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Reality 101: Some Notes on Teaching Humanity’s Predicament

By Karl North | September 10, 2016

Our species faces a predicament: the inevitable decline of industrial civilization as we know it, and possible extinction. Decades ago, a small but growing group became aware of the situation and began to create ways to communicate it to the general public. An ‘energy descent’ literature appeared that has described it using terms like overshoot (Catton), the limits to growth (Meadows et al), a long emergency (Kunstler), catabolic collapse (Greer), die-off (Hanson) and peak everything (Heinberg), just to name a few. They faced a mass media which did not consider the news fit to print, and a public who so far has denied it outright.

Gradually most of the group recognized their effective quarantine as The Cassandra Complex. Cassandra was the legendary daughter of the king of Troy who warned her father not to allow the Trojan horse into the besieged city. She was under a double curse: that she always had to tell the truth, and that no one would ever believe her.

Still, some of the group who understand the situation continue trying to find ways to break through the denial and provide enough explanation of how the world really works so that those who can handle the information might begin to adapt their lives. One example is a set of talks by Chris Martenson, The Crash Course. My essay takes its title from one of the more ambitious and comprehensive results, a college course designed and taught by Nate Hagens.

These educational efforts generally have two main themes. One is an explanation of the biophysical system in which our species exists, and how our violation of its rules is creating the predicament. This theme often includes a segment on evolutionary biology and psychology that tries to explain humanity’s predicament behaviorally mainly in those terms. The second theme is an analysis of the present organization of humanity as a globalized capitalist system, an analysis that explains the ability of the system to persist in a pathway of self-destruction while keeping most people in the dark.

Because the members of the initial group who became aware of the predicament were and still are mostly people trained in the biophysical sciences, there now exists a large literature that explains that aspect of the predicament. Their attempts to explain the role of the present social system in causing the predicament have not been as accurate or successful, in my view, for a couple of reasons.

One is the historical antagonism between physical scientists and social scientists. The former have questioned the scientific status social science, going so far at times as to describe all behavioral science as nothing but noise. Margaret Thatcher epitomized this view when she said that society does not exist. Ideologically in line with her capitalist handlers, she meant that our species will prosper as a collection of individuals each pursuing his/her self-interest, and has no need for theories or analysis of society as such.

In reaction to their detractors in the physical sciences, many social scientists have tried to give their discipline independent status by ignoring biophysical realities in their research. C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures, written half a century ago, summarized the antagonism, coming down heavily on the side of physical science, and kicking off a debate that continues to this day. Many who write accurately on the energy crisis retain residual loyalty to their training in reductionist science despite its inability to cope with the interconnected nature of the universe as we know it. They therefore tend not to take too seriously anything that can’t be empirically demonstrated by reductive methods.

The second reason that the presentation of systemic social analysis has not been as successful is the subversive nature of critical social science. Ruling strata have therefore traditionally demonized it, penalizing and marginalizing its producers, and making their writings easy to ignore even by highly educated publics.

While far from the whole story, one area of social organization that energy descent educators have singled out for special treatment and covered well is the role of money, finance and debt under capitalism. Understanding how financial structures and forces are combining to bring down the capitalist political economy is important in exposing the deep delusions of most of the public about these things and helping people to project alternative scenarios of social organization for the era of transition. Writers who are renegades from careers in finance have been particularly effective in this area (Chris Martenson, Paul Craig Roberts, Michael Hudson, Charles Hugh Smith, Nate Hagens). As these writers document, the policy of using interest bearing debt to enable capital investment, while not unique to capitalism, is intrinsic to capitalism as a system, and is essential for an understanding of the impetus to endless growth in our economy.

Without attempting a full-blown treatment, these notes will point out elements that critical social science reveals about our society as a system, which I argue that younger generations need to know to better confront the industrial melt-down that lies ahead.

A political economy of capitalism

If we are to have any chance of coping with such an unprecedented turning point in human history, we need to know how our current social system really works, how it contributed to the predicament, and how it will react to melt-down and to attempts to transition to a different social order. That is, we need a knowledge of its political economy. By ‘political economy’ I mean more than a study of the interaction of wealth and decision making power. I mean a systemic analysis of a society as a totality encompassing all its social institutions and its distinctive culture, grounded in an understanding of its structure of power relations and the many forms in which power is exercised. I am using the term political economy as shorthand for this more comprehensive framework of inquiry. In the nascent social science of the 19th century, social analysts of all political persuasions called themselves political economists.

The structure of power

Among the important insights that critical social science reveals is that the process of concentration of wealth and power in a minority is built-in to capitalism. Most people are aware of rising inequality, but surveys show that the public seriously underestimates the present concentration of power, and is therefore far too optimistic about the potential of political action to change anything at the level of nation states. Partly this is because of what Sheldon Wolin called inverse totalitarianism, the ability in modern states of ruling strata to avoid the direct exercise of power, remain in the background, and rule indirectly through control of the main social institutions: government, economic system, mainstream media, and the science establishment.

The manufacture of consent

Also important, our rulers have used powerful tools of propaganda to indoctrinate and successfully manufacture consent to their rule and unending desire for capitalism’s products – a deeply embedded culture of capitalism. The overwhelming growth and triumph of the propaganda industry over the last century got a boost when a kinsman of Freud, Edward Bernays, brought Freud’s insights on unconscious desires to the US and created the advertising industry. Bernays went on to show the powerful minority how to use propaganda to manipulate the collective consciousness, calling it ‘public relations’ and schooling them in a cardinal rule of propaganda: always use language that diverts attention from unpleasant realities.

