As we often state here at Peak Prosperity, the narratives we hold are immensely important. The stories running our heads influence everything from our beliefs to our values to our actions.
Which is why it's so dangerous when a society clings onto a narrative that is no longer serving it well, a narrative divorced from reality.
This week, Chris and John Michael Greer address the global faith in inexorable technological advancement as a cure-all to every predicament we face. In many ways, it's become the dominant religion of the 21st century. Sadly, there are a growing number of threats for which 'improved' technologies actually exacerbate the risks (particularly in regards to depleting critical resources) — but society refuses to acknowledge this, as it runs counter to the tech-as-savoir meme so many are pinning their hopes on:
The problem comes when people have invested in a set of beliefs that work for a while, and then they stop working. That is the situation we are in now. From basically the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to the 1970s or maybe a little later, the narrative of progress worked. During all that time, there was a steady increase in the availability of energy per capita. By White’s Law, which is one of the basic principles of human ecology, economic development is function of energy per capita. As the energy curve rose and as we broke into one after another of the planet’s cookie jars and stole the fossil carbon there, progress actually did happen.
The problem is that we started running into the limits to resource extraction. The cost of resource extraction started rising. The cost of dealing with the downsides of burning all that carbon started to rise and everything else. All of a sudden, it does not work. But everybody is emotionally committed to the myth of progress. They are so great a target and it has such a religious quality to us, progress is that which will save us. Progress promises us this glorious Star Trek destiny metastasizing across the galaxy or what have you. To let that go, again it is trying to get a medieval peasant to look up and notice that Heaven with God, the saints, and angels is not up there anymore. People are wigging out. One of the most common ways to wig out in a situation like that is to cling to the dysfunctional belief system – the beliefs that do not work anymore – ever more tightly, even if they drag you down. That is what we have going on in the modern industrial world. People are going through the motions of a belief system that had stopped working, but they cannot let themselves admit that it stopped working. If that is the case, then God is dead.
I think people desperately want to stop thinking. If they think, they are going to notice what is going on. They are going to notice the gap between the reality that they are experiencing and the reality that they have convinced themselves that they should experience. Everyone needs this progress onward and upward, blah, blah, blah. Okay, for most people in the United States, standards of living have been contracting steadily since 1972. It's White’s Law: economic development is a function of energy per capita. As your energy production declines, so does your prosperity.
When I was young, a working class family with one income could buy a house, could own a car, could go on vacation every so often, could keep paid up on all their bills, and led a pretty good lifestyle. These days, a working class family with one income in many places cannot stay off the street. That is a huge transformation and everyone is pretending that it does not matter. Almost everyone is pretending that it does not matter and we are still on track.
The United States can no longer afford to maintain its road system. State and county road maintenance budgets have been cut so far that in a lot of western states now, entire sections of the road system are being allowed to return to gravel because nobody can afford to keep them up. Our national bridges are a disgrace. They are falling down. What happened? We could afford to maintain our bridges up until a certain point. What happened? Nobody wants to talk about that. America is in decline. It has been declining rapidly, ever more rapidly, for decades now. Nobody wants to admit it. We dress up our emperor in ever more elaborate imaginary clothing.
Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with John Michael Greer (64m:13s)