Written by Erik Lindberg
Originally posted on transitionmilaukee.org
Actually I am a bit devastated, but not nearly as much as most people from my liberal neck of the woods, mainly because I am lucky enough to have stumbled, about eight years ago, into a world of political activism that lives beyond the current political divide. Around 2:30 last night when I rolled over and emerged from my safe world of dreams, I made the mistake of rousing myself enough to check the results. When I had gone to bed Trump was giving Clinton a scare, but all the big states except Ohio had yet to be called. Certainly this couldn’t actually happen. When I turned on my laptop in the wee hours and saw the sea of red—Wisconsin, Florida, Michigan, even Pennsylvania--the air seemed suddenly sucked from the room and I was struck with that terrible sick feeling that so many others felt at some point last night. I tried to fall back asleep, but couldn’t. I read an article from Politico, turned to The Nation on line, checked in on Facebook. No solace. Too soon for reflection. Then I lay in bed looking at the ceiling, breathing slowly and deliberately, breathing out the excited emotions, reflecting upon our country, our past, our shaky present, and our uncertain future with as much understanding as I could muster, freeing myself slowly from reactive fear and anger.
This midnight moment of self-liberation was, I think, much easier for me than most people outside of the deep sustainability world, largely because of an alternative view of history it has provided me, and thus very different expectations for the present and future than I used to have. I am often misunderstood to be saying that partisan politics don’t matter, which is not actually the case. Rather, I spend a fair amount of effort thinking about how much they matter, while suggesting that other things may be of far greater import. The election of Trump is, of course, terrible short-term news, particularly for a number of Americans that aren’t pictured in Trump’s America, and may bring additional pain and suffering not only to us, but those living in lands far away. I’m thinking, here, of my friend who asked, “what will happen to my health care”; of all the immigrant laborers whose invisible work is far too likely to go unnoticed; of my Muslim neighbor, who appeared utterly drained this morning as he backed his car out of his garage; and, finally, of the people living in embattled lands who may become victims of a Trump-ordered air-strike.
But there is also a crucial existential aspect to Presidential elections, and especially this one and I think it is too easy for us to paint a self-admiring picture of ourselves in which ourpolitical alignments are rational and magnanimous and our outrage mainly policy driven. For our politics are reflections of our identities, our hopes and dreams, and it is important to remember that these contain a lot of projection, on the one hand, and, on the other, are ruefully curtailed by a two-party system. Just like any Trump supporter, however, we are frightened that our country won’t look like us or think like us. We are afraid that it may speak a different language, in this case a course and belligerent one, rather than one originating in a different country. I think my sister captured the existential facet best. I spoke with her a week ago, when a Clinton victory seemed a near-certainty. Even then, the mere rise of Trump, she explained, had forced her to look at the painful truth that we are not the country we had believed ourselves to be.
I understood her very well, for I had come to the same conclusion; only because of the reading, activism, and emotional work that I had been forced to perform when I happened by chance upon the Transition Movement about 8 years ago, it had happened far sooner and much more gradually. I am grateful for the opportunity I have had to reflect in relative peace and quiet, without the sound and fury of a political circus being performed above. Like many in the “deep sustainability” world, then, I had already begun the difficult and painful reworking of my hopes and expectations to fit the world, I think, we actually live in. From this perspective, Trump was not a surprise; rather he was an unwelcome sign of a terrible sickness with which, I had come to believe over the course of several years we, as a culture and society, are afflicted—all of us, not just those who reached for the Trump lever with anger, hate, and despair.
History Without Two Sides
As even a brief reflection on any political campaign can reminds us, politics is about story, about the narrative of where we came from and where we might expect to go, especially if we select the right people or ideas to lead us. But for a while, now, I have been considering the world from a standpoint beyond the world of partisan rivalry, about which I will say more below, but instead from the standpoint of resource depletion, climate instability, human displacement, and economies that have reached the limits of growth without ever figuring how to maintain an equilibrium according to which everybody might just get enough. Taking these seriously has forced me to assemble me a far different narrative than the common American political ones[i]—ones which ignore the impact on our daily lives that changes in the very basic features of a global human and natural ecology have wrought and will bring in far greater measure in years to come.
Although the way I would specifically narrate this history has a number of crucial sources, none is more important than John Michael Greer’s theory of the expansion and contraction of societies, or as he calls it, “Catabolic Collapse.”[ii] Although he employs a good deal of historical evidence, the rise and fall of past empires never too far out of sight, Greer’s theory stands out as history of the present. Far better than aspirational histories, according to which our dreams may come true if only we make the right choices, Greer can explain a broader range of phenomena as well as the frustration aspirational histories have been experiencing for the past forty years or so when someone attempt to make them materialize in the form of a new morning in America.
