitalism, is a primary cause of modern dysfunctional human settlement patterns. The drug lords and more privileged users live well away and protected from the less savoury aspects of this dirty trade, while the rest of us find ourselves in debt slavery to meet our basic needs for food, water and shelter. In a geographic sense we have been herded into urban or suburban enclaves that are so distant from resource bases that when the power goes down we are indeed a very long walk away from our basic needs. In a socio-political sense, even if we did make the long walk to the resource bases, we would likely be prohibited from access and denied a share as these resources are owned or controlled by someone or something else. Ironically, the least fortunate who have been pushed to the very outer fringes of civilisation, may well wake up one morning to find the Italian leather healed energy billionaires suddenly appearing in their backyards to extract the gas or coal from under their K-mart-clad feet. On a more human level we have dispersed ourselves so far and wide that when the energy runs out we may find ourselves physically unable to travel the insurmountable distances to connect with the relatives and friends that nurture our higher needs. The realisation of the depth and breadth of society’s dependency on energy, a voraciously growing dependency at that, is so unthinkable that the necessity of an endless supply has become unquestionable.
From time to time we do wake up to the insanity of being able go to the fridge at 3am, gorge ourselves on food that has been transported half way round the globe, while we buy an exercise machine advertised on a massive plasma TV with a credit card and mobile phone. So the joy of the blackout is not only that our indulgent consumption disappears when the electricity disappears, but the end of indulgent consumption is not the end of the world, it’s just an end to the insanity – quite a relief actually. However, as energy is some form is needed, the path that we have wandered down for the last century or so has led to an expectation that is ruling out considerations of many, if not all, of the alternative energy options. It doesn’t matter if it’s green or sustainable or renewable or even free, it is not permitted on the discussion table if it means in any way that our right or freedom to use any amount of energy we choose is restricted. The same could be said about the nonstop nature of its availability. Rationing energy either with limits to amounts or available times is viewed akin to war – time sacrifices. Consequently, alternatives to electrical supply such as wind and solar are outright rejected as they cannot meet that criteria. If we all can’t turn on every light in the house, and the street, and power every electrical device that we desire because the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining then “that just ain’t good enough”. Similarly, moving the energy debate to our motor cars, the limitations on speed and range inherent in electric cars, is a “no brainer” for the average motor enthusiast. Apparently, the capacity of these quiet and clean machines to travel up to 100km distance at speeds of up to 90 km per hour is just too piss-weak for anyone to seriously consider.
Generally any decline in magnitude or availability of anything that is regarded as a mark of civilisation is regarded with fear and contempt. The growth paradigm views any reduction as a step backwards and is judged as a failure of our own doing that cannot, and will not, be tolerated. This same mindset logically translates to a belief that every human who has existed in the past, including our younger selves, has lived in times inferior to the civilisation which we are so privileged to experience today. This is ridiculous, but it is exactly how we do view the past. Even when we nostalgically look back at the recent past, fondly recalling the simplicity of life without mobile phones, we mostly reject any proposal to give up anything and risk a return to the past if it means having less than what we possess today.
Along those lines let’s do some simple maths.
The following data set has been used for the calculations:
- The world’s first public electricity supply was provided in 1881
- Birth of the automobile = 1886
- First appearance of Homo sapiens 200,000 years ago.
(Note: please feel to do your own maths using your own data, if you use 6,000 years ago as the first appearance of man your outcome will not be quite so dramatic, but nevertheless will still prove the point.)
- The percentage of human existence without electricity: 100 – (2014-1881)/200,000 x 100 = 99.93%
- The percentage of human existence without the automobile: 100 – (2014-1886)/200,000 x 100 = 99.94%
So if electricity and petrol-powered transport are non-negotiable aspects of civilisation, then from the above calculations it appears that over 99.9% of human existence on this planet has been a lesser, and more undesirable form of civilisation. The unthinking person’s logical conclusion from this assessment is that our poor ancestors must have had a truly miserable existence. I always wondered why Grandma and Great Grandma, in those sepia toned daguerreotypes, looked so bloody pissed off! If only they had a five star water efficient dishwasher and five hundred Facebook friends.
