Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Adam's Story: Twilight in Learyville

Last week’s Archdruid Report post introduced five themes likely to be primary factors shaping the deindustrial future before us. It’s easy to talk about such things in the abstract, but harder to make sense of them as a lived reality, and it’s this latter step that has to be taken to understand their impact on our world. For this reason I’ve picked up the toolkit of narrative fiction again. Each of the next five essays will be preceded by a fictional account of one person’s journey through a world shaped by the themes I’ve mentioned. The story begins in the rural Pacific Northwest sometime in the second half of this century.


Adam stepped out onto the cracked blacktop and moss of the parking lot, blinked in the glare of the westering sun. Habit made him reach back with his one good hand to close the door, but he caught himself, let the hand fall. No point in closing things up now; winter wasn’t far, and the place might as well be useful to the bears.

One of the beneficiaries of that act gazed blindly down on him in concrete effigy as he crossed the parking lot. It had a sign in its paws saying Learyville Motel – a neon sign once, though the tubes got a coat of white paint once electricity went away. Another bear, chainsawed from a fir log, stood on its hind legs by the motel office. The bear had always been Learyville’s mascot; the school team had been the Bears, back when there was a school team, or a school for that matter. It would just be the bears’ town now, though.

He stopped at the highway’s edge, tensed himself against memories that pushed the limits of his self-control, then settled his pack on his shoulders and started west. Still, the memories came surging up, blinding him. He thought of Learyville the way it was when he’d been five or six, when most of the houses had families in them and cars still came roaring down the highway in long lines on their way to campgrounds and fishing spots and the ocean beaches. Things had been better still before he was born, so the old folks said, back when gas was so cheap you could drive all day on twenty dollars, and the Learyville Motel had its Sorry – No Vacancy sign lit up every summer evening. Still, the town seemed crowded enough in his childhood; he’d had playmates in those days, and you had to be careful crossing the street.

That was before the war, of course. Once war came, gas rationing canceled most vacations, and a dozen young men from the town went off in uniform, leaving their family’s windows decorated with blue stars that turned gold one by one. Nobody wanted to talk about that, and Adam had to ask his father what it meant, one night when just the two of them sat in the motel office. Afterwards, staring into the night from his bedroom window, he thought about the people he knew who wouldn’t be coming home again. The image that came to mind was an old blanket the moths ate full of holes one summer. The moths had gotten into Learyville, too, and a cold wind was blowing through the holes.

The moths hadn’t finished with the town, either. The summer Adam turned eleven, when the fighting reached Mexico and people stopped talking about the war except in worried whispers, the bridge on the road down to Southport collapsed under the car on the way back from a trip to the grocery store. He didn’t remember a thing between the lurch of the bridge giving way and the hospital room where they told him his mother was dead. His right arm was a mess, and they’d never been able to afford the therapy that would have fixed it, so a mess it stayed.

When the armistice came a year later, most of Learyville buzzed with talk about how soon the good times would be back, but Adam’s father slumped back in his overstuffed chair and told him they were whistling past the graveyard. Though gas stayed rationed and the economy lurched from crisis to crisis, a trickle of tourists came down the highway again, but even that shred of hope turned against the town. Nobody ever figured out which tourist brought hemorrhagic fever to Learyville, but three months afterward almost fifty people were dead. Other epidemics followed, but that first one left gaps in Learyville’s fabric that nothing afterward could patch.

Adam shook his head and kept walking, but the houses he passed stared back at him with empty eyes like so many skulls. That blue one had been Joe and Edna Williams’, before she died of the hemorrhagic fever and he drank himself to death; the green one back there was Fred Kasumi’s before he died and his sons left for the city in search of work; the brick one next to it had been the Dotsons’ since Learyville was a logging camp, and old Marge Dotson lived there for years after everyone else in the family was dead or gone, tending her chickens and her garden until he found her lying face down in her asparagus bed one morning.

Across from the Dotson house was the Hungry Bear Café, with the stripped and rusting shells of a dozen cars still in the parking lot. Those broke Adam’s pace, though he made himself keep going after a moment. Those cars didn’t belong to tourists or locals. They started arriving one or two at a time in the years right after the war, full of young people convinced, like their hippie grandparents before them, that going back to the land was the wave of the future. Some of the newcomers moved into empty houses on the edge of town and tried to farm for a few years before loneliness, sickness, or the thin acid soil that had defeated the original homesteaders in the 1800s drove them back to the city or straight to the Learyville cemetery. Few came to farm and fewer stayed long; better land could be had close enough to urban areas to provide a market for cash crops.

No, most of the ones who came had a different dream. They parked their cars in the café parking lot, paid for one more civilized meal, and then headed out into the woods, convinced they were destined to found the tribal societies of an age about to be born. Those who spotted Adam tried to talk him into coming along; their excited gestures and bright eyes lit up a grand vision of life in the wilderness in harmony with nature, walking the hunter-gatherer path. The first few times he’d gone back to the motel with his head afire, and his father had to sit him down and explain exactly what would happen to a bunch of city kids who thought nature would welcome them with open arms. He’d been right, too. Some of them came stumbling back out of the forest months later, starving and shivering and riddled with parasites. Others never came out at all, and Adam got used to finding their bones in the woods when he and his father went hunting deer in the hills outside of town. For them, nature had opened not her arms but her jaws.

