Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Religion and Peak Oil: The City of Progress

In previous posts on this blog I’ve argued at some length that the roots of the contemporary crisis of industrial society have little to do with the technical issues that occupy so much of today’s Peak Oil discussions. Words I’ve used to point toward the core dimensions of our predicament include “social,” “psychological,” and “intellectual,” and once or twice I’ve even risked the ire of sensible people everywhere by venturing on words like “spiritual.”

Yet there’s a more forthright way to talk about these issues, and that starts from the admission that the present situation is ultimately a religous crisis. As the aspect of human life that links it back (in Latin, re-ligere, the root of religio) to its roots in the realm of ultimate concern, religion undergirds and defines every other aspect of a culture. When events bring a civilization’s most basic assumptions into question, it’s high time to look toward the religious dimension of that civilization for the ultimate cause.

Mind you, the last few centuries of intellectual history make statements like this remarkably easy to misunderstand. Like those people who use the word “superstition” only for those folk beliefs they don’t hold themselves, most of the cultures of the contemporary industrial world use the word “religion” purely for those belief systems the majority of modern people don’t consider absolutely true. This odd habit of speech has its roots in the complicated compromise between Protestant piety and nascent scientific materialism in 17th century Britain, but it remains firmly fixed in place today, and it makes clarity a real challenge in talking about the subject of this post.

When I suggest that our current predicament has its roots in a religious crisis, then, I don’t mean to say Christianity has much to do with the matter. In most of the Western world, Christianity in any of its historic forms has been a minority religion for centuries. The illusion that it remained a majority faith rose because a newer faith took over its outward forms, in much the same way that a hermit crab takes over the cast-off shell of a snail and pulls it along behind it through the sand. That newer faith, of course, is the religion of progress, the established church and dogmatic faith of the modern industrial world.

Cultural critic Christopher Lasch, in his scathing study The True and Only Heaven, anatomized the way that the faith in progress eclipsed older religious traditions in the modern Western world, but even he didn’t take the argument as far as it can go. To speak of progress as a religion is not to indulge in metaphor. Progress has its own creation myth, rooted in popular distortions of Darwin’s theory of natural selection that twisted the messy, aimless realities of biological evolution until it fit the mythic image of a linear ascent from primeval pond scum to the American suburban middle class. It has its saints, its martyrs, and its hagiographies, ringing endless changes on the theme of the visionary genius disproving the entrenched errors of the past. It has its priests and teachers, of whom the late Carl Sagan – arguably one of the most innovative theologians of the last century, with his mythic “We are star-stuff” narrative that fused 19th century positivism with the latest astrophysics – is probably the best known.

Finally, of course, it has its own heaven, a grand vision of perpetual improvement toward a Promethean future among the stars. It’s impossible to make sense of the predicament of the industrial world, it seems to me, without recognizing the sheer intellectual and emotional power of this vision. The religious revolution that made the faith in progress the defining religious idiom of the modern world happened, at least in part, because the progressive myth proved more appealing than the narratives of Christianity it replaced. It’s one thing to anchor your hopes for a better world in the unknowable territory on the far side of death, to trust so completely in the evidence of things not seen. It’s quite another to reimagine the world you know in the light of technological and social changes going on right in front of you, trace the trajectory of those changes right on out to the stars, and embrace the changes themselves as vehicles of redemption and proofs of the approaching millennium.

What the mythic power of the vision made it all but impossible to grasp, though, was that the progress of the last three hundred years, while very real, was the product of two temporary and self-limiting sets of circumstances. One of these unfolded from the wars of conquest and colonization that gave European nations control of most of the planet in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, and enabled them to prosper mightily at the expense of the world’s other peoples, just as previous empires did in their time. The second and far greater was the discovery that fossil fuels could be used in place of wind, water and muscle to power human technologies. From the perspective of the myth of progress, these things were simply side effects of the Western world’s embrace of a true doctrine of nature; the possibility that they were the causes of progress, not its effects, was literally unthinkable.

The weakness of the religion of progress, though, forms a precise mirror to its strengths. A religion that claims to justify itself by works rather than faith stands or falls by its ability to make good on its promises, and for the last few decades the promises of the religion of progress have been wearing noticeably thin. Despite a flurry of media ceremonies parading new technological advances before the faithful like so many saints’ relics, most people in the industrial world have long since noticed the steady erosion in standards of living, public health, and the quantity and quality of products for sale since the energy crises of the 1970s. The promise of a better future rings increasingly hollow in a world where most people recognize that important measures of well-being have lost ground in recent years, and show no signs of turning around any time soon.

