COLUMN: Catastrophe Punctuates the Human Story

Charles Jeanes
By Charles Jeanes
May 18th, 2016

Disaster in “Canada’s most divisive city”

When I label Fort McMurray our ‘most divisive city’ I am stealing the phrase of a Globe and Mail journalist. It is an apt label. Fort Mac and what it symbolizes – the fossil-fuel industry and resource capitalism – does indeed divide us into camps according to our political response to climate change.

The Mac, as it is fondly known, is the capital city of fossil-fuel industrialism in Canada, and as such it is our ground zero in the debate Naomi Klein calls “Capitalism vs. Climate.” Unavoidably, one is aware that one carries an attitude to the symbolism of Fort McMurray, no matter whether one knows the town first-hand, and no matter that one feels appropriately compassionate toward the refugees from the fire there.

I anticipate someone will accuse me of lacking compassion for the undeserving victims of a natural catastrophe in their lives and livelihoods. Rex Murphy has ranted on CBC against anyone who might criticize how workers of the Mac oilfields contribute to the origin of climate change. I fully understand that these are real people suffering real pain and loss in the fires that devastated the city.

No matter Murphy’s pretence of a higher moral ground, it is not inappropriate to be moved to deeper consideration of the meaning of fire that is indisputably linked to the effects of a changing climate. And changing climate is inarguably related to the effects of industrial economics on planet Earth.

Naomi Klein says that the climate issue “changes everything” in politics. The Leap Manifesto is largely the work of Klein and Avi Lewis, a trans-partisan manifesto challenging Canada to get off its dependency on the petro-economy.

It is not wrong to be provoked by Alberta’s calamity to a critique of human impact on the natural environment and its effects on climate. One can simultaneously send help to the victims of the fire and think about the meaning of the fire.

It is incumbent upon Canadians to do some deep thinking about Alberta’s tar sands because we have to decide what to do with the fossil-fuel resources in our country. Keep taking it from the ground, and moving it via pipelines, or not? Keep on fracking? Keep the petro-jobs for families supported on the paycheques?

“Punctuated equilibrium”

Historians of how societies undergo change have invented a phrase — “punctuated equilibrium” — to refer to the pattern observed in European history, of long periods of relative stability, such as the era 1815 to 1914, punctuated by short, sharp bursts of rapid change brought by sudden events, such as events in the nine years 1914 to 1923. Punctuation periods are replete with happenings that seem unpredictable and follow no precedents.

The Fort Mac fire and the rapid proliferation of super-storms like Katrina and Sandy are punctuations. The world is in the throes of rapid changes forced by climate change and the adaptations to it that humanity is forced to undertake. It is probable that the Syrian civil war has roots in climate change that first generated economic and social desperation and then erupted into violence.

Soviet imperial collapse, Arab Spring, Syrian War: surprises

It has been very instructive to see how political events in this period of surprise punctuations have not conformed to the expectations of experts and academics who study politics professionally. The disintegration of the Soviet empire from 1989 to ’91 was anticipated by no one and celebrated by all; it was a triumph of the spirit of human freedom over tyranny. The so-called Arab Spring followed the Soviets’ break-up pattern of surprise, liberation, and celebration. Yet now the dismal working-out of the political freedom the people believed they had won is disappointing many and again confounding predictions.

Are the surprising punctuations of history at an end for this time? Has stasis or stagnation settled upon those societies that seemed on the threshold of startling departures from their despotic political order? Does Donald Trump herald a new American revolution or civil war? No one knows, everyone is guessing.

I will not venture any predictions of my own for the political effects of the Fort Mac fire on Canadian public discourse. I am sure the event will become a symbol in our debates, but how the debate will take concrete form in action and in policy for the realities of Canada’s economy is opaque to my vision.

Honestly, I do not see Canada moving swiftly into the post-fossil-fuel era, despite the idealistic call of the Leap Manifesto. It seems most likely to me that we’ll transition out of petro-capitalism to a re-ordered economy by slow stages, with each stage witnessing passionate conflict between competing visions. A recent poll reported a majority of respondents replied in the negative to the question, “Is capitalism a good system?” Agreeing on the negative is easy. The next system is what worries us and perplexes anyone trying to foresee it.

