Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Three Hundred Year Millennium

Societies are invariably layered. The small upper layer leaves its impression on history; the life of the vast supporting foundation is much less documented. What we see at the top is wondrous diversity of expression, the consequence of freedom from necessity. But in our blessed three-hundred year millennium, and what that means I’ll soon unpack, we’ve had the luxury of detailed historical research. Hence we have discovered that the brilliant flowers at the rising stems of societies are largely based on the exploitation of people who live on the edge of need. You might say that in the best societies the agricultural sector actually had some limited, recognized rights, in the better societies serfdom supported wealth and that slavery appeared only in civilizations fully in decay. Unfortunately for many, many people, civilizations can decay for hundreds of years; thus slavery played a dominant economic role in the Roman Empire virtually from its earliest times.

In theory majorities can overwhelm minorities, but to exert their power they must be organized. But when the majority is struggling to survive, it cannot develop and then organize. Humanity is also very adaptive—both to servitude and mastery. Once the masses are cowed, they will remain peaceful unless harshly provoked; and those above are quite adapted to their luxuries and able to stare injustice right in the face and ignore it stalwartly. Hence the existence of slavery in this very country; it was well-entrenched in a nominally Christian society and supported by a highly organized triangular trade—English manufactured goods to Africa, slaves to the New World, and raw materials back to England. We might call it globalization.

Now sometimes I picture myself unhappily as a kind of Cato the Elder. He was the fellow in Rome who never gave a speech without pronouncing, at the end of it, “Carthage must be destroyed.” Thus I find myself announcing—no matter what the subject—that “Oil is going to run out.” Yes. And it’s likely to run out in the current century. I call ours the three hundred year millennium because the Age of Oil (more precisely of Fossil Fuels) will have lasted no more than three centuries when it comes to its end. And in this time, and very temporarily indeed, we’ve enjoyed the blessings of millennium: we’ve managed to have energy slaves rather than the human kind. But as slavery in the United States in the nineteenth century illustrates, it’s not beneath a God-fearing and civilized nation—whose towering scribe of holy documents, Jefferson, enjoyed their services—to return to the traditional ways of humanity. You think it couldn’t happen? Now that’s naïveté.

People who speak savanarola, as I often do, are supposed to offer solutions to the problems that they raise. I don’t believe that the “problem-solution” pairing is relevant here. Vast collective phenomena cannot be fixed. But the insights of a few people in the generations before mine greatly helped me to cope with the rather minimal challenges of this rich millennium. Insight is valuable. And marching toward the future aware of what is in the offing, if passed on, will definitely help at least minorities to do what can be done.
For a more detailed discussion of the timeline presented here, see this kick-off post on LaMarotte.

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