Collapse and the Amnesia of the Golden Future
Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, USA: it is the largest of about 4000 preserved Cliff Dwellings (circa 800 years old) built by ancient Pueblo people (Anasazi). [o]
OJAI, CALIFORNIA — The dark subtext of the neoliberal economy, based as it is on a model of perpetual growth situated on a planet of finite resources, is that it is entirely unsustainable. This is not news.
Yet in California, many continue to live as though there is no tomorrow, perhaps because, as Joan Didion writes, “the future always looks good in the golden land because no one remembers the past”. This is a fine fragment of the glib, always a hallmark of the Didion canon. But writing in the seventies, she was well aware of legions of young people drawing heavily from the past in creating the hippie lifestyle, and is shown in photographs from that era wearing the flowing long dresses that were emblematic of their culture. Today, although many of us continue to live avowedly in the present, the past has been resurrected by another cohort of loosely aggregated young people, and they use their historical awareness to shine a light on the planet’s potential tomorrows.
To glance into the rear-view mirror (just this hemisphere) is to reveal past civilizations with fundamental flaws in their economic systems whose societies remained in complete denial of the day when those flaws might be exposed — where the future always looks good, until it doesn’t. We know something about these tomorrows when they finally arrive — partly because archaeologists study our long-ago yesterdays when civilizations were massively disrupted by sudden economic, societal and environmental collapse.
When many of our most promising youth are sold into the debt peonage of a frequently valueless college education . . .
So to begin, a jeremiad.
David E. Stuart, an archaeologist in the southwest, and author of Anasazi America (2014), suggests that we are now all Chacoans. By this he means that contemporary America resonates with the narrative arc of the Pueblo people who developed a successful society in Chaco Canyon (in what is now New Mexico), but which foundered, almost nine hundred years ago, on excessive attenuation of trade, income inequality and climate change.
The Chacoans devised a diversified economy which combined agriculture and hunting and gathering, which enabled them to prosper in the first millennium — despite living in a desert region with less than reliable summer rainfall. Around 1000 C.E., the climatic conditions became more favorable and the Puebloans were emboldened to expand their agricultural base. Stuart writes, “Charcoan society could have used this reprieve to improve the lot of individual farmers and create incremental efficiencies, but it did not. Instead it chose growth and power”.
In their new territories the Chacoans built ever larger great houses of up to four storeys tall and sometimes containing more than six hundred rooms, connected to their home canyon by more than four hundred miles of roadway. Their trade network stretched from southern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico; and while the size, complexity and power of the society grew, so too did the disparity of wealth reflected in rates of infant mortality and average adult height, which varied by almost two inches between rich and poor.
The Anasazi civilization grew in the dry lands of the American southwest and lived in groups of adobe, multi-storeyed houses the Spanish later called pueblos. [o]
Around 1090 C.E., a devastating five year drought led to widespread famine and the abandonment of many outlying farms. The Chacoan elite responded by creating vast new infra-structure projects which temporarily absorbed the unemployed farm laborers, but did nothing to solve the underlying problem of agricultural productivity. A second major drought forty years later led to the unraveling of Chacoan society as more and more farmers fled their lands and joined an exodus to the uplands of the east. Stuart notes that within a generation, amidst sporadic warfare and plundering, Chacoan society had ceased to exist.
As Jared Diamond shows in Collapse (2015), a similar process was at play in the downfall of the Mayan civilization sometime between the eighth and ninth centuries. Again, a prolonged drought, this time exacerbated by the deforestation necessary to the expansion of their agricultural lands, led to the abandonment of population centers in the central lowlands of Yucatan, leaving their cities and ceremonial sites to be swallowed up by the second growth of tropical and sub-tropical broadleaf forests.
