Rory Stewart says he won’t return to parliamentary politics unless he can tell the truth about our future. Is this the story he wants told?
In his popular podcast The Rest is Politics with Alastair Campbell, former MP and Conservative Party leadership candidate, Rory Stewart declared he would not return to parliamentary politics unless he were able to talk with “clarity and rigour” about the problems Britain faces.
This is a loss for Britain. Stewart in Westminster was a rare surviving specimen of the Good Chap that our slipshod constitution relies on to hold office.
Stewart intuits what many sense. Things are tough for many in Britain, and will get tougher still. But no one speaks plainly about this. The nation needs clarity and rigour about its diminished future prospects. Enough fantasising about “sunlit uplands”.
Stanning for Rory Stewart and Jess Phillips is no substitute for developing a clear-eyed understanding of the times in which we live.
— “Will the Emily Maitlis BBC controversy finally wake up moderates?”
Both Campbell and their guest, former Tory party leader William Hague, jumped on him for naïvity and pessimism. No one, they scolded, can take such a story to the polls.
Is the following the story Stewart wants told?
In this story the elephant in the room is the mortality of civilisations. We all find it difficult enough to grasp our own mortality. We watch species extinguished, but struggle to grasp that humans too might become extinct. (Are we not exceptional?)
Or that, while humans may remain, our civilisation and culture might not. Some of our finest intellectuals have dallied with the thought that our splendid civilisation is the final, the permanent form of human life1; that it will not decline and fall as all earlier civilisations did. (Are we not an exception?)
It will help here to consult the perspective of a scholar from a culture which has occupied the same land for sixty thousand years, who writes pityingly of the Romans that “their system collapsed after only a thousand years or so”. (So much for the Tausendjähriges Reich or Churchill’s sonorous “If the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years…”)
Civilisations are cultures that create cities, communities that consume everything around them and then themselves. […] Growth is the engine of the city—if the increase stops the city falls. Because of this, the local resources are used up quickly and the lands around the city die. The biota is stripped, then the topsoil goes, then the water. It is no accident that the ruins of the world’s oldest civilisations are mostly deserts now. It wasn’t desert before that.2
Once we remember civilisations do decline and fall we can look at earlier civilisations to see if they illuminate our own. We find a standard pattern.
First, and crucially important, it typically takes one to three centuries of decline3 to reach complete collapse. Hundreds of years passed from the peak of its power until Christian fundamentalists demolished Rome’s government, religion and culture in the sixth century.4
Most of the following is a précis of Greer (2016)5, which repays study.
A civilisation acts as a wealth pump, drawing resources from the periphery, and concentrating them in the centre, the city – the civis from which we get the word civilisation. That is the same design as a Ponzi or pyramid scheme and it has the same flaw.
The wealth concentrated in the city is used to build infrastructure. Physical infrastructure, such as roads, railways, airports, schools and hospitals; but also social complexity, such as legal, medical and educational systems, social security, governments, and markets.
Infrastructure requires maintenance. As a civilisation grows, so too does the maintenance bill for its infrastructure. The maintenance bill has to be paid out of surplus productivity: what we produce beyond what we need to survive. We’ll return to this in a moment.
The benefits of the infrastructure accrue mostly to the people at the centre; but not uniformly. The rich, as always, get the most. Roughly we can distinguish three political classes: the elite who run things; their enablers who administer things – police, permanent secretaries, hospital managers, bankers, and judges6; and the workers.
The strong do anything they can, and the weak do what they must.7
Whether in democratic America, soviet Russia, or autocratic China, the elite depends upon the workers’ silent consent to the arrangements. Popular resentment of the privileges of the elite is checked by growth – Kennedy’s “rising tide that lifts all ships”. Growth is the alternative to redistribution.
But it is also the fatal flaw that drives a civilisation to outrun its resource base.
The key resource of our civilisation – the foundation of our huge surplus productivity – is cheap, abundant, portable energy from burning fossil fuels. Without it, our standard of living would require 23 billion slaves – whom we could not of course feed.
We have not run out of fossil fuels, but we have passed Peak Carbon. As the recent shutdown of gas supplied from Russia has demonstrated, capacity cannot now be expanded. Growing demand confronts shrinking supply. Energy will never again be cheap and plentiful.