One group left something else behind, though, and that was what made Adam halt and then push himself onward outside the café. There had been six of them, three boys and three girls, none of them much older than Adam himself, and they’d gone into the woods with whoops of laughter early one summer. Three of them died in the usual ways as the forest patiently tested them to destruction; the three survivors came back as winter came and the rain changed to sleet, two of the boys carrying one desperately ill girl. The Prices took them in; the boys struggled back to health and fled in someone else’s car as soon as they could, but the girl, Sybil, stayed.

She had some kind of relapsing fever – probably from a tick bite, Vinny said, though he wasn’t sure, and by then there were no doctors within reach. She had no family and nowhere to go, so the Prices gave her a home, and she returned the favor by caring for them when she was well enough. She and Adam found their way into a relationship within a few weeks. It wasn’t love, or even sex, so much as the raw loneliness of a town that by then had only a dozen residents. Still, lying in each other’s arms or sitting by the Price’s fireplace, they talked about marriage, imagined a future when the tourists came back and the two of them ran the motel. When the fever finally took her on an icy February day four years later, Adam walked down to the river and thought long and hard about jumping in before he turned and went back to the motel.

By then the cafe was open only on Saturday nights, when the last handful of locals gathered to share a meal and play cards by firelight, and the motel was all closed up except for the manager’s home and two rooms. Another war was going by then, a civil war this time, and the only visitors were government draft agents scrounging the countryside for anyone fit to carry a gun. Adam got used to the way they’d look at him, size up his crumpled arm, and reluctantly decide that he wouldn’t earn them their bounty. Finally even the draft agents stopped coming, and life in Learyville became a round of waiting, never very long, for the next death.

Call of a bluejay shook Adam out of his memories, and he turned around. Afternoon was turning toward evening, but no smoke rose from the chimneys of any of the houses he’d passed and no light shone from the windows. The general store, post office, and gas station that anchored the western end of town were tumbling in on themselves, half overgrown already with blackberry vines. In the distance, a stray gleam of red sunlight hit the big concrete bear in front of the motel, made it glow like an ember about to go out.

He drew in a deep breath, reviewed the things he’d packed: all the clothes he owned that hadn’t gone to holes yet; blankets for sleeping; a cooking pot, tinder, and the flint and steel he’d learned to use once matches stopped being available; some useful tools; a tarp for shelter, and rope and stakes to put it up; bandages and a bottle of the herb tincture Carol Price used to make for wounds; down at the bottom of the pack, a ring that had been Sybil’s, and the six best asparagus crowns from Marge’s garden, on the off chance that he’d find a place to plant them someday. He had a good sturdy knife on his belt and his father’s revolver in his coat pocket; the one thing he didn’t have was a destination, but that didn’t matter much, not just then.

Tears pushed through then, and dampened his face. There had been one last grave to dig this afternoon, this time for his father; one more hole in the fabric; that was over now, and so was Learyville. He turned west and started down the highway, leaving the town to the bears and the dark trees of the forest.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Glimpsing the Deindustrial Age

Most serious discussions of the predicament of industrial society these days keep their focus tightly on the near future. The Limits to Growth, the seminal 1972 study along these lines, took its computer models out to 2100 or so but put most of its attention into the first half of the current century. In much the same way, Richard Duncan’s closely reasoned papers on the Olduvai Theory – his prediction that modern industrial society will turn out to be a one-time-only pulse waveform – center on the interval between 1930 and 2030, the mathematical boundary points of the waveform. Many other writers in the field have an even tighter focus, directing their efforts toward predictions about the arrival of peak oil and its immediate aftermath.

Now of course there’s much to be said for this approach. In the far future, as some wag or other has pointed out, all of us will be dead, and that makes the near future naturally a little more interesting to us. To some extent, and especially in the face of crises of the scale we are likely to encounter in the next few decades, it’s not wholly unreasonable to take care of what’s imminent and let the distant future take care of itself. As I’ve argued here and elsewhere, though, the most likely trajectory of industrial society is a process of uneven economic and technological decline, a “long descent” over several centuries leading into a deindustrial dark age and beyond. An extended trajectory of this sort makes the occasional glance at the long view worth taking. The further an archer plans on shooting, to extend a metaphor from Machiavelli, the higher he needs to aim, and the further downrange he needs to track his target.

