Saturday, August 25, 2012

A Sort of Optimism

I've been thinking lately that one of the main reasons that nothing is done on climate change, Peak Oil, and cultural collapse is because we Americans are too optimistic. Our thinking is constantly castrated with notions of "technology will save us," "the free market will save us," "the scientists will find a new energy source," "America is blessed by Gawd," and the like. We always want to feel that everything will be okay, the universe will provide, or Providence, or the market, or the engineers... something will come along. It is best expressed by a friend of mine, noting that money was getting tight here at the end of the month, when he said something to the effect that "I'm not worried, though; it'll all work out, always does."

I admit part of me agrees heartily. I've learned and viscerally experienced the wisdom of being patient, of being open to things, and have noticed that things you need really do seem to come along, just like the Rolling Stones famously sang. But  The Universe Shall Provide is not a rule of the universe. Or maybe it is, but there is a correlative: Shit Happens. We all die, many of us horrifically. Poverty happens even to the most positively thinking create-your-own-reality believers; events like war, famine, and natural catastrophe can sweep down and devastate all and sundry, with total indifference to prayers or optimism. 

Yet, though we all know that truth, we still refuse to confront it in policy making. Seems to me that the real theater of our political system is the fact that the power brokers fight for control of the ship, trying to steer it this way and that, while the ship itself is sinking, and needs no help from them in finding its way to the bottom.

So I wonder if the rise in fundamentalism throughout the world, and namely in the Arab/Islamic world and in America, is in some way a form of blind optimism. Europe, I'll add, doesn't seem to experience this optimism. I may be talking out of my ass here, but the Europeans, they seem far less optimistic than we do. They lived through two world wars, right there in their own front yards. Bombs destroyed whole towns, millions of men bled to death on their soils. They have seen the devastation, they know what a disaster looks like; anyways, they have been slaughtering each other, back and forth, since time immemorial. They seem to be more willing to engage in both social programs and alternative solutions, and protest much more enthusiastically over such things. 

Meanwhile, we Americans have only our 9-11, which, though horrific, was very limited in size and scope, if not in sheer psychological impact. We've been insulated, by our oceans and by our imperialist strength, so it seemed all the worse. We have only had two wars on our own soil in the last 225 years, since the Revolution-- and one of them was a civil war (the other being the War of 1812). The Mexican American war was fought largely in Mexico, so it doesn't really count, and all the Indian wars were far removed from the main population centers, on the fronteirs.

So, optimism, but with a dark shadow. An optimism more like whistling past a graveyard, or having your head in the sand; a refusal or inabillity to see the real issue. A response to cognitive dissonance, that is, "the discomfort felt by a person seeking to hold two or more conflicting cognitions (e.g., ideas, beliefs, values, emotional reactions) simultaneously." 

You can look at the crazed fundamentalism in the Middle East and North Africa as the reaction to the unacknowledged but subconsciously understood fact that their lands are horribly overpopulated and that the oil isn't going to last. Some of those areas can sustain higher levels of civilization, like the Nile River, the Fertile Crescent, and some of the oases. But mostly it was always a land of nomadic herders. Certainly it took the Oil Age to create a Dubai. The old curse about American energy independance that goes, "let the Arabs eat their oil, for all I care," basically tells the tale. There isn't much else there. 

In Saudi Arabia there is a saying that goes, "My grandfather rode a camel, my father rode in a limo, I ride a private jet, and my son will ride a camel." At some level they understand their predicament, and are in a sort of collective despair over it, and can cling only to their religion for comfort as they wait for their world to crumble around them, literally and figuratively. We think of collapse maybe as a sort of Dark Age, a fall to simpler times, more hard labor and some suffering; but for them, it's going to be a horrendous die off, massive migrations and thus massive conflict. And I think they know it. 

Here in America, we have our own fundamentalisms. The obvious one is the Christian Evangelicals, who consider America a blessed land, God's country, and cannot believe anything bad could ever really happen here. Obviously bad things happen, like hurricanes and earthquakes and even housing bubbles, but it's always blamed on the homosexuals, the atheists, the blacks, the Mexicans, abortion doctors, and so on. Still, I doubt they would accept a fundamental end to all Western Civilization as we know it. Maybe for those secular, atheist Europeans, but certainly not to America.

Likewise the free marketeers, the engineers, the technophiles. Nothing bad will happen, they say, because the market will supply what is demanded, the scientists will develop new technologies to solve all our problems. This is a fundamentailst faith in reason, in science. It is, much as it may pain rational people to hear such a thing as "faith in science" uttered (or written, as it were). 

My belabored point is this: it's going to take the shit really hitting the fan before we really come around to facing the looming disaster coming straight for us. It will take something bad for us to not only wake up, but come together, energized and with a renewed community ethic. Europeans suffered through the travails of the 20th century together, the wars, the economic struggles... so it is no wonder that they have more social programs and a more progressive mindset. They don't want to go through that again. We haven't dealt with it at home, not really, so it may take something like a serious, prolonged oil shock or an actual famine to help us get the idea. 


  1. I think you make an excellent point and I don't disagree. That said, I think there is another factor that goes hand-in-hand with it. We don't feel we need to worry about all the shit that will hit the fan because we understand that the majority of this shit won't hit during our lifetimes. Things won't really turn bad until after we're dead and gone.

    So, why worry about it now? Future generations will figure something out and, if they don't, it's their own damn fault!

    In other words, I think the explanation is an unbridled optimism married to abject selfishness.

    1. That could be, but only because people are uninformed about what all this means. It will certainly be occurring in MY lifetime, and some of it is happening now. The way our political system is sliding into fascism, the now-unpredictable climates, the turmoil in the Middle East/Africa (Lybia, Syria, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen). The boomers will miss the majority of it. But everyone under thirty is in for a shitty century.

      I'm sure you're right about the selfishness, though.

  2. I think there may also be a feeling of impotence, a despair we sweep under the rug. It's funny, I was talking just recently to a surprisingly conservative friend the other day,and I said that I was not optimistic about the future. He on the other hand, full of anger and stuck in the past, was highly optimistic.