Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Temporary Sustainability

I've had the strangest convergence of reading material today. I've suspended the atheism project for a while - I've read a lot, and am mulling things over - and turned my attention to the courses I'll be teaching in the fall. I'm re-reading Rousseau's The Social Contract at the same time I'm reading James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency.

At the end of the first chapter, in what may be some of his best prose yet, Kunstler offers an observation both moving and striking:

If it happens that the human race doesn't make it [through the Long Emergency], then the fact that we were here once will not be altered, that once upon a time we peopled this astonishing blue planet, and wondered intelligently at everything about it and the other things who lived here with us on it, and that we celebrated the beauty of it in music and art, architecture, literature, and dance, and that there were times when we approached something godlike in our abilities and aspirations. We emerged out of a depthless mystery, and back into mystery we returned, and in the end the mystery is all there is.

Marvelous. It puts all of the (much needed but often misguided) talk about sustainability into perspective: Just what is it we're trying to sustain, and how long do we think we'll get away with it?

So, then I turned to Rousseau, and found a very similar thought on a topic only slightly narrower: the inevitable decline of civil society. This is from the chapter on "The Death of the Body Politic" (Book III, chapter 11, for those to whom it matters):
Such is the natural and inevitable tendency of the best constituted Governments. If Sparta and Rome perished, what State can hope to last forever? If we want to form a lasting establishment, let us therefore not dream of making it eternal. To succeed one must not attempt the impossible, nor flatter oneself that the work of men can be endowed with a solidity human things do not allow for.

Even the most sustainable civilization will pass away sooner or later . . . possibly sooner.


Doc Nagel said...

I haven't read Kunstler, but it seems like the idea, taken out of context, would make evangelical end-of-days-ers smile. If the world (read: the world made for human beings, which I know is a premise you wouldn't accept, but that they certainly would) will end for us eventually anyway, we needn't bother with environmental protection. Sic transit gloria mundi; laissez les bon temps rouler!

Robert Kirkman said...

True enough . . . taken out of context. But then, there's Kunstler's long history of decrying the ugliness and degradation of the Suburban environment. But then, there are passages like this, regarding peak oil (on p.60):
"I think what Dr. Deffeyes [who predicted the world oil peak would occur on Thanksgiving 2005, give or take a few weeks] may be trying to tell us is this: Let us give thanks for this extraordinary period of human history we lived through. Let us recognize that we are moving into a new phase of history. let's be brave and wise about it, and prepare to move on."

Anonymous said...

I am a Christian, but I wouldn't say I'm an evangelical, though I suppose that I might fit that label. Anyway, I certainly don't believe that we needn't bother protecting the environment. To the contrary, in Genesis God gave us that very responsibility in granting us authority over the Earth. I suspect He'll want to know what we've done with it someday.

Though I know nothing about the context, I'm attracted to that first quote because I tend to be too focused on either the past or the future. I worry about what I've done and what is to come and I miss out on the now. On some lever, now is all that matters. It shapes what is to come and what has past is only valuable in how it shapes the now.