Life in a Heroic Society
…where the hero’s journey might soon come to an unexpected end
We live in a heroic society. Marvel heroes and heroines rule the small and not so small glowing screens, political and war heroes shape our societies future. Or at least, that’s what they think they do.
In my earlier posts, written on the subject of the catastrophic Failure of Imagination (Part 1 and Part 2) I have addressed some of the psychological and mythological factors behind the fall of our modern high-tech / high energy civilization. But, as they say: every story and narrative — no matter how false it is — needs a hero or heroine. I originally wanted to include this aspect in my previous article, but the subject proved to be such a rich target, that I decided it deserves a dedicated post. So, here we go!
A modern religion
First, let’s recap the story. In Part 2 I’ve talked about a new belief system — one that has incrementally replaced older religions and gods, and provided the same benefits by easing the believers’ fear of uncertainty and loss.
It did so via the myth of progress — an otherwise false narrative about human history — which states that everything both in social and in technological terms gets better over time, and will continue to get better in the future. According to it, despite various setbacks (wars, crises, fall of empires) the only way to go is up and up.
In contrast, it talks about earlier times as if it were all about being dirty, foul smelling, brutish and ruthless. The story uses the same narrative terms to scare people from misbehaving. It does so by presenting them an unwanted future (aka a dystopia), where dirty and foul smelling people commit brutish and ruthless acts — as a punishment for not keeping up with the agenda of peace, human rights, progress and development. (That there is a certain future nostalgia towards such a brutish life indicates that the founding myth is well in the process of breaking down, but let’s just not get ahead of ourselves yet.) Take note, how all these dystopian stories trace back the fall of humanity to a mistake or evil deed, and how it all supposed to happen all at once.
I’ve referred to this belief system, built around the myth of progress, as Humanism with a rational autonomous human being at its center. One, that stands apart and above nature. One, that consciously shapes its own as well as its collective future. One, that is responsible to make the world a better place and shape it according to his/her own will… An appealing view of ourselves to be sure, but seeing the trajectory of where we are headed (and where we were actually coming from) it has revealed itself to be an illusion, built around an illogical and incoherent story fully at odds with reality.
Nevertheless, as I wrote in my previous post: “This bug has bitten us so badly that we have started to believe that every problem originates from bad / evil / stupid human thinking, and thus correcting it is only a matter of policy change. Or removing the bad guys and replacing them with good ones.” — and this is where our story of heroes spins off.
The hero’s hammer
No matter how short sighted, resource- energy- and thus physics-blind, this belief system is, humanism has become a hammer and to its wielders every problem have started to look like a nail. ‘We can tackle climate change! We just need the will!’ Or: ‘There are no resource limits! Human ingenuity is infinite! We will find a solution to provide for all of us!’ — limits to growth and overshoot in general be damned.
My quibble is — as always — that we are entering a new era of increasing resource scarcity, driven by an ever increasing energetic cost of getting raw materials. We are not at all far from a state where we would have to reinvest half of the energy extracted into extracting the next unit of energy. Although this might sound abstract — obscure even — but it already has very serious consequences to the human endeavor (starting with, but not limited to, energy and food price increases). Note however that it has nothing to do with our creativity and willpower, only with physics, geology and ecology in general. Against this backdrop the ‘humanist hammer’ could only go one way: bouncing back from the nail of resource limits right into the face of its wielder.
Our political systems (all of them) and 99.9% of the populace is completely unequipped to deal with this. Ever since the dawn of humanity we were living in an exponentially expanding world. New territories and new resources were discovered every day and an ever increasing amount of energy was spent on getting them.
It was easy to believe, that we only needed the will to do so. Our species has never ever before experienced a full world, let alone a world in chronic overshoot. As a result our entire political system — up until now at least — was revolving around competition for new resources. Who gets there first and who can grab more was the name of the game.
One of the greatest observation made by David Graeber and David Wengrow in their book, the Dawn of Everything, was that we are still living in heroic societies: where politicians are not running states, but heroic competitions. They are not at all different from warlords amassing to count who has collected more scalps, or from knights dueling in shiny armor — they have just found a more obscure way of competing: via the magic number of GDP.
Meanwhile, lost in their fairy tale world of good guys vs bad guys, voters have become nothing more than cheering crowds rallying behind their ‘selected’ hero. Politics (and power in general) has thus naturally become a breeding ground for charming psychopaths — who could not care less for the well-being of others as long as they feel important and see themselves in the spotlight.
Politicians have turned out to be so successful in this game that they have forgone the requirement to be technically qualified to do the job — yet the system seems to be working ‘just fine’. If a world class economy and a political system, can ‘be run’ by people graduating as lawyers, economists and ‘political scientists’ then it is not needed to be run by anybody at all. In the real economy of manufacturing companies for example no one gets anywhere close to a leadership position without him/her showing a good understanding of the area he or she is about to lead.
What we see instead in politics is heroic figures fighting marvelous duels using words, negotiation and tactics — without any of them ever having to work an hour as an employee, let alone as a manager of a private company. As a result, our leaders — victims of their own political success — see every problem as a chance for a good fight, performing generous acts of negotiation, concessions while ceaselessly wielding the hammer of human rights… without ever willing to understand the true nature of the problem. No wonder:
physics or ecology gets rarely taught in law school, let alone in the economics department
As a result, all politicians can do is to make things more complicated and create an ever expanding maze of ever more complex regulations and concessions. States in real life however, just like the ecosystem around us, are nothing more then a part of a self adapting complex system. No one is really in charge of them: they appear to be working because everybody plays his/her role in the game. Their lifecycle follow their own internal and external dynamics, and politicians get selected by the system (not by people) only to perform the next task at hand.
End of a great story
This brings us to the last stage of the once ‘great’ European nations’ life (if you can call planet plundering colonization based on highly unequal exchange that way.) Having used up all of their easy to extract mineral and energy resources, and being so badly positioned on the globe to utilize ‘renewables’, ‘leaders’ of the westernmost peninsula of Asia are now left with nothing else, than a chance to perform their heroic grand finale. As the great historian Arnold Toynbee wrote once:
“Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder”
Although civilizations are not sentient beings — thus ‘suicide’ is nothing more than a metaphor — it still stands the comparison. This time, however the end times to what has remained of the last European empires is going to be nothing less than a farce… or an enormous shit-show if you like.
Propped up by cheap oil in the second half of the 20th century, Europe has gave birth to an enormously complex political system. The fact that it has become synonymous with ‘bureaucracy’ tells it all: despite its noble goals it has reduced itself into a grand theater play where well paid heroes and heroines perform their grand championship, while the world slowly moves on.
The decades ahead of us are going to witness an end to a great many modern heroes. As the myth of progress continues its slow but steady flight towards the dustbin of history a new set of stories are set to rise to fill in the gap. What could they be…? Well, I believe we are going to find it out much sooner than most of us would’ve thought in their wildest dreams.
Until next time,