“What comes after Heroic Materialism?” I asked in 2009 — ten years ago! — and … I was right.
Today, as one of our traditional yearend items, we ask how the Post-Heroic-Materialist transition is progressing.
To understand Life After Heroic Materialism, it helps to understand Heroic Materialism. This is the term given to the present age by Kenneth Clark in his wonderful 1969 BBC documentary, Civilisation.
Basically, Heroic Materialism is the Industrial Age, coinciding with the advent of the Industrial Revolution beginning around 1780.
The basic organizing principle of Heroic Materialism is the improvement of our lives with science, technology, mechanization and industry. It includes things like paved roads, electricity and motorized gadgets of all sorts such as refrigerators or dishwaters, automobiles, steel and concrete construction, modern medical care, civil engineering such as bridges, sewage systems, water systems, flood control dams and so forth. And indeed all of these things have brought us many great benefits, compared to the state of things in 1770. But, today these themes are essentially played-out. There is not much left to be gained from more mechanization, more asphalt, more steel and concrete, and so forth.
Going forward, we will not lose any of those things. We will keep our excellent plumbing and electric grid. You will still be able to get a hip replacement, if you like. Technology will continue to improve. But, maybe you have noticed that, despite all these genuinely wonderful things, life is not quite so paradisical these days. The great problems of today — and, consequently, the great achievements of the future — will be in things that are not very technological at all. There is in fact a sort of “technique” to it, and this technique is actually rather difficult and hard-won. We are in the early stages of experimenting with these new techniques, not so much different than the way we experimented with steam power and railroads in the 1830s.
Today, it is trivial for us to create an 800-horsepower automobile, and mass produce it in the thousands for a relatively low cost.
But you perhaps do not feel very much excitement from this. This is actually something of a miracle; but, alas, now a common miracle. This does not solve any of the problems — the very great problems — which afflict us today. It is not obviously an improvement even from a 350-horsepower automobile. Our future technological advances, in the Heroic Materialist pattern, will be like the 800hp automobile — nice, but, not very relevant. Do you think your life is going to be very much improved by the iPhone 15?
Making a very powerful automobile is easy for us. But, to create a segregated bicycle lane somehow challenges us to the limits of our creative ability. We are hesitant, uncertain. It is like a new, unexplored continent. We are like world-champion weightlifters learning how to dance. Unlike the 800hp automobile, success here can radically change our daily lives, for the better.
Things that were easy for people to do in the past — things that were not necessarily easy in themselves, but which they did with the kind of confidence and mastery that we have when building steel suspension bridges — seem difficult for us today. This includes, for example, getting married and having children (and staying married).
These girls must be in the top 2% of all American women in terms of marriageability. But, at age 26 in this video, traditionally a time when spinsterhood loomed large, they were still unmarried and childless. (The one on the right was married soon afterwards.)
In Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869), Natasha Rostova, the daughter of an aristocratic family, goes to her first dance at age 15 (accompanied by her whole family). Nobody asks her to dance, so her older brother Nikolai persuades one of his Army buddies, Vasily Denisov, to dance with his little sister. She also dances with Andrei Bolkonski, another friend of her brother. This goes well; pretty soon Denisov proposes to Natasha. Her mother refuses, however, considering Natasha too young. Later, she is engaged to Andrei. (For most women, the story would have ended soon after, since Andrei is one of the handsomest and richest and most aristocratic young men in all of Russia. But, this is War and Peace, so he dies in the war with Napoleon.) It seems easy perhaps, but consider the effort that went into building the ballroom or organizing the event. Natasha, and other young girls like her, and young men too, would attend formal dance classes for years to prepare.
Part of our Life After Heroic Materialism will have to include some kind of reconstruction of marriage and family. This is not going to be easy. None of our Heroic Materialist tools are going to help much. We made dating apps. How well did that work out? (It killed dating, among other things.) It will take other skills — the skills that produced a functional courtship system in Russia in the 1860s (or 1810s in the book), and which, among the Russian aristocracy, reached the eight-hundred-horsepower courtship practices that you can see in the video above.
We persist in trying to apply technological solutions to non-technological problems.
But I digress …
Part of Life After Heroic Materialism will be to make places to live (cities) that we actually like. This has a utilitarian aspect — affordable, convenient, safe, pleasant, appropriate for children and elderly — and also an aesthetic aspect: it is beautiful. We are very bad at this, particularly in the United States. This is the principle of the Traditional City, which I have talked about in great detail.
Cities have always been difficult places to live. But, in the past, they were difficult mostly for reasons that no longer exist. They tended to have a lot of disease. The air quality was quite bad, with wood and coal soot a constant irritant. Sanitation (trash collection) was not very good, the water quality was iffy, sewage systems typically inadequate, and the underlit streets were often unsafe at night. Some industries (such as meatpacking) were quite noxious. There was no air conditioning in summer, and things rotted. Much of the great Heroic Materialist accomplishment was to solve all of these problems. They are no longer important.
Today, our cities are harsh, ugly and unliveable for completely different reasons. Now it is time to combine our Heroic Materialist accomplishments with those great successes of City Design and architecture that characterize the best urban places of the past. This is not only possible, but actually exists today in many places. So, just like that.
To accomplish these things takes a few basic principles:
Street layout in the Traditional City pattern, mostly (perhaps 80%) Narrow Streets for People, with some Arterials and Grand Boulevards for vehicle use.
Buildings generally up against the street, with no setbacks. The Traditional City height of about 3-6 stories can achieve impressively high densities (due to very high building footprint ratios), but midrise buildings can also be used, primarily along Arterials.
Commercial vehicles such trucks, buses and taxis, but very little private automobile use.
Subways, trains, buses and bicycles/electric scooters etc. are the primary means of transportation.
No onstreet parking.
That’s about all there is to it. But, to actually implement these principles, and actually produce new examples as good as the historic examples you see above, will be the effort and accomplishment of generations. The only “technology” necessary is hundred-year-old technology like electric trains. But, it will be a challenge!
Food used to be expensive. Malnutrition was a constant threat. Today, food is cheap — this in part because of our great Heroic Materialist accomplishments, such as mechanized agriculture and a Green Revolution in chemical fertilizers, pesticides and seeds. Along the way, life became a lot less laborious. The result is that we are fat and unhealthy — and this is not merely a minor irritant, but has become a major societal (and personal) disaster. Technological solutions — Heroic Materialism — range from ineffective to monstrous.
Here too, we know the solution — healthy food and exercise. It is not technological. In Life After Heroic Materialism, we eat delicious and healthy food, we exercise, and we look great. Not so easy, is it. But, the gains to be had are gigantic.
It doesn’t take very much time, and it doesn’t take any equipment. In our Life After Heroic Materialism, a lot of young women will look like this one here:
Life After Heroic Materialism is no longer theoretical. The Post-Technological Age is now upon us. The progress we will make will be incredible.