I posted a draft of this elsewhere, but Anthony chastized me for not doing so here instead/as well. So, Mr. Smith, consider it edited & cross-posted.


The inevitable question that is raised when anybody talks about things like climate change and alternatives to the amorality of capitalism and over-consumption, as I was doing elsewhere a couple of weeks ago, is Okay, so what do we do about it? Sometimes, this question is asked in all honesty: Yes, I agree. What do we do now? Most of the time, though, it is considered the ultimate rejoinder: All you can do is articulate the problem. I’ve heard no solutions. There is nothing we can do. So, what to do when there is nothing to be done but continue to do what we have always done, but perhaps a bit more humanely?

I will concede that there is no solution in the sense that anticipates and desires a how-to list of ways to save the world. More important than the absence of any how-to, though, is the absence of will. If you talk about this stuff long enough and to enough people, most will get exasperated because you’ve not laid out the reasons and ways we can survive. What we want are ways we can survive and still lead basically the same life we’ve been leading. (For example, as I personally encountered last week, let’s applaud the slow food movement, and let’s buy organic, but let’s dismiss as a crackpot anyone who suggests we figure out a way once again to privilege agrarian communities, at the expense of industrialization and progress.) That this is fundamentally opposed to the very critique of consumption never seems to dawn on most of us. (Another example: people who talk about the electric car imagine a very happy world of zero emissions and high mileage, and a new world of economic growth and industrial expansion freed of over-consumpton. The problem with this is the amount of energy/consumption (& cost) needed to [a] completely redesign and rebuild the electrical grid, and [b] to create & maintain the new industrial market responsible for the production & distribution of millions of batteries, is so high, and so immediately necessary, that [at minimum] it will alter the playing field of who can afford to consume what is now even an average amount of resources.) If mathematics and geology are correct — who can assume these things anymore? — what is necessary is a fundamental change that not only changes the present, but in effect changes the past decisions that set us on this present path. Nobody wants to hear this, of course. It is, in short, inconceivable. Nonsense.

What is not inconceivable, however, is that there is a solution to our problem. In fact, I think the end result of our consumptive ways is its own solution. Our path has a terminus. There will be more famine. There almost certainly will be eco-catastrophes. There will be more disease. Lots of people, mostly poor, will die. The middle-class will become incredibly disenfranchised when the protective bubble of credit we’ve settled in is no longer sustainable, and will likely become even more dangerous than we are today when the reality we kept at bay seaps back into everyday life. As some have suggested, the very same rich & famous we gawk at now may actually become the targets for aggression and resentment — which, I will confess, would make Access Hollywood much more enjoyable. And where do the formerly coddled and now newly disenfranchised go for their succor but either identitarian movements that mistrust strangers and/or the awaiting rhetoric of demagogic religion & politics. All this seems unavoidable to me, and in a certain sense it does “solve” many of our problems — in an absolutely dire way.

What’s more. We are, I believe, beyond the point of stopping this. The most viable response now is to begin preparing ourselves for what comes after. In the most simple and admittedly naive of terms, we need to start learning NOW how to live in alternative, less-consumptive ways — using our hands, learning agriculture, learning how to get by w/out driving, etc. In short, we need to start re-learning things long-forgotten in the name of progress. I’m not so naive as to think or imagine a future anytime soon where people worldwide do these things, change our current situation, and reverse the course our history of (bad) decisions has set us on. But I can imagine our world being changed in such a way that we and our habits are forced to change. Making preparations now is imperative … not to delay the future, though in some measure it might a little, but to prepare ourselves for its arrival.

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10 Responses to “Solutions”

  1. Brad Johnson Says:

    I should point out before anybody savages me on this point, I do not necessarily think agragrian communities are a solution. My point is to take offense at the immediate, knee-jerk rejection of any such idea — citing, for example, “Yeah, but Thoreau was a douchebag,” or “Ruskin? Wasn’t he into little girls?” etc.

