Power down May the farce be with you

The stone tiki of a long-lost so­ci­ety liv­ing on a Poly­ne­sian is­land have some­thing im­por­tant to tell us.

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Contents - Words Mur­ray Grim­wood

The Happy Isles of Ocea­nia is a travel book by US au­thor Paul Th­er­oux. Read­ing it set me won­der­ing - or is that wan­der­ing? – about whether his­tory re­peats it­self. Sub­se­quent pe­rusal of Ron­ald Wright’s ex­cel­lent Short His­tory of Progress con­firmed that it does.

Th­er­oux de­scribes the large stone struc­tures found on the Mar­que­sas Is­lands, some­thing mod­ern is­lan­ders have no records of. These re­quired a tad more oomph to con­struct than the cur­rent in­hab­i­tants demon­strate, mak­ing them silent wit­nesses to a long-lost so­ci­ety.

For a so­phis­ti­cated so­ci­ety to just dis­ap­pear with­out trace speaks to a fast demise. Did the an­cients dis­cuss the fact that they were fail­ing, or did they just keep on doggedly do­ing what they were do­ing un­til they could do it no more?

My ex­pe­ri­ence from all sec­tions of our cur­rent so­ci­ety to my ‘growth can’t/won’t con­tinue’ mes­sage has been a stub­born, shut-him-up re­ac­tion so I’m guess­ing it’s a fair bet that any ques­tion­ers in their midst were si­lenced and that things con­tin­ued un­til they couldn’t.

So­ci­eties al­ways be­lieve their clev­er­ness will see them through. There are peo­ple who be­lieve some­thing will con­tinue be­cause it hasn’t stopped yet. Oth­ers sim­ply need to ‘be­lieve’ and fear to ques­tion where things are headed.

It seems it’s a prob­lem re­peated through­out his­tory ac­cord­ing to Ron­ald Wright. There is an elite want­ing to con­tinue a game they see them­selves win­ning, and a Kim Hill in­ter­view on Ra­dio NZ promptly pro­vided an ex­am­ple.

Hill was in­ter­view­ing An­nette Dixon, World Bank vice-pres­i­dent for the South Asia re­gion. Dixon showed how mud­dled the think­ing of an elite can be, as­sert­ing the world has to be more sus­tain­able, but that we need to si­mul­ta­ne­ously pur­sue growth to raise the ‘liv­ing stan­dards’ of those at the bot­tom. But there are more peo­ple in poverty now than the plan­e­tary pop­u­la­tion to­talled when her ed­i­fice be­gan.

An­other claim was that up to 28 per cent of World Bank­funded projects are sus­tain­able, which to me says there are 72 per cent (of a grow­ing to­tal) that are un­sus­tain­able. She also ac­knowl­edged that aquifers were be­ing de­pleted at un­sus­tain­able rates, but that so­lar-pow­ered pumps – which are sus­tain­able, so that makes it al­right ap­par­ently – could take over do­ing the de­plet­ing. Who falls for this non­sense? It is un­ac­cept­ably con­fused think­ing at global lead­er­ship level.

We don’t need to look back far for an ex­am­ple of an in­cum­bent elite hang­ing onto the ideas their power de­pended on. Th­er­oux and Wright both note that the big­gest con­struc­tions of failed an­cient civ­i­liza­tions were all un­der­taken just be­fore they col­lapsed. Wright uses the ex­am­ple of the Mayan city Tikal (its ru­ins fea­ture at the end of the first Star Wars movie) where all the tow­ers were built in the last 100 years of a 1500-year boomto-bust run.

Down through the ages, elites have de­flected angst, either by blam­ing some bo­gey­man or by promis­ing a bet­ter fu­ture. But for a global elite like the World Bank to be se­ri­ously ad­vo­cat­ing any­thing un­sus­tain­able at this point tells us that his­tory is in dan­ger of re­peat­ing.

It seems its in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to pre­pare for the demise of a grow­ing sys­tem near the end, just when you need to do so most. What hap­pens is the elite get more pow­er­ful and write more self-serv­ing rules. Or­di­nary folk are too busy fit­ting in to even have time to write records, as the tiki of the Mar­que­sas Is­lands can at­test.

That’s a pity. It would be use­ful to know how, when and if the peas­antry pri­ori­tised when the farce was no longer with them. And whether their debts were called-in.

A so­phis­ti­cated so­ci­ety dis­ap­pear­ing with­out trace speaks to a fast demise

Nuku Hiva, Mar­que­sas Is­lands.

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