While the religion of progress is a relatively new thing, the predicament of a faith that fails to make good on its promises is not. One of the fundamental documents of the civilization that modern industrial society replaced, Augustine of Hippo’s The City of God, maps out that predicament with the brutal clarity only the eyes of a triumphant doctrinal opponent can manage. A few years before Augustine set pen to parchment, the Visigothic king Alaric tossed the most basic assumptions of the Roman world into history’s rubbish heap when his horsemen crushed the imperial army at Hadrianopolis, swept across southern Europe to the gates of Rome and sacked the city of the Caesars. The empire’s Pagan population, then still close to a majority, argued that the gods had deserted Rome because Rome had deserted her gods.

Augustine’s response launched shockwaves in the Western zeitgeist that have not entirely faded even today. In place of the pax deorum, the Roman Pagan concept of a pact between humanity and divinity that guaranteed the blessing of the gods on human society, Augustine argued that it was a fatal mistake to conflate the world of social life in historical time with the world of spiritual truth in eternity. The hard line of division he drew between two cities, the City of Man doomed to perish and the City of God destined to reign forever, put a full stop at the end of the long and by no means inglorious history of classical civil religion, and defined a new religious consciousness that was able to cope, as classical Paganism could not, with the implosion of the ancient world and the coming of the Dark Ages.

Augustine’s distinction is typical, in many ways, of religious consciousness in ages of decline, just as the confident belief that ultimate truths stand guarantor to current social arrangements is typical of religious consciousness in ages of progress; the pax progressus of the last few centuries mirrors not only the emotional tone but a surprising amount of the rhetoric of the pax deorum of ancient Rome. To the extent that anything like the medieval Christianity Augustine played so large a role in founding survives in today’s Christian churches, it might conceivably become a significant social as well as religious resource as industrial civilization slides down the slope into its own dark ages. Still, as suggested above, most of what passes for Christianity these days – or for that matter, most of what passes under every religious label you care to name – is simply the religion of progress under another name, and this is above all true exactly of those churches that today’s liberal pundits are quickest to label “medieval,” the fundamentalists.

The part likely to be played in an age of peak oil by fundamentalism, Christian and otherwise, is significant enough that next week’s Archdruid Report post will center on it. That role, I will suggest, will have little in common with either the political ambitions of the fundamentalist churches themselves or the nightmares indulged in by their liberal opponents in and out of clerical collars. Still, it’s a fair bet that when peak oil crashes into the gates of the City of Progress like a modern incarnation of Alaric’s Visigoths, any meaningful response to that hard reality will have to reach back to those issues of ultimate concern that are religion’s proper subject. What forms that response might take will be the focus of the third part of this series.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Where are the Lifeboat Communities?

Since the first serious doubts about the long-term survival of industrial society began to surface in the second half of the twentieth century, one of the most frequently repeated proposals for doing something about the situation has been the building of lifeboat communities: isolated, self-sufficient settlements stocked with the resources and technology to survive the end of the industrial age. Such Seventies classics as Roberto Vacca’s The Coming Dark Age discuss such communities in detail, and these discussions have been picked up and expanded substantially over the half-decade or so since the limits to growth have come back into sight in the form of peak oil.

It’s a plausible notion, and it has the advantage of a solid historical parallel to back up its claim to viability. During and long after the fall of the Roman Empire, Christian monasteries served as living time capsules in which many of the treasures of classical culture stayed safe through the centuries. Buddhist monasteries filled the same function in Japan’s feudal age, and Buddhist and Taoist monasteries took turns doing the same thing through China’s repeated cycles of imperial boom and bust. It’s by no means implausible that some similar project could salvage the best of modern civilization as a legacy to future ages.

Yet it’s curious to notice that all the current talk about lifeboat communities has yet to result in much in the way of action. I know of several groups that are seriously trying to put together the money, people, and other resources to make such a project happen, and doubtless there are others canny enough to pursue such a project without informing archdruids or anyone else about it. For the vast majority of people who talk about lifeboat communities, though, talk is as far as it goes. It would be easy enough to dismiss this as just another example of the common human habit of saying one thing while doing something much less impressive, and doubtless that has a good deal to do with it, but I’m convinced there’s more going on here.