As we approach the time of dwindling cheap energy that can be dug up out the ground to power our homes, trains, planes and automobiles, a new outlook and understanding of civilisation needs to evolve. A reappraisal of human history, where the view of our ancestors’ quality of life as being inferior to our own because they lived without electricity or the internal combustion engine, will be needed. If we are ever going to psychologically cope with the reality of a powered-down future we need that new appraisal soon. This reappraisal starts with a better assessment of the human capacity to exist in a less energised and sustainable balance with nature.
The root cause of the illusion
The fear induced by the failure of 24/7 uninterrupted unlimited electricity is based on the belief that we are weak, pathetic creatures whose very survival depends on the eternal advancement of modern technology. Without vigilance we will surely perish from hunger or cold or some freak of nature, or some human freak that is just lurking waiting for us to stop and relax before it pounces upon us and devours us whole. It’s bit like the story of the shark that must keep swimming because if it stops it will sink and be crushed to death by the very ocean it lives in. Consequently, we sign up for the never-ending human enterprise of progress. This human race to “get ahead” is motivated by the pathologically low opinion we have of ourselves as a species on this planet. All of us have been so indoctrinated that our default state is one of inferiority or imperfection, that happiness and success is a lifelong trial of self-improvement and competition pitted against others.
Virtually every field of human knowledge – religion, history, philosophy, psychology, politics and science – has been adopted, edited, interpreted, corrupted and propagandised by various elements of modern culture to prove the case that Homo Sapiens is a fundamentally flawed creature who is just one step ahead of falling back into depravity and chaos. The prevailing zeitgeist is built upon the pretence that we can only be redeemed, saved or enlightened by serious and disciplined hard work. We certainly are not good enough just as we are. The recipients of pop culture’s highest accolades inform us regularly that they are the living proof that if you try hard enough and never give up you can achieve your wildest dreams (latest projections confirm that planet earth cannot support seven billion billionaires, even though that has been confirmed to be one person’s wildest dream).
At our peril, we ignore the reality that, like all life, we too are the product of thousands of millions of years of evolution, thus perfectly adapted to live in balance and harmony with nature. While we admire and praise the existential ease with which all other life forms on Earth seem to fit in, we fail horribly at imagining how, let alone accepting that, we can connect, and have in the past connected, simply and naturally into the web of life. Our ignorance and exclusive viewpoint that we are somehow different has led to a fatal separation of the human species from the equilibrium of life on this planet. The delusion, which drives our constant pursuit of control and self-improvement, is so ingrained and effective that we rarely question our participation on the endless treadmill of advancing civilisation.
The true cost of the illusion
When we believe that human nature is flawed – and accept a lifetime sentence of stepping up, striving to reach goals, being better off or getting ahead – we create comprehensive ranking systems so we never lose sight of which way is up. If there is one unifying feature of humanity, it is our desire to improve our ranking in the human race. We want more money, we want to live in the best postcode in the best country, we want the best health care and we demand better education. We all believe that we can and must improve our lot. If we can’t improve it for everyone, everywhere, then we shamelessly console ourselves that there is nothing inherently wrong in working to make our own little patch better than the norm. Our efforts for a good life manifest as competition within ourselves and with everyone else. We battle daily to seize any and every opportunity in the quest of bettering our lives and perhaps the lives of a select few from our tribe. Because if we don’t, someone else surely will. We don’t trust ourselves, let alone anyone else, and so are never content or grateful for who we are or for what we have already.
The race to get ahead, step up, improve, be the best, and fulfil your dreams, begins every morning, every day of the week. There is no rest for the wicked, so Sundays, or any days of rest, have been relegated to those unprepared to capitalise upon every spare minute to get ahead of the pack. For most us the race is not optional and participation is compulsory. The reality of over seven billion humans, spread across every habitable continent, means there is no escape from putting on your racing colours and getting out there amongst it. Snoozers are losers. Conscientious objectors are hippies or dreamers. If you are not out there getting amongst it and giving it your all, you have yourself to blame for not being tough enough, or you must have some diagnosable disability that should be treated with medications and therapy so that you can get back out there and at least make some contribution to society.
