A Few Theoretical Percentages

If the coronavirus/COVID-19 outbreak can be considered a national crisis (ignoring, in good American style, the global dimensions of the pandemic), it’s the third crisis in less than twenty years to hit the U.S.

Let’s say the first (“Go shopping”) was 9/11, and the second (crawling out from under collapsed mortgages) was the 2007/2008 burst housing bubble.

For those of us at home with nothing better to do than think about disasters, let’s ponder what’s possibly coming next. Besides white cops killing black people.

In the interest of modesty, we might say Who knows what’s coming next—? And, indeed, we don’t know—at least I don’t know—what crisis is in the pipeline. Life always has surprises. Capitalism, in its wild overextension, has lots of mutant rabbits in its hat and up its toxic sleeve.

But there’s a crisis looming that’s both inevitable and growing in intensity, a bullet—or a hail of bullets—we won’t dodge. The engine of this one is the thermal blanket thickened in its atmospheric swaddling by the gasses released via the combustion of truly enormous amounts of ancient sunlight parked and packed in organic vegetative landfills. But, since the capitalist form of wealth accumulation and quasi-aristocratic lifestyle imitation has turned civilizational greed into a planetary bouquet of toxic commercial virtue—a rising sea-level tide of affluence that lifts all suburban boats—we have outright denial on the one hand and the most tepid and timid acknowledgement on the other. Climate change? What climate change?

Climate change is going to whup us—it’s already begun to do so—but this little essay is only indirectly about a vigorous change in climate.

The issue at hand, the impending economic and cultural crisis and a jagged series of attendant political crises, lies in the inevitable constriction of fossil fuel consumption and the enormous impact these constrictions will have on our everyday lives.

Compared with what’s in our not-so-very-distant future, the current pandemic—thinking here especially of its economic impacts—is only a warning shot over the bow. The bottom of the V is supposedly spring-loaded and ready to rocket us upward as we make America even greater again. That’s the official prognostication.

But let’s just float a few theoretical percentages. Let’s say in three years fossil fuel consumption will constrict by 25 percent. (I’m probably being wildly optimistic, given the political stupidity and fear. Maybe it’ll take ten years. But sooner is absolutely better.) Let’s say 50 percent in five years and 70 percent in eight. (I am, for the most part, gliding right over the weather-related disasters—the storms, fires, droughts, and floods—that will compel, inevitably and irreversibly, the political traumas by which this massive energy downsizing will be achieved and enforced.)

There is no energy substitute for this impending constriction. We can talk about nuclear power plants and Green alternative energy until we’re red or blue in the face, but the future we’re entering will be characterized by an immense energy downsizing. I see no evasion or avoidance or escape from this impending reality. All other talk is wishful thinking and a refusal to face the facts.

Terms like “sustainability” and “resilience” will be compelled to take off their yuppie jogging clothes and begin to dress in working-class practicalities. Local food sources will be a political necessity and not merely an upper-middle-class lifestyle option. (Any thoughts on how we’ll do heating and cooking without so much natural gas?)

Demographic decentralization is unavoidable. We need policies and programs to make it happen, and the sooner the better. It’ll take a while, but rural culture will be coming back. Well, it won’t be back as it used to be, say, one or two hundred years ago. It’ll be a new rural culture. There will be a really strong female presence in that new culture. But it will also have an enormous amount of do-it-yourself and do-it-cooperatively subsistence and self-provisioning built it. Small houses, barns, sheds, and greenhouses. Alternative energy gizmos. The recreation of small rural schools—only this time with a whole lot less psychotic compulsion and a whole lot more ecological exploration and reverence. Even (why should the Amish have all the fun?) horses and buggies to complement all the bicycles.

To those who object, to those whose emotional response is on a sliding scale between repugnance and dread, I say Get a life. And I mean by that both in your face and a serious spiritual impulse to shake the pagus-hating high-rise civilized Christian city slicker out of your indoctrinated consciousness and to awaken your ancient Taoist soul, which may be fast asleep but is by no means dead.