For this reason, over the next few weeks, I plan on trying to sort out some of the primary trends likely to shape the further reaches of the future. To keep the project within manageable limits, I’ll be limiting my focus in space to North America, and in time to the next five hundred years or so – a likely time frame for the Long Descent from the industrial age, through the dark age following, to the seedtime of the sustainable cultures of the future. Any conclusions proposed will be tentative at best, since history is above all else the realm of the contingent and unforeseen, and even those factors that can be predicted in advance routinely take strange shapes under the sway of unexpected forces. Many people in the first decade of the 20th century predicted the coming of the First World War, but as far as I know nobody dreamed that it would turn a penniless exile named V.I. Lenin into the Communist dictator of Russia and topple Tsar Nicholas II from what most observers at the time thought was one of the most secure thrones in Europe.

Surprises on the same scale are doubtless lying in wait in our own future. More generally, the one thing we can be sure of about the future is that it won’t look much like the present. A hundred years ago, the United States was not the most powerful nation on Earth; a hundred years from now, in all probability, it won’t be, either. Two hundred years ago, much of what now counts as American territory belonged to other nations; two hundred years from now, it’s entirely possible that the same thing will be true. The sweeping cultural transformations that turned a dowdy frontier society into a brash imperial power will most likely have their equivalents in our future as well.

At least five major factors, it seems to me, can be counted on to play a role in these transformations. The first is depopulation. We are so used to worrying about the population explosion that the possibility of its opposite has rarely entered into serious discussions of the future. Yet the population bubble of the last few centuries is just as much a product of the extravagant exploitation of fossil fuels during the same period as the industrial age itself. Without the massive changes in agriculture, trade, and public health set in motion by the needs of a fossil fuel-powered industrial society, the relatively modest surge in human numbers in the 19th century would have reversed itself in the normal way. (In point of fact, it nearly did so anyway; at the dawn of the 20th century, bubonic plague once again surged out of central Asia, and only massive efforts by the major colonial powers of the age prevented a third plague pandemic from sweeping the globe.)

We are already seeing a preview of the future in Russia and several other fragments of the former Soviet Union, where crude death rates have risen to nearly double rates of live birth, a trajectory that will cut population figures in half by 2050 or so. Similar population contractions can be traced in the declining phase of many past civilizations – the depopulation of large sections of the western Roman Empire is well attested by contemporary sources, for example. As the industrial age unwinds, similar patterns will likely unfold in North America; for that matter, whole regions of the American West are depopulating right now through outmigration, and archeologists of the future are likely to trace the beginning of ancient America’s decline and fall back to the failure of settlement on the western plains in whatever the late 20th century works out to in some future calendar.

Depopulation moves at different paces in different cultures and regions, though, and one of the classic results of this differential is migration. When civilizations collapse, one of the most notable consequences is a massive relocation of peoples and cultures. Before the fall of the Roman Empire, for example, the ancestors of today’s English lived in Denmark, the ancestors of today’s Hungarians lived in central Asia, and many of the ancestors of today’s Spaniards lived north of the Black Sea. Today, as tidal streams of economic and political refugees press at borders worldwide, the only thing preventing equally drastic migrations is the fraying fabric of national sovereignty, backed by military forces totally dependent on fossil fuels. As the industrial age enters its twilight, the likelihood that those bulwarks will hold is vanishingly small, and when they give way, movements of peoples on an epic scale are likely to result.

Just now, the pressures that get news coverage involve people from outside the industrial world trying to get into it – Mexicans entering the United States, Arabs and Turks entering Europe, and so forth. As the industrial age comes to its close, though, other dynamics are likely to come into play. Consider the situation of Japan. Close to 150 million people live on a crowded skein of islands with little arable land and no fossil fuels at all, supported by trade links made possible only by abundant energy resources elsewhere. As fossil fuel production peaks and begins its inevitable contraction, industrial agriculture and food imports both will become increasingly problematic, and over the long term the Japanese population will be forced to contract to something like the small fraction of today’s figures the Japanese islands supported in the past. Mass migration is nearly the only viable option for the rest of the population, Japan’s ample supply of ships and fishing boats provide the means, and possible destinations beckon all around the Pacific basin.

All this assumes the collapse of current political arrangements over at least some of the world, but this is a good bet. A third factor that needs to be taken into account, then, is political disintegration. When civilizations fall, their political systems rarely remain intact, and when they do it’s usually as a shell of titles and formalities covering drastically different political realities. The shell can exert a potent influence of its own – in western Europe after the fall of Rome, just as in China after the collapse of the Han dynasty, the title of “emperor” retained immense power even when nobody existed who could plausibly claim it, and the gravitational attraction of the old imperial state in both cases helped drive efforts toward political unification many centuries later. Along the same lines, warlords of the future may well lay claim the title of President of the United States, centuries after the office and the national polity it once served exist nowhere outside of the realm of legend and chronicle.

A fourth factor, parallel to the third, is cultural drift. Right now the manufacture and mass marketing of popular culture maintains a thin shell of cultural similarity across large parts of English-speaking North America, but even that is under strain as regional, religious, and ideological subcultures take advantage of the decentralizing power of today’s communications technology and move more and more boldly in their own directions. While the end of the industrial age will bring down the Internet, it will also play taps for the mechanisms of mass communication and manufacture that make popular culture, in the modern sense of the word, possible at all. In the bubbling cauldron of deindustrial North America, many of today’s new cultural initiatives will fuse with older traditions and brand-new movements in ways we can’t even begin to imagine today. The disintegration of political unity and the end of reliable long-distance travel, two very likely effects of the Long Descent, make the emergence of new local and regional cultures all but certain.

