Thursday, July 20, 2017

Disentangled Modernity : 1875 - 1965

The hegemony of Romanticism was replaced very gradually by those of Disentangled Modernity, in the years between about 1835 and 1875.

Romanticism's values never truly disappeared. Instead they became held only by a depressed and dispirited minority, who knew they were outside the tenor of their times.

Romanticism had held hegemony for about ninety years, the 'long lifetime' of the sort of well-to-do bookish intellectual-writers who tend to dominate ideological movements.

Often then the argument is made that the ideas didn't actually die - merely that their most avid proponents did.

But still a question is always left begging : why didn't those values get taken up by the spiritual children of those proponents?

Why then do socialism, liberalism, conservatism and catholicism survive for centuries and centuries ?

Better then to see if there were some external factors that saw why the weak minority values of Disentangled Modernity move into the strong majority position.

Romanticism believed that humanity was deeply entangled within (and a mere minority partner of) Nature, the Universe & Reality.

This had been the default of all ordinary humans, all over the world, all throughout history.

Even if they had never ever read any the work of European literary Romantic artists active between 1770 and the 1850s.

Historically ordinary people had seen little reason to think that humans were superior to Nature.

Climate problems led the way keeping humans aware of their relative powerlessness to the forces of Nature.

Monsoons, hurricanes, blizzards, droughts, people & crop-killing floods and damp, bitter cold.

They either killed quickly and directly or slowly by crop failure, famine and disease.

A sudden early August hurricane could wipe out a entire national fishing fleet, heavily laden with a good catch, in an instant.

 Storms routinely caught many merchants ships, with loss of all hands and ruin for the shareholders in the ship and its goods.

In this way personal and financial tragedy could upend hundreds of families in an instant; this in an age before any government safety nets.

Even national and international fleets of war were vanquished by Nature long before they met their human enemies.

Beyond sudden and brief storms, hemisphere wide seasonal weather changes caused by mysterious movements in underwater ocean currents like the Gulf Stream could paralyze entire continents for centuries.

Pandemics and epidemics, led by invisible and unknown natural enemies, could wipe out much of all the mighty empires in the entire Old World in one long attack.

Geological forces : massive earthquakes and volcanoes and the climate-altering dust clouds and distant tidal waves they threw up could kill at home and abroad.

Something as seemingly simple as the nightly dark could paralyze humanity as they could fall and break a leg trying to walk a wooden path in entire darkness that few in humanity ever seen today.

And there were good reasons why 'fairy tales' about humans being successfully killed by the attacks of wild beasts like tigers and wolves were so popular throughout history : they reflected everyday reality.

But starting in the 1830s and carrying on through right to today, when we are supposedly in the new different era of (re) Entangled Modernity, humanity's science began reducing humanity's helplessness against the forces of Nature.

So important is this point, I will skip to the very end, to point out a few examples.

Even today, the growing existence of cell phone towers even in the most remote of rural areas, combined with the increasing cheapness and efficiency of satellite-based GPS sets, means that even amateur hikers and boaters find it harder to get truly lost and die alone.

And our high-powered rifles have made it far less likely they will be killed by the very few wild beasts Nature has left, as they await the incoming rescue chopper.

Intellectual Romanticism and the peasant gut instincts that fed it were killed by the arrival of the first fairly efficient steam engines.

No longer were people forced to await upon the prevails of good weather sun,wind and water to do useful work or to send people and goods places.

Railways replaced the need for dry roads and well-filled canals and rivers.

Steam powered ships, along with steam tugs and steam dredges meant ships could come and go from ports on a reliable schedule, no longer dependent on winds and high outgoing tides.

No more waiting upon Nature to allow windmills and water wheels to make factories hum.

Soon gas lighting meant the factories could not just work around the clock the whole year, but the factory hands could see their dangerous machinery.

In time, steam trains and steam ships also worked throughout the night, no longer pulling over as the sun fell.

Not let us move to that most favoured spot on Earth for humanity's hubris to grow unencumbered by nasty reality : North Western Europe.

Unlike Southern Europe and indeed all other places were ancient civilizations had developed, this part of Europe had been spared earthquakes and volcanoes and had little known some weather extremes : mostly being affected by cold and damp.

