Processed Reality

Posted: July 9, 2009 in Consumerism, Culture, Economics, Idealism

Several competing narratives keep popping up in the media that purportedly assess our current state of affairs while ongoing war and economic woes threaten to undo gains made in the postwar era. One narrative suggests that we are not yet over the worst of our economic problems. Another suggests we are already seeing cause for optimism as consumer confidence and other indicators move tenuously in positive directions. A clear consensus is lacking, making it difficult for regular folks to choose which narrative to believe. Even if a consensus were to emerge, there is no guarantee that it would be accepted as the truth. Consider the existing scientific consensus on global warming or evolution. A consensus can be wrong, too.

The colorful phrase “failure to process manifest reality” (taken from J.H. Kunstler) applies equally well to both narratives. In the optimistic narrative, the willful denial of the true gravity of our historical predicaments (social, economic, and ecological) represents our collective incapacity to fully process what is going on. To do so would be to recognize and admit that humans have overshot their ecological niche and are due for significant retrenchment in both numbers and standard of living. So we instead pretend that trends do not in fact point toward water and energy shortages, food insecurity, insolvency, and the inability of governments to function. We then conjure a paradoxical processed reality, not unlike processed food, that has some original elements of actual food (truth) leavened with generous bits of nonfood (spin). In the pessimistic narrative, our failure to process means that lots of trends and government responses have not yet realized their full impact. For example, while the disappearance of wealth in the form of easy credit has caused many to lose their jobs, homes, healthcare, and hope, and though businesses are in a phase of folding up, closing down, and/or declaring bankruptcy for lack of income, the essential elements of society continue to function and day-to-day life for many of us continues relatively unaffected. But the expectation among doomers is that in time (good luck predicting precisely when) all the cascading crises waiting to be fully processed will finally drag us down to a sober reality that can no longer be denied.

Although I have tried not to dwell too much on it, regular readers of this blog know that I believe the time is near at hand for history to catch up to us. The current recession/depression is but one of a series of dominoes poised to topple. The confluence of so many trends pointing to catastrophe on scales ranging from the household to the globe cannot be simply shrugged off as the perennial paranoia of the professional doomsayer. Worse, as crisis piles on top of crisis, it will be increasingly clear that we lack the character, wisdom, technology, forbearance, self-restraint, or political will to solve our problems. For years I have been puzzling over what an ethical personal response to such dilemmas might be, and at the risk of being fatalistic, I have concluded that there may be no such thing. Unless one takes steps to exit society and live freely and locally, one is along for the ride, subject to the deep forces that drive human nature and human culture, without being able to direct or influence them to a degree great enough to matter.

If you wish, answer the poll below, which is unscientific and counts for nothing.

  1. I might seem smug or dismissive of very real crises by answering your poll: we’re all doomed because we’re all born to die. No one lives forever.
    For me the question is what our civic powers are to prevent or at least mitigate the horrible lives we as a “democracy” and one world super-power inflict on others, both within our country and upon the globe. I don’t have an answer. I don’t believe I have a say. Yet I still feel culpable. Anyone not actively working to thwart institutionalized cruelty is culpable–meaning, don’t know about you, but I’m doomed every day, dead or alive.

  2. Brutus says:

    You’re discussing the individual, whereas I’m discussing the collective. My own eventual doom or demise doesn’t bother me — that’s the life cycle. My culpability does concern me, which is the climbing or descending question in the tagline for this blog.

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