Finally, ecological change is the wild card in the deck. Natural systems form the bedrock foundation of all human societies, and the sweeping impacts of industrial civilization’s brief heyday and collapse promise to set ecosystems spinning into radically new forms over much of the globe. Climate change is only one aspect of this picture, though its importance needs not to be understated. Major climate shifts have affected North America powerfully in the geological and historical past, and in the latter case have played a crucial role in the rise and collapse of entire civilizations. Ecosystems are complex enough, and change over such varied timescales, that many of the effects of industrial civilization’s rise and fall may unfold over many more centuries than I intend to survey, but some possible changes can certainly be guessed at.

These five factors are the palette of colors I plan on using in an attempt to sketch out where we may be headed in the aftermath of the industrial age over the next few weeks. Many other factors will doubtless play important roles as well, including some that can’t possibly be anticipated here and now. Still, if an attempt to glimpse the shape of the coming deindustrial age can help guide us toward constructive action in the present, it’s worth a shot.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The View From The Grassy Knoll

I’ve argued before that the unfolding crisis of industrial society is not really a technical problem, to be solved by the familiar tools of science and engineering. It’s a human problem, with deep roots in the mythic narratives we use to make sense of the worlds of our experience. It’s worth remembering that those of us discussing peak oil are not exempt from the same difficulty. Like every other member of our species, we think with narratives, with roughly the same inevitability with which we walk with feet, and the narratives we use to make sense of peak oil can be just as misleading as the narratives other people use to ignore it.

In some of my previous posts here, I’ve talked about one very common narrative that structures thought in the peak oil community—the narrative of apocalypse, the sudden purifying cataclysm that will show everyone else just how wrong they are, and punish them for it. Still, that’s far from the only narrative that’s been swept up in the unfolding dialogue about peak oil, and this week’s post will focus on another such narrative.

A recent conversation with a peak-oil-literate friend brought this narrative to center stage for me. The two of us were sitting in front of an Ashland coffee house, calmly discussing the end of industrial civilization while SUVs zoomed past on the street in front of us, doing their level best to make our worst case scenarios look mild. I honestly don’t recall what we were talking about when my friend suddenly veered off topic, as it seemed to me, onto the subject of revisionist speculations about the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

To my friend, as it happens, this is anything but unrelated to peak oil, and he seemed as nonplussed by my unwillingness to connect these particular dots as I was by his insistence that the connection had already been inked in by events. After a brief discussion we moved on to other topics, but I’ve been mulling about the exchange since then. It’s not as though the same debate hasn’t surfaced in other corners of the peak oil community, either. Richard Heinberg, one of the leading figures in the peak oil scene, devoted a sizeable part of his book Powerdown to claims of US government complicity in the 9/11 bombings. James Howard Kunstler, another heavy hitter, has argued the opposite case, insisting that the whole 9/11 revisionist movement is basically a paranoid obsession.

To my mind, though, the whole controversy unfolds from the working out of a myth with deep roots in popular consciousness. Call it the story of the Man Who Found Out. You know this story; it was on TV last night; that mystery novel you saw in the checkout line at the supermarket is all about it, so were five of the last six videos you rented, and quite possibly one of your recent dreams. The story starts with some horrible event. There’s an obvious explanation for it, but there’s also one person who realizes there’s much more going on than meets the eye. After a lonely quest that has to overcome ridicule and stonewalling from the official authorities, our hero uncovers the truth and reveals it to the public in a redeeming revelation that thwarts the villain, saves the innocent, and as often as not lands the protagonist in the love interest’s arms.

It’s not always fiction, either. Most myths are true at least some of the time; that’s why they have the power they do. The myth of progress was true more often than not betwen 1650 and 1950, and that gave it the sway it still holds over our collective imagination. In the same way, the myth of the Man Who Found Out works often enough to make police departments hire detectives, countries establish intelligence services, and ordinary people ask searching questions whenever the initial answers seem too pat.

Like every other myth, though, the story of the Man Who Found Out makes good sense of some situations, partial sense of others, and nonsense of still others. Despite some of Joseph Campbell’s more enthusiastic claims, there is no monomyth, no narrative that makes sense of everything. Still, the myth we’re discussing is seductive, because of its promise of empowerment. The Man Who Found Out has no power except the ability to find the truth, and in the myth, that’s all the power he needs. Thus it’s a very appealing myth for those who feel disempowered and believe they know something others don’t.

The problem, of course, is that it can also be a distraction. If there was a time for this myth in the peak oil community, it was back in the 1990s when a handful of people were first trying to bring the imminence of Hubbert’s peak to the attention of the wider world. Unfortunately, the moment of revelation came and went, and most people shrugged and kept on driving. At that point other myths became more useful. The fact that a myth stops being useful, though, does not necessarily make it less appealing.

