The Voluntary Society of the Scorched Earth

To set the context of my comments (and hopefully your comments as well), please watch this (LONG) two part Derrick Jensen talk (if you don't have time to watch it, please wait to read what I have to say until you do, or at least be open minded about what I'm saying until you watch it):

Now I don't pretend that we can know exactly how a free society will be, but I'm curious about the vision of left libertarians. I'd like to know your opinon on these two questions:

  1. Is the world headed for an environmental disaster? Do you believe the situation is grim with respect to sustainable human civilization on this planet - anywhere near as grim as Jensen does?

  2. If you agree with Jensen's analysis to any significant extent, what kind of credible vision do we offer to cope with this crisis? What are the values of that visionary culture?

I don't necessarily agree with all of the premises Jensen enumerates, nor do I think he was successful in making all of his implicit assumptions plain, though I greatly admire the attempt. But I do think that many can sympathize with the degree of his despair and the authenticity of his sense of urgency. In other words, I don't think he's a phony when he says these things - whether or not I agree with them - and I think they come from a very, very honest look at the human condition.

Watching his talk, especially near the end where he "bashes hope", gave me the exact same feeling that I had when watching Children of Men or reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Both stories were apocalyptic visions of the future, significant not so much for the brutally dystopian vision of the future they portrayed as for how plausible it seemed. It wasn't a stretch to see how prevalent violence has always been in our society, in our species, and our present civilization just does a good job of distracting us from it - at least those of us in first world nations. And how close it is to becoming much more plain! In a similar manner, Jensen doesn't just warn us of imminent danger, but draws a compelling map of the tragedy as it is presently unfolding. The apocalypse is occurring at the nearest point in the future: right now.

So if you agree that the crisis Jensen sees is plausible and that it is even a bit as intense as he sees it, what do left libertarians and anarchists hold as a vision that fits in this scenario? How do we see our understandings of voluntary society occuring within this catastrophe, if at all? Is what we're working towards even plausible within the timeframe we need to overthrow or sufficiently weaken the State before some threshold of environmental catastrophe is crossed? And how do we build the structure of our society within that thin, hollowed out shell?

Here's the thing: we talk a lot about panarchy as a way to accomodate different approaches to human society, allowing the earth to be shared by people with a wide variety of values and approaches to "the good life". But do we have a solid understanding of how much the basic concepts of our society are going to have to change in order for human life to be sustainable, let alone tolerable? What are left libertarians doing, not to shrug their shoulders and defer this to the market (nobody's asking anybody to be psychics), but to think soberly and deeply about a more fundamental set of necessary values that will even permit our vision of a voluntary society to exist in the likely future, let alone sustain itself?

I'm not talking about prescriptions, I'm talking about predictions - credible, informed, plausible visions. Do we honestly think technology will make all this irrelevant? Do we honestly think we'll go back to primitivism? Do we think we'll overindustrialize and go through this all again? Do we think we'll find a new mode of living? Do we act radically right this very moment out of sheer desperation - is that the most rational thing to do in the face of catastrophe, when we finally realize that we've no future to lose?

You see, I'm starting to think that the state-regimented society we live in has affected everything we think is possible, let alone desirable. If we're not looking at the levels of damage that have been done to our only viable planet and thinking about what possibilities for society are likely; if we're not thinking about how we cope with the damage long term and maybe, possibly repair it; if we're not thinking about the ability and plausibility of human civilization to get it right, people are right to pass us off as irrelevant. It's not that their approach to the situation is any more relevant. It's that we're both talking about a situation that does not reflect the total, environmental reality; we're talking about some other reality - or, at best, subset of reality - that we pretend doesn't depend upon the natural world.

It's hard to talk about political or social solutions when we can't even wrap our heads around the full scope of the problem. I guess that's why we simply pretend these problems aren't so bad, and that they have solutions corresponding to political choices. But to see these problems through that lens implicitly divorces us from any conceivable potential to participate in the solution. Politics can only work where there is a sense of hope about these issues, but as Jensen says, "to hope for some result means you have given up any agency concerning it." It's out of your power to effect it, so we let the State facilitate the deliberation that should be going on in our minds and hearts, or fight the State as a proxy cure for the real disease.

I'll say it: I think libertarians have to think seriously about fundamental shifts in western culture concerning where humans fit into nature, and what their relationship to it is. I don't think we should consider these on moral grounds necessarily, but rather pragmatic grounds (arguably the genesis of these value systems among indigenous peoples in the first place). We can even hold that these values will be the natural product of the voluntary society, if we wish - as long as we make that claim with full knowledge of, and complete honesty about, the dire situation we face.

We don't pay attention to the environmental reality because, as Jensen points out, we're not really part of it. We know more about movie stars and politics and video games and T.V. than we do about the plants and animals and natural landscape around our homes. The natural world is irrelevant to us because we don't participate in it, and that lack of information will kill us in the long run unless we somehow escape the context of nature (I'll let you decide for yourself how plausible - or even desirable - that silver bullet is). What is necessary for a more complete, more believable political response to our dilemna is a thorough and sober analysis of our full situation, so that the set of possibilities for a future becomes more clear.

I'm not sure how or how much our culture and values need to change or how flexible they are in the first place, because I don't have it all figured out (though I think the mutualist approach might find significant common ground with a more nature-centric value system, and could serve as a starting point for individualist anarchists - maybe something like Georgism could even accomplish a lot of this without anarchy proper, I don't know). I'm not sure I even agree with a large part of what Jensen's saying. But his refreshing directness about our situation is one I haven't heard in a long time. It's a rude awakening to an underlying problem I have squarely faced in quite some time, and I bet you haven't either.

I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about the political indignities we endure within our system (those parts I pay attention to, I mean). I don't think much about the brutality and destruction going on outside the country on a scale I can't even imagine - suffered not just by people but as permanent blots on what is ultimately a place worth protecting and fighting for. I guess what I'm saying is that the enormity of the problem is hard to bear fully in one's mind, and therefore it's likely not to be fully incorporated into our thoughts and speculation of a possible voluntary society. I hope that we left libertarians and individualist anarchists are not ignoring it.

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Written on Monday, November 26, 2007