Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Thesis question articulation IV: Predicament

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


Ben Beilharz said...

I'm a bit more optimistic about death being a problem rather than a predicament. I don't find it hard to believe that we'll soon work out how to live forever. Obviously not everyone will be able to afford it but I can imagine it would quickly become the next "human right" and a cause to replace poverty (should that problem ever go away). Maybe it's harder than I think though :)

andrewE said...

It would be great if someone would write a PhD on that.

byron smith said...

Andrew - yeah, because then I could steal their work!

Ben - what are you on? ;-)

Alan Wood said...

Dorothy Sayers said that such 'predicaments' need creative responses, whereas problems just need solutions.

'Perhaps the first thing that [the common man] can learn from the artist is that the only way of "mastering" one's material is to abandon the whole conception of mastery and to co-operate with it in love: whosoever will be a lord of life, let him be its servant. If he tries to wrest life out of its true nature, it will revenge itself in judgment, as the work revenges itself upon the domineering artist.

'The second thing is, that the words "problem" and "solution" as commonly used, belong to the analytic approach to phenomena, and not to the creative.
'What is obvious here is the firmly implanted notion that all human situations are "problems" like detective problems, capable of a single, necessary, and categorical solution, which must be wholly right, while all others are wholly wrong. But this they cannot be...'

byron smith said...

Alan - thanks for that link! I am sure that Greer is not the first to make this distinction. I wonder how far back it goes? I was particularly struck by that opening paragraph on the page you linked:
I am informed by philologists that the "rise to power" of these two words, "problem" and "solution" as the dominating terms of public debate, is an affair of the last two centuries, and especially of the nineteenth, having synchronised, so they say, with a parallel "rise to power" of the word "happiness" for reasons which doubtless exist and would be interesting to discover. Like "happiness", our two terms "problem" and "solution" are not to be found in the Bible-a point which gives to that wonderful literature a singular charm and cogency. . . . On the whole, the influence of these words is malign, and becomes increasingly so. They have deluded poor men with Messianic expectations .. . which are fatal to steadfast persistence in good workmanship and to well-doing in general. . . . Let the valiant citizen never be ashamed to confess that he has no "solution of the social problem" to offer to his fellow-men. Let him offer them rather the service of his skill, his vigilance, his fortitude and his probity. For the matter in question is not, primarily, a "problem", nor the answer to it a "solution".-L. P. JACKS: Stevenson Lectures, 1926-7.

Anonymous said...

I guess for me a more personally helpful strategy has been to come to grips with Ecclesiastes in a more heartfelt manner. Instead of getting lost in the anxiety of the unknown paths of the future, learning to receive the "this-ness" of each moment as a gift from the Creator has been something that has helped in the darkness.

I simply lose it and burn out when I start to feel responsible for my entire civilisation. However, I maintain as a Christian I am responsible to my civilisation. That means keeping God's kingdom first but then also doing what I can to raise awareness of these issues.

But can we as individuals stop it? Can we prevent whatever dark paths are coming from actually eventuating? No. So the moment we feel responsible for stopping it is the moment we begin to lose focus.

It is also helpful to BE "agnostic" about the future, and admit that the likes of Greer could easily be affected by their own metaphysical worldview. They might be getting more out of peak oil than just warning their fellow-citizens of an impending resource crunch, and could be bending it to fit their own agendas.

All sorts of technological gizmos are on the way.

"Better Place" battery-swap electric cars are coming, new algae foodstuffs from sewerage are possible, new materials are being investigated by "green chemists" (such as super-strong wind-turbine blades manufactured from charred chicken-feathers and tofu-beans!), the exponential roll out of electric transport systems and renewable energy could see us enjoying more clean, green electricity than we ever used under fossil fuels. Not that I'm a fan of nuclear, but Gen4 nuclear reactors hold the promise of running our entire civilisation's energy needs for the next 500 years just on the nuclear waste and warheads we have already got in storage, and then the re-used waste need only be stored 300 years or so before it is safe.

As developing continents like Africa leapfrog into these new economies the 'Demographic Transition' kicks in and population growth could finally be stemmed. Then we'd be living in a 'Bright Green' sustainable, 'Cradle-to-Cradle' world with hardly any mining, and all energy and materials coming from renewable resources. The "T" in IPAT is really changing fast these days!

On the other hand, the "T" in TULIP doesn't change at all, and we could still nuke each other back to the Stone Age in an all-out fight over the remaining oil. Only God knows.

So I try to stay focussed on the gospel, try to do my 'green bit' and spread awareness, but also try to sleep at night and enjoy a good movie and pizza now and then in thanks to our heavenly Father for all these good gifts. :-)

A Guinness now and then also helps. ;-) What's considered good drinking over where you are now?

Anonymous said...

50 years ago my boss had a paperweight sat on his desk, inscribed with the following thoughts to keep him focussed.

"Problems are there to be solved. If they cannot be solved they are probably facts. Being aware of facts early enough is key to dealing with them"

besideourselves said...

@ Allen; superlatively insightful. The cogency of that argument is only surpassed by it's beauty.

& Byron:

"Let the valiant citizen never be ashamed to confess that he has no "solution of the social problem" to offer to his fellow-men. Let him offer them rather the service of his [Christlikeness] skill, his vigilance, his fortitude and his probity."

This is what the healthy response you asked for looks like. Not defeated by the insurmountable.

byron smith said...

Indeed, that is part of the (theo)logic that I am trying to articulate.