Greer’s theory is one of rise and fall, growth and decline. Following the work of anthropologist Joseph Tainter, Greer focuses on the way complex societies build and maintain their complexity by way of growth and expansion, for the simple reason that maintaining complexity is expensive and needs a constantly expanding supply of resources, especially as it becomes necessary to service an impossibly complex web of high-maintenance infrastructure. Thus do empires on the rise constantly acquire additional territory and, often, more slaves, just as economies are always on the prowl for new markets. But this expansion can only go on so long, whether actual territory is at stake, or whether we are talking about the increasingly rapid use of energy to turn raw materials into usable and sellable stuff. As Greer explains it, “The central idea of catabolic collapse is that human societies pretty consistently tend to produce more stuff than they can afford to maintain. What we are pleased to call ‘primitive societies’ – that is, societies that are well enough adapted to their environments that they get by comfortably without huge masses of cumbersome and expensive infrastructure – usually do so in a fairly small way, and very often evolve traditional ways of getting rid of excess goods at regular intervals so that the cost of maintaining it doesn’t become a burden. As societies expand and start to depend on complex infrastructure to support the daily activities of their inhabitants, though, it becomes harder and less popular to do this, and so the maintenance needs of the infrastructure and the rest of the society’s stuff gradually build up until they reach a level that can’t be covered by the resources on hand.”
At this point, the civilization begins to collapse. They don’t collapse simply because of bad decisions by their leaders; and certainly not because a Trump was chosen over a Clinton; rather they collapse because they were never sustainable in the first place. As Greer explains it, “the problem, of course, is that neither imperial expansion nor fossil fuel drawdown can keep on going indefinitely on a finite planet. Sooner or later you run into the limits of growth; at that point the costs of keeping wealth flowing in from your empire or your oil fields begin a ragged but unstoppable increase, while the return on that investment begins an equally ragged and equally unstoppable decline; the gap between your maintenance needs and available resources spins out of control, until your society no longer has enough resources on hand even to provide for its own survival, and it goes under.” This has never been as more the case than with the current American economic empire, and a global economy that is forged in its image. Our current order of things is drawing down upon a finite savings account of non-renewable natural resources, that simply won’t be available to future generations, while at the same time using up renewable resources faster than they can regrow. Our prosperity and our power has always been based on them and the false promise that more will be available every year. Closer to home, Americans require about one quarter of the world’s energy, natural resources, and finished industrial products to maintain our way of life. It is no wonder we spend more on our military than the rest of the world combined, for only such a show of force could keep this imbalance in place.
When people think of the collapse of civilizations, they usually involve images of rapid events that occur overnight or over the span of several weeks or months. Think, for example, of “The Day After Tomorrow” or “The Walking Dead.” As Greer explains, in our experience of history as history time is “foreshortened,” such that we forget that the Great Depression developed over about four years of ups and downs and not on one memorable day in October, that the Roman Empire took centuries to collapse and there was no grand dramatic moment of indifferent violin playing, that the French Revolution occurred over a span of thirty years, a time during which entire lives were lived, often with a great deal of mundane normalcy. The catabolic collapse of America, then, is something Greer expects to play out over the course of a century.
Part of the reason it takes so long for complex civilizations to collapse is that they do adjust to immediate crises, even if they are unable to manage a longer view of their future. In this way do societies in decline manage crises “of rising maintenance costs” by cutting those costs. It is these cost-cutting responses to crises, it seems to me, where Greer’s explanatory power is most relevant to the recent American experience, and the experience fresh (if misunderstood) in the minds of many Trump supporters. As Greer describes it, “the most effective way of cutting maintenance needs is to tip some fraction of the stuff that would otherwise have to be maintained into the nearest available dumpster. That’s rarely popular, and many complex societies resist it as long as they possibly can, but once it happens the usual result is at least a temporary resolution of the crisis. Now of course the normal human response to the end of a crisis is the resumption of business as usual, which in the case of a complex society generally amounts to amassing more stuff.” Collapse, then, is “not quite as straightforward as it sounds, because each burst of catabolism on the way down does lower maintenance costs significantly, and can also free up resources for other uses. The usual result is the stairstep sequence of decline that’s traced by the history of so many declining civilizations—half a century of crisis and disintegration, say, followed by several decades of relative stability and partial recovery, and then a return to crisis; rinse and repeat, and you’ve got the process that turned the Forum of imperial Rome into an early medieval sheep pasture.”
Put in more concrete historical terms, one need only survey the past forty years of American history and see the way we have bounced from crisis, to partial solution and back to crisis again, starting with the Arab Oil Embargo, which coincided with the peaking of American domestic oil production, and ending most recently with the housing crash of 2008. In each recovery, however, a major part of American infrastructure has been neglected, and a significant class of Americans have been kicked into the nearest dumpster of political invisibility. Each recovery brings us an America with more income inequality, a smaller middle class, and a lot more tarnish. Although some of us may come to accept third world healthcare in our big cities, or in rural enclaves, as a new kind of normal, almost unremarkable because of its sometimes gradual appearance in a place we keep mainly out of sight, what is left of the American middle class is able to maintain its illusions of progress as society eliminates all sorts of other services. Thus do we build a new stadium in the suburbs, while entire sections of major cities become modern ghost-towns and while bridges and roads go unrepaired.