Partly, of course, it’s that the same sort of disconnect between talk and action pervades every cranny of the question of industrial society’s future. In discussions about peak oil or any other aspect of the crisis of industrial society you care to name, people routinely bring up abstract possibilities as though the mere invocation of their names is enough to banish our problems. Solar power, or biofuels, or nuclear fusion, or breeder reactors, or, gods help us, “free energy devices” (the current incarnation of perpetual motion) will take care of the problem, I’ve been told time and again by people who are doing nothing whatsoever to make any of these things happen. On the other side of the equation, I’ve been lectured nearly as often about the evils of civilization and the inevitability of a return to hunter-gatherer economies by people whose utter lack of physical conditioning and basic wilderness skills guarantee them a quick and messy death if they ever follow their own advice and take to the wilderness.

Wish-fulfillment fantasy plays a much greater role in today’s debates about the survival of industrial society than most participants in those debates may want to admit, and the lifeboat community concept is no exception. How many science fiction novels, movies, and TV programs over the last fifty years have centered on some isolated community of survivors heroically rebuilding the world in the aftermath of some global catastrophe? Like it or not, all of us have such images moving through the crawlspaces of our minds, and it’s important to keep an eye on their potent gravitational attraction as we try to sort out fantasies from realities about the future.

This is particularly true in the present case, because the lifeboat community concept has extraordinarily deep roots in American culture. From colonial times on, groups of disaffected people from all corners of the religious, political, and intellectual continuum have set out to build communities in the wilderness, and very often a core element of their motivation was a conviction that apocalypse was close at hand. A direct line of cultural continuity runs from the Rosicrucian communes of colonial Pennsylvania straight through the Transcendentalists, the Mormons, the Sixties counterculture, and every other band of American dreamers who convinced themselves that a better world could be reached by the simple expedient of heading out into the Territories like Huck Finn and building it themselves.

From this perspective, peak oil – and indeed the whole contemporary crisis of industrial civilization – is simply one more excuse for disaffected Americans to dream about doing what their equivalents have dreamed about doing for the last three centuries or so. That the dream so rarely translates into attempts to make it a reality, though, has a tolerably simple explanation, and its name is the Sixties. Many people alive today remember what happened when large numbers of white, middle-class young people left the urban centers where the counterculture had its roots and tried to build a new society in communes scattered across rural America.

It was a grand experiment but, on the whole, a failed one, and the root cause of its failure is instructive. Of the many thousands of young communards who headed back to the land, vanishingly few of them had the least idea how much sheer hard work it takes to grow one’s own food and provide the other necessities of life by one’s own efforts, and not many more had even the most basic skills needed to tackle that technically complex and demanding task. A little pottering around in garden beds with a copy of a half-read book in one hand won’t do the trick. Idyllic fantasies of living the good life in the lap of nature thus collided head on with the hard reality that life in a fossil-fueled industrial economy really is much easier than subsistence farming in Third World conditions. Caught in this collision, most of the communes of the Sixties either figured out how to batten off the larger society through welfare, drug dealing, or some other sideline, or simply let out a few bubbles and sank once the first bright rush of idealistic enthusiasm wore off.

The same challenge faces potential lifeboat communities in a world perched unsteadily on the brink of peak oil. Anyone who wants to pursue rural self-sufficiency needs to check their desire for a modern American lifestyle at the door, and embrace a standard of living fairly close to that of a Third World peasant. Given competent training, rigorous practice, and a high tolerance for hard physical labor day in and day out, a group of healthy adults can keep themselves and their dependents adequately fed, clothed, housed, and equipped with necessary tools, with a little left over for barter or sale; for thousands of years this has been the standard human lifestyle over most of the world, and once the brief era of fossil-fueled extravagance we call modern industrial civilization is over, it will likely be the standard human lifestyle once again. Compared to the relative ease, comfort, opportunity and abundance of a modern middle-class lifestyle, though, the lot of a subsistence farmer is fairly hard going.

