The Defining Myth of Our Culture

Many people view the word myth as almost synonymous with ‘story’ or ‘fairy-tale’. This sells myth appallingly short, for it is much more that that, a trope that can give meaning and context to a whole culture.

Myths can define a culture, giving a people a shared world-view, a common set of assumptions from which to experience the world. We may sneer and say the myths were wrong, for instance the view that the Earth is at the centre of the universe, requiring byzantine wheels within wheels to explain the movement of the planets in the sky. And yet even such a world-view is good enough to farm successfully, it was good enough for Ptolemy to be able to predict planetary motion reasonably well.

Religion is often a defining myth, indeed Christianity has probably been the defining myth of the West for much of its written history.

We believe, of course, that we are more sophisticated. We don’t need a myth. But we have one

Our myth is continual growth

Like Ptolemy’s geocentricity, it needs to be true enough to explain many observations. From where I’m standing it explains most things. I grew up in a world of coal fires, frost on the inside of windows in winter and pipes that froze up in the cold and vacuum tubes in the radio.

We now have central heating, iPods and a bewildering choice of all sorts of things. That’s growth for you, and pretty much continual growth at that. I’m not complaining, but I don’t think I’ll see another 30 years of it at the same rate.

So the myth of continual growth is a good myth for our times. Our economic system appears to be predicated on it, and until now it has worked pretty well. However, most natural systems have limits, beyond which they won’t go. Draw too much water from a well, and you don’t have any any more.

It is this part of our myth that I think is breaking down. Humanity is continually adding to its numbers, we are consuming more and more energy and we are using more and more mineral resources. At some time this has got to stop increasing. The Club of Rome looked at this in the 1970s, and produced a seminal work, Limits To Growth. People hated it, because it challenged the defining myth of the Western world. Few people that panned it had actually read it, the title pretty much said it all and they wanted none of it.

I borrowed an updated copy from the library recently. It wasn’t as incendiary as I had been led to believe. It said that there were natural limits to growth, in several areas, energy and food growing capability being two of the main ones. It proposed husbanding resources and managing the transition to a steady-state society, with a stable human population growing food in a sustainable way.

The way we grow food at the moment is not sustainable, requiring prodigious amounts of fossil fuel for machinery and fertiliser. It knackers the soil as well, which will seriously spoil our day if we need to farm without the help of oil-derived products. We are just as likely to find out we are running short of oil in terms of price spikes at Tesco’s supermarket as we are to find out at empty petrol pumps.

The updated versions of Limits to Growth make the tart observation that we have collectively failed to take the steps recommended in the 1970s, even though there was a wake-up call in the oil price shock early in that decade.

I think this myth is beginning to fail us. Oil production is flatlining, despite there being over a billion new middle-class aspirants in China and India ready and willing to take up the slack where the economically moribund West is rolling back.

All sorts of other indicators are suspicious, too.

Take university education, for example. When I went to university, only 7% of school-leavers went to university, and many applicants failed. I applied to Cambridge, and though I managed okay on the subject exams (Cambridge tested entrants itself in those days, I don’t know if it is still allowed to do that) I didn’t even understand half the questions on the general studies papers. It was fair enough. I failed because I wasn’t bright enough, though at least I got into Imperial as a second choice.

I have no idea what makes Labour choose theĀ  nutty target of 50% of school-leavers going to university. Why, FFS? University starts to look more like a parking bay for school leavers to hide the fact that the economy isn’t providing useful work for them. The parking fees are outrageous, too, so as a by-product it is damning them to debt so they become pliable debt-slaves.

That is such a rude thing to do as a society to our young people. We pick on them when they are starry-eyed, and sell them an empty dream that costs them over a year’s median wage, and 4% of their allotted time on earth upfront. If we can’t help them because the myth of our culture is failing and our economy is so damaged that it does not have enough middle-class jobs requiring a university degree, then we should let them make their own decision, not sell them this expensive pup at the beginning of their working lives, when they can least afford it.

We should cut those university places by 80% and make the exams discriminate between the bright and the not so bright. Then support those that do get in to university, that means grants, not debts, assuming that we do have a requirement for trained engineers, scientists, historians, medics, etc. We’ll get our cash back in taxes.

The 90% of school-leavers that don’t get in will still get a strategic benefit. Though their precious self-esteem may take a hammering, they won’t be clocking up debts chasing the will’o’the wisp of a graduate career, and it will also put paid to piss-taking employers demanding a degree to work in a call centre or wait on tables. You don’t need a degree to do that. In the past those not going to uni were sometimes supported via employers with vocational qualifications like HNC/Ds, practical apprenticeships or they simply did without and got on with the serious business of earning a living. All these alternatives have been flattened into the one-size-fits-all notion of pay-as-you-go university.