But the memory of those who have been pushed into the dumpster of American society sometimes lives on long after it has been downsized or offshored. This is especially true, it appears, with white Americans living in rural areas who have emerged, under Trump’s awful tutelage, as a self-conscious political class. Granted, many Trump supporters are themselves not desperately poor, but they live in circumstances that have limited prospects for the future and, I think, are experienced in sharp contrast to the picture of itself painted by educated urban America. This is why the current election, even had the results been different, reveals the stairstep sequence of decline described by Greer. We are a country of indifference and neglect in which some people want only to lash out at some sort of establishment, while the establishment can hardly imagine itself as such, while our ears ring false but nevertheless continue to ring with tales of progress, and affluence, and the promise that you should always expect more.
Imagine that you were tasked as some sort of creative writing project to describe the people and institutions within a society that is in the midst of a long and slow, ragged and unstoppable decline. It is not unlikely that you might describe a world with deep social fault-lines, government institutions that no longer work as designed, and economy that cannot keep its promises. You might imagine its military entangling itself in foreign misadventures without the competence and clout that the citizenry had come to expect, while a restive world that looks on with both admiration and despair chafes against the rules that were always against them. You might, of course, imagine the rise of demagogues who would manipulate the fears of a bewildered people. Indeed, how could you not, eventually, imagine a Trump or someone like him, giving an easy angry voice to the soon to be dispossessed.
Trump’s America, Our America
Let me admit in advance that this simplifies some complex issues, but one is not entirely off-base to see the just-concluded election like this: from within the context of a slowly eroding society, we were given two choices. Clinton represents a shrinking middle-class elite (among which me and my very moderate liberal friends have a difficult time seeing ourselves, even though statistics on mean and median income bare it out, not to mention immense reserves of cultural capital) that has managed to maintain the basic contours of a middle class lifestyle complete with expanding horizons, or the intact and still believeable fantasy of them. Trump, strangely of course, represents a broad group of people who have either been downsized along with lowering surpluses and shrinking margins, or clearly see the writing on the wall of their overly-mortgaged homes. America does not offer them anything resembling the future they were promised. That Trump gives voice to this group in the most awful way, and offers nothing more than slogans, scapegoating, and silly simplistic solutions does nothing to diminish the historical changes that have given a menace like him such an eager and receptive audience. For like all empires in decline, the urban centers of power and influence in our society have been sucking the lifeblood out of an American periphery that these centers now, because of Trump, feel more licensed to hate and disregard than ever.
From the perspective of a contracting civilization, Trump, or someone like him (perhaps even worse) was entirely predictable. I have been waiting for him—with dread, yes, but also without surprise. I have thus been able to ready myself for him and the truths he reveals about our fracturing and eroding society. I have had eight years to prepare for such an event. The historical perspective I share is not meant to be immediately comforting. As I mentioned, I am not devastated mainly because I worked through this devastation, felt it, already. Yes, compared to many Americans I remain physically safe with relative security. There is value, however, in accepting and understanding and then awaking to a new world of action. But I want to say another word about our contracting nation and, more significantly, its stories. For regardless of political affiliation, there is one official story about America: that it cannot contract. If it does, then someone or something is to blame. Given the reality of life in an empire that has reached its peak, or of living in a nation that consumes a quarter of the world’s resources, this is just about as bad a narrative as one can imagine. There is no telling to what depths it might descend, nor how many Trumps it might create.
The standard political explanation for the taste and texture of politics and society today—our threadbare infrastructure and dysfunctional public deliberation, an economy that won’t grow the way economists claim it “should,” increasing hostility from both the far reaches of our economic empire and from the neglected hinterland of our country—is, of course that the other side is responsible for this. This is a story that Democrats and Republicans tell with a remarkable degree of symmetry, real differences notwithstanding. As pundits ceaselessly declare, we are a divided nation, but I seldom witness any recognition that this division refers to something more significant than the mere fact that two sides have different belief systems. In our divided nation each side blames the other. Someone—you!—has taken my American dream from me, each side says. Both sides thus need each other and are locked in a dysfunctional relationship of mutual dependence. What ever would we do if we didn’t have Reagan, Dan Quale, W, Palin, and now most outrageously, Trump, to hold responsible for the mess we are in? We would, of course, have to look at ourselves.