Now for all I know, it may be true that George W. Bush personally ordered somebody to fake a terrorist attack on the United States. Mind you, this seems unlikely to me. I’d sooner vote for Bozo the Clown, but I’ve never found much plausibility in the claim that the mediocrities making up the current administration could stand in for Sauron the Dark Lord. They may be corrupt, even slightly more so than the administration that preceded them; their competence could surely be questioned; the elections that put them in office quite possibly involved vote fraud, as do most American elections – I trust at least some of my readers recall the voting machines on the bottom of Lake Michigan that put JFK in the White House.

I find it illuminating, though, to compare current rhetoric on the left with its equivalents on the other end of the political spectrum. Just as the right, smarting from electoral defeat in 1992, took refuge in claims that Bill Clinton was about to unleash a fleet of black helicopters on America’s gun owners, the left took refuge from an equivalent defeat in 2000 in claims that George Bush was about to turn America into a fascist police state. All this has played an important role in generating the seething partisan hatreds that have helped make constructive change all but impossible in the United States.

These hatreds, it seems to me, have made it all but impossible to notice the real significance of the neoconservative ascendancy. At a time when the market-based approach to America’s energy predicament embraced back in the Reagan era had clearly failed, and no one else had a politically viable alternative to offer, the neoconservatives offered a plan of action, and enough of the fragmented American political class united behind that plan to give the neoconservatives their chance. The plan proved to be hopelessly out of touch with the real world, and the loose consensus that brought it into play is fragmenting now, with results that will likely make the 2008 election more than usually dramatic.

Still, something like the neoconservative project was probably inevitable, if only because the American people have made it painfully clear that any politician who tries to deny them the privileges they think they deserve needs to find a new career. We will be very lucky if the next round of economic contraction and political failure fails to launch something much worse – and the slogans next time could come from the left just as easily as from the right.

Whether or not that happens, though, two things seem fairly certain. The first is that none of us will ever know exactly what happened in US airspace on the morning of September 11th, 2001. The second is that in terms of the future of industrial civilization, it doesn’t actually matter much. The crucial tasks ahead of us right now are establishing new frameworks for local economies, salvaging skills and technologies appropriate to a period of relative energy scarcity, and making a start at the daunting task of rebuilding civil society in our communities. None of these tasks will be noticeably furthered by the sort of conspiracy-hunting that keeps people busy to this day prowling Dealey Plaza in Dallas, pondering the view from the grassy knoll in yet another effort to figure out who shot JFK.

All these crucial tasks, furthermore, require us to move away from the sort of political demonology exemplified by so much of the rhetoric around 9/11 revisionism. Blaming all our woes on the other party’s politicians is an old American pastime, to be sure, but an increasingly counterproductive one. One of the lessons of peak oil that may prove hardest to learn is that the troubles we face unfold not from someone else’s malice, or even their incompetence, but from what sociologist C. Wright Mills called “fate,” the unintended consequences of our own everyday actions. But here again we circle back to the bedrock requirement of our predicament, the need to make changes in our own lives. It’s not an easy thing, and the pursuit of clues on one grassy knoll or another may be so popular because it helps to distract us from that challenge.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Long Decline: A User's Guide to the End of the Industrial Age

I'm pleased to announce that the ideas I've been discussing in this blog will be finding their way into a more durable medium next year. I've just signed with New Society Publishers , the publishers of Richard Heinberg's The Party's Over and Powerdown (among other excellent books). The book's working title is The Long Descent: A User's Guide to the End of the Industrial Age, and the tentative release date is fall 2008. Expect to see many of the same themes I've discussed here covered in much more detail, along with some entirely new material. Updates will appear here from time to time. We now return you to your regularly scheduled process of catabolic collapse...

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Religion and Peak Oil: The Next Spirituality

It may be prophetic that science fiction, that cracked but not always clouded mirror of our imagined futures, so often makes religion central to narratives about a world after industrial civilization. That fashion was set in a big way by Walter M. Miller’s 1959 bestseller A Canticle for Leibowitz, which leapt past the then-popular genre of nuclear holocaust novels to envision a centuries-long reprise of the Dark Ages, complete with Catholic monks guarding the knowledge of the past. Miller’s book covered a lot of philosophical and theological ground, but among its core themes was the argument that religion — specifically, of course, Catholic Christianity — was the wellspring of humanity’s better possibilities, and would be more important than ever when progress betrayed the hopes of its votaries.

In the hothouse environment of mid-20th century science fiction, a retort from the other side was not long in arriving. It came from Edgar Pangborn, whose award-winning 1965 novel Davy was in large part a counterblast aimed at Miller’s vision. In Pangborn’s future history, the collapse of industrial society was followed by the slow rise of a neomedieval society shackled to superstition and ignorance by the Holy Murcan Church. Like A Canticle for Liebowitz, Davy covered quite a bit of intellectual ground, and Pangborn’s invented Murcan religion was at least as much a scathing satire on the American Protestant religiosity of his own time as it was an attempt to imagine a religion of the future. Central to Pangborn’s vision, though, was the argument that religion was the zenith of human folly, an arrogant claim to privileged knowledge about the unknowable that inevitably lashed out violently against those too sane to accept its pretensions.