Our massive civilizational utopian bubble—the burst housing bubble was, by comparison, only a tiny pop—is finally reaching its demented ecological destination. Arnold J. Toynbee’s “diseases of Class and War” and Lewis Mumford’s “traumatic institutions” have reached terminal maturity. The junk bonds are bursting with corrupt militarized senility.

But let’s be clear. The “disease” and “traumatic institutions” diagnosis that Toynbee and Mumford so methodically uncovered and so carefully articulated came out of exhaustive study of the core dynamics (to which we can add the core male dynamics) of civilization since its founding five thousand years ago. This is a venerable set of traumatic diseases which has provided enormous wealth and incredible power to a few—what Toynbee called a “dominant minority”—but the industrial democratization of these traumatic diseases has created a real End Times prospect as it deranges planetary ecology by having drugged us traumatized peasants with commercial leer and lure and, by compulsory education and electronic entertainment, taught us all to be civilized consumers.

Whatever people may think of Carl Jung, in regard to “archetypes,” “anima,” “animus,” and all the rest of his psychoanalytical lingo—you don’t have to buy into all the aroma therapy to realize there’s some rare wisdom in all that acupuncture incense—I found the last two or three pages in Jung’s chapter “The Tower,” in his Memories, Dreams, Reflections, so pertinent, moving, and powerful that I quoted a bloc of it in the opening chapter of my book Nature’s Unruly MobFarming and the Crisis in Rural Culture. That was in 1986. I would quote it—lift it, steal it—again today. It was written by an old man who was no longer stuck in instantaneous immediate consciousness. He wasn’t surfing for wisdom on his smart phone.

In that passage, Jung compares and contrasts “reform by advance” with “reform by retrogression.” His remarks pertain wonderfully well to our predicament. Here’s what he says:

[W]e have plunged down a cataract of progress which sweeps us on into the future with ever wilder violence the farther it takes us from our roots. Once the past has been breached, it is usually annihilated, and there is no stopping the forward motion. But it is precisely the loss of connection with the past, our uprootedness, which has given rise to the ‘discontents’ of civilization and to such a flurry and haste that we live more in the future and its chimerical promises of a golden age than in the present, with which our whole evolutionary background has not yet caught up. We rush impetuously into novelty, driven by a mounting sense of insufficiency, dissatisfaction, and restlessness. We refuse to recognize that everything better is purchased at the price of something worse; that, for example, the hope of greater freedom is canceled out by increased enslavement to the state, not to speak of the terrible perils to which the most brilliant discoveries of science expose us. . . .

Reforms by advances, that is, by new methods or gadgets, are of course impressive at first, but in the long run they are dubious and in any case dearly paid for. They by no means increase the contentment or happiness of people on the whole. Mostly, they are deceptive sweetenings of existence, like speedier communications which unpleasantly accelerate the tempo of life and leave us with less time than ever before. . .

Reforms by retrogressions, on the other hand, are as a rule less expensive and in addition more lasting, for they return to the simpler, tried and tested ways of the past and make the sparsest use of newspapers, radio, and television, and all supposedly timesaving innovations.

I don’t think Carl Jung had an adequate historical understanding of civilization’s traumatic congenital diseases. That wasn’t the area or focus of his study. But he did get it that life is an original blessing, that the mystery of being a conscious being is the first of noble truths, and that human survival has always been dependent on trust and love. We’d have become extinct long ago without village love and species trust.

That’s why Green socialism is a no-brainer. Once you really love and trust your fellow human beings—and your own humanity—almost anything is possible. You might even hug a tree. Or your neighbor.

Paul Gilk lives in the woods of northern Wisconsin. His home is a reconstructed nineteenth-century log cabin, without electricity or running water. He is the author of several books including Green Politics is Eutopian, Nature’s Unruly Mob: Farming and the Crisis in Rural Culture, and Picking Fights with the Gods: A Spiritual Psychoanalysis of Civilization’s Superego.