If the industrial world faced the sort of quick linear decline imagined by so many pundits of the Seventies and the present day, the transition from a modern lifestyle to a sustainable one would be much easier. Faced with the certain loss of familiar comforts and a future getting steadily worse than the present, many people could come to terms with the difficulties of subsistence farming and learn to enjoy the acquired taste of its pleasures. As I suggested in last week’s post and elsewhere, though, this luxury isn’t one we can count on.

Instead, the most likely course for the decline and fall of industrial civilization is a cyclic process, in which periods of respite and partial recovery punctuate the downward curve that leads into the dark ages of the deindustrial future. The cycles of sustainability outlined in last week’s post pose a daunting challenge for potential lifeboat communities. How many people could maintain their commitment to the hard labor and sparse rewards of a subsistence lifestyle in a period like the Eighties, when energy prices are dropping, supplies seem abundant, and the lessons of the previous energy crisis become at least temporarily irrelevant? If the arrival of significant declines in world petroleum production triggers economic contraction, and thus undercuts the demand for petroleum, another interval like the Eighties is among the most likely outcomes.

What all this suggests is that the central problem that proposed lifeboat communities must tackle is one of motivation. This same suggestion might have been drawn from the historical parallel that undergirds the entire project. The Christian monasteries that preserved classical culture through the last set of dark ages, after all, were not staffed by people trying to preserve some semblance of a middle-class Roman lifestyle while the world fell apart around them. Quite the opposite—the monks and nuns who copied old texts, taught at abbey schools, and kept the lamps of Western civilization burning when they were at their lowest ebb since Mycenae’s fall voluntarily embraced a lifestyle even more impoverished and restricted than that of the peasants among whom they lived. The same point is equally true of the Buddhist and Taoist monastics who accomplished the same vital task in other places and times. Arguably, it was precisely this willingness to embrace extreme poverty that freed up the time and effort needed for the economically unproductive activities needed to keep the heritage of a civilization alive.

The motivating factors that guided the followers of Benedict of Nursia, Kobo Daishi, and Chang Daoling, then, may be among the crucial missing pieces in current debates about lifeboat communities, and indeed the entire contemporary crisis of industrial civilization. To explore this possibility, we’re going to have to take a hard look at one of the least understood and, admittedly, most dysfunctional aspects of modern culture, and talk about the place of religion in a response to peak oil.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Cycles of Sustainability

It bears repeating that the heart of the predicament industrial society faces in the first decades of the 21st century is not primarily a technical problem, but a social and intellectual challenge; one might even risk using an utterly unfashionable word and calling it a spiritual challenge as well. The technical issues of downshifting from an energy-wasting economy and society based on fossil fuels to an energy-conserving economy and society based on renewable energy resources are significant, granted, but they could have been solved easily enough if they had been tackled in earnest starting in the 1970s.

Even today, though the transition would be a good deal more wrenching and the human cost much greater, the thing could be done successfully given the social and political will to do so. Yet it’s precisely the social and political will to deal with the crisis of our time that are nowhere to be found. We need to talk more about why this happens, and one place to start is precisely with what happened at the end of the Seventies, when the industrial world turned its back on the signs of crisis, and a great many promising steps toward sustainability went into the dumpster.

Part of that sea change in industrial society was political, of course. “Conservative” parties in most of the industrial world – the word belongs in quotation marks, since today’s conservatives have forgotten how to conserve just as thoroughly as their liberal counterparts have forgotten how to liberate – realized that they could cut their opponents off at the knees by proclaiming that limits to growth didn’t exist, and papering over the energy crises of the previous decade with short-term political and economic gimmicks. Part of it, though, was a reflection of the sheer success of the sustainability movement of the Seventies. In the aftermath of that movement, defying nearly all predictions, petroleum consumption and energy use per capita throughout the developed world went down and stayed down for much of a decade.

This, as much as anything else, made it possible for politicians in the US and Britain to force down the price of oil to levels that, in constant dollars, were lower than ever before in history. When oil hit $10 a barrel, alternative energy and conservation technologies that had been profitable at higher energy prices became a quick ticket to bankruptcy. To the extent that the push for energy efficiency in the ‘70s helped drive down the demand for oil, the sustainability movement of that decade dropped dead from the consequences of its own success.