The omnipresent media is largely concerned with regular updates of where we rank in the world, both as individuals and in the teams to which we belong. There is a growing mega market filled with every variety of book, CD, training program, super food, supplement, guru, celebrity, seminar, webinar, crystal, investment advice and so on available to help you improve any and every aspect of your being. It’s generally a given that your IQ, EQ, level of enlightenment, body mass index, skin condition, postcode, relationships, weekends, bank account, holiday destinations are all not as good as they could be. The force of the current pushing us along this highway to greatness becomes very evident when you occasionally stop, or if you are totally nuts, dare to move against it. If you have tried telling the boss or family that you want a demotion or a job with less pay, or want to downsize the mortgage by moving to a lower class neighbourhood you will no doubt have felt the full brunt of the popular “get ahead” momentum. Try a crazy stunt like keeping your children out of school without an approved curriculum in place – because you’re just going to nurture their own natural curiosity as it arises – the torrent of public opinion will not only ostracise you but the laws of the land could see your offspring forcibly removed for the best interests of all concerned. If all that seems a bit alarmist just experiment a bit by resisting the latest advances in digital technology or refusing to support your nation in the Olympics, and observe the shunning and shaming that will no doubt come at you from a surprising number of directions. The popular mindless participation in “the only way is up” world, when the world is upside down, is shaking loose our tenuous grip on reality. The human race has but one finish line and that is on the very edge of the abyss. A world where everyone and everything is graded is a world where everyone and everything is degraded. Nobody is winning.
The race to get ahead demeans us all. Up the front end the rich and beautiful feign happiness as they grasp ever more tightly onto their material acquisitions and fight tenaciously to hold on to power and status. Back at the tail end, basic needs like clean water, food and basic healthcare are still denied to billions despite the abundance of such. Meanwhile, the bulk of us in the middle, we may live in interesting times but how dull have our lives become as we constantly trudge along with the pack to keep from falling to the back of the race, while we delude ourselves that if we just work or try that little bit harder we can rise to lofty world of leisure and luxury. The stories of rags to riches keep our noses to the grindstone while reinforcing the belief that our rank and position is a true measure of our actual worth. Furthermore, the acceptance of this lie manifests as a popular apathy to change that permits the status quo to dominate. This resistance to change has so severely disrupted the benevolent era of the Holocene that the human race literally needs to be called off due to bad weather.
It has been wisely said, that if a map does not match reality then it is the map that is wrong and not reality. The multi-faceted crises that we are experiencing, right now, is a result of following a map with only one road ahead and that road is the “highway of perpetual growth”. The map is antiquated and flawed and its only use will be in a library to be used by students of future times who are researching the question “what the hell were they thinking?” The unnecessary suffering, endured for too long now, will only abate when this map is discarded and superseded by a new map that will chart clearly a path to social justice, equality and sustainability. This map, quite likely, will be drafted with ink, on recycled paper, under candlelight during one or more of the upcoming super blackouts!
The reality of ourselves
Taking a stance against the view that humans are hard-wired to drive our species to inevitable extinction is not currently a popular science or academic pursuit. However, the misinterpretation, cherry picking and propagandising of the major bodies of humanity’s accumulated knowledge base – that has underpinned the contemporary narrative of human nature – can with rudimentary critical thinking skills, and fresh eyes, be easily debunked and re-evaluated to uncover a more accurate and rational assessment of reality.
History, for a start, tends to dismiss the tens of thousands of years of humans living in relative peace and harmony with each other. It does this either by denying that periods of peace and harmony ever existed or that if they did exist they were merely incubation periods for the inevitable outbreaks of war and environmental plundering. This just doesn’t add up. Surely an analysis that long periods of peace and harmony have intermittently been disrupted by aberrations of war and wanton destruction of nature satisfies not only Ockham’s Razor but is a truer interpretation of human nature.