Of course these two arguments have been fodder for countless debates since Christianity lost its hold on the collective imagination of the Western world some centuries back,. One feature of the dispute that deserves more attention than it has usually received, though, is the extent to which both sides present the choice between them as the only option there is. Such recent antireligous polemics as Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, for example, found their arguments explicitly on the insistence that the kind of religion represented by conservative Christians is the only kind worth debating, just as the equal and opposite polemics from conservative Christians commonly claim that any religion different from theirs is tantamount to Dawkins’ evangelical atheism.

Now this sort of binary thinking, to use the term some branches of the Druid tradition give it, is pervasive in contemporary Western cultures, not least because it’s proven to be immensely profitable for the two mutually dependent sides of a great many such disputes. Behind the quadrennial antics of the mutually interchangeable Demublican and Repocratic politicians in America, to name only one of many examples, lies a canny good cop-bad cop routine, in which each side shakes down an assortment of captive constituencies by bellowing as loud as possible about how terrible a victory by the other side would be. Yet it’s a mistake to assume that a binary of this sort necessarily remains fixed in place forever.

The classical world provides a good example of the way such relationships can unravel. Well before the beginning of the Common Era, the religious landscape of the Greco-Roman world broke open along a line of fracture defined by the gap between an archaic polytheism rooted more in poetry than theology, and a rationalist movement among the political classes that sought individual perfection through moral philosophy. Relations between the two sides were never quite as bitter as the equivalent strains in our own culture; the decision of the Athenian court that condemned Socrates to death for introducing new gods was mirrored in Plato’s insistence that poets would be driven out of his imaginary Republic, but at the same time many Roman intellectuals argued that the religio Romana was justified by its role in maintaining social order.

In classical times, the religious stalemate lasted until a third force – Christianity – entered the picture from outside. One of the foundations of Christian victory was the polemic the two older forces used against one another. Christian apologists could, and did, copy the philosophers in denouncing the gods of Olympus for their dubious morals, then turn around and assail the philosophers for their arrogance and impiety. It wasn’t until the end of the third century CE that philosophers such as Iamblichus and Proclus tried to build a united opposition to Christianity, and by then it was far too late. The classical world was already sliding down the slope of its own catabolic collapse, and the future of the Mediterranean world belonged to the new religious vision exemplified by Christianity and, a little later, Islam as well.

It’s very popular to see this transition as historically inevitable, and to point to features in Christianity that make it “more advanced” than classical Paganism, but this simply rehashes the myth of progress in a different key. Comparative history suggests that things could have turned out differently. In Nara- and Heian-period Japan, for example, a very similar divide between imported Buddhism and indigenous Shinto took a very different course. Japan found its equivalents of Iamblichus and Proclus much earlier, in the persons of Buddhist leaders such as Kobo Daishi and Dengyo Daishi who worked to establish common ground with the older faith, and the resulting accommodation proved to be so durable that a millennium and a half later, most Japanese still practice both faiths.

Despite all the arguments of historical determinists, history does seem to be contingent rather than determined – which is to say, of course, that in human affairs slight causes can have vast effects, and trying to predict the future in advance is a risky proposition at best. This is above all true of religious history, where the vision of a prince, a camel driver, or a tentmaker on the road to Damascus can catch fire in the imaginations of millions and send the world careening down a completely unexpected path. Thus it would be a waste of time to point to one religious movement or another and proclaim it as the necessary wave of the future. A glance at some of the possibilities might be worthwhile, but such a glance must be tempered with the recognition that history seems to take a perverse delight in embarrassing would-be prophets.

For the religion of progress in any of its forms – the straightforward atheist anthropolatry of Richard Dawkins and his peers, or the quasi-theistic versions that use the forms of older faiths but redefine them in progressive terms – the coming of the deindustrial age promises a major crisis of faith. The same is true of today’s Christian fundamentalism, which rejects the progressive vision but has made itself just as vulnerable to a future that shows no particular interest in conforming to its apocalyptic prophecies. My guess, and it’s only a guess, is that despite their current popularity both these faiths are on their way out; too much hostility stands between them to allow the sort of mutual accommodation that happened between Shinto and Buddhism in Japan, and some more recently arrived faiths have already begun to work the same strategy on them that Christianity worked on classical Paganism and Greek philosophy.

Catholicism is another matter. While American Protestantism has been losing members steadily for decades, the Catholic church has been holding steady, not least because so much immigration into the US today comes from predominantly Catholic countries. Demographics have worked very much in Catholicism’s favor, and will very likely continue to do so. Whether the church in America can hold together in the face of the issues pulling it toward schism is a good question, but if it can manage that, A Canticle for Liebowitz may not be as farfetched as it looks.

