As humans we all are able to a greater or lesser degree to exert some control over our environment. Something as simple as putting on clothing insulates us from the effects of the weather and with even the simplest tools we are capable of shaping the physical environment around us to better suit our needs. For most of human history the level of control we have been able to exert over our environment has been modest, or at least taken place at a slower pace. One of the hallmarks of the modern industrial age has been the way our use of the stored energy in fossil fuels has allowed us to exert, until recently, massive control over our environment often at such a rapid pace, that our means of even understanding how we are effecting the environment have not kept pace.
My wife has recently been in a near-constant state of indignation over the greater and greater intrusions of corporations and government into our lives. Whether it be Google prying into our lives and recording all our online activity, or the various ways in which the government has turned the US into a military theater of operations through the NDAA and the FAA drone authorization, almost every day she tells me about some new encroachment. While I share my wife’s frustration about these things, I can’t say I’m particularly surprised. The dominant story of the modern age has been progress, whether social, political, or scientific, where we have been told that we are moving towards greater and greater understanding and control over our lives and the environment. As the modern world lurches from one crisis to the next, with the spectre of Peak Oil looming over all in the background, this story of control we have told ourselves for the last 200 years is beginning to show itself to be a façade. From New Orleans, to Fukushima, to the financial markets, when disaster strikes, our response to the wreckage is often more along the lines of studying how to prevent such a thing from happening again rather than questioning whether we ought to be building cities below sea level, splitting the atom, or commodifying abstract financial transactions.
Since the only limits modern humanity seems to acknowledge are the limits of knowledge itself, we have put all our trust in science to allow us greater understanding of the world around us. We have convinced ourselves that understanding how something works will allow us to exert control over it. I think this illusion of control is such a powerful force in modern human society, that when it is exposed as a fraud, people (especially those in power, whose position depends on them being in control) naturally will try to find ways to reassert their power over those things that are still under their control. Thus it is almost inevitable that the TSA would exist as a response to suddenly finding that we were not in fact in control of air travel.
I am more and more convinced that the biggest step towards creating a sustainable society will begin with surrendering our need for control, or at least scaling them back to the modest demands of pre-industrial societies. A recent discussion within the Transition movement is illustrative of this, as those who believed in the wisdom of a community developing an Energy Descent Action Plan faced off against those who felt it was a waste of time and effort to attempt to plan for a chaotic and unpredictable future. The shadow of this need to control was also in the background of the comments and discussion surrounding the article Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist by Paul Kingsnorth, one of the founders of the Dark Mountain Project. Though mostly unsaid, the debate that followed the article ended up being between those who believed that the forces of modern industrial society that were assailing the natural world and authentic human culture were outside of our control, and the “activists” who still hold out hope for a large scale solution.
I fall into the former camp, and thus to the eternal disappointment of my more politically active friends, I have like Mr. Kingsnorth turned my back on any solutions that they offer. While I admire their intentions, I can’t help but feel in my heart of hearts that their hopes lie in holding on to a measure of control that will betray them in the end. The problem with all our movements, initiatives, plans and visions, is always that they are never large enough or radical enough as Wendell Berry so aptly put in his essay “In Mistrust of Movements”. Too many of our solutions never get to the root causes, and only treat the symptoms (and often times total solutions bear with them a frightening whiff of mass executions and the Gulag). I would suggest then, that at the outset, the path towards a non-industrial human culture will be defining our relationship to the unknown.
However it is no small thing to give up the illusion of human control, and even harder still when that control is real and concrete. Without trying to proselytize for my own particular religious faith, I will say that I believe one of the fundamental advantages of all traditional religions is that they allow room for mystery and a reverence for the unknown. This is in stark contrast to the modern world, where the limits of knowledge must always expand (and shares an eerie resemblance to cults, where a totalitarian worldview can explain everything). Regardless of whether it is overtly religious or not, like all healthy relationships, our relationship with the unknown will need to be based on love and respect and a renewed sense of the mystery of the sacred.