It had been open to the Old World's pandemics.

But totally coincidentally with the rise of the efficient steam engine (I think !), it seems that in the 1850s, North West Europe was finally coming out of a centuries long mini-ice age and was finally seeing the end to almost routine mass famines among its manual worker and peasant classes.

This little known fact was probably crucial in lifting the mindset of all of North West Europe in ways that historians are yet to explore thoroughly.

Contrast it with the depressing mental effect of the massive Tokyo earthquake that easily destroyed the modern capital of the modern Japanese empire in the mid 1920s.

It did a lot in setting the entire Japanese culture upon a fatalistic 'conquer or be destroyed' expansionist war push.

Modern technology quickly developed its own form of entanglement, as positive feedbacks from the various new technologies upon each other lifted them all up.

We can but begin to imagine all the various uplifts caused by the single invention : that of abundant, tough and cheap steel.

Where to begin ?

Cheap and tough steel allows for safer higher temperature higher pressure operations in new stronger boilers and retort vessels - including steel making vessels !

They immediately led to stronger more efficient steam engines to power trains and ships  and stronger ship hulls and railroad wheels and rails.

To stronger steam engines, stronger shovels and drills.

That made it ever cheaper to dig up and transport huge cheap new - distant & remote - supplies of coal and iron ore to the steel industry, which then set up further cost and technological advances and so on.

And those fast, safe, strong, big new steel steam trains and ships made it easier to ship about all the crops grown in distant new places where tough new steel plows pulled by big steam steel tractors grow through tough unbroken sod.

Improvements in communications : first the wired telegraph and then the wireless version, made it easier to plan and adjust around distant disasters and  opportunities.

Perhaps the communication of impending major weather changes leading to feast or famines in distant food and raw materials production.

Or perhaps simply warning of an outbreak of a distant epidemic leading nations to close ports and borders and institute quarantine periods.

Soon mariners knew of upcoming hurricanes or of iceberg movements and could plan accordingly.

Radar, lighthouse lights, radio and world-wide weather stations lessened the dangers of night, fog and bad weather travel or both ships and now planes.

Big improvements in Public Health (sanitation and vaccines) and small improvements in clinical medicine (Germ Theory) made life expectancies soar.

By the 1920s, most kids in most modern civilizations could now expect to make it past the dangerous '0 to 5 year' period.

Imagine the mental change that produced in parents hitherto resigned to traditionally see most of their pregnancies fail to survive past the age of five.

You and I could go on probably forever cataloguing the very real advances in securing human existence from the vagaries of reality in the Age of Disentangled Modernity.

So if the people of that era displayed lots of hubris, they had many reasons to do so.

The limitations on our ability to ever disentangle our minor selves from mighty Nature were not readily apparent until our hitherto successful efforts began coming back upon us in the form of negative feedback.

All those engines that successfully evaded their dependency upon capricious but unlimited sun, wind and water became dependent on finite fossil fuels - first coal then oil.

Not only are they increasingly expensive to find and dig up and transport 'home', they are much lower grade, meaning much more earth, rock and water tables must be upended to extract the same amount of energy.

And they are now often found in more fragile places where the extraction process causes far more environmental damage than in the past.

And they are finite - one time resources - and in the end, regardless of whatever else happens, they will be gone one day.

More immediately, we all of course secretly accept that their burning is causing the world climate to heat up - altering those big deep mysterious ocean currents with the potential to kill off most all non-bacterial life on Earth.

Humanity's pathetic and abject total dependency upon Nature for both fossil energy and for a place to dispose of our waste - including waste exhaust fumes - is the best example I know of of the inescapable entanglement of Humanity and Nature.

Then accept the fact that it will be impossible to ever create an escape hatch in the form of a financially self-sustaining human colony on Mars.

This fact only further points out just how much Humanity's hubris is in fact based upon numerous hidden subsidies that Nature provides to humanity.

The sort of hidden natural subsidies humanity needs so it can survive in an Universe that usually sees either no life at all on its trillions x trillions of planets, or at best intermittent surface colonies of bacterial life....

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