Thursday, December 9, 2010

Can-Do Optimism

(with apologies to the ghost of Voltaire for the pun)

Recently, in the comments, the topic of optimism came up, which set me to thinking for a bit.  I'm sure a number of people have been to "doomer" forums, where the constant refrain is "we are sooooo screwed!"  or some other variation.  Even the term "doomer" tends to carry a tone which implies near-helplessness in the face of bleak inevitability.  The general thinking is that there is little which can be done in the face of what is seeming to be an unstoppable perfect storm, a gathering of forces which will effectively destroy modern, orderly industrial civilization and leave us with a shell of our former existence.

There is some merit to the notion that we are effectively helpless to alter the course of events which are bringing us to the brink of collapse and a new Dark Age.  For example, the American debt is so vast that, eventually, the nation will be unable to even cover the interest payments on it.  Even confiscating all private money and taxing people all their income will do little to put a dent in it.  Peak oil, and the lack of a substitute for cheap energy is going to force a drastic adjustement in the life of the average person.  And so on. 

In this, I think there are two different types of people drawn to the idea that a new Dark Age is going to occur -- people who are naturally pessimistic and people who have taken a good, hard look at the current mess we're gettiing into and believe there's no realistic way out of it.  I fall into the latter category, myself.  I would prefer that our future wasn't likely going to be an inevitable collapse, but it doesn't seem there is anyone at the helm of the ship and the iceberg is rapidly approaching. 

This doesn't mean we have to be pessimistic, to be the mandatory "panicky idiot" (Simpsons reference) while we are trying to figure out a way to deal with these problems on a personal level.  Take "Dark Age" and substitute "cancer."  Would anyone want to be the person who ran around in public saying "I have cancer!  I am so screwed!"  No, there's no respect for a person who would take a personal struggle and react to it that way, so why do we take a social struggle and accept that kind of behavior and thinking?  Speaking in terms of survival stories from the modern day, it's always been the person who refused to accept defeat that managed to survive, while the person who accepted despair was the one who didn't make it (and possibly provided nutrition for the people who were more positive).

So, while it may seem a little odd to consider myself to be an optimist, I in turn look at things this way.  We can see the new Dark Age coming, even though we're still in the very early stages.  All the warning signs of the collapse of civilization -- overspent, overextended, lack of innovation, etc -- are there if we choose to see them for what they are.  This gives us time to reflect and prepare, to consider what we need to do and where we're going to be, both physically and mentally, as the lights go out.  This is a luxury that the people who are on a boat which has wrecked on a deserted island or have survived a crash landing on the frozen tundra don't have and we should be grateful for it.

To wrap up, I'll leave you with a quote from the late Mel Tappan, the "father" of modern survivalism.  Someone wrote a letter in response to one of his columns that essentially said "I don't want to live in the kind of world you're describing."  Mr. Tappan wrote back "I wouldn't want to die in it, myself."  That is where I think we all need to be.


A quick note -- I enabled anonymous comments the other day, not realizing that they were not enabled.  If posting gets out of hand, I can always disable them, but I appreciate that there are people who want to keep their participation in the Leibowitz Society anonymous for various reasons.  The more feedback and input we receive, the better formed and more useful the Codex and Repository down the road.  As always, thanks to those who participate in discussions.


  1. Thanks for clarifying!

    I think I am in the camp of the person who wrote the letter to Mr. Tappan. In a Dark Age scenario I would wonder what people have to live for? Most people seem like they just want to survive in that situation but fight for what? The country that fell apart, the money that vanished completely?

    If a person's courage and passion for life is not within reach before the fall, then it simply is not there. I'd get old and die waiting for all the cowards to turn into the heroes they should have been before things got so bad.

    It seems like a Dark Age is a deeper hole to climb out of and that's why I'm hoping alternative solutions reveal themselves. Downsizing in America will be uncomfortable but necessary. Too many of us equate our needs with our wants. It's caused a lot of trouble.

  2. Well, I think my response to this is based on a chapter of Joseph and Frances Gies' "Life in a Medieval Village." We tend to look on the Middle Ages as being a dismal time in a lot of respects, with constant warring, widespread disease, famine, political instability and so on. Yet, there was a chapter on children, particularly the attitude of parents toward their children. The Victorian view (which has unfortunately colored too much of our view of the Middle Ages) was that medieval parents didn't care much about their children, instead taking it mostly with a grain of salt if one died. In contrast, the Gieses detailed an extent writing describing the grief of parents whose child had drowned in a pond.