It’s a useful experience to read through publications on energy issues from the 1970s and compare their confident predictions that permanent limits to growth had arrived with the very different realities of the decades that followed. One of the bits of Seventies nostalgia on my shelves is a thoughtful little book titled The Rise of the Welsh Republic by Derrick Hearne, an attempt to portray the first decade of the history of an independent Wales in the imminent Age of Scarcity. Hearne did not invent the Age of Scarcity; it was expected by many other thinkers of the same period, and Hearne’s proposals mirrored those being discussed in now-forgotten periodicals such as Rain and Seriatim, where appropriate technology and organic agriculture rubbed elbows with social criticism amid the last hurrah of the idealism of the Sixties.

Fast forward from these perspectives to today’s peak oil debates and you might be forgiven a strong sense of déjà vu. Part of the received wisdom in the peak oil community these days is that once worldwide petroleum production peaks and begins its permanent decline, the mismatch between production and demand will cause exactly the same sort of Age of Scarcity that Hearne and so many other thinkers imagined in the Seventies. Now as then, the major issue under debate is whether the changeover to sustainability can be done quickly and completely enough to prevent a crash.

There are good reasons to think that the energy put into this debate will turn out to be just as misplaced as it was in the Seventies, and for much the same reasons. Prophecy is risky business, but it’s a risk worth taking on occasion, so I would like to offer the following seemingly unlikely prediction: fifteen years after the definite arrival of a peak in oil production, the price of crude oil in Euros will be no higher than it is today, and may actually be quite a bit lower.

The time frame is more important here than it may seem at first glance. The most likely immediate aftermath of a significant decline in world oil production, of course, is skyrocketing prices for oil and everything made or transported with it, and the possibility that oil could hit E200 a barrel or higher, even corrected for inflation, is a real one. Price surges on that scale can hardly mean anything less than a body blow to the economies of most nations in the developed world. It also means that any method of conserving energy or using alternative energy resources in place of oil will be worth much more than its weight in light sweet crude.

So far, this fits the conventional wisdom in the peak oil community, but it’s worth looking a step further into the future. If economies across the industrial world contract, the demand for petroleum will soften as people are forced to abandon the lifestyle choices that account for much of today’s extravagant energy usage. Especially in the US, where 5% of the world’s people use 25% of its petroleum production and arguably waste most of it, a severe economic contraction could readily cause what economists call “demand destruction,” which can be simply defined as the process by which people who can’t afford a product stop using it. Meanwhile, in a global market awash with effectively limitless amounts of paper capital, the chance for huge profits in the conservation and alternative energy sectors guarantees that entrepreneurs in these fields will have more money to hand than they know what to do with. The most likely result, as these trends start to bite, is that the price of oil will level off and then begin to decline.

Does this mean that peak oil can be ignored, because it poses no threat to industrial society? Hardly. As oil production worldwide continues to contract, and conservation and alternative energy reach the point of diminishing returns, oil prices will spike upward in turn, rising even higher than before and unleashing another wave of economic and social disruption. Just as the economic contractions of the 1970s and 1980s spawned intractable unemployment in most industrial societies and launched a process of downward mobility from which many families never recovered, each wave of economic contraction will likely force more and more of the population into a permanent underclass for whom the abstract phrase “demand destruction” plays out in a downward spiral of impoverishment and misery.

In such a future, the periods of apparent recovery that will likely follow each round of energy shortages and demand destruction will provide little room to rebuild what has been lost. Those periods will, however, make it exceptionally difficult for any response to fossil fuel depletion to stay on course, so long as that response depends on market forces or politics. Each time oil prices slump, the market forces that support investment in a sustainable future will slump as well, while governments facing many calls for limited resources will face real challenges in maintaining a commitment to sustainability which, for the moment, no longer seems necessary. Thus the collapse of public and private funding for the alternative energy sector in the aftermath of the 1970s will likely be repeated over and over again as we stumble down the long downhill side of Hubbert’s peak.

Those planning for a future of peak oil, in other words, need to beware of the perils of linear thinking. Much more often than not, the world moves in circles rather than straight lines, and planning for a future that is like the present, only more so, is a good way to come to grief in the real world. In next week’s post I want to focus on the way that this has played out in one of the most discussed and least pursued responses to peak oil – the establishment of lifeboat communities to preserve knowledge through the deindustrial Dark Age approaching us.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Shadow of our Downfall

The problem of the monkey trap, the theme of last week’s Archdruid Report post, is already a potent factor in contemporary society. Watch the way that pundits and politicians keep trying to solve today’s crises with yesterday’s solutions, no matter how counterproductive the results, and it’s hard not to see a reflection of the poor monkey trying to get its hand out of the trap without letting go of the food that keeps it stuck there. When you realize that you’re in a hole, a popular slogan says, the first thing to do is stop digging. Still, this is easy to say but a good deal harder to put into practice, especially when digging has been so successful and profitable for so long that it’s the only thing you really know how to do any more.