Transition periods and new narratives

There is a veritable industry now for inspirational speakers on the topic of Telling the New Story, or variations on that title, with Charles Eisenstein being a leader in the movement. The idea of a new human meta-narrative is simple enough: once we believed in the Judeo-Christian story of the purpose of human life; then science and technology, materialism and atheism introduced the story of progress and human control of nature; and now – since about 1990 or so – we realize we need to leave that story behind. In order to adapt to new knowledge and daunting challenges like climate change, we must shed the old story of progress because it manifestly does not operate accurately anymore.

Unfortunately history does not demonstrate that the efforts of intellectuals like Eisenstein and the new-narrative school can create the story for everyone to agree upon. He says the new story of the People is the Story of Interbeing. Well, that is one man’s opinion; I instinctively like this story. Others are on offer, such as David Korton’s vision in Change the Story, Change the Future. You can get a quick grasp of Korton’s imagined future by seeking out “We are the people we’ve been waiting for” on Youtube. Korton impresses me much less than Eisenstein does; Korton comes on like a dogmatic ideologue, to my ears.

The stories of human purpose, meaning, and the pattern of our history that become the basic foundation for a culture, are not stories articulated in a self-conscious way by philosophers and opinion-leaders. Very large masses of people living in societies do not adopt a singular coherent blueprint for their future from the writing and teaching of one or a few great thinkers. The process is much more complicated and variegated than that.

It is true that humanity lives by its stories, yes — and the stories mould and structure the consciousness of entire epochs of history. The phenomenon of a culture and civilization gradually articulating one great story to live by, and then the process of the people being psychologically and spiritually shaped and manipulated by the story, is not a smooth, linear, time-limited evolution. It is as impervious to rational dissection as is history itself. It is more mysterious than describing a war; it is as big a story as the rise and fall of an empire.

One Story fades, another dawns: living in a between-time

The story of the people for medieval Christian civilization was a very long time developing – hundreds of years in which the classical Greco-Roman pagan worldview was dying, before Christendom’s story was ascendant and finally dominant. After centuries of this story’s cultural dominance, the decline of the religious world-view enforced by the Church and by feudal kings was another long process. The waning of the medieval consensus reality in the West meant new forms of thinking (mercantile capitalism, colonialism, rationalism) slowly broke through the matrix of Christian theocratic narrative. The centuries of this transition were roughly the fifteenth through the seventeenth, from Petrarch to Spinoza.

The Western Enlightenment enthroned the Story of Progress and Control. Today we live in the era of that story’s unravelling, because that story is inappropriate to what we observe in our world; Progress and Control are not credible now. There will be a new narrative to overthrow that story, of that I have no doubt, and the effect of the new consensus story of humanity on earth will have formative effect on human behaviour for a new reality as yet unborn.

But no one can lead us en masse to the new consensus story. The creation of the story is too complex, with too many unforeseeable inputs, with mysterious exaggerations, and lapses, of memory and imagination, to be under the conscious direction of an elite of thinkers.

There are several competing possible new stories now, and the uplifting and spiritual vision of “Interbeing” may not win out over darker alternative matrices. Ray Kurzweil’s “Singularity” is nothing like “Inter-being”, and has an equal chance of being correct. And John N. Gray offers yet another version of a new story that is rather dismal and pessimistic. I urge readers to investigate the prophecies of these thinkers and others.

(Read science fiction too, by authors who have earned a reputation for quality and scientific literacy. Personal recommendations: Kim S. Robinson [Aurora], Neal Stephenson [Seveneves], Richard Morgan [Market Forces], William Gibson [All our Tomorrows]).

Only a wise fool would presume to predict where we will arrive in a century.

What do I mean by wise foolishness? An example: the future imagined by sci-fi writer Spider Robinson.

