Friday, March 18, 2011

Eternal recurrence

Nietzsche provided the following challenge:  “What if a demon crept after you one day or night in your loneliest solitude and said to you, ‘This life as you live it now and have lived it, you will have to live again and again, times without number; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and all the unspeakably small and great in your life must return to you, and everything in the same series and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight among the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence will be turned again and again, and you with it, you dust of dust!’ –Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who thus spoke?   Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment in which you would have answered him, ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine!’ If this thought gained power over you it would , as you are now, transform and perhaps crush you; the question in all and everything: ‘do you want this again and again, times without number?’ would lie as the heaviest burden upon all your actions.  Or how well disposed towards yourself and towards life would you have to become to have no greater desire than for this ultimate eternal sanction and seal?”

A frequent rejoinder to the primitivist call for ending civilization is that it makes no difference in the long run because even if we succeed at dismantling this iteration of civilization, another will emerge in its place.  And the last 5000 years of history seem to provide support for this argument.

One problem with the “eternal recurrence” argument is that there are features of the present iteration of civilization that make it unique.  It is a truly global civilization, for one thing.  There is literally no place on earth that falls entirely outside the aegis of the corporate industrial complex.  So a complete collapse of this civilization means something different than what happened to the Phoenicians. Another issue concerns access to environmental resources.  The lack of easily accessible fossil energy resources minimizes the likelihood of the eventual reemergence of a civilization based on large-scale industrial manufacture.  This, along with the toxification of the environment—both presently and as an unavoidable result of industrial civilization’s demise—severely limits the potential size and scope of future cities.  Cities require constant importation of resources from the surrounding land base, and massive cities require an enormous land base.  Without large areas of contiguous exploitable land, and without easy and abundant energy to transport resources from distant areas, megalopolises of the kind we have today will simply not be possible. 

On a depressing side note related to the nuclear disaster presently unfolding in Japan, the toxification of the environment is guaranteed to increases for tens of thousands of years even after the eradication of civilization as nuclear and other toxic material containment structures disintegrate.  The spent nuclear fuel stored at the Savanna River nuclear site alone is sufficient to kill the world’s oceans—which it is guaranteed to do eventually as containment fails and radioactive water finds its way into the Atlantic.  And let’s not even talk about the already leaky Hanford site on the Columbia River, where, by volume, some two-thirds of the world’s nuclear waste is stored.  As of January of this year there were 442 nuclear reactors world-wide and another 65 under construction.  There is a high probability that the planet is already as good as dead no matter what we do.
Back on topic: The eradication of petroleum-powered industrial civilization does not mean the automatic elimination of exploitation and oppression.  Unfortunately, the lack of environmental support for globally-networked megalopolises does not preclude the reemergence and proliferation of something resembling the ancient pyramid societies, cultures based on extreme divisions of authority and the exploitation of human and animal labor.  In fact, as long as domestication remains part of the human social design, the punctuated emergence of broadly oppressive cultures may be a chronic threat.  

So does that mean that the eternal recurrence rejoinder has some teeth after all?  Of course not.  The fact that long-term success is not guaranteed is never an argument for inaction.

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