  2. bryank Says:

    Keeping in mind your comment, it seems like suggestions to return to some sort of agrarian, organicist notion of society ultimately leads to fascism in light of Zizek’s point about “capitalism without capitalism.”

    I wouldn’t be so hasty in saying that we’re doomed in our life time either. Your point about famines sound a lot like Malthus’ predictions about population growth back in the mid-19th century. I doubt famine, disease or eco-catastrophes are going to be a source of any great social upheaval either.

    The environmentalist outcry in regards to global warming, while probably true (and even if it weren’t, does it really matter?), just seems to be an absurd attempt to formulate some sort of liberal critique of rightist populism, without attacking the underlying source of today’s ecological problems (namely, the unadulterated free-flow of Capital).

    Ultimately, I don’t think we’re going to see anything spectacular during our life time. Probably not a world war, probably not a grand ecological catastrophe a la “The Day After Tomorrow,” nor a disease on par with the Black Death. If anything, I see global capitalism becoming far more entrenched. And while this is starting to stray from your post, I don’t think Zizek is right, either, about some sort of divine Truth-Event happening in the slums of a third world megalopolis like Lagos. It will probably happen on Wallstreet, when people realize that the truth of what sustains our current socioeconomic dynamics is just unfettered desire, rather than substance. But I could be wrong…

  3. Alex Says:

    Ruskin? Wasn’t he into supporting slavery?

    No, seriously, good post. Kinda reminds me of the way Zizek chastises leftist intellectuals for not realising their own place and comfort might be compromised by an actually existing intellectual.

  4. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    The comment from Klaus was approved with heavy heart. I find it to be the kind of blog comment that makes me not want to write. Suffice it to say his opinions seem to have very little to do with the post. His liberalist notion of all change coming from the upper echelons of power completely misunderstands the mechanism of capital. It seems to me that no one here thinks the Day After Tomorrow is in any way a prophetic movie of things to come, and that the truth of the ecological catastrophe is far less action film and more real suffering. People are going to die and most of them will be poor. Hopefully this will foment action, if will and desire can be maintained through hunger, and structural changes made at the top will occur. Klaus’ rather sanguine predictions of ‘nothing to see here’ don’t seem to accord to the material reality.

  5. Charles R Says:

    Brad, would you consider amongst those imperative preparations learning how to handle handguns and long guns?

    I don’t intend this to be in any way the kind of snarky response cited as the ultimate rejoinder, but I am genuinely interested. It seems both you and Anthony accept the material reality as coming to a long mass death of hunger, famine, and disease which prompts massive social and political change. To me, this means a time of either institutional repression from the government that keeps the Red Death on one side and the parties and frivolity on the other or those identarian movements you mentioned, or of both. And there will be geographical drug and slumlords who seize control, acting as sheriffs at an extorted price. If a person is committed to social justice in such a time, is non-violence or violence an option for this person?

  6. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Re: drug lords and slumlords. That doesn’t have to be the only outcome though. A kind of anecdote to this is when Katrina hit people organized in the absence of State power. The Superdome wasn’t the site of mass rape, as the racist newscasts led people to believe. You can find testimonials online about young men organizing those with guns and acting as a police force, trying to care for the old, etc. It’s the same thing in 50’s ghettos with the formation of gangs prior to largely successful FBI and CIA counter-insurgency tactics. Perhaps more than learning how to use a gun, which is pretty easy on the whole, the real question is about education. Can new local revolutionary groups learn the lessons of past defeats with regard to greed, abuse of power, etc? What other systems or desires can be fostered to direct these groups towards their own higher liberation rather than playing a less successful game of free market capitalism?

    I know this is somewhat counterintuitive, but it seems to me that we, especially those of us on the fringes of the ruling class, need to celebrate the victories and desire of these groups against our normal liberal purity. Let’s face it and own it as leftists, for awhile The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was the most revolutionary and ethical group in the US.

