Sunday, July 06, 2008

Guest Post: The risks of modern living

Today's guest post is from Natalie Bennett who, were she to wear all of her hats at once would never fit through a doorway without knocking them off. Let's just say she's on the national executive of the Green Party, blogs at Philobiblon and is the chief architect behind the enormously successful Carnival of Feminists.

Last week I passed up an opportunity to listen to Arriana Huffington, of Huffington Post fame, on the future of the new media. Instead I was going to my regular book club, where we were discussing a 1970s account of the traditional life of Southeast Asian peasants, and their rebellious reactions to the attempts of colonialists to impose capitalism. It convinced some friends to whom I mentioned it that I'm definitely odd (well okay, maybe I am), but nevertheless by the end of the evening I felt that I possibly had – no offence to Arriana – a clearer glimpse of the future – or at least perhaps the future we need, than she could have offered.

The books was James C. Scott's The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia. It was, the economist who chose it assured us, regarded as a seminal work in the field, and it is not hard to see that when it was published in 1976 it was both radical and astonishing. For it starts from the actual lived peasant experience (explicitly influenced, the author says in the introduction, the Annales school of history), and it isn't in love with the traditional 20th-century Western view of progress – that everything that has happened in history is the great march towards a materialist utopia of great abundance and technology. Scott, it is clear, is highly sympathetic to the Vietnamese rebels of "La Terreur rouge" of 1930 and the Saya San rebellion of Lower Burma in the same year.

But there's nothing radical about that approach now – what is interesting, however, is his exploration of the thesis about the peasant's reactions, from the end of the 19th century onwards, to the colonial states' efforts to impose capitalism on what had been subsistence farming systems. This destroyed, he says, the fundamental basis of the organisation of these peasant societies in which harvests were often dreadfully uncertain: "It is quite rational for peasants...with very little margin for taking risks above their subsistence level to be content with a lower level of return for subsistence production than to choose the higher but riskier returns from cash production."

This set me musing on the point at which we are now in the 21st century – about, perhaps, to realise that the mad rush of material "progress" to which we have become addicted is not just not bringing us happiness, but pushing us perilously close to – maybe even already past – the point at which the entire human race, the entire Gaian ecosystem, is as perilously situated as any early 20th-century peasant watching his rice crop washed away by a flood, or parched by unseasonal heat.

Australia is the continent on which this is most evident – a story last week in the Sydney Morning Herald reports a desperate hunt by the national scientific organisation for an area of the vast continent in which agriculture and livestock rearing is likely to remain, or become, viable. I was reminded again of the prescience of Tim Flannery, Australia's foremost scientific intellectual, who told me about 20 years ago that the sustainable carrying capacity of the continent was perhaps 4 million. (The population is now 20 million.)

We are, it is clear, going to have to give up our addiction to material growth. But how can we make this great intellectual leap, give up something that has been the dominant paradigm, at least in some Western societies, for many centuries? How can those who are now living a lifestyle that could only be supported by three planets agree collectively to cut back to one, a tradeoff to prevent a new form of MAD (mutually assured destruction).

Well it seems to me Scott's peasants have one possible answer: large numbers of people, and complex cultures, can decide to choose basic material security over a gamble for the pleasures of materialist extreme.

Of course such stability has been the chief ambition for most of the human race for the great majority of history. Travelling amid the Roman ruins of Europe – particularly in southern France, where there are buildings that were in use right through medieval times and beyond – I often contemplate the basic fact that shaped the medieval mind – that their ancestors were stronger, grander, greater, than they were themselves. (It's something the classical Greeks –overshadowed by the giant structures of their Mycenean world -- also believed.)

The medieval example, and indeed the Southeast Asian one, are in appearance depressing. Do we really have to resort to a narrow-minded, insular peasant culture, one that is profoundly unattractive in its social hierarchies and repressions? Do we have to stop thinking, adopt some sort of intellectual deep-freeze for thought and independent action to return to the small-minded petty social control of the village? As one book club participant asked, a question I've scrawled on the title page in big letters: does this really on a small-scale society built on face-to-face personal relations? Do we have to in some important way "go backwards"?

Well perhaps the Greeks are an answer to that – there's was fundamentally an economically stable society, with few great technical innovation, that managed great innovations of the mind. And indeed when the book club discussed this issue another economist suggested that what we have to aim for is growth in complexity rather than growth in material – more and better blogs, not more pulp genre books to be remaindered, perhaps.

If we could direct human ingenuity, human spirit, human adventurism, to finding ecological stability while still pursuing great ambitions of intellect and sophistication of life; if we could take the good bits of the peasant lifestyle, the positive side of conservatism - conservation - and refused the strictures of convention, then we might be on the way to a liveable model for the 21st-century.

No, sorry Arriana, I've no regrets about my choice.

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