Cheap, abundant energy paid the maintenance bill on all that infrastructure. The bill is rising. What happens next?
Peak Infrastructure was probably the third quarter of the twentieth century. The USA built the Interstate highway system. Britain established universal education, the National Health Service, and we built our first motorways. Now the USA struggles with its maintenance bill. Across the country, bridges are in disrepair. Britain now charges its children for tertiary education, has privatised major utilities, and is gradually privatising the NHS.
What is the response of governing elites to an increasingly unaffordable maintenance bill?
Broadly they have two choices. (Stopping or reversing the decline is not one of them. When the resources are gone, they are gone.)
The responsible choice is to abandon growth and manage the decline. (Is this not the story Stewart wants told?) Everybody learns to manage with LESS: less energy, less stuff, less stimulation. As Russians said after the fall of the Soviet Union, “Let’s put the future behind us.” But that is a hard choice when governments’ legitimacy rests on the assumption that the future will always be better.
The irresponsible but tempting choice is to protect standards of living for those they can; most especially for themselves and their supporters. That has been the choice of elites through history. With a shrinking pie, maintaining the share of those at the top of the ladder means some at the bottom fall off.
Not all infrastructure is equal. Cuts fall hardest on what the rich don’t use (buses, social security) or can buy privately (schools and hospitals). Expect funding for motorways but not roads. Taxes not collected to fix potholes can buy Range Rovers to drive over them.
Protecting elite and enabler incomes means people drop off the bottom of the ladder, into fuel, food, and energy poverty. They know they have been dropped, and they resent it. Expect angry populist politics; expect votes against elite projects such as the EU.
Pushing for growth, and cutting regulations and taxes has been described as a “race towards the precipice”. Politically, when enough people have fallen off the ladder, consent to the existing order evaporates: the Brexit vote has justly been described as a vote against the elites. The endgame is a sudden collapse of the political order, as Rome discovered in the sixth century. The revolt against the Roman elites did not just destroy the Empire; it replaced its gods with a new religion, apocalyptic and egalitarian; destroyed its libraries, burned its books, and buried its science and learning for a thousand years.
Good night Marcus put out the light
and shut the book For overhead
is raised a gold alarm of stars
heaven is talking some foreign tongue
your Latin cannot understand8
Though this is already under way, none of this is going to happen immediately. In the meantime the fire brigades will battle wildfires, we’ll at last start insulating our homes properly, and the NHS will do its best to keep us well.
Politically we can expect the elite to protect its standard of living with the well-established pattern of changing as little as possible as late as possible, tempered by the need to limit popular anger – where they are unable to deflect it onto powerless minorities.
How we navigate the coming changes will emerge as we go. The Deep Adaptation movement is working on what can be mitigated.
The young would be well advised to pick trades that avoid infrastructure: better to be a baker or plumber than a human-resources administrator or management consultant. We shall all need to get on better with our neighbours.
Good luck. (You are going to need some.)
Write to sjt at 5jt dot com.
Simon Garland, Switzerland:
Without collective awakening the catastrophe will come. Civilisations have been destroyed many times and this civilisation is no different. It can be destroyed. We can think of time in terms of millions of years and life will resume little by little.
The cosmos operates for us very urgently, but geological time is different.
If you meditate on that, you will not go crazy. You accept that this civilisation could be abolished and life will begin later on after a few thousand years because that is something that has happened in the history of this planet. When you have peace in yourself and accept, then you are calm enough to do something, but if you are carried by despair there is no hope.
One Buddha is not enough, we need to have many Buddhas.
— Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen and the Art of Protecting the Planet
If it happens that the human race doesn’t make it, 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 depthless mystery, and back into mystery we returned, and in the end the mystery is all there is.
— James Howard Kunstler, The Long Emergency
Tyson Yunkaporta, Sand Talk: How indigenous thinking can save the world↩︎
John Michael Greer, The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age↩︎
John Michael Greer, Dark Age America: Climate Change, Cultural Collapse, and the Hard Future Ahead↩︎
J.K. Galbraith, The Culture of Contentment↩︎
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War↩︎
from “For Marcus Aurelius” by Zbigniew Herbert↩︎