  7. Brad Johnson Says:

    First thing … I don’t recall being so certain that “the solution” would occur in our lifetime, as some kind of moment that changes all other moments. I’m not Nostradamus. Nor do I think the end so far off as to be insignificant. The symptoms already exist, and I see no reason to think things will get better, namely because I don’t think there is an infrastructure or practice in place that facilitates a cure — since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the effects of progress have been enjoyed by many, of course, but often through by proxy of those who profit the most and at the expense of those who profit the least. If this is our infrastructure & practice of progress, when progress is the way, the truth & the life, how exactly are the problems of the world to be met when those problems are most fully & immediately imposed on that segment of the population that doesn’t profit at all? (E.g., In what way will the world’s population, esp. in its most poor regions, stop growing? As things stand, can we imagine any other “solution” than death finally outstripping birth?) The fact that much of the devastation being felt today is amongst the poorest that we rarely see, or, when we do see only with the eyes reddened by tears of sadness, shame and regret, makes this no less significant. It is, after all, not a provocative sentiment that the next disease that strike the world, esp. the poor but, quite possibly, the rich & in-between, will v. possibly come from the latrines * gutters of their shanty-towns.

    As for guns, or weaponry of some sort. I think it is imperative for there to be people who know how to use them, yes. But, like Anthony points out, the mechanics of loading, cleaning, aiming & shooting a gun are not rocket science. The ethics of their use, of any weapon-use, however, is far more imperative.

    This is the twist I put on most other “Malthusian”-doomsayers: the place of religion is not simply fundamentalism. There is, in my view, a place for religion to establish perspectives of life that go beyond identitarian commodification and profit-taking, and thus beyond “keeping the faith alive,” by being imbedded, through a cultic practice, in an attention to creation & life.

    I’m okay with people disagreeing with me about the nearness of “tomorrow.” But what distinguishes the religious perspective from many others is that there is a tomorrow. Near or far, in my view tomorrow is always destructive, in varying degrees; whether true creation is to be realized in the midst of this destruction is a question that ought not be taken for granted. Realizing creation involves bodies, if not an attachment to this or “today’s” body, and it involves practice. Such is the mark of a faithful religion.

    I am curious, and will reflect on, how this squares with what I wrote at the end of this post about religious patronage.

  8. Bryan Klausmeyer Says:

    Anthony: I think you’ve misunderstood my point. Certainly there are millions suffering around the world due to eco-catastrophe, disease, famine, etc., and a lot of this is in large part due to global capitalism…

    My point is rather that despite this suffering, I don’t think anyone *will* actually care. When people do pretend to care about these sorts of things, it’s much easier to wear a “Save Darfur” shirt or buy a Project Red iPod or something ridiculous like that than to say, “I am willing to sacrifice my privileged position for the utter squalor of your third world life.” All that’s happened so far in terms of third world catastrophe is that it’s been integrated into the bourgeois liberal discourse (“we can fix these problems within capitalism/technology/etc.”) in a very suspicious and pathetic way.

    All I’m saying is that I’m not convinced that people in the West are going to start “willing themselves” to abandon their everyday lives (so I guess I’m in agreement with Brad) even if there is a huge disaster, say like another Bhopal or worse. Nor do I think that we’re going to see some sort of unified global revolutionary movement from the poor…

  9. Bryan Klausmeyer Says:

    Also, I should clarify: I can’t personally tell you whether or not I truly for sorry for the poor around the world, in complete honesty, and I’m highly dubious that anyone else does. I think there should be significant change to prevent what happens now a days or what will happen in the future, but I can’t say I actually “feel their pain”–and I think anyone who says they do should be looked at with deep suspicion, unless they themselves subject themselves to that kind of a horrible life.

    It seems like the desire to have the poor revolt is just projecting fantasies without doing any of the actual “heavy lifting.” It’s easy to say that change will come if the burden is all placed on their backs… (apologies if this is off topic).

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