The strength of the single American political story is remarkable, even as its credulity is tested year after slowly crumbling year. Educated liberals are able to see directly through Trump’s story about making America great again. But do these same people really believe that Clinton has some magic way to reverse years of job loss, deindustrialization, disenfranchisement? Have you looked at a rustbelt city, driven over Gary Indiana on the freeway, or through the miles upon miles of Milwaukee (where the GMC plant once stood) beyond the sliver of prosperity sitting along the lake? All this is not going to be made great again. Our IPhones are not going to save us. Clinton is not going to discover a hidden trove of low-hanging fruit, an untapped market of new cheap labor or of eager and moneyed consumers ready to buy more of the crappy stuff and junky culture that we market and sell, but can’t even make ourselves. The coal mines are not coming back, Trump’s promises notwithstanding. But neither is sort of sudden and unrepeatable consumer expansion that returns us to the 1964 poised for reemergence in our political fantasies. No one is going to discover a way to grow the global economy at 3% per year without, at the same time, devastating the planet’s environment and ecology. Clinton doesn’t have some magic new way forward or path into the future. That little of this is noticed can of course be explained by the disgusting and repellent personality of Trump. But it also has much to do with, I don’t know, an intellectual laziness, some strange willingness to stand in line and accept a political identity stamped with Republican or Democrat, or signed with the name Trump, Clinton, or maybe Sanders, Rubio, or Bush; is it because outrage is such an easy, and initially delicious emotion?
In an article written for The Nation on line, Joan Walsh grieved Trump’s victory, but suggested that it is mainly a temporary roadblock to progress. “The world represented by the Obama-Clinton coalition is still the country we are becoming; a Trump victory can only postpone it.”[iii] I see her point and it has some merit. There is good reason to believe that there are demographic and broadly unstoppable social forces which will continue to chip away at racism, sexism, and homophobia. The election of Trump doesn’t change that. But it terms of all the other issues at play, I see things in the opposite. Clinton’s unflinching support for business as usual would take us only more slowly to a place perhaps speeded by Trump’s victory. I do have real and substantial trepidation that certain dangers may, suddenly, be knocking at the door. But the existential transition--the acceptance that this is our world and this is what we must now concern ourselves with managing—this is something different. I know, I know. The obvious response will be “easy for you to say, middle-class white boy living in Shorewood.” True, perhaps, but still again not that easy, for there is a lot of intellectual and emotional work in these words—but still words thought and written in safety, I realize. And if so, if it is still easy for me to say it, I’d better say it while I can because once lost, sympathy and understanding are difficult to regain.
So what if, to the extent we live in a place where we can, we turn disappointment and bitterness into deep, perhaps sad, reflection? What if we give our available political choices what is due, but refuse to allow partisan politics to dominate our political consciousness, while refusing, in turn, to let our political consciousness dominate a deeper and more earnest will to understand and make sense of things? The division of the world into two parties, two belief systems, two sides (the “other one” making life miserable for “us”) dominates not only our sense of reality, but our very sense of possibility. It gives us false hopes for quick and easy changes that require almost nothing of us, and then turns them into unnecessary hate and anger. We are not at the fork of the road in Frost’s widely misunderstood poem, with history hanging in the balance; we are all lost, together, in the great forest of American bewilderness.
When one begins to look beyond all the manufactured choices and options, we might begin to accept the fact that we are part of a great and sprawling, out-of-control system whose interconnected parts and personalities cannot be isolated, rather than as a good-guy victim attempting to make things right (or great) again. While we cannot rebuild our empire to its previous heights (nor, should we want to if we care a shred about the atmosphere or remember Iran, Chile, United Fruit, The Bay of Pigs, the Contras, Viet Nam, Iraq, and all our other propping andnation building misadventure), there are a number of ways we can inhabit our ongoing contraction. If we put our hopes in the likes of Clinton (or Obama for that matter) and their own stories about making America great again, we can hope for little better than the likes of Trump. Our electoral system and, I would add, the fetishization of partisan politics, makes it too easy to evade responsibility (“I didn’t vote for him”); but our lives here on Earth and among each other are far more complicated and demand far more responsibility than that. I sure would have like to see Hillary save us from Trump. But then the question would still have remained: who is going to save us from Clinton and her ultra-affluent team marketers and financiers, all determined to keep America more or less the way it is now.
If, on the other hand, we tell a new story, take responsibility for our affluence and the resources it requires, seek national forgiveness for the theft of our land and the slaves we stole to build it out and develop it for our comfort today, consider with compassion the lives of the coal miners or steel workers or family farmers who have been discarded like so much trash in the face of a globalist middle class march of progress—then, just maybe, we can find a way to live with peace and dignity. This, at any rate, is why I write. So that others with the capacity to think historically, in terms of systems and structures, with an understanding of the power of impersonal forces might, for a moment here and there, take a step back from their self-assigned role in our system and maybe, if nothing else, bear witness to who we are, what we have done, and where we are going.