    What is striking about this is that people, in a time and place which was supposedly a living hell, were emotionally able to feel grief for the loss of a child. In turn, this means that the normal state of living and normal worldview was NOT grief, if the grief was singularly noted. Even in terrible times, people are still people and there is the normal drive for positive human emotion and "reasons for living." Their children, finding a purpose in life, the thought even of just being able to have a drink by a warm fire.

    We are accustomed to very complex actualization structures, so I think we tend to look a situation which seems bleak and do not remember that on one hand we complain about the complexity of life, yet are afraid of a place and time when life may be simpler, even if it is more difficult.

    I would prefer that sensible solutions to the current problems occur. The problem is that American life has settled into an unsustainable pattern, but to recognize that it is unsustainable requires a revamping of the economic and political situation to a degree that is unacceptable. I remember Barack Obama dancing around the subject a little and finding the waters too hot to explore (if I were him, I'd take a lot of vacations, too -- not a whole lot anyone can do with things now). There's no rational reason for people to expect to live on quarter acre lots 20 miles away from any kind of civic center. What kind of freedom is that, really? Spending 15% or more on transportation costs per year? And the lack of any kind of community structure outside of driving to Wally World or the mall? Of course, this plays into the notion of needs and wants getting entangled. I find that as the economic situation gets bleaker, it's easier and easier to distinguish between the two and I suspect more people are getting practice, judging by some of the latest economic data.

    I thought a little about people turning into "heroes" as the collapse occurred. It probably bears some thinking about, but I think that our modern society tends to work against what we consider to be heroic characteristics, especially as defined by Joseph Campbell's works. The modern world is very much one of continual management of the individual, to the point where I don't really think many people are versed at all in what heroism actually means, in the classical sense. I think there is an authentic longing both for heroic models to emulate, as well as the key/design for heroism and a means of unlocking it. I would like to think about it a bit more, but I believe a case could be made for Jane Jacobs' cultural amnesia being applied to heroism -- something which we were once familiar with, but are losing touch with because it is something which seldom exists in our society anymore. Pro sports isn't "heroic" at all, yet people are told that millionaire athletes are heroes. A better case could be made for soldiers, though heroes in the iconic/classical sense are rare in the military as well (Richard Winters comes to mind as a good example of the archetype -- voluntary enlistment to reduce service time as a refusal of the call, the war as the road of trials, the wisdom and perspective gained on life as a result).


  3. I think the perspective you share about the Middle Ages and the parents during that time is highly relevant. I think when people despair they do not want to see their children suffer. But then there are still plenty of people trying to raise their kids in less-than-ideal circumstances.

    If you have visited my site you may have noticed that I'm trying to build on messages for mothers. I do see the problems. As you say, they are bigger than one man like our president. They are systemic but the problems with the individual are profound. Humans seem quite unwilling to evolve or adapt outside of a crisis.

    I feel that moms will bear the brunt of any disaster in reality. Especially if men are out fighting each other. You point out heriosm tends to be easily defined in a military context. I agree but it's is only half in my opinion. I believe that our society needs greater balance. Heroes (women/mothers) create life, heroes (men/fathers)
    protect that ability for them to create life. The world only values one half of that equation. In my opinion, until it is balanced our world will continue this terrible repeat of history.

    I have to say that this is said in such an
    excellent way:
    "The modern world is very much one of continual management of the individual, to the point where I don't really think many people are versed at all in what heroism actually means..."

    The sheep march on!

  4. I think you're on a good track with what you're doing on your site. Part of losing our cultural identity/growing cultural amnesia is that the traditional thinking is often thrown out in favor of newer ideas. The assumption is that the newer idea is always correct, but the reality tends to be that new thinking sometimes exists simply because it is new and novel. While I don't necessarily agree with all this thoughts on the subject, William S. Lind did make a good point in his essay on Victorianism some time back that the most grievous sin of modern man is that of always seeking novelty and never holding onto proven ideas. While being too conservative can obviously result in a culture like Saudi Arabia, I think there have been important memes about motherhood and fatherhood which have been discarded in favor of newer ones (i.e. you're only a good mother if your kids dress in all the latest styles, only a good mother if your kids participate in 4 different sports, and so on - nothing which has anything to do with stability and nurturing).

    Both men and women have been cut adrift from cultural identity, partly as a result of the concerted effort to stamp out any spiritual/mystical component to our lives (you are a sack of protoplasm and are essentially meaningless) to mass marketing as we discussed before. I absolutely agree that we need greater balance and that both sexes need to reconnect to the models that we once had.

