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We need new stories for a prosperous descent

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Our defining challenge is to seek out the ‘middle way’ between over-consumption and under-consumption, where basic material needs are sufficiently met but where attention is then redirected away from superfluous material pursuits, in search of non-materialistic sources of satisfaction and meaning, writes Samuel Alexander in a new e-book.

“The creative task of managing our civilisational descent – daunting though it is – promises to be both meaningful and fulfilling, provided we are prepared to let go of dominant conceptions of the good life and begin telling ourselves new stories of prosperity. Consumerism was an experiment that failed. It led us down a dead end. Only by letting go – or, rather, only by ripping ourselves free – can we transcend it.

Mercifully, there is a door hidden in the wall, providing us with an escape route if only we are prepared to embrace the unfashionable values of sufficiency, frugality, mindfulness, appropriate technology, self-governance and local economy. Needless to say, personal action alone is not enough. We must also build structures that support a more localised, simpler way to live, and this can only be achieved through the collective genius and power of community action. Together we must write a new future, an undertaking that has already begun as individuals and communities begin to build the new world within the shell of the old.

We should explore alternatives not because we are ecologically compelled to live differently – although we are – but because we are human and deserve the opportunity to flourish with dignity, within sustainable bounds. This does not mean regressing to something prior to consumerism; rather, it means drawing on the wisdom of ages to advance beyond consumerism, in order to produce something better, freer, and more humane – even if it will also be more humble. This revolution, no doubt, will require all the wisdom, creativity and compassion we can muster. But impossible things have happened before. And if we fail, may we fail with dignity.

As John Holloway writes: ‘We need no promise of a happy ending to justify our rejection of a world we feel to be wrong.’

LET US DECLARE, in chorus, that providing ‘enough, for everyone, forever’ is the defining objective of a just and sustainable world, a world that we should try to build by working together in free association. And let us show that material sufficiency in a free society provides the conditions for an infinite variety of meaningful, happy and fulfilling lives. For embracing a ‘simpler’ way of life does not mean hardship or going back to the Stone Age. It means focusing on what is sufficient to live well, and discovering that the good life does not consist in the accumulation of ‘nice things’. Just enough is plenty.

Thus our defining challenge is to seek out and embody the ‘middle way’ between over-consumption and under-consumption, where basic material needs are sufficiently met but where attention is then redirected away from superfluous material pursuits, in search of non-materialistic sources of satisfaction and meaning. Those sources are abundant – inexhaustible – if only we knew it. It is time to abandon affluence and turn to the realm of the spirit to satisfy our hunger for infinity.

It is painfully clear, of course, that governments around the world are not interested in moving ‘beyond growth’ or questioning consumer culture, and there are few signs of things changing at the top. Empire, we can be sure, will not contemplate it’s own self-annihilation; nor will it lie down like a lamb at the mere request of the environmental movement. Empire will struggle for existence all the way down.

It follows that the transformation that is needed must emerge ‘from below’, driven into existence by diverse, inspired and imaginative social movements that seek to produce a post-capitalist society. What role will you play? It is a question with no generalisable answer. However we answer it, we must endeavour to live our alternative worlds into existence, here and now, and show them to be good, while at the same time recognising that the great transition that is needed will likely come only at the end of a rough road – after or during a series of crises.

Can we turn the crises of our times into opportunities for civilisational renewal? That is the question, the challenge, posed by our turbulent moment in history.

There is one way forward: the creation of flesh and blood examples of low-consumption, high quality alternatives to the mainstream pattern of life. This we can see happening already on the counter- cultural fringes. And nothing – no amount of argument or research – will take the place of such living proof. What people must see is that ecologically sane, socially responsible living is good living; that simplicity, thrift and reciprocity make for an existence that is free.

In the words of Theodore Roszak, author of Where the Wasteland Ends (Doubleday, 1973)

– Our task, therefore, is to expose and better understand the myths that dominate our destructive and self-transforming present, and to envision what life would be like, or could be like, if we were to liberate ourselves from today’s myths and step into new ones. We search for grounded hope between naive optimism and despair. Without vision and defiant positivity, we will perish.

Unfortunately, our myths today have become so entrenched that they have assumed a false necessity, which is to say, they no longer seem to be myths at all. Rather, the myths of industrial civilisation – which are the myths of limitless growth, technological redemption, and fulfilment through affluence – seem to be a reflection of some ‘grand narrative’ from which we cannot escape.

But there is a collective rumbling in the world today. Do you hear it? It is spreading in all directions, which means it is both coming your way and emanating from you. Currently dormant, our repressed hopes are all embers ready to ignite, awaiting a rush of oxygen that will flare our utopian ambitions. Breathe deeply, they say, and demand the impossible. Let us stoke the fire of ecological democracy that is burning in our eyes, not because we think we will succeed in producing a just and sustainable world, but because if we do not try, something noble in our hearts and spirits will be lost. So open your mind, gentle reader, for the future is but clay in the hands of our imaginations.

We are being called to make things new.”

Source: This essay was originally published as part of the eBook Griffith Review 52: Imagining the Future – Notes from the frontier.

Republished by the P2P Foundation.

Photo credit: glasseyes, flickr creative commons