Yet the monkey trap fastened to the hand of modern industrial society has implications not often grasped, and it’s one of those I want to address this week. As with some of the other topics I’ve explored here, it’s best to come at this one in a roundabout way, and so we’ll begin from an unlikely starting point and talk a bit about the history of the New Age movement. It’s common for people who hope to be taken seriously in the wider community to roll their eyes when the New Age or any of the movements of thought associated with it come up for discussion. This fashionable scorn, though, misses the chance to watch a crucial barometer of social trends. In any civilization, it’s the cults, fads, and passions of the fringe that point out roads that the rest of society will presently take.

If some prescient Roman scholar of the reign of Nero or Claudius, say, wanted to catch some whisper of the world that would supplant his own, he’d have been wasting his time to listen to speeches in the Forum or lectures in the fashionable academies of the day. He would have had to search out the cultural underbelly of his age, where strange cults from distant lands bid for the loyalties of those long since alienated from the worship of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. The Middle Ages already existed there in larval form, long before anyone in Rome had ever heard of Goths or Huns, or thought of Jesus of Nazareth, if at all, as anything but a footnote in the history of a minor province somewhere back east.

Now the New Age movement is unlikely to become for the coming deindustrial age what Christianity became during and after Rome’s catabolic collapse. If it had an equivalent in the classical scene, it was the Gnostic movement – like the New Age, a diffuse and wildly diverse phenomenon popular among the privileged classes of its time, and reflecting those classes’ attitudes and interests far too closely to survive the collapse of the society that gave them their status. Gnosticism’s Achilles heel was its intense spiritual elitism -- its rigid distinction between the few who had the capacity for gnosis (redeeming knowledge) and the many who did not. The New Age movement formulates its notions of privilege in a different way...and therein lies a tale.

The New Age movement had unprepossessing beginnings. To begin with, there was never that much new about it. Nearly all its ingredients were first assembled by the Spiritualist movement of the mid-19th century: channelling (they called it “mediumship” back then), alternative health systems, positive-thinking psychology, an intense reverence for Asian spiritual wisdom that never quite stooped to learn much about the actual teachings of the East, and all the rest. By the 1970s, when the New Age movement began to coalesce, this package was the common property of a dizzying range of alternative spiritualities in the Western world, including a network of people in Britain and America who believed they were receiving messages from flying saucers.

One of the commonplaces of these communications was the claim that the Space Brothers were about to land en masse and usher in a new age of peace, brotherhood, and spiritual awakening. Claims of this sort have a long history, of course, and the contactee community made the trip from grand announcements of imminent First Contact to embarrassed excuses for the saucers’ failure to appear with even more than the usual frequency; one of the classics of modern sociology, When Prophecy Fails, focuses on a prime example from the 1950s. After repeated disappointments, though, several members of the contactee community came up with a novel response – the proposal that believers should live their lives in the ordinary world as if the new age had already arrived. By making the prophesied great change a reality in their own lives here and now, they hoped to catalyze it in the world as a whole.

It’s a brilliant strategy, for more reasons than one. To begin with, of course, making changes in your own life is the necessary first step toward making them at any other level of human society; Gandhi’s comment “You must be the change you hope to see in the world” is as much a guide to effective tactics as anything else. Yet there’s more going on here than clever politics; another factor at work is a very old but very potent technique for shaping consciousness. Put the ideal and the real cheek by jowl and learn to live with the cognitive dissonance between them, and the paradox itself can become a source of creativity and insight. It’s a core technique in the toolkit of initiatory schools since ancient times. Whether the original New Age communities got the idea from that source, or stumbled across it on their own, it quickly caught fire and spread across alternative scenes throughout the industrial world.