Ruling strata have successfully created false narratives around all major institutions to hide who rules America. As I wrote elsewhere,

Since the beginning of the republic, US elites have found in the language of freedom a magnificent weapon of mass deception. “Let Freedom Ring!” the siren song sang out. Pandering to both libertarian Republicans and liberal Democrats, the powers that be offered different conceptions of what ‘free’ means, all of which on deeper analysis ring hollow. ‘Free speech’, ‘free press’, ‘free elections’, ‘free enterprise’, ‘free competition’, ‘free market’, ‘free trade’, ‘free world’ and the like were all peddled to a population that got only a show window view, a shallow misrepresentation of how these policies work out over time in a society where from the outset wealth and power have been concentrated in few hands. As in The Emperor’s New Clothes folktale, it is important to defrock and to deconstruct this language in the light of what has happened historically in our society in the guise of freedom.

What does a closer look at freedom in our society reveal? The main deceptive device in the language of freedom is to focus on individual freedom in the short run and to hide the inevitable consequences over time in which a few that have the means, unless thwarted, capture the means to control the lives of the many. Thus unrestricted freedom ends in loss of freedom.   Speech that functions properly to promote the public good turns out to be not free but expensive, and thus becomes the privilege of the wealthy minority who use it to indoctrinate the rest of us. Enterprise appears free until one’s enterprise is subjected to the inevitable hostile takeover by the powerful interests that exert monopoly power in most sectors of our so-called free market economy and reduce most people to wage slavery. Trade is not usually free, but favors the more powerful, imperial player, and so locks lesser economies into underdevelopment. Elections are not free but won by the candidate with the most funding. Academics, particularly in the applied sciences, know well that the price of academic freedom to criticize corporate power is institutional marginalization and the end of funding for their research.

Thus knowledge of the political economy of capitalism can offer eager students of the energy descent powerful analytical thinking tools to see through the fabric of fairy tales that propagandists are constantly fine-tuning. They tailor different versions to specific publics all along the political spectrum from techno-fundamentalism to Christian fundamentalism. Hence they persuade conservatives that government is the problem – when it is really only the agent of a powerful class, and they convince liberals that government would serve the people if there were just a little more regulatory red tape.

An extensive literature on the manufacture of consent and many other areas of political economy neatly exposes all these false narratives, and awaits energy descent writers who are willing to share its important insights on how our social system really works. An example of my own writing along these lines is The Alchemy of Language in the Pacification of the American People.

Keeping the system going beyond its demise date

Another reason to share the revelations of political economy that expose its false narratives is to help people see how ruling strata have created crutches that mask evidence of the energy descent that began decades ago, props that make the present situation more brittle and crisis prone, and will cause more distress as those chickens come home to roost . Here is a list of some of these, covered well in the literature:

  1. The expansion of credit to keep consumption going, thus mortgaging the future with debt at all levels of society.
  2. Financialization of the economy, anticipated decades ago in a major work of Marxian political economy, Baran and Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital. The endless bailouts to prop up debt-ridden financial institutions.
  3. Offshoring of the US industrial economy. The result:

Cheap imports based on cheap foreign labor and unregulated raw materials extraction slowed the decline in US standard of living and actually increased wealth greatly in the US financial class. However, because US production for export declined, one result has been a ballooning trade deficit, which we paid for again by artificial means: the printing and sale of federal treasury bonds not backed by the production of real wealth.

4. Increasing reliance on the weapons industry to soften economic stagnation. As I have said elsewhere,

The weapons industry – one of our economy’s few remaining profit engines – is still helping to provide a semblance of normality in the US economy and keep public discontent from spilling over into revolt. Because the weapons industry depends on constant warfare to market and consume its ‘products’, US foreign policy is driven toward serial wars, partly to sustain the ‘health’ of this prop for an otherwise stagnant economy. But because a trillion dollar federal budget for warfare displaces the funding needed for social services – especially in a failing economy – the end result is the same: rising discontent.

5. Ignoring infrastructure dilapidation: utilities, transport, essential medical and educational institutions etc., to maintain a semblance of system solvency.

To begin to explain the above constellation of policy choices, one needs an operational knowledge of our political economy – how it is organized to insist on profit maximization at any cost. Taken as a whole, this policy pattern suggests that ruling strata have little allegiance to nations in which they happen to have residence. Rather, they use national armies and diplomatic muscle to protect their interests.

The costs of life in the system

Energy descent educators need to reveal the costs, the trade-offs inherent in capitalism’s ability to generate the vaunted material benefits of The American Way of Life. They need to draw on the copious literature in this area. Examples in the early wave of criticism in the 1950s-60s include works on planned obsolescence like Vance Packard’s The Waste Makers and the literature of cultural alienation, exemplified by Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man and exposés of the emptiness of middle class suburban life like C. Wright Mills’ White Collar. More recently, Kunstler’s The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of The American Dream identifies suburban sprawl as a product of the cheap energy era and attacks it both for its immense waste of natural resources and its spiritual and social emptiness. Other costs like the destruction of family and community and the loss of quality of life from living in an environment where pollution is inescapable in air water and food are well described in the literature as derivatives of the capitalist political economy.

In conclusion, educators who wish to school audiences in Reality 101 – to reveal the real world behind the veil of false narratives and misunderstood status of biophysical resources, to describe the present unique situation in human history and to prepare them for some sort of adaptation to the post-petroleum era – need to provide powerful tools for understanding how the world works, both the biophysical systems in which society is immersed and the peculiar political economy of capitalism that locks society into a self-destructive path.

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