Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Looking for Roong Thisdara

There have been many times, during the two and a half years I’ve been writing posts for The Archdruid Report, when I’ve found myself staring at a blank computer screen of a Wednesday morning, wondering what on Earth I can say that my readers might find even remotely interesting. Happily, such times have been scarce this November. A passing reference, in my post two weeks ago, to my dissatisfaction with a presentation on the Transition Town movement brought a flurry of comments asking me to say more about that; I did so last week, and fielded another flurry of comments as well as some lively critiques on other blogs.

The core argument of last week’s post centered on the possibility of building a better future by deliberate planning, and many of the comments and critiques took issue with my suggestion that this is not only impossible but counterproductive. While most of these latter noted that they were participants in the Transition Town movement, the ideas they expressed in that context are anything but unique to that movement; rather, it expresses a consensus that extends through most of the peak oil scene, and indeed, most of contemporary society. Despite its popularity, though, this confidence in our ability to plan the future seems woefully misplaced to me, and the reasons that have forced me to dissent from the consensus may be worth discussing here.

Trying to plan a way out of the crisis of industrial society is an old habit. Back in the 1970s, when the challenge posed by the limits to growth was first showing up on the radar screens of our collective discourse, a great deal of discussion centered on how global planning could back humanity away from the brink; since then, similar plans on various scales – local, regional, national, global – have appeared at regular intervals. The durable Lester Brown, to name only one of these would-be planners, released the original version of his Plan B in 2003; he’s now on version 3.0, and further versions will no doubt be forthcoming in due time.

A double helping of irony surrounds all this flurry of planning. If the crisis we face could be met by making plans, we’d have little to worry about; the difficulty is that making plans is the easy part. Go digging in the archives of most American municipalities and you’ll find an energy plan drafted and adopted, after extensive citizen input, in the 1970s, calling for exactly the changes that would have made matters today much less dire: conservation standards, public transit projects, zoning changes to reduce the need for cars, and so on. You’ll have to brush a quarter inch of dust off the plan to read it, though, since nobody has looked at it since the Reagan years, and not one of its recommendations was still functioning when the housing boom began in the early 1990s. A certain skepticism toward another round of plans may thus be in order.

Yet there’s a second dimension to the irony, because the recurrent gap between plan and implementation is not the only difficulty that has to be faced. The assumption common to all these plans is that it’s possible to anticipate the process of transition to a deindustrial society in enough detail to make planning meaningful. I suggest that this assumption is badly in need of a hard second look.

There are two widely held beliefs these days about how we can deal with the end of the age of petroleum. The first claims that we simply need to find another energy source as cheap, abundant, and concentrated as petroleum, and run our society on that instead. The second claims that we simply need to replace those parts of our society that depend on cheap, abundant, concentrated energy with others that lack that dependence, and run our society with them instead. Most people in the peak oil scene, I think, have caught onto the problem with the first belief: there is no other energy source available to us that is as cheap, abundant, and concentrated as petroleum; the fact that we want one does not oblige the universe to provide us with one, and so we might as well plan to power our society by harnessing unicorns to treadmills.

The problem with the second belief is of the same order, but it’s much less widely recognized. Toss aside the parts of our society that depend on cheap, abundant, concentrated energy, and there’s nothing left. Nor are the components needed for a new low-energy society sitting on a shelf somewhere, waiting to be used; we’ve got some things that worked tolerably well in simpler agrarian societies, and some promising new developments that have been tested on a very small scale and seem to work so far, but we have nothing like a complete kit. Thus we can’t simply swap out a few parts and keep going; everything has to change, and we have no way of knowing in advance what changes will be required.

This last point is often missed. One of the people who commented on last week’s post, a software designer by trade, pointed out that he starts work on a project by envisioning what the new software is going to do, and then figures out a way to do it; he argued that it makes just as much sense to do the same thing with human society. A software designer, though, knows the capabilities of the computers, operating systems, and computer languages his programs will use; he also knows how similar tasks have been done by other designers in the past. We don’t have any of those advantages in trying to envision a sustainable future society.

Rather, we’re in the position of a hapless engineer tasked in 1947 with drafting a plan to develop word processing software. At that time, nobody knew whether digital or analog computers were the wave of the future; the handful of experimental computer prototypes that existed then used relays, mechanical linkages, vacuum tubes, and other soon-to-be-outmoded technologies, while the devices that would actually make it possible to build computers that could handle word processing had not yet been invented, or even imagined. Under those conditions, the only plan that would have yielded any results would consist of a single sentence: “Invest heavily in basic research, and see what you can do with the results.” Any other plan would have been wasted breath, and the more detailed the plan, the more useless it would have been.

The difficulty faced by our imaginary engineer is that meaningful planning can only take place when the basic outlines of the solution are already known. A different metaphor may help clarify how this works. Imagine that you suddenly wake up in a hotel room in Edinburgh. A mysterious woman tells you that you have been drugged and brought there secretly, it’s now December 30, and you have