The curious futility of higher education is one indicator of the economy running out of steam. There are others – the bizarre level of house prices in the UK is another. At some point since the 1970s, we had the choice, to work more hours and make more money to buy more Stuff, or to take longer holidays. We went for the more Stuff, and no, I don’t recall being asked which I’d prefer either. Then crazily we went and instead of buying more stuff we decided to all make houses more expensive and tie up most of our national wealth (or tolerate the inflation that appeared to be wealth) in the numbers printed in estate agents. It’s not that we got any richer for it all – the vast majority of British “homeowners” live in houses owned by a bank or building society. So the banks end up making a packet from the interest.

Another example of things going wrong is in the sheer level of consumer crap that abounds. Take this delightful article, for instance, on best toothbrush holders. If that isn’t a sign that we have collectively lost the plot, I don’t know what is. Even the ghastly quality of the industrial design indicates an existential decadence.

So what will the world look like, if the myth of our time turns out not to be true?

In some ways I am living one alternative. As part of my escape plan, I stopped buying nearly all consumer crap. I’ve still got everything I had before, I simply haven’t added to it. What I do spend money on is tools, so I can make things I need cheaper. With that I include safety equipment, because that is investing in my health. I bought a bike, for a safer riding position commuting to work, this is an investment in reducing travel costs that will be recovered by Christmas. I replaced a fridge freezer, becuase I measured the old one as consuming so much power the new one would pay for itself in a year.

And I do celebrate the odd birthday going out for a meal with DGF and we spend a bit too much on wine. I don’t have cable, or Sky, or a mobile phone, or an iPod. I don’t need these – because I don’t watch much TV, work supplies me with a perfectly serviceable mobile and if I want to listen to music I want to hear it properly on my hi-fi, and if I’m on my bike I want to be able to hear the cars about to overtake me, not to mention the birds singing.

That’s not a criticism of any of those things per se. For someone with a boring commute an iPhone can be a godsend, and if sport is your thing you probably have to suck it up and pay the Digger his due. But they’re expensive to run. And they’re part of the myth of our culture; we didn’t need any of them 20 years ago, they are the result of continuous growth.

My story, of course, is a benign alternative to the myth of our time, a simple stasis at current levels. It applies to capital assets, things like buildings and land. It doesn’t apply to continuous inputs, like energy, though I have attacked that with some success. I have reduced my electricity consumption to < 4KWh per day which is less than half the average UK household usage of 3300kWh p.a = 9kWh per day.

This is still deadly unsustainable. One British Standard Horse is good for 746W, so if I get two horses and run them in the living room for two hours, which I think is the longest time you can run a horse flat out, I would be okay, conversion efficiencies notwithstanding. There isn’t enough room in the garden to grow the hay, so I am SOL for sustainable energy *. Half of this goes to running my (A-class efficiency) fridge freezer, so next time you take a look at your fridge-freezer think of that sweat-streaked equine pounding away for two hours each day to keep your milk and frozen peas in good condition if oil runs out. And make sure you close the door properly – get that wrong and you’ll probably kill the poor beast.

Believers in the magical properties of CFL light bulbs should note that I mainly use incandescent bulbs and a LED reading light. A household with adults only does not need to use CFLs, other than in hallways. Energy-efficiency is about hitting the measurable power hogs first. Never underestimate the energy-saving capabilities of the humble light switch set to the off position.

* I know I haven’t taken into account the energy for transportation, heating, the energy to grow food etc etc. There’s only so much apocalyptic exuberance a guy can handle in one day

I hope that the defining myth of our culture continues to explain how the world plays out, despite the increasing world population and apparently limiting oil production. I’m not omniscient, and it is perfectly possible that I am pumping the hazards up out of all proportion. The bearish argument always sounds smarter.

The more likely alternative, IMO, which greenies call Contraction and Convergence will result in a very serious loss of living standards in the developed world which has built much of its living standards on the basis of easily obtainable energy. If and when that energy returns to a little bit above what it was before the Industrial Revolution, the amount of energy per head will be a lot less, because there are so many more of us (about twice as many as since Queen Victoria died in 1901) in the UK than there were before the Industrial Revolution. Technology may help us, at least with electricity to some extent, but a lot of technology depends on cheap energy to mine and refine specialised raw materials. C&C is a hard sell for politicians, it fails the “what’s in it for me?” test. What’s in it for you? How about “Well, a damn sight less than you have got already, chum”.

It is always possible for some people in society to live a more energy-rich lifestyle. In Victorian times it was done with servants and child labour. In the American South, it was done with slaves. What isn’t possible, however, is for everybody to live an energy-rich lifestyle, unless there is an abundant and cheap source of energy like oil.

So here’s a toast to the myth of our age,

continuous growth

May it live long and prosper, and may humanity have the wisdom to know when it is time to get a new myth. We may be smart enough to do anything, but we are probably not powerful enough to do everything.