In the halls of academia, now more than ever reliant on the coin of for-profit corporations, science, in the discipline of genetics at least, has been funded to find a gene to explain away every negative human behaviour on record. The pillars of reason, empiricism and objectivity that science rest upon are severely compromised when the nature of humanity and its destiny are sealed by the discovery of genes for violence, addiction, obesity and a whole smorgasbord of pathologies that not only absolve us from any responsibility for our sins, but sadly justify apathy towards changing our actions for the better. In the social sciences, the success of our species is not correctly attributed to our real nature that includes the capacity for foresight, co-operation and social cohesion but is erroneously attributed to elements of greed, anger, war, laziness and lust by the devious co-opting of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest”. Even a high-school understanding of evolution should reveal the contradiction that such destructive traits would be selected and persist in any species’ genome.
So if we are not genetically wired or naturally selected to be angry, greedy, lazy, proud, lustful, envious and gluttonous, thank you Pope Gregory, then what are we? The lens of religion, if applied without the chains of dogma, will reveal that by and large the true prophets have revealed a quite opposite picture of us compared to the pathetic creatures painted by the hierarchy of later generations. Religion, so far at least, has been a cultural universal, and in a positive appreciation can be seen simply as our species searching for purpose, meaning and worthiness in our lives. So “living virtues”, as opposed to “deadly sins”, gives a better understanding of our true nature. In a religious sense, and sticking to the number seven, we could say we are blessed with the virtues of being peaceful, generous, active, humble, loyal, grateful and moderate. If such a new understanding and appreciation of Homo Sapiens did dominate, a new history, science and philosophy of humanity would emerge. This would form the foundation for a new and liberating education system that would not only make a whole lot more sense, but would be the new map to guide us to a sustainable and just future.
Are we not deep down all yearning for a new religion, history and science, call it a philosophy or a narrative if you will, that informs us that we are intricately connected with each other and everything else on this planet – that we are just as beautiful and worthy of being here as anything else you can name or experience. That the beauty and awe of a sunrise, an ocean wave, a flowering plant or a suckling animal are no more or less than the wonder of ourselves. We, like everything else, have evolved on this very planet, and therefore are just as valid and worthy as anything else. We do not need to prove our worth, justify our existence or earn a living. We do not need to get ahead, we simply need to wake up to the reality of who we are and our place in the scheme of all life on this planet.
The new world
The refusal to move to this new view of ourselves is exactly why we are experiencing, right here and now, the crumbling of modern western industrialised global civilisation. Without the necessary change in our fundamental beliefs about ourselves we will panic and act irrationally as the unsustainable existence we have created begins to fall apart. Self-fulfilling prophecies can and do occur. So as long as we tell ourselves and teach our children about the big scary world out there that needs to be conquered and enjoyed by the winners in the human race, then that is exactly what we will create. If we reject the lies and tell ourselves the true story – that we are evolved beings, interdependent and connected to each other and everything else on this beautiful planet – we can relax and enjoy and share and play. And when the power goes out; when the cars become chook sheds; when we don’t have to commute for hours to earn a living, that is when we can then enjoy life as well-adapted animals on a planet that will hopefully be able to bounce back somewhat from the mess we have left it in.
The current unsustainable mode of human operation will not continue. The Laws of Nature will continue to shape the evolution of the universe on both large and small scales. Without fundamental change in our behaviour we will forever be at war with ourselves and nature. We will populate and perish. Our big chance rests on our ability to detect bullshit because collectively, when we do, no-one will stand by, ignore, or participate in the continued rape of the planet.
Every individual contributes to the wellbeing of the whole. One by one we are waking up from the nightmare that civilisation is built and perpetuated upon a set of lies which begin with you hating yourself and your species. As we awaken, the mantra of growth, prosperity and self-improvement will annoy the shit out of us. This annoyance is good. When we see the illusion we become free to see reality – humans are good, we are an essential part of everything and we already have everything we need. How cool is that? As modern civilisation disappears, as it will, this is not the end of the world – only the end of meaningless suffering. Suffering that is now reserved only for those who stubbornly hold on to the old map.
The blackout is just the start of the party.