    I don't know if you've ever read it before, but Maureen Murdock's The Heroine's Journey is a reanalysis of Joseph Campbell's work, but this time from a feminine perspective. While I haven't had a chance to read the book yet, I've read a couple of commentaries and think it might be helpful to what you're doing.

    Those pesky sheep...


  5. I'm going to research Maureen Murdock's work. Thanks for the reference. I think there is place for good values and advancing humanity. The world is definitely big enough for both.

  6. I agree to the point where I think that good values and advancing humanity need to be intertwined. I'll be looking for a post on your blog at some point about the Heroine's Journey - I imagine it will be insightful.


  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. The eventual implosion of the world financial system is now inevitable. A consequent collapse of current trade arrangements and/or a repricing of most goods in hard currency is very likely. Massive unemployment, food/energy shortages, and civil disorder are unavoidable in the aftermath. Since the length of these crises is unknown, sustainable preparation for them is a minimum survival requirement for most.
    If the financial parasities whose greed lead to this collapse can be identified and exposed (not just their employee banksters and politicians), then wars to shape a replacement financial oligarchy may be avoided. The introduction of an honest monetary system within a reasonable time after collapse could avoid a new dark age or the establishment of a feudal world empire. To paraphrase Tolkien: "The ring of power must be destroyed"

  9. Justin,

    I tend to shy away somewhat from the idea of trying to blame a specific set of people for the eventual collapse. While it is attractive (and partly correct) to put most of the blame at their feet, the reality is that the majority of people living in the modern system have not only given consent, but approval, for the development of the institutions and practices that are now failing and will eventually collapse. The WW2 generation, having lived in privation, then danger, were more than happy to build bigger, better and more wasteful houses, car, developments, practices and so on. The Boomer generation was happy to quickly abandon their rejection of materialism and then embrace it in a way that must have been mind-boggling for the WW2 generation. The modern generations, having felt that they deserved a piece of an illusory pie, still have not paid much thought to how to sustain the systems which deliver their iPads and globe-trotting vacations and so on, even while racking up huge student loans and credit card debts.

    Really, it's a global version of the tragedy of the commons.

    So, I think it's not just a matter of introducing an honest monetary system, but also of trying to introduce thinking that promotes long-term thinking (not just thinking to the next day), cooperation, sustainability, mindfulness and to make it part of the consciousness of all people, not just bankers or those who deal primarily in money.


  10. Yes, if the system wasn't hijacked and bled dry by those charged with guarding it, then it would have collapsed anyway somewhat later from resource depletion and overreach. That it would happen by theft was predicted in 1983 by Bucky Fuller in "GRUNCH of Giants" and few paid attention. GRUNCH = GRand UNiversal Cash Heist.

    A system of debt money requires exponential growth to pay off the compounding interest. Since resources do not grow exponentially, and the world is (for now) effectively a closed system, collapse is inevitable.

    In order to consent and approve, one has to understand the subject matter and few do. It is no coincidence that most "education" keeps it that way. However, who is elected, what is taught, what is reported, who is prosecuted, and what the public thinks is pretty much controlled by these same bankers. They own both major parties, the major media, most entertainment, the Fed, and control the Treasury and major universities and foundations.

    When consent does not exist, (for example, the so called bailouts,) the agenda proceeds anyway; while less than 5% approved, it happened upon their demand. How many understand it was basically a daylight robbery of the Treasury by the bankers? How many unemployed realise it was the same crew that outsourced most middle class jobs?

    I mostly agree with you, and respect the need to preserve knowledge and promote long view thinking. However, if these folks and their methodologies are not outed, they will likely regroup (even if disrupted by the collapse) and return to leech off and debauch whatever is built following the collapse. After all, the founders of the USA promoted frugality, longview thinking, government limited to necessity, and warned of the danger of bankers, yet here we are.

  11. Justin,

    I think that maybe 2-3% of people in any place and time are able to ever learn without having to experience the lessons directly themselves.

    You are correct, however -- part of the purpose of the Leibowitz Society should be documenting the reasons for the collapse, as well saving knowledge for the aftermath. I guess from one perspective, it becomes problematic to start throwing stones in one direction or another. On the other hand, part of the reason we're at where we're at is because of the inherent flaws in the modern state (ie: the bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy). I think under Civics, it would be appropriate to include a whole section on Austrian economics?