“…America will join the British Empire and Rome and a whole bunch of other pinnacles of ethical development. And perhaps in time, it will be replaced  by an improved version of them all, that learns from past mistakes better. It is never safe to say that new technologies will be discovered before all the oil and metals run out. If that doesn’t happen, then you’re right, the human race will die before long. On the bright side, you’ll never live long enough to know the answer for sure either way.

          “What if it is isn’t replaced? What if we never do get to the stars, and         everything ends here in the mud?”

          Zudie shrugged. “Then life is a pointless joke, suffering followed by           extinction. Deal with it.” [Very Hard Choices,  2008]

That’s one man’s view of reality and the possible future. Because the author has studied history, wisdom informs his speculation for our possibilities. But it is foolishness to presume certainty about the possibilities for the human future. The events and eventualities that may shape the unfolding of our story over the next century are, to my mind, simply too many and mysterious for a prophet to get the story correct.

Tangent: two great writers’ projected futures, and their scorecards

To demonstrate how writers of fiction have described fully-imagined future societies, I would ask readers to read once again two great science fiction novels by Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. Brave New World by the former, and 1984 by the latter, possess deserved reputations as brilliant attempts to foresee our future; we are living now in the time Huxley and Orwell were trying to describe. It is at present a trending topic I’ve come across on social media, to compare these novelists’ fictitious futures and score them for the accuracy of their prophecies.

Huxley has been judged to have understood the present better than Orwell did; you can read the discussion by googling “Huxley and Orwell predictions.” I agree Huxley got some things right, much more so than Orwell, but I understand Orwell was a more political writer than Huxley and he wrote for a purpose.  As a socialist, Orwell had very pronounced convictions about Stalinist communism in the 1930’s.  1984 was, like Animal Farm, written for readers who understood Marxian history and what was happening in Soviet Russia after 1917.

Huxley was very interested in pharmacology and history; drugs, genetic engineering, and hedonism are central to his dystopic view of the future. I would recommend Huxley over Orwell for most readers.

The Law of Unintended Consequences

It seems clear to me that human collective “movement” in the course of our history is a seductive trap for intellectuals to try and fill with theory. Marx is a paradigm case of a doctrinaire type of philosophic mind throwing a net of theory and pattern over the immense complexity of human history, applying an Hegelian system to discover “laws” of historical movement. One consequence of Marxian success in brilliant theorizing was Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution.

Lenin proclaimed that Marxism was the “science of revolution” and proceeded to force Russia’s people to conform to the theory; twentieth-century social engineering arrived in full force with his regime, though Lenin’s admirers insist that it was Stalin who perverted Lenin’s humane planned economy and society. The book to read on the subject is Utopia in Power by Mikhail Heller, or John N. Gray’s Black Mass.

The point is, intellectuals in power can be terrible masters when they are in the grip of their own narrative. I am far from suggesting that Charles Eisenstein’s new order would be Stalinesque if he had power to command a whole society, but there is a “law of  unintended consequences” that must be reckoned with. People intending only benevolence for their fellows, believing they have a theory and a blueprint, can produce social dystopias they never intended – if they possess the power of a State and all its tools of enforcement to realize the blueprint. Unintended consequences are as concrete as the intended ones.

Eisenstein seems to me to have a depth of spirit and consciousness that would steer him clear of the horrors of social engineering. But I am very reluctant to agree that, if only humanity has the correct New Story of the People, we will go forward into a better future. Manifestos for utopia raise my suspicions.

Narratives should not become dogma, but they do; that is an unintended consequence of a narrative that purports to lead us. I like big ideas, grand synthetic theorizing, and metahistorical narrative — but I like them for their stimulation and intellectual beauty, not as practical guides to concrete human situations.

I prefer the muddling way that consensual narratives have come into existence up to this point in history — no one was in charge and no one able to claim their story must be enforced on all humanity. So far, humans have made their way without one power having the force to monopolize the consciousness-forming narratives. Men like Hitler and Mao and Pol Pot have tried to create their subjects in the image of their doctrine with horrifying results.

