Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Indominable Human Spirit

The sermon today at my church was wholly remarkable. Our new minister, whom I really respect and value, has actually read Dmitri Orlov. Yes, for real. She read Reinventing Collapse (which neither Brian nor I have yet read, more's the shame, although we frequent his blog And she took it to heart, which is a hard thing to do--the very real possibility that the next twenty years will be completely unlike the previous twenty years, the seismic shifts coming in our economy, and possibly in our lifestyle. She spoke about the rises and falls of informal economies, of barter systems and currency systems and their interplay, and the need to revalue them both in preparation for what's to come (and, probably, for the survival thereof). Now, I should be clear here, given our typical Sunday fare, this was a stunningly gloom-and-doom sermon. We're Unitarian Universalists, after all--we don't go in for hellfire & brimstone and suchlike. This was probably the doomery-ist sermon ever given by our minister, and possibly the doomery-ist sermon ever given from our pulpit.

And yet for all that, and for some obvious psychological needs of both the minister and of our fellow congregants, she endeavored to keep it light. She ended on several upbeat notes, two of which I want to discuss. Well, the first I just want to reiterate, because I think it's not only right, but also important. Even in the midst of a total collapse, people still celebrate birthdays, still get married, and have babies. People still love, and people still dance. Life is still worth living, even if it's a life you never imagined living. Always remember that.

The second point I want to discuss is somewhat weirder. She talked near the end about the "indominable human spirit" and how she was holding on to that feature of us for our salvation. Now, of course I've seen references to this countless times, and almost always in the vein of "our ingenuity will save us". And I agree with that, as a broad statement.

But if you pay attention to the details, there are at least two different things that people mean when they discuss this delightful human spirit. The first, probably most common, and certainly what our minister meant, is not actually a solace of human nature, but of human-created technology. She went on to discuss the inventiveness of us humans, of our new use of biofuels, or solar and wind, and of who knows what else wonders of technology on the horizon that we, as humans, can muster our intellect to command and control. With our stunning ingenuity, certainly we can create paths to a brave new future that looks not like what we live now, but even bigger, even brighter, and even better than what we have now. It is the crisis of the moment that will bring out this best in us--"best" here meaning our scientific conquests which will allow us to pursue our bigger, brighter and better new world. The human spirit (or rather, human technology) will not fail us.

And of course, I have all manner of problems with this sentiment (although I certainly understand the desire to believe in it). The most obvious problem with this attitude is that there are countless instances in the human past where our indominable human spirit has not thrown up technological solutions to the relevant problems. It is ironic that our minister shared this hope against the backdrop of Orlov's work on comparing our own situation with that of the Soviet Russia's collapse. If anyone on the planet has indominable human spirit, it's the Russians, and yet, at least when construed in the bounds of technological advancement, it did not save them. And in fact, they didn't suffer nearly the same level of problems that we are and will be--they have no shortage of fossil fuels on their continent, and yet still their gas stations were shuttered and their electricity was off. We produce less than 3% of our own oil and gas needs within our borders. We've got coal, but a crumbling infrastructure and rapidly decreasing funds to repair it. Biofuels, solar, wind, and ShinyNewPowerX are wonderful (well, sometimes anyway), and will certainly help fill in gaps, but I think it's folly to think that they will somehow allow us to continue our lifestyle, world without end, amen. Plenty of work has been done on this elsewhere, but the short version is that anyone who really believes that wind, solar and biofuels will supplant fossil fuels does not understand how most of them work, and the tradeoffs involved in each. And none of them address the crumbling infrastructure or the stunning economic problems that will prevent any serious implementation of our ShinyNewTechnoligies(tm) regardless.

And then, of course, there's the work from Jared Diamond that helped me reshape my own thinking on the topic of finding salvation through technology. Diamond's book Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed, is an overview of five different human cultures which drove themselves to extinction due in large part to their own choices. The motivation for writing the book came from a question one of his graduate students asked while studying the collapse of the Easter Island people, a people who destroyed their own civilization via deforestation--they literally cut down all of the trees. The student asked Diamond "What do you think the person was thinking who cut down the last tree?" What does go through one's mind on the cusp of a collapse? It's a haunting thought, and one we would all do well to meditate upon. Very pointedly, near the end of his book, Diamond writes:

"Technology will solve our problems." This is an expression of faith about the future, and therefore based on a supposed track record of technology having solved more problems than it created in the recent past. Underlying this expression of faith is the implicit assumption that, from tomorrow onwards, technology will function primarily to solve existing problems and will cease to create new problems. Those with such faith also assume that the new technologies now under discussion will succeed, and that they will do so quickly enough to make a big difference soon....