Buddhism, it seems to me, is also very much worth watching. In the last few decades, especially but not only on the west coast, Buddhism has transformed itself from an exotic foreign import to a homegrown faith with a growing popular appeal, and Buddhist monasteries can be found all over North America these days – there are three of them within a short drive of the town where I live. If it continues along its present growth curve, Buddhism could turn into a major religious force in North America over the next few centuries.

Yet it’s also worth watching the fringes, and keeping an eye out for wild cards. Christianity was a legally proscribed minority faith only a few generations before it seized control of the Roman world. In a world of contingencies, where slight causes can drive vast effects, some religious movement barely large enough to be noticed today might turn into the dominant religion of North America a few centuries down the road. Arnold Toynbee noted in his massive A Study of History that the downslope of civilizations seem to be the incubators of universal religions, and rarely so dramatically as in times when the most basic assumptions of a civilization are visibly disproving themselves. This is such a time, in case you haven’t noticed.

It’s probably wise to mention here that I would be more flabbergasted than anyone else if my own Druid faith were to become any sort of major force in the religious landscape of the future. Born in the 18th century out of a three-way pileup between mystical Anglicanism, fragmentary Celtic traditions, and the first stirrings of what we now call environmental awareness, modern Druidry is distinguished more by its wry sense of humor than by any sort of missionary fervor or mass appeal. Many of us in the contemporary Druid movement are aware of peak oil and the other dimensions of the predicament of industrial society, and are taking action in response, but all things considered, the Church of Elvis probably has a better chance of becoming the universal religion of the future than we do.

Still, whatever religion or combination of religions rises to prominence as industrial society slides down the far side of Hubbert’s peak, the religious dimension will very likely play a massive role in the way today’s society’s adapt to tomorrow’s world of harsh limits and harsher choices. As the aspect of human life that deals with ultimate concerns, religion is among the most potent of all motivating factors, and it seems to me that any serious attempt to make something positive out of the approaching mess will have to draw on religious motivations, in one way or another, if it is to have any chance of meeting the challenges of our future. Thus attempts to imagine the next economy, the next society, or even the next energy system might be well advised to take at least a passing glance in the direction of the next spirituality as well.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Religion and Peak Oil: The Twilight of Fundamentalism

The contemporary predicament of industrial society, as I suggested in last week’s post, is among other things a religious crisis. The religion of progress, the defining faith of today’s industrial nations, staked its claim to the allegiance of the human spirit on the material benefits it offered its votaries. For the last three centuries, that offer was backed up with an astonishing expansion of wealth that left few lives in the western world unchanged, and gave the religion of progress a strength none of its rivals could easily match.

With the coming of peak oil, however, the religion of progress is headed for a pitfall of its own digging. As cheap abundant energy becomes a thing of the past, the material gifts the great god Progress has heretofore given his votaries will likely be in short supply from here on. As living standards slide, wages fall ever farther behind prices, and whatever technological advances still find their way to the market are restricted by cost to an ever smaller fraction of society, the religion of progress may have little to offer the majority of its current adherents.

Thus the likelihood of major shifts in the religious allegiance of the industrial world, it seems to me, is a factor that needs serious assessment in any attempt to make sense of the deindustrial future. As the aspect of human society that relates our lives to the realm of ultimate concerns, religion sets out the narratives that members of a society use to make sense of the world. As the religion of progress crumbles, its narratives will crumble in turn, and the new faith or faiths that seize its current place in the western imagination will likely have a dramatic impact on how we and our descendants respond to the challenges of a world after oil.

One of the apparent candidates for a successor to the religion of progress is contemporary Christian fundamentalism. As one of the very few religious movements to meet the challenges of industrial civilization head on, it’s an obvious candidate. While most religious denominations in the western world struggle to maintain themselves and many have seen epic declines in membership, fundamentalist churches have displayed an impressive ability to gain members and exert influence in the social and political spheres. Thus it’s reasonable to ask if Christian fundamentalism will be in a position to take over from the religion of progress in America, at least, as we begin sliding down the far side of Hubbert’s Peak.

The answer, however, is “almost certainly not.” The reasons for this can best be grasped by looking back over the neglected history of modern Christian fundamentalism itself.

Many people outside fundamentalist circles these days use the term “fundamentalism” as a simple synonym for “zealotry,” but it has a more specific meaning. The word actually comes from a 12-volume series of tracts titled The Fundamentals, released between 1910 and 1915 by the Bible Institute of Los Angeles and funded by two wealthy oilmen. These tracts offered readers a simplified Protestant theology pitched in popular language. Marketed using the most up-to-date methods of the time, they were enormously popular, and by the 1920s had sparked a huge social movement; H.L. Mencken famously remarked in 1925 that if you threw an egg out a train window nearly anywhere in America, you could count on hitting a fundamentalist.

