The Politics of the Future

I read a very interesting article today, called a politics of crisis: low-energy cosmopolitanism; I suggest you read it first, because my summary is rather poor. Broadly, this article discusses the implication of the series of global crises we’ve enjoyed in the last year, or the opportunities it provides to radicals both in the left and in the right ends of the political spectrum. It speaks of the “transition towns” movement in England as an example of the kind of localizing trend rising energy prices foster, and warns that this trend towards localization could cause a return to the days when we were all clannish and xenophobic. The authors and commentators ask pleadingly for an answer to their question: is it possible to have our liberal cosmopolitanism as well as our dream of a low-energy society? Can we retain our interconnected, multicultural world even when we can’t hop on a plane to Tokyo?

The answer probably lies in the fact that, although we will certainly have to reduce the amount of energy we use and replace our way of life with something completely different, the most important things that opened up our world are certainly here to stay; I find it hard to believe that even the complete collapse of our civilization will prevent Shortwave radio nuts from hooking their transmitters up to a solar panel, or the determined traveller from getting on a boat. Hell’s bells, even if we end up going back to covered wagons, didn’t they get the old pioneers all the way to Oregon? And those guys didn’t have radios, water filters, propane burners, GORE-TEX, or the Internet, all of which I am certain Humanity will retain.

The social innovation that we should be searching for is one that will finally reconcile the useful aspects of our modern technology and thought (and boy, there are a lot of them) with traditional, down-to-earth ways of life; that kind of world is not hard to imagine — think about a bunch of hippies in a teepee with a solar panel and satellite linkup (or digital shortwave radio if satellites aren’t available), surrounded by native prairie. They’ll be chatting with their buds in Tunisia while downloading a good book from Project Gutenberg, when a wildfire alert comes up, whereupon they will collapse the carbon-fiber frame of their tent, stick it on their bikes, and follow the bison away from danger.

Agrarian and urban societies are just as easy: useful, relevant technology and ways of thinking will remain, while those that have no use outside of this house of cards we live in will go the way of the Dodo — and good riddance. The important thing as far as our cosmopolitan liberalism is concerned is that those with the curiosity will certainly have the means to connect with like-minded individuals around the world through whatever decentralized, peer-to-peer version of the internet will exist, and those in cities will, as always, have the opportunity to meet and mingle with people of all shapes and colors.

In fact, I would argue that such a future world, while it would certainly have pockets of isolation, will be radically more diverse and than it is today: one of the main problems that we have today, in my opinion, is that there only appears to be room on this planet for one way of life: get a job, have an address, have a number. The urban, civilized way of life has completely taken over those parts of the world where you’re not likely to get killed on a daily basis. That is the direct result of unbelievable levels of centralization enforced by energy-intensive technology (I realize that this statement would need a lot of defence, but bear with me). My point is, that the traditional division of humanity into the urban, agrarian, and nomadic spaces is in for a comeback: the coexistence of those spaces is the kind of sustainable solution that worked for thousands of years, that encourages diversity in ways of thinking and living, that gives people the freedom to live the kind of life they are suited to. Although liberal values are not as useful in all those spaces equally, I think that it is safe to say that the world in which the urban, agrarian, and nomadic spaces variously combine with modern technology and thought is as worth looking forward to as it is inevitable.

Published in: on Thursday, October 23rd, 2008 at 10:50 am  Leave a Comment  

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