Rehearsing the Future: Living with Limits

Posted: 21 February 2010 in Faith and Life
Tags: , , ,

Today’s local paper had an intriguing feature entitled The Age of Limits.  It is the story of Brett Tracy, a man on a mission to chronicle the demise of our industrial way of life–an anthropologist laying the foundation for the research of future “colleagues” who will reconstruct this demise after the fact.  The article will likely raise eyebrows because of the various “extra-legal” activities in which Tracy engages as he crisscrosses the nation on his quest (various forms of trespassing and shoplifting–only food and only from big box grocery stores), but the real story lies in his critique of our modern religious project.  Here’s Tracy:

And people think humanity’s sheer intellectual prowess will carry the species ever higher until “we’re living in space colonies, taking space cruises to Mars and driving in flying cars,” Brett says, laughing.

This idea of inevitable human “progress” is “the dominant religion (of) our time.

But that world will end as oil, natural gas, coal — what he calls “stored, ancient sunlight” and our “one-time allotment of hydrocarbon resources” — run out.

The decay won’t happen in an apocalypse. Instant world destruction is our other major myth, Brett says, and it takes many forms: asteroid impact, annihilation by aliens, a wildfire, virus or some other event where “everyone’s getting raptured off the face of the Earth.”

Unstoppable progress and apocalyptic doom — we view the world and ourselves through these two stories. They tell us who we are as a species, why we do what we do, and where we’re going. (emphasis mine)

I wonder if Tracy has read Wendell Berry?  A man whose methods are quite distinct from Tracy’s but whose message and broad critique of our modern faith is similar.  Berry, writing in “Faustian Economics: Hell Hath no Limits” Harpers, May 2008 ” said:

The dominant response (to the end of the era of cheap oil–a subject very much on Tracy’s mind as well), in short, is a dogged belief that what we call the American Way of Life will prove somehow indestructible. We will keep on consuming, spending, wasting, and driving, as before, at any cost to anything and everybody but ourselves.

In keeping with our unrestrained consumptiveness, the commonly accepted basis of our economy is the supposed possibility of limitless growth, limitless wants, limitless wealth, limitless natural resources, limitless energy, and limitless debt. The idea of a limitless economy implies and requires a doctrine of general human limitlessness: all are entitled to pursue without limit whatever they conceive as desirable—a license that classifies the most exalted Christian capitalist with the lowliest pornographer.

Our national faith so far has been: “There’s always more.” Our true religion is a sort of autistic industrialism. People of intelligence and ability seem now to be genuinely embarrassed by any solution to any problem that does not involve high technology, a great expenditure of energy, or a big machine. (emphasis mine)

Much more needs to be said on these topics–especially the idea of what it means to live within limits, thereby defying the dominant religious dogma of our time which states, simply, that there is no such thing.  For now, let me suggest that what both Berry and Tracy are calling for is the development of a new way of being.  For Berry it is found in the soil, on the farm, in the way we produce our food.  Others who refer to Berry (Patrick Deneen for one) add the importance of being in community.  For Tracy it comes down to “honing a post-industrial skill set” that involves living seasonally and not using tools that we can not “understand by looking at them.”

To me, both of these and many others over at “Front Porch Republic” (see blogs I follow at the right) are calling for us to start “rehearsing” for a collective future that is coming our way.  In calling for the kinds of changes they feel are necessary they must logically reject that there is some “grand scheme” out there that will save us.  No, that is what the dominant religion suggests must come.  Rather, we need to get busy living out the implications of limits; finding our liberation in accepting boundaries; learning who we are as individuals by submitting to group decision making…

So let’s start practicing, start rehearsing.  For me this implies thinking more seriously about the primary things: food and water to begin with.  Then moving on to thinking about distribution in a way that considers not the ends of “progress”, “growth” or “profit” but the true ends of human dignity in which the basic needs are met.  That is why I am going to keep climbing trees to harvest fruit and help build groups committed to growing food on land that is waiting to play that role.


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