4 arguments for deliberate descent, part 1: prudential

‘Deliberate descent’ is the name I’m going to use for the whole family of ideas that includes “downshifting,” “decivilization,” “uncivilization,” “sustainable” living, “deindustrialization,” etc., plus the variety of particular proposals for doing so, such as John Michael Greer’s Green Wizardry, Sharon Astyk’s Adapting in Place, and Rob Hopkins’s Transition movement.  All of these ideas focus more or less on ways of life that use less energy and fewer materials, and advocate adopting those ways of life before the need to do so becomes dire—”collapse now and avoid the rush,” as Greer recently put it.  Although there are differences among these proposals on the periphery, I take the notion of deliberate descent to be a common core between them.

Over the next four posts, I’m going to discuss four sorts of argument you might give for deliberate descent; I think we can find each of them at work in various quarters of the peak oil and green community.  Distinguishing them will (I hope) offer some clarity as to which kinds of proposal you want to endorse, and your reasons for doing so.   The four arguments are what I’ll call prudential, aesthetic, moral, and naturalist; up first is the prudential.

Prudential arguments.  A prudential argument has the following form, where the value of ‘X‘ is some harm:

  1. Unless we initiate deliberate descent, X will befall us.
  2. X ought to be avoided.
  3. So, we ought to initiate deliberate descent.

Among peak oil writers, X is the cluster of harms predicted to result from the production peak: global economic contraction, resource wars between nations, widespread interruption of services that depend on an oil infrastructure, and so on.  But in its schematic form, a prudential argument for descent is perfectly general, and can be adapted to various ends depending on the rationale for premise 1.  You might take  X to  be global climate change, for example, or even an increased dependence on (and support for) dictatorships in oil-producing nations.

Prudential arguments can be quite powerful, because they appeal to something that everyone finds motivating: harm.  But this feature is also in many ways a bug.  People are good at ignoring or downplaying future harms, and this seems to be endemic to human decision-making.  This tendency to discount the future can aggravate the further difficulty that for any choice of X, whether premise 1 is true is an empirical matter, and often a complex one.  Is premise 1 true when, for example, X = climate change, or peak oil-related harms?  Even among people who take the harms seriously, there is disagreement about what sort of response is warranted.  Hirsch, for example, recommends (in the 2005 Hirsch report) a response that doesn’t look much like descent, what with the coal liquefaction and such.   And the tenor of discussion about responses to climate change seems to basically be about “clean energy” fixes that would, if successful, allow the same global growth trajectory without the carbon emissions it currently requires.

So, insofar as prudential arguments rely on empirical questions, their effectiveness is blunted by the existence of any doubt about the underlying matters of fact.  And it’s easy to doubt claims about future outcomes of complex systems, even when approaching them in good faith:  “Is deliberate descent really the only way to avoid disastrous climate change?  Well, it depends on …”

Of course, someone could also reject premise 2, and you can occasionally find people who  agree that climate change is happening but claim it will be a good thing due to, say, increased crop yields and longer growing seasons in temperate regions.  But in my experience this is less common than denial of premise 1 due to quibbling over empirical details.

Next time, part 2: aesthetic arguments.

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Responses to “4 arguments for deliberate descent, part 1: prudential”

  1. The word “prudential” brought to my mind the Epilogue in E. F. Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful”, where he discusses the application of the Four Cardinal Virtues: prudentia, justitia, fortitudo, and temperantia, to the contemporary situation. I’m wondering if this had any part in your choice of terms.

  2. Hi Don –

    The answer is, disappointingly, no. I’m getting the word from my background in academic philosophy, where ‘prudential’ usually means something like “rational given self-regarding reasons.” Acting prudently is responding correctly to self-regarding concerns. (This is by contrast to acting morally, which is responding correctly to other-regarding reasons, or some combination of self- and other-regarding reasons. Or anyway that’s one common way to think about morality in Anglophone academic philosophical circies.)