The strategy of paradox has a vulnerability, though. It’s all too easy to lose track of the “as if,” the gap between the ideal world and the real one where creative paradox lives, and start believing that the ideal world is the one that actually exists. That way lies the futile heroics of Don Quixote, who maps the ideal world of chivalric romance onto the prosaic realities of the Spanish countryside with such abandon that he tries to assault windmills under the delusion that they’re wicked giants. Of course the windmills fail to play their assigned parts in the romance, and clobber him. Something similar happened to the New Age movement as it became less visionary and more marketable, and the subtle discipline of “live as though you’re creating the reality you experience” got dumbed down into “you create the reality you experience.”

Now of course each of us does play a part in creating the reality we experience, and subtle factors such as expectations and assumptions have a much more powerful role in that than most people realize. The old initiatory schools used to teach simple tricks for working with those latter early in their training programs, to give neophytes the confidence to tackle the much subtler and more demanding work ahead of them. As the New Age movement gained members and lost focus, though, gimmicks of this sort became the basis for a philosophy of cosmic consumerism that claims the universe is supposedly set up to give people whatever they happen to want, so long as they ask for it in the right way.

It’s a very popular viewpoint, especially among the privileged middle classes of the industrial world, who are used to getting pretty much whatever they want anyway. It also sells exceedingly well, as its latest rehash – the current book and video phenomenon titled The Secret – shows clearly enough. The problem is that beyond a certain point, it doesn’t work in practice. You can try as hard as you like to convince yourself that the universe wants to give you whatever you want to get, but that doesn’t mean you will get it. At that point, the monkey trap closes tight around your hand, because the ideology you’ve embraced tells you that you have to believe completely in it to make it work, and so any awareness that it’s not working gets shoved aside as an obstacle to success.

Responses to this predicament in the New Age scene have covered the entire range of monkey antics, but one in particular bears noticing. In recent years, large sections of the New Age movement have become passionate supporters of conspiracy theories. David Icke’s bizarre Reptilian theory, which claims that all the world’s political, economic, and cultural leaders are actually evil lizards from another planet, is only one of many popular flavors of New Age paranoia these days. Older and potentially more dangerous theories have also begun to surface; it’s not precisely a comforting sign that Icke and several other New Age conspiracy gurus have reprinted the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the hoary anti-Semitic forgery that helped inspire National Socialism, in their books.

Why this shift from visionary mysticism to paranoiac conspiracy culture? Psychologist Carl Jung offers a key to understanding in his discussion of “projecting the shadow.” The shadow, in Jung’s theory, is the sum total of everything we don’t accept about ourselves. We try any number of psychological tricks to keep from becoming aware of our shadows, but one of the standard methods is to project it onto someone else. Instead of owning up to the fact that we have characteristics we claim to despise, we see those characteristics in them – whether “them” is an ethnic group, a religious community, a political party, or what have you. The more intense our hypocrisy, the more forcefully we project our own negative characteristics on somebody else, and the more savagely we hate them for it.

This is exactly what’s going on in large parts of the New Age community today, with a twist. The shadow of the New Age is the reality of limitation – the hard fact that you can’t always get what you want, no matter how much you want it. Projecting that shadow is one effective way to deal with it, and conspiracy theories allow the faithful to project the shadow of their failure onto a fantasy of ultimate evil. In David Icke’s theories, for example, the Reptilians aren’t just to blame for everything wrong with the world, they deliberately created and maintain the “illusion” of a material reality with real, inflexible limits. Thus believers in Icke’s worldview can maintain their faith in their ability to create their own reality; if it doesn’t work in practice, that’s because the space lizards are slithering around behind the scenes messing things up.

Now all this may seem to have little to do with the themes of peak oil and catabolic collapse that have taken up so much space in this blog, but there’s a direct connection. The myth of progress, like the belief that everyone creates their own reality, raises expectations that the real world – especially in an age of diminishing resources – simply isn’t able to meet. As the gap between expectation and experience grows, so, too, does the potential for paranoia and hatred. Those who cling to faith in progress are too likely to go looking for scapegoats when the future fails to deliver the better world they expect. The explosive rise of a politics of rage on all sides of the political continuum, especially but not only in the US, suggests that this process may be well under way already. As finger-pointing and shouted insults drown out reasoned political dialogue, it seems to me, the real target for the fingers and shouts on all sides may be the projected shadow of the industrial world’s approaching downfall.

That bodes very ill indeed for any large-scale constructive response to the predicament before us. What might be done in the face of this prospect will take up the next several posts on this blog.