The window of opportunity will be short.
We will probably have at best only two decades to make the transition, not primarily because of ecological conditions, but because of the socio-political conditions that will develop. Here is a summary of the situation, drawing on the impressive account by Chris Hedges (http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/2011_a_brave_new_dystopia_20101227/).
We are at the tail end of a perhaps forty year period of “Postmodern society”. Abundant and cheap energy has brought (to the few in rich countries) an era of great affluence. This has generated a culture characterised by trivia, spectacles, hedonism, self-indulgence, attention-getting but fleeting and insignificant experiences, TV, sport, celebrities, fashion and style, images, fantasy, gossip, fun, adventure, fantasy and now the vast realm of electronic gadgets, facebook, tweeting and computer games. Whereas the technical advances of the 20th century could have liberated us from drudgery to devote our energies to personal growth, community enrichment, and solving human problems, work time has actually increased and the greater wealth has been devoted to wallowing in mindless throw-away products and experiences.
The political significance of all this is profound. Most obviously masses happily obsessed with soccer and celebrities do not think seriously about social problems and do not threaten the social systems which are destroying the planet while delivering astronomical gains to the super rich. (The real incomes of 90% of Americans have not increased in decades.)
So whether or not this situation is due to deliberate conspiratorial effort on the part of the corporate rich, Postmodern culture has been a remarkably powerful mechanism of ideological control. It has distracted people from things that matter and things that are seriously wrong. It has eliminated discontent and dissent. Long ago police and armies were needed to put down protest, but now they are not needed... because there is no dissent. Everyone is too busy tweeting. Even more delightful for the elites, the agents which numb and blind and distract are products the corporations market at great profit.
Hedges points out that this is all in Huxley’s Brave New World. The system is reinforced and legitimised by happy mindless voluntary consumption of distracting rubbish. People cheerfully seek out, purchase and overdose on the “soma” that eliminates discontent.
But Hedges also points out that this era is coming to a close. We are entering the very different situation described in Orwell’s 1984.
Consider the inevitable and dreadful logic. The Postmodern era is based on affluence, at least on the capacity of most of the masses to purchase the distracting trash products and experiences. That situation is ending, essentially because the 500 year era in which the rich world could take all the resources it wanted is ending. The resources are rapidly becoming scarce, the numbers of people grasping for them now are huge, and the Chinese are far more energetic and cunning and ruthless than we in the West are now. They are securing the minerals, forests, water, and farmlands of the Third World.
Uncle Sam, our “leader”, doesn’t seem to be able to win the resource wars for us any more. Our governments are increasingly unable to deliver the affluence their people have become accustomed to. All governments are in huge debt and many are at catastrophic levels, especially the US. In an effort to solver their problems they are cutting services drastically. Even the English are having to cut their social spending savagely, let alone the Greeks, and Irish. So get used to the shredding of Pensions, health expenditure, welfare expenditure, education … bankruptcies and job losses and the decay of whole regions, such as Detroit.
These debt and fiscal problems could only be permanently solved if all states could greatly increase their earnings from trade and thus pay off the debts, but the resources for that are no longer available... and the resource problems have hardly begun yet. Just wait until petroleum gets very scarce, along with silver, copper, water, land, helium, phosphorous, forests, fish... Add the increased cost of the energy sources that are to replace carbon. Energy cost rises in Australia have already become a serious political issue although no carbon tax has been imposed yet and the higher costs of renewable energy have not been felt yet.
The documentary “The end of suburbia” points to the effect of rising petroleum prices on the US sub-prime mortgage problem and in turn on the GFC. Decades of cheap oil have built the sprawling suburbs of American cities, workable only through extensive car use. But as the costs have risen large numbers of people have become unable to afford this lifestyle or pay the mortgages on their too-big houses. Thus the banks which lent to them failed, and in turn the giant finance firms ran into trouble. Many in Australia can never expect to own a house now. Many go without dental care. Many are homeless. Many are drug and alcohol dependent. Meanwhile those fortunate enough to be in superannuation schemes must watch their security decline as the banks and speculators gamble with their life savings and yield negligible returns at best, and lose the lot at worst.
These nasty trends will inevitably accelerate in the next few years. The party is over. The resources are no longer available as they were, and the global economy will not deliver them to us as it used to. Governments will not and cannot look after you all. They will desperately try to “get the economy going again”, meaning cutting their spending (on you), while giving massive bailouts and other assistance to the banks which are too important to fail. The middle class will be hit hard too, not just the lumpenproletariat.
Anger and discontent will increase. It will probably be chaotic and unfocused, manifesting as incoherent and mindless lashing out and breakdown... gangs, drugs, violence, family breakdown, ghettos, deteriorating security, and crime as a means of subsistence. It will not be rational enough to form any political program or be directed at the state or regime change; it will just be a festering anomic disruption, which the state will have to deal with.
What will the state do? It will crack down with force, increase police powers, reduce civil liberties, increase surveillance and repression, imprison without trial. In other words the Postmodern form of control will no longer work and will be replaced by repression. That will be the only way to “keep order”. Happy mindless consumers focused on their screens will be replaced by angry and desperate people who can only be controlled by the exercise of ruthless power...as Orwell described in 1984.
The middle class will enthusiastically support the coming of the fascist state, because that is their only hope of protecting their property and privileges. They will need the police with their heavy powers to keep the streets safe and guard their walled housing estates. They will call for more prisons to be built, and for the reduction of state spending on welfare for the recalcitrant underclass.
The forces leading in this direction are inevitable. They are built into our situation. They determine that the window of opportunity to transition to a satisfactory alternative way will not be open for long, and that it will close at an accelerating rate. If we go down, we’ll do it fast, indeed probably in a matter of days as the comical global financial house of cards hits its final Ponzi event horizon.
Thus the task for the Eco-village and Transition Towns movements is clear and urgent. We must work as hard as we can to establish examples of the way out of the global predicament, so that as more people realise that the system will not provide for them they will be able to see around them indications and examples of the sane alternative. The breakdown will help our cause by making it abundantly clear that the only solution is to develop local systems which we run to meet our needs, in conditions of frugal and cooperative self-sufficiency.
But the ecovillage and transition Towns movements will achieve nothing of significance unless their present vision and goals can be lifted to embrace the huge structural changes, most obviously getting rid of the growth economy, preventing profit and market forces from determining economic affairs, taking control of our local economies and running them to meet needs, and abandoning the quest for affluence.
These issues are discussed at length in
The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World, Envirobook, 2010, and at http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/