Saturday, April 04, 2015

Materialism and the Human Habitrail

Some of you may be familiar with John Michael Greer's Archdruid Report.  I believe there's some crossover in readership though his audience is considerably larger than mine. Greer writes mainly about environmental issues and peak oil and for the past few years has become a bit of a Cassandra, predicting the collapse of modern civilization.

I read his work though I always don't agree with his philosophies. I think it's a bit ironic that he's become so apocalyptic in his thinking since he first appeared on my radar, when my publisher asked me to review his book Apocalypse Not, an entertaining look at failed apocalyptic prophecies. But a while back he said something in particular I did agree with.

He was talking about the current vogue for nihilism (aka Nu Atheism) and predicted that it would reach a certain degree of popularity but never become truly dominant. The reason for this was that people were going to have experiences that would challenge their materialist worldview, specifically paranormal experiences. It's been a while but if memory serves he cited the kind of encounter I wrote about back in 2010 after live-blogging (as it were) on Facebook.

I was thinking about this while walking the dog past the spot of the sighting this afternoon. There were people about and she did what she does anytime we encounter other people or dogs on our walks, namely bark her brains out at them. 

As I wrote, that was one of the aspects of that encounter that led me to believe it was something out of the ordinary, that my dog didn't go nuts when the figure came out of the woods as she normally would, but instead studied it intently as something entirely new to her world.

I was thinking about my paranormal experiences today and how odd and patternless they seemed, and how it took me a long time to recognize one of them as such (the one in question was my "swamp gas story" until I actually went and researched swamp gas). I thought about how few in number they are which corresponds with my personal belief that genuine paranormal experience is a rare thing, as Paracelsus reminded us almost 600 years ago.

But I began to wonder if the fact that we are living in captivity these days- in what I call the Human Habitrail- contributes to that as well. One of the ways urban sophisticates dismissed UFO sightings was the fact that they often occurred in rural settings, witnessed by people cityfolk don't usually consider fully human. The fact that people in rural settings have a better view of the sky doesn't seem to occur to the scoffers.

Nowadays you'd be hard pressed to find anyone willing to pull their eyes away from their cellphones long enough to look at the sky at all. People spend most of their time looking at one screen or another, why should they wonder if nothing unusual ever crosses their path? They wouldn't notice it even if it did.

I was thinking about this when listening to a recent interview with Mike Clelland. It occurred to me that his own paranormal experiences had a lot to do with being out in the wild, out in the Big Empty where the sky is your viewscreen. It seemed that experiencing the paranormal was like any other opportunity, showing up was half the battle. Or maybe shutting out the rest of the world allows you to tune into other, stranger channels.

But there's a deeper issue at work.

I was reading the various articles following the recent death of Lee Kuan Kew, the man who transformed Singapore from a colonial backwater into a futuristic citystate. The transformation was impressive and people there enjoy a very high standard of living. Materialistically.

I add that disclaimer because read that Singapore was voted one of the most unhappy places in the world and like many hyperurbanized societies it is also undergoing a demographic implosion, with birthrates running less than half replacement.

We're not far behind here. I am certain that America as it currently constituted will cease to exist within my lifetime, and some of the many faultlines are city vs. suburb and city vs. country. Schisms will continue to multiply, accelerated by the Internet. 

Many young people want to live in the city (as I did) but the major cities are becoming prohibitively expensive for all but the rich. We're also seeing people leaving coastal states for the interior and cost of living is a major factor.

I could see cities like New York becoming Singapore-like citystates with all that entails. But can the human spirit persist in the human Habitrails that our cities are becoming? Singapore is not an outlier, many urbanized countries are experiencing the same problems. Is China's increasing embrace of Christianity a rebellion against the dialectical materialism enshrined in its modern founding?

I read that Aum Shinrikyo has caused a backlash against religion in Japan but that country is facing an existential crisis like few others; the sale of adult diapers now outpaces that for infants. It's ironic that materialism- whose root word is mater, mother- is such a surefire road to a childless society.

California had its own formula for the future, a neo-Feudalism based on high tech and Big Agriculture. But now they've hit a bit of roadblock, namely the kind of catastrophic drought that the state had experienced before it was home for 40 million+ people. 

So what do they do if a rabbit doesn't appear in the hat and the state becomes uninhabitable for the next century or so? That's an issue that will effect everyone everywhere.

Our current materialistic worldview will last only as long as there's plenty of material for everyone. But once there is not, things will change quite rapidly. I can't begin to imagine what kinds of worldviews will emerge in a hungry future, but I do know what will happen to the gurus of materialism.

Maybe Greer is right.  Maybe we're stuck on a road that no one seems to know how to get off. Maybe we're headed for the breakdown lane. But one thing I do know is that materialism is not enough, it doesn't fill human needs, no matter how aggressive its propagandists may be these days. We've got plenty of data that proves that materialism doesn't bring happiness and the human Habitrail all too quickly becomes a catacomb.