Kestrel's Nest

Two Modern Myths

"All of us have to be prevaricators, hypocrites, and liars every day of our lives; otherwise the social structure would fall into pieces the first day. We must act in one another's presence just as we must wear clothes. It is for the best"1

I am an animist and an animist sees the world as a living being and all things that are in it as living beings. An animist tries to live with due consideration for and in relationship with the world around. For every action has a reaction; any scientist can tell you that. Every action is like dropping a pebble in a pool; the ripples fan out, hit any obstructions and rebound until the surface becomes a interwoven pattern of moving peaks and troughs, a world in motion.

No person can isolate or insulate themselves from the reaction to their actions. No person, no group of people, no government, no species. There is always a payback. Which brings me to the two modern myths of my title; the myths on which our present civilsation and world economy is based: the myth of growth and the myth of progress. I have noticed that politicians nowadays tend to qualify with the adjective "sustainable" to make these myths appear more "green" than they actually are, so let us call them the myth of sustainable growth and the myth of sustainable progress. A moment's consideration will show anyone with the simplest understanding that these myths are nonsense for one very simple reason: we live on a finite planet. The planet cannot grow, it simply is. If the human population on its surface continues to grow without check at the current exponential rate it will, sooner or later, use up the finite resources that maintains that population; that is as inevitable as the rise and fall of the tide.2 In my youth we were told this was not a problem, by the twenty-first century we would be travelling in space, setting up colonies on other celestial bodies and mining their resources to bring back to earth. So far this is only the stuff of the film-maker, the scientists having discovered that the cost of attempting such a thing would, like the distances involved, be astronomical. So politicians clutch at genetic modification of plants, industrial farming, opencast and deep mining, offshore drilling, nuclear power, in short, anything that will stave off the inevitable for a few short years.

"Civilization is thus a hopeless race to discover remedies for the evils it produces."3

And what of the world itself? Everyone who has not kept their head firmly under the blankets must by now have heard of the Gaia hypothesis, thought up by the scientists Lovelock and Margulis in the 70s against considerable opposition, that the world is an interconnected and self-sustaining system.4 Well, animists have held this as a self-evident fact for generation after generation. In the past the system maintained control of the human population by three terrible weapons: war, famine, and pestilence. Pestilence has largely been controlled where the drugs can be got to the people, but Gaia has reacted by producing antibiotic-resisting strains of bacteria, and new viruses that are harder and harder for the scientists to control, and the drugs that need to be used have more and more undesirable side-effects. War, or at least major conflagrations, have been stopped by the creation of weapons that are too terrible to use, though more minor flare-ups still continue to maim and destroy. Famine has yet to be controlled, especially since climate change, itself a product of human development, is enlarging deserts and making more and more areas unusable for growing crops.5 Floods and unseasonable rains and droughts are destroying or diminishing the output of those crops that are grown, and, everywhere, prices rise as demand begins to outstrip supply.

"You're captives of a civilizational system that more or less compels you to go on destroying the world in order to live. … You are captives—and you have made a captive of the world itself. That's what's at stake, isn't it?—your captivity and the captivity of the world."6

But what really keeps the current myths in place is faith on the part of governments, and of the mass of people, that these myths are true, must be true, because the alternative is too terrible to contemplate. There exists a real sense of denial, because people have lived all their lives in the comfort of these all-encompassing myths, and really cannot, do not wish to, contemplate a world where they are no longer true. But the cracks are beginning to show. The money system is creaking at the seams. Peak oil is talked of as an inevitabilty though no one has yet come to terms, as prices slowly rise, with what that means in truth.7 And what will happen when it comes to peak wood, peak plastic, peak food? We have seen what can happen when people in our major cities feel a sense of injustice against the establishment. What will happen when that same establishment fails to be able to sustain the supply of basic necessities?

"It has been said that civilization is twenty-four hours and two meals away from barbarism."8

I hope I am not ending up as a Cassandra who speaks a truth that no one will believe.9 Also, if you are hoping that I will provide answers to ward off this seemingly inevitable catastrophe, I am sorry to disappoint. Even if everyone in this country were to decide to form self-sustaining communes, that still leaves the rest of the world. But I will say that those best prepared for the forthcoming events are those most likely to survive them. Let's face it, it is less than 150 years ago that we had no internal combustion engines, no antibiotics, no electricity, no aeroplanes, and yet humanity had managed to survive for millenia. If allowed to, I dare say we could survive for a few more. However, we have now achieved the dubious distinction of being the first generation with the ability to destroy ourselves and all animal and plant life on the planet. Whether we do or not, Gaia works in the long term, unlike the short-term plans of man, unable to consider the future beyond his own generation or the next. Gaia will still live on and, in a few million years, may create a new environment that will sustain itself once more without our kind assistance. That is where my faith lies, and not in modern myths.

"Societies in decline have no use for visionaries."10



(1) O. Henry (William Sydney Porter), Unfinished letter to Mr. Steger (c.1909/10) quoted in Rolling Stones. (back)

(2) Ok, before some pedantic mathematician tells me that populations do not expand unchecked according to a exponential curve but according to a Fibonacci series, I will say so myself. But as the effect is, in the end, the same, it's really not material. (back)

(3) Translated from: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discours sur l'origine et les fondements de l'inégalité parmi les hommes (1754). (back)

(4) Ok, not all you read on Wikipedia is rubbish and it's better to send you there than refer you to libraries you won't visit! (back)

(5) Although it is true that newly developed crop strains (pre-GM) have helped considerably. However, this has also resulted in a higher use of pesticides. (back)

(6) Daniel Quinn, Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit (New York, 1993), 25. (back)

(7) (back)

(8) Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman (Good Omens). [Personally I think they were quoting someone else, or, possibly, they were just trying to make the reader think that.] (back)

(9) (back)

(10) Anaïs Nin is reputed to have said or written this. I have, however, been unable to track down the source. (back)


© Angela Grant 2011

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