By the end of the 1920s, though, the fundamentalist movement was in headlong retreat, for reasons that observers of today’s American scene may find highly familiar. In the early 1920s, a very large number of fundamentalist churches and leaders entered into alliance with the revived Ku Klux Klan. From its refounding in 1915, the Klan wrapped itself in a rhetoric composed of equal parts Protestant Christianity and xenophobic Americanism while pursuing a campaign of reactionary social change aimed at rolling back the reforms of the Progressive era.

The appeal of this agenda to the fundamentalist movement can be easily imagined. During the 1920s, some 40,000 fundamentalist ministers became Klan members, and more than two-thirds of the national Klokards (paid lecturers who traveled around the country on the Klan’s nickel) were ministers of fundamentalist churches. One minister-Klansman, the Rev. E.F. Stanton of Kansas City, earned a minor spot in the history books with a 1924 book entitled Christ and Other Klansmen, which presented the Klan as America’s best hope for returning to “old-fashioned” (that is, the newly coined fundamentalist) Christianity.

This alliance backfired explosively, though, when a series of lurid scandals broke over the Klan’s head, most notably the 1925 conviction of Indiana Grand Dragon David Stevenson for raping and murdering one of his office volunteers. Similar scandals racked the fundamentalist scene; open the pages of Sinclair Lewis’ scathing novel Elmer Gantry, or for that matter any of the colorful newspaper stories that inspired it, and you’ll find events right out of today’s headlines. By the beginning of the Second World War, fundamentalism had become a bitter minority estranged from the wider American religious scene, and kept that status until the political dominance of the liberal agenda in the Sixties allowed the same cycle to launch itself again.

Now as it happens, this same cycle can be traced back well before the fundamentalism of the 1920s. Upsurges of socially conservative Protestant piety have appeared on the American scene at something close to regular intervals from the Great Awakening of the 1720s to today’s receding fundamentalist tide. On average, there are two of them a century. Each one starts with a bang using the popular media of the time, whether that’s the letterpress that carried Jonathan Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God to audiences across the colonies or satellite TV dishes scooping up the latest offerings from Trinity Broadcasting System. Each one, without ever quite seeming to notice the fact, gradually reduces the complexities of Christian theology into what we would now call sound bites, loses in depth what it gains in numbers, and ends up becoming a sock puppet for some political faction or other. Each one finishes its trajectory by imploding in on itself, often with an accompanying drumbeat of sexual and financial scandals

At this point we’re well into the diminuendo phase of the current cycle, to the familiar tune of fundamentalist leaders being outed for practicing six days a week the sins they denounce on Sundays, and parishioners beginning to object in noticeable numbers to the gap between Christianity and the political agenda pursued in its name. A growing number of evangelical Protestants are moving away from the big fundamentalist churches to home Bible study circles or to more traditional forms of Christianity, and recruitment – the lifeblood of a movement in which new members, on average, leave within three years – has been in decline for more than a decade.

Yet this also has to be seen in its wider context. In 2005, in one of the most dramatic and least discussed social changes in recent history, the percentage of Americans who call themselves Protestant Christians dropped below 50% for the first time in the history of the republic. The decline has been astonishingly rapid – as recently as the 1970s, the figure was above 72% – and widespread, affecting all regions of the country to one degree or another. With Catholicism holding steady between 20% and 25% of the population, and most branches of Judaism struggling, the number of Americans outside the religious mainstream is at an all-time high.

Thus peak oil could not have come at a worse time for the fundamentalist movement. As America lurches toward a time of crisis likely to be at least as traumatic as the ordeal by depression and world war that followed the boom years of the 1920s, fundamentalism faces the same situation it did then: hamstrung by scandals, hobbled with an oversized infrastructure of churches and institutions its shrinking membership can no longer support, and tarred by its links to a extremist political movement that seems to be doing everything in its power to ensure its own implosion as a significant political force in the near future.

Perhaps the clearest sign that today’s fundamentalism is circling the drain comes from the widespread popularity of Rapture theology: the claim that at some point in the near future all devout Christians will suddenly teleport to heaven en masse, leaving the world to perish in their absence. The dubious exegetical tricks needed to extort this belief out of scripture have done nothing to keep it from becoming a hugely popular belief. Yet the whole Rapture narrative is a lightly disguised fantasy of mass suicide – when someone tells their kids that Grandma has gone to heaven to be with Jesus, most people know what that means – and bears an uncomfortable similarity to the ideologies of recent suicide cults such as Heaven’s Gate. Its dominant role in today’s fundamentalist movement says much about the desperation of those who see the tide of their success flowing back out to sea.

Still, might the old cycle keep on turning, and spark a new version of fundamentalism sometime in the future? Of course. If past performance is anything to go by, we can expect another socially conservative Protestant revival beginning around 2020, though if the drop in Protestant numbers continues at its present pace, that future revival may be a relatively modest affair by present standards. Even if that shifts into reverse, earlier revivals did surprisingly little to change the religious outlook or social norms of American society, and it seems unlikely that any future repetition of the same cycle will have any more lasting effect. Much more likely at this point, it seems to me, is an irruption from outside the contemporary religious mainstream altogether – a possibility I’ll explore in the third and last part of this series.