Tuesday, March 10, 2015

1761. Book Review: Entropia: Life Beyond Industrial Civilization

By Peter D. Burdon, The Simplicity Collective, May 30, 2014

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek has commented that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism or a radically different social formation. While there are many reasons for this, I think it is important to highlight the failure of alternative state-formations during the twentieth century. The enormity of suffering that was endured in the USSR or in Mao’s China paved the way for neoliberal stalwarts such as Margaret Thatcher to pronounce that ‘there is no alternative’ to industrial civilisation and Francis Fukuyama to suggest that history had reached its zenith with the liberal democratic state. A second explanation is that existing social formations have historically been very successful. Capitalism has been around for 500 years and continues to reproduce itself year after year (despite not working very well for the majority of the worlds people). It is not easy to see how a modern globalised economy and corresponding social life could operate on different terms.

Beyond these points is a more general problem. It is very easy to imagine the annihilation of the Earth. In this thought experiment, you are just imagining the absence of something (a task greatly assisted by the explosion of films and books on the subject of Armageddon). It is much easier to imagine the absence of something than to imagine something particular. Indeed, if one were to ask a 15th century monk what contemporary industrial civilisation would look like he would not have the slightest idea what to say!

And yet, if human society is to transition to a sustainable and mutually enhancing form of human organisation, it is clear that we must have some vision of an alternative. Something that animates our imagination, gives us hope and which will bring people together to work collaboratively. Arguably, one of the great shortcomings of radical or progressive politics today has been its inability to move beyond critique and toward imagining and building a positive alternative.

It is these two practices that Samuel Alexander takes up in his book Entropia. Many readers will have already encountered Alexander’s writing through the reports, papers and books that he has produced as part of the ‘Simplicity Collective’ or perhaps through his memorable paper ‘deconstructing the shed’ where he describes how he thrived in an inner-Melbourne suburb whilst only earning AU$6,792PA. In these more technical writings Alexander has challenged us to think about consumption, ecology, economics, activism, democracy and the human spirit.

However, in my view, what makes Entropia so compelling is that it is both inspired by and a continuation of a project of sustainable transition that Alexander has been engaged in for almost a decade. Put otherwise, he offers not abstract insight but knowledge derived from practice and experience. In this respect, Entropia is reminiscent of other classic utopian novels like William Morris’s ‘News From Nowhere’, Starhawk’s ‘The Fifth Sacred Thing’ and Ursula Le Guin’s ‘The Dispossessed’.

Entropia is set in the 2030s on a fictional island located in the South Pacific Ocean. A billionaire, Mortimer Flynn, establishes an alternative sustainable community after undergoing a crisis of conscience in his work. Flynn is obviously in a more privileged situation than most people, however his metamorphosis from oil magnate to change agent reflects the view that everyone (even those at the vanguard of the fossil fuel industry) need to play a part in transitioning society onto a sustainable footing. In his own words, Flynn’s motivation for establishing the intentional community was to test ‘whether human beings under…ideal conditions, could live free and flourishing lives in harmony with each other and with nature, without human relations tending towards domination and deconstruction.’ This test provides the backdrop for many deep discussions on human nature, the coercive force of our current growth economic system and the plausibility of living sustainable and sufficient lives.

Life on the island has a glorious beginning, but is shaken after an event called the ‘Great Disruption’, which signals the collapse of industrial civilisation. Inhabitants on the island describe the psychological impact of that collapse in the following terms: ‘It was as if out parent civilisation had committed suicide.’ However, psychological trauma gives way to physical reality, as inhabitants are cut off from food and energy supplies form the outside world. They must learn to either work collaboratively in the ethic of sufficiency or their experiments will also come to an end.

Far from fancy, the events described in Entropia mirror a future scenario that many scientists have been warning humanity about since the 1992 World Scientists Warning to Humanity (note also that countries like Cuba have already undergone their own version of Peak Oil). In describing how the island navigates the collapse of industrial civilisation, Entropia provides valuable insights on simple living (including discussion on water, food, clothing, housing energy etc), participatory democracy, the economy and human happiness. For this reason alone, Entropia should be read and re-read as a source of inspiration and wisdom for those of us living in these most precarious of times.

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