The moais of Easter Island. Despite the ever-growing influences of globalization, the Rapa Nui people continue to speak their own language, also called Rapa Nui. [o]
The story of Easter Island — or Rapa Nui, the home of the Rapa Nui people — is almost too well known to bear repeating. Suffice it to say that a combination of environmental depredations, notably a deforestation that may or may not have been connected to the transport of their giant ceremonial sculptures (moai), recurring rat plagues, and the long term use of the palm forests as fuel, combined with the natural limits of their small island to cause severe stress to the population, long before the arrival of the first Europeans in 1722. Indeed, by the late 17th century, it is reliably reported that vestiges of a population that once approached fifteen thousand had been tragically reduced to living in caves, eating rats and sharpening their obsidian pointed spears to ward off fractious neighbors. Whilst not quite the perfect ‘green’ parable of a society willfully chopping down the last tree to serve the elite’s desire to out-compete each other by the erection of ceremonial statuary — and suffering the consequences of soil loss and starvation — the decline of the Rapa Nui was intimately entwined with the climate and ecology of their tiny bio-sphere.
For all our advanced technologies, it is highly unlikely that we are immune to similar environmental melt-downs: hostage to an economic system that must grow or die, and living at a time of inevitable and potentially cataclysmic climate change, the possibilities for major societal disruption are clear. An increasing gap between rich and poor and the geographic segregation between the prosperous and the striving only heightens this potential for collapse. When many of our most promising youth are sold into the debt peonage of a frequently valueless college education — in which they are lured by hopes and dreams seeded by the propaganda arm (comprising the government, the media and grade-school education) of a pervasive neoliberal ideology — the outlook looks bleak, indeed. But out of this dire societal amalgam there has arisen a cadre of unlikely potential saviors: the hipsters.
Medieval techniques of brewing, wine- and cider-making are revived in dank warehouses where once bright futures were imagined . . .
Those who write of environmental catastrophism (a rich tradition) and its shadow of economic collapse are limning a dystopian future in order that it might be avoided. Others — in the charming small town that lies eight miles distant from my perch in the urban wildland, and throughout the planet in places inflected with a hipster sensibility — practice, or at least consume, arts, crafts and various items of produce that are informed by a sophisticated awareness of a potentially blighted tomorrow.
This practice comes under the rubric of rustic modernism: ceramicists, woodworkers and weavers who deliberately eschew the glossy surfaces of high technology and employ primal techniques to shape earthy materials, while others play with the detritus of civilization to create art. A friend of mine salvages grain bags from a local craft-brewery which, artfully unraveled, make wall-hangings; and, she salvages driftwood from Rincon, a notable surf beach a little way up the coast, which she lashes together with sisal to create coyly utilitarian armatures. Still others hand-make soap or candles or practice permaculture. Medieval techniques of brewing, wine- and cider-making are revived in dank warehouses where once bright futures were imagined in distributing imported plastic consumer goods, electronic gizmos or nutritional supplements.
In these and other similar ways, this community plays out a limited version of the New Age — or the subversion of neoliberalism. Within these creative, craft and agricultural realms there are attempts to find alternatives to a system fated to end in the apocalypse of environmental collapse. However, while these artists, craftspeople, cottage-industrialists and market-farmers (and many of their customers) practice alternate economic and social behaviors, they do so within a prevailing and constantly enticing economic system that threatens every act that is independent of its sway — and, like an on-rushing ocean, often obliterates their efforts, like disappearing footprints on the shore.
But the power of example of these makers remains immense: that they have assumed a position in the fashion vanguard of this country is hugely significant. On the one hand they are fully entwined in the meretricious machinations of a malevolent economic system, while on the other they play creatively with the tropes of its destruction. Our future may well lie with these legions of the fashion-forward.
Out of the rich soil of societal decay, this movement, of whom many are the spawn of society’s most prosperous, has arisen to offer ideas for our salvation. ≈©
Bobo in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, by David Brooks. Brooks proposes that during the late 1970s a new establishment arose that represented a fusion between the bourgeois world of capitalist enterprise and the hippie values of the bohemian counterculture. He refers to these individuals as bobos, a portmanteau word for 'bourgeois bohemians'.
JOHN DAVIS is a California-based architect "living on too many acres of chaparral in Upper Ojai." He writes a blog, Urban Wildland, where he says his writing "is a way of resolving the values it represents; a single voice, yes, but one that is, I hope, always evolving." Indeed it is.