My grandfather rode a camel, my father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son drives a Land Rover, his son will drive a Land Rover, but his son will ride a camel."--Rashid bin Saeed Al-Maktoum (1912-1990)
Hey, everybody! How are we doing with change just lately?
How are we doing with the pace of change just lately?
There is a fact we all live with, a fact so huge that it often goes unacknowledged. It's this: we are living in an anomaly our brains are not designed for.
We have been around, as a species, for about 300,000 generations, plus or minus a bunch. For the vast, vast majority of that time, "change" was beyond glacial. You woke up every morning, day after day, year after year, generations after generation, and you followed the same routine your ancestors did, rooted in the seasons and the signs and portents of the gods and spirits. You did this because to do anything else was practically unthinkable. Somebody might design a better spear point, but it would take many, many years for that innovation to become universal.
Technology didn't really take off until the agrarian revolution, and even then, it was more akin to a glider than today's supersonic jet plane. Great and mighty civilizations rose and fell, but still, the general shape of the world at any one person's death, barring occasional black swan events, would still have been comprehensible to that person's parents at her birth.
It's not like that anymore, is it? Fuelled by ancient sunlight in the form of oil, we have fashioned for ourselves a world so utterly unlike anything even imaginable as little as two centuries ago as to beggar belief.
We've known about oil for far longer than people realize. The first oil well was drilled in China in 347CE or earlier, to a depth of 800 feet (!). The ancient Romans knew of oil as well, although it was more of a curiosity than anything else. It wasn't until the 1850s that we started scaling up oil, until more and more of our society depended on it.
Oil is a very dense energy source: its return on investment is quite high. In the 1860s, for every barrel of oil's worth of energy you put into extraction, you got 188 barrels of oil worth of energy in return. You would therefore say the ERoEI (energy returned on energy invested) was 188:1. Today, the figure is about 33:1 and falling. Long before that ratio reaches 1:1, oil will cease to be practical or economic, and the huge anomaly that is our society will be a fever dream somebody had once.
I don't want to alarm you, saying that. You won't live to see it, not without many intervening events even larger than COVID-19, at any rate. It will be, at minimum, another century or two before this catabolic collapse, which began in 1914, fully plays out.
Again, I don't want to alarm you with the word "collapse". A catabolic collapse is a slow, gradual process: not jumping off a cliff, but rather descending a staircase. Relatively sudden events (the world wars, 9/11, COVID-19) are interspersed with periods of "new normals" and even limited prosperity, making it hard for our notoriously short-sighted species to grasp the trajectory. Couple that with a very pervasive Religion of Progress that has sprung up over the last century or so and we are doubly blind to goings-on.
I mean what I say about the Religion of Progress. To question its tenets brands you a heretic, an infidel. What are those tenets? One, that humanity is the apex of civilization, with its corollary that everything here on our Blue Boat Home was put here explicitly for us. Two, that every new development is a Good Thing because it's new. New And Improved, you might say.
And here I am, like the leg bone that cursed God, a blas-femur. I have just a wee bit of Amish in me.
Contrary to belief and perception, the Amish do NOT shun technology. But they DO shun that Second Tenet, that every new development is a Good Thing because it's new.
They take a critical, community-based approach to evaluating each new technological development, Does this bring us closer together, or drive us further apart? is the general thrust of their questioning, and anything deemed to do the latter is rejected out of hand. Different communities, of course, come up with differing answers.
I too reject the notion that technology is automatically a good thing. And I note that community, which has been the very real and natural expression of our species since time out of mind, has migrated into a virtual space and, in many cases, abandoned in the real world.
This is not inherently a bad thing. For many people, it's a lifesaver. But I would argue overall that the abandonment of real-word community is not beneficial to a species that has depended on it for hundreds of thousands of years.
The pace of change is accelerating, and we are currently descending another step on the long staircase all societies descend sooner or later. This is an excellent time to take stock of where are are and where we're going.
Let's remember that this internet we have created is, to a great degree, keeping society quasi-functional right now. Most of us are or will be on a forced retreat from the real world. I have always found the virtual world to be a poor cousin, but right now it's what we have, and I am embracing it, warily.
Let's take a moment to salute the grocery store workers, the truckers, the Uber drivers, and the other people commonly thought of as the dregs of society. I spent almost twenty years in grocery, and you couldn't pay me enough to go back right now. I have as good an idea of what's happening on the ground in stores as someone can without having experienced it. Let's, as always, salute the health care workers whose very lives are on the line as they seek to save the lives of others. But let's not stop there.
Change, particularly sharp, sudden change, has a way of exposing previous reality. As a for-instance, we're suddenly and acutely aware now (or we should be) that we have been treating a very large class of humans as fodder. Those self-same people, the stockers and cashiers and truckers and cooks, are keeping us going right now. Maybe they deserve to be treated as fully human, the way we regard ourselves. What say you? And what would our society look like if we modelled it on a human scale...or chose at every opportunity to put humans at the center of it? These are huge, existential questions more deserving of a book, or a series of books, than a mere blog. But if I had to hazard a guess? It would look a lot like how it used to look, before oil made Icaruses of us all. It would look like community. It would look like caring. We could be human beings again, instead of consumers and cogs in a machine.
I like that, don't you? Let's take this episode of change and try to bend it positive.