Transitioning to the Post-Consumer Society

11:08 am in Uncategorized by E.L. Beck

James Howard Kunstler, over at The Burning Platform, offers a view on a nascent post-consumer society in the making – Time for No-Tech – a favorite topic of mine. Long on rose color and short on pragmatism, Kunstler avoids the need by ending on this note:

Farewell to the auto age and hello again to real communities. Hard to believe, I’m sure, as you read this in traffic on your iPad, but your commuting days are numbered. Indeed the whole car thing comes to a rather stunningly abrupt halt – though we are certainly doing everything possible now to prop it up. The old Herb Stein formulation will apply here: people do what they can until they can’t, and then they don’t. The implications in this for how we inhabit the landscape going forward are rather huge. Find a nice small town on a waterway surrounded by farmland and get ready to have a life.

In the meantime, as these circumstances roil in the background, you can be sure that the people running things will campaign strenuously to keep the current set of rackets running. The results will be sad and possibly terrifying. Be brave and seek opportunity in these epochal changes. Modernity has nearly put us out of business. Leave the exhausted enterprise behind and be human for while. Enjoy the time-out from techno-progress that is at hand. It will be something to be grateful for.

I applaud his optimism, his heart-felt belief that we will get through this transition. I hope he’s right. I’m too much a student of history. I know what happens when a transition involves the haves versus the have-nots, something he obliquely refers to when he mentions, “the people running things will campaign strenuously to keep the current set of rackets running.”

What happens is a French Revolution, not an American Revolution. The American Revolution is extremely unique in history, with Americans (aristocrats, landed gentry, merchants, artisans, yeoman, etc.) acting in concert against a common enemy: England. From that angle, the American Revolution is almost boring to study in terms of social ramifications. We simply wanted self determination for our continent.

The storming of the gates at the Bastille was another matter: the start of a long and painful transition involving the haves pitted against the have-nots, not self determination. Once the violence and guillotines broke out, the whole thing went sideways. The drama makes for great reading, but the outcomes remain questionable. Did the have-nots benefit? Did anyone benefit? After the violence erupts, it becomes more difficult for a transition to land on its feet.

I don’t see anything on the American horizon to suggest violence is imminent. In fact, quite the contrary: I see too many apathetic Americans watching those cheap TVs they bought at Wal-Mart – the very behavior Kunstler presses against – rather than pursuing meaningful engagement against a political and economic system that is slowly (but surely) boiling them to death. The political and economic tyranny dawns in almost imperceptible shades of gray, unless one starts to pay attention. Life is so daily, and the changes so subtle, that few notice.

Eventually, one of two scenarios will emerge: nothing, or violence. Nothing, in that, like the corruption that has enveloped every level of Russian society, people go about their daily lives, knowingly numb to the reality that surrounds them. Or violent, in that suddenly a spark occurs, people wake from their sleep, only it’s too late to make changes to our political and economic systems in a peaceful manner, thus they grab their torches and pitchforks in heated anger.

And under the violent scenario, there is always some opportunist ready to rile the rabble and lead the march. If successful, the opportunist places himself in charge and we suddenly realize, too late, that we simply traded the devil that we knew for the devil that we didn’t know.

Think Napoleon.

Or, if you need a more recent (and ongoing) example, think Morsi in Egypt.

But more importantly, just think.