I have no doubt more like those men will arise and try again. Inhuman ambition seems limitless in a distinct sort of pathological ego, bound to force people under its power to conform to a vision. May we be free from them!

The Young own the Future, the Old try to Prescribe It

Dar Williams has a wonderful song, Teen-agers Kick Our Butts: “Tell us what the future will bring/ We have lots of everything.”

She makes the point lyrically that the young make the future by action, not by planning and talking about it. The established, middle-aged generation provides the chattering classes and intellectual elite of a culture, who try mightily to foresee, predict, and prescribe the future, but it is the young who must live in it, and they make the actual future by outliving their elders.

The upcoming generations will make the future without explicit blueprints or creeds (although there will be plenty on offer to choose from, so long as there are intellectuals among us) until it is already being lived — and then thinkers and writers and artists will describe it. In fact, perhaps artists intuit the future before it is here. By the time a thorough explicit description of the Story of the People can be committed to paper, that story will already be in an early stage of unravelling. For example, medieval Thomism reached intellectual perfection in the same years that the early Italian Renaissance was germinating.

Change is constant, as the pundits say, but in a period of punctuating crises such as the present time, it is more rapid and less understood than during the slower eras of equilibrium. How will the New Story of the People be created, to replace the old one? By the daily decisions of billions of humans. That’s tens of billions of choices and actions a week, all moving in an opaque way to some future that must take account of the ruinous effect of industrial economics on our habitat and on human societies.

All around me in the Kootenays I am aware of younger generations doing what they must to resist the impoverishing tendencies of twilight techno-capitalism, which still possesses enormous power to destroy even as it is being unravelled by its manifest failings. I listen to my daughter and her friends in  conversation, I read what the young are writing or saying in song lyrics or in journalism, or speaking at the co-op radio station where I am a programmer.

The young know the old story of capitalist progress has run its course and now threatens to ruin us if we keep trying to make it work. But so far I discern no coherent consensus. Some youth are confident that science and technology will create the solutions to our problems, with new energy sources, nano-mechanisms implanted in improved humans, miraculous breakthroughs in medicine, conquest of other planets, and wealth shared among everyone, banning that hateful one percent who monopolize wealth now.

For some, a bright and better political and social order free of racism, sexism, and all forms of bigotry is expected, thanks to the resources of education on the internet. Others are less sure about science, but believe in a psycho-spiritual transformation of the human consciousness that will lift the species into higher planes. Still others foresee some kind of Dark Age that must be planned for, with communal food production and simple technologies that return to earlier cultural practice. The devil is indeed in the details.

The spirit of youth is faith, hope, and confidence. I am ready to surrender to it.


I shelter in the shadow of Socrates and with him I say, I know how much I do not know; for that reason I feel I am wiser than many.

I know nothing about the future of the world. I can only know myself, and that is a lifetime’s project. I realize that my inclination to go inward, to seek a more spiritual path of understanding and to retreat from the material and political world, is a standard pattern for an aging human. At the threshold of my senior years, I am doing what humans have done predictably over many generations.

In the time of the Buddha this time of my life was understood as the phase for being a spiritual searcher, a sadhu. This is the fourth and final phase; we have been children, then adults starting and maintaining family and careers, and thirdly we were in our prime — the pillars of society, with influence and power to shape the world.

Now it is time to look back and understand our lives, ask about meaning and legacy, and look ahead to anticipate how best to live before leaving the mortal plane. In ancient India, a sadhu was a wanderer possessing only a cloak, a staff and a begging bowl; the culture of their societies ensured that these elderly spiritual seekers never lacked for some food in their bowl, and shelter at the end of the day. This manifestly will not happen to a wandering Canadian elder in the twenty-first century, as a passing glance at the plight of the impoverished homeless in our streets proves.

But there are social and financial supports for the elderly if they do not become wanderers, and thanks to those, Canada is a place where one can imitate the interior soul-quest of ancient sadhus. That sort of life appeals to me. I like the idea of being a watcher rather than a participant as the New Story unfolds.

We live in interesting times; we may as well keep interested.

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