But actual experience is the opposite of this assumed track record. Some dreamed-of new technologies succeed, while others don't. Those that do succeed typically take a few decades to develop and phase in widely.... New technologies, whether or not they succeed in solving the problem that they were designed to solve, regularly create unanticipated new problems....

Most of all, advances in technology just increase our ability to do things, which may be either for the better or for the worse. All of our current problems are unintended negative consequences of our existing technology. The rapid advances in technology during the 20th century have been creating difficult new problems faster than they have been solving old problems: that's why we're in the situation in which we now find ourselves. What makes you think that, as of January 1, 2006, for the first time in human history, technology will miraculously stop causing new unanticipated problems while it just solves the problems that it previously produced. (pp. 504-505)

An interesting meditation, no? Why is it that we are almost religiously placing our faith in exactly what has gotten us into the messes we're in? It's akin, in a way, to our decrying handing over several hundred billion dollars to the bank managers that created the now-defunct credit bubble and saying "fix it". One may disagree, but perhaps now one can understand my skepticism of technology uber alles. Technology has wrought wonders, no doubt, and I think there are many things it has done to make our lives genuinely better. But this isn't different in kind from acquiring a really great new knife. It can make one's life better or worse, depending in part upon how one uses it, and even more depending on the worth one placed in that knife in the first place. If you placed your faith in the new knife, that with it you would rise in culinary prowess to attain the hights of our nouveau celebrity chefs, well... sorry. Or even if you believed that, by getting this knife, you'll actually start to enjoy cooking, again.... sorry. It is our attitude towards this acquisition that makes or breaks its real worth to us, and the same goes for technology.

So what of our indominable human spirit? Should we refrain from placing our faith there? Only if "indominable human spirit" = "human's ability to manipulate technology". But that cannot be all and only what this phrase means. Look again at the Soviet Russians. They are full of indominable human spirit, even though no technological interventions saved their society. And in fact, their culture survived their societal collapse--impressive, to say the least. They did survive, but they did it by finding something to cleave to other than technology.

Our indominable human spirit must be otherwise--it is the source from which our technological inventiveness comes, I think, but it is more. It is the root of our drive to overcome, to perservere. The Russian population understood this. While their leaders scrambled to find large scale solutions to their problems, pretty much none of which panned out, the people got to work adjusting their own lives. They let go of a lifestyle that seemed untenable, and began building a new one. They danced, and sang, and bartered, and had birthdays, and gardened, and scraped, and made toys by hand, and helped their neighbors, and they found a way. That is the heart of the indominable human spirit--to find a way. To limit this spirit to what white-coated scientists (or demin-clad tinkerers) can come up with is to cut ourselves off from our own very real ability to find a way, together with our friends, family, and neighbors. We should not sit and wait with baited breath for the announcement that Science will allow our lives to continue unhindered. Our lives can be bettered now, our neighborhoods can be bettered now. The problems that we must solve derive almost entirely from a culture which has become overly reliant on our technological faith. Go back to the true spirit--the genesis of our technology, and our cultures, and our drive, and our love. The human spirit is all of this. It is what allows us to find value in our children's smiles, and the beauty of a community finding its own spirit again, and the ability to sigh and put away old ways when they no longer work, and to find new ways that will. I believe in the indominable human spirit, and I will gladly put my faith here.


  1. Technology is NOT what comes to my mind for the indomitable human spirit, although inventiveness and adaptability are great things. I think the indomitable human spirit is about being able to have hope, love, and laughter in the face of hardship (war, injustice, poverty, failed crops, natural disasters...) It is getting up again when you get pushed down, having hope in a hopeless situation. Hmm, I guess by "hope in a hopeless situation" I don't mean blind faith that everything will work out; rather, being able to envision a better future when the present is tough, and working toward that day. -- Karla

  2. In my vision of the world after the collapse, it is much like this. It's not scary, just a different way of seeing. And I have already begun seeing differently. I have never been well-off, so I have always done things differently. I'm not much like most in my generation, and often cannot talk about "new" things because I don't have them. And, I don't want them. I have been reading much about social capital "Bowling Alone" was the last book, and it reiterates a lot of what has changed and speculates a bit about what we have done to break social bonds, and how we used to create those social connections, and we need to find a way to do it now--especially if you don't have them now.
    Thank you for this post.