What's going on here?
(No. 2) A look at The Great Simplification and a captivating short film about totems for the future, by Ty Montague and Stephen P. Williams
It’s not all bad. Photo by Madison Oren
From the department of revisions
“As we continue to work out the kinks in our newsletter we decided that last weeks headline didn’t truly capture our intended meaning so we’ve changed it to “Do you ever have that ‘We might be completely fucked’ feeling?” Let us know what you think.
A podcast we value
The Great Simplification
by Ty Montague
In the first issue of Our Dark Secrets I listed the three questions I have about the nagging feeling of doom that many of us are experiencing: One, what’s really going on here? Two: is there anything to be done about what’s really going on here? Three: if there is something to be done, do we have the will to do it? Of all the reading and listening I’ve done so far, Nate Hagens has done the best job of attacking all three questions in his podcast The Great Simplification.
One of the key themes in the podcast is that we have become “energy blind” – the term Nate uses to describe the fact that we wrongly ascribe much of our own success as a species to our innate cleverness and ability to “innovate”. He believes that what is really going on is that we discovered a one-time bonanza of cheap fossil energy that has powered a population explosion and the creation of the complex, energy hungry society you see around you. Further, that we are much closer to the end of that bonanza than the beginning. He also addresses a key orthodoxy of mainstream capitalism: that we will somehow “innovate” ourselves out of the end of cheap fossil fuel. Multiple guests on the show present a compelling case that this story is essentially magical thinking – a fairy tale. Nate’s premise is that we need to be preparing for a “great simplification” where we return to pre-fossil fuel levels of energy consumption (and potentially, ahem, population). As I’ve said, I’m no scientist, but there is an eye opening number of scientists who share Nate’s view on this show. He has also produced an interesting series of animated shorts that supplement the podcast.
Here’s an abstract from the white-paper he wrote describing the project:
Our environment and economy are at a crossroads. This paper attempts a cohesive narrative on how human evolved behavior, money, energy, economy and the environment fit together. Humans strive for the same emotional state of our successful ancestors. In a resource rich environment, we coordinate in groups, corporations and nations, to maximize financial surplus, tethered to energy, tethered to carbon. At global scales, the emergent result of this combination is a mindless, energy hungry, CO2 emitting Superorganism. Under this dynamic we are now behaviorally ‘growth constrained’ and will use any means possible to avoid facing this reality. The farther we kick the can, the larger the disconnect between our financial and physical reality becomes. The moment of this recalibration will be a watershed time for our culture, but could also be the birth of a new ‘systems economics’, and resultant different ways of living. The next 30 years are the time to apply all we’ve learned during the past 30 years. We’ve arrived at a species level conversation.
Heady stuff. And I love the idea of a new ‘systems economics’. But what I like the most about the podcast is that, while its range of topics is vast (from the behavior of ant colonies and how we can extrapolate predictions about our own fate from them, to the current threat level of total nuclear annihilation) the show is exceedingly human. While I wouldn’t describe it as optimistic, I would describe it as gentle in the way Nate and his guests analyze our current predicament and discuss possible solutions. The experts range from economists, biologists, ecologists, sociologists and astrophysicists to subject matter experts on nuclear security, AI, social activism and complex systems management. My only guidance to Nate would be that he should strive for a more diverse guest roster. Too many older white men. Other than that, it’s a feast. Well worth your time.
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Regeneration of a totem culture
Often, when I think of the future, I try to imagine the past, and how the old ways might serve us going forward. I recently encountered a 13-minute film that made me pause to consider how important cultural stability is to the future of society, and how progress can undermine that. Traditionally, the Haida people of British Columbia had numerous totem poles in their villages (this film has historic clips of village landscapes from the early 20th century). As the Haida culture became dominated by white colonialists, the totems came down, along with the loss of many other traditions.
In the late 1960s, a young Haida man named Robert Davidson decided to build a totem pole in the traditional fashion, using hand tools, as a way of reconnecting his village with the practices of its elders. The clans united to raise the heavy pole without machinery, using ropes and poles. In the process, a village that had been devastated by modernity took steps towards renewing its commitment to the past. This film shows a village in the thralls of transforming itself. And the complex story of how the film was made reflects that.
I wondered how practicing the old ways might play out for the rest of us who are seeking to regenerate the planet. I found an answer on TikTok, of all places, where short video after short video displays a strong urge among the young to reclaim old crafts and outdoor skills. There are Europeans learning woodcraft techniques. Ghanaians building houses that create cool interiors without the use of machines, in the fashion of their ancestors. New Yorkers seeding oyster beds to encourage clean, protective wetlands. Sometimes the videos offer step by step instructions for things like making kimchi. Other videos are meant to evoke what it feels like to live in a different way, such as alone in a Northwest forest with an ax and a pot.
While TikTok can be a chaotic, energy-sucking place, I’ve trained my algorithm to bring me these nourishing videos, so that when I’m wasting time on a device, there’s a chance I will either learn something new or be soothed by the regenerative knowledge of the past. You can do this also, with these tips for training your algorithm. For those of us who spend too much time on our screens, the more we replace the standard assault of irony, beauty and stupidity with meaningful images and thoughts, the more likely we are to have a positive effect on the world around us.