Predicament: part two
Series begins back here.
John Michel Greer in The Long Descent: A User's Guide to the End of the Industrial Age usefully distinguishes between two kinds of threats, which he calls problems and predicaments. Problems have solutions, whereas predicaments do not. A problem has a path may be discovered and chosen that will effectively avoid, nullify, or significantly diminish the problematic aspect of the situation. A predicament lacks such options. It is a situation in which there are no strategies that will substantially avoid all the significant negative aspects of a threat.
Greer suggests that the archetypal human predicament is death. Facing death, humans have come up with a wide range of responses, some healthier than others: from denial or suppression to great works of art and a variety of ethical and spiritual impulses. Yet it is a mistake to treat our mortality as though it were a problem we are to solve.
I may correctly treat this or that threat to my life as a problem and seek a solution to stay alive. I am standing in the middle of a busy road; I will get out of the way (or perhaps I will campaign for more pedestrian areas and higher taxes on private automobiles). But while specific problems can be seen and solved, the fact that I am mortal is a basic condition of my life. No amount of wishing, campaigning, meditating, medicating or moralising will decisively remove the constant threat and ultimate inevitability of my own demise.
Staying alive is a good thing. And so medical research and (probably more significantly), public health initiatives such as sewers and effective garbage disposal that reduce mortality rates and increase life expectancies are generally instrumental goods worth pursuing. But it is possible to pursue one good thing in a way that undermines other good things and distort the proper ordering of goods. There is an often unspoken assumption behind much of the angst over healthcare funding (whether private or nationalised): that, given sufficient resources, we can endlessly defer the inevitable. But throwing more and more resources towards medical interventions that merely prolong the continuation of a pulse may well be mistakenly treating a predicament as a problem, and ironically, diverting attention from other problems that do have solutions.
Death is a personal predicament. Greer argues that the present ecological and resource crises are a social predicament, indicating the unavoidable end of the industrial age as we have known it. Although at one stage (he identifies the 1970s oil crises for instance) the unsustainability of contemporary industrial society was a problem that could have been confronted and solved through an ordered transition to more sustainable ways of living, it is now too late. The moment for solutions has passed and we are now in a predicament, where no amount of activism, technological advance or personal reform is remotely likely to succeed in maintaining the astonishing trajectory of growth that industrial nations have enjoyed for the last few generations. Indeed, nothing can avert widespread social decline and political instability. He claims that treating this as a problem distracts us from a healthy response in which the inevitability of this decline is accepted and we seek ways of cushioning the most likely quite rugged downslope that lies ahead.*
Of course, it is crucial to identify correctly which threats are problems and which are predicaments. Treating a predicament like a problem is pointless waste of energy. Treating a problem like a predicament is an irresponsible defeatism. But how can we tell the difference? How do we know if an issue is insoluble unless we resolutely attempt to solve it?
These are important questions, and in the case of whether our society has reached or is reaching various limits to growth, very important questions. However, I would like to plead some measure of ignorance on the precise global situation and instead pursue some subsequent questions: if Greer is correct and unsustainability is not simply a problem, but a predicament, what does a healthy response look like?
*Greer also claims that we face long-term decline, not sudden collapse (hence The Long Descent). But that is a post for another day.
UPDATE: I've also just discovered that the relevant section of The Long Descent was first posted here on JMG's blog some time ago.
This post is part of a series in which I am outlining my current research question. My present working title, which this series seeks to explain, is "Anxious about tomorrow": The possibility of Christian moral attentiveness in the predicament of societal unsustainability.
A. Societal unsustainability: part one; part two
B. Predicament: part one; part two
C. Moral attentiveness: part one; part two
D. Christian: part one
E. Possibility: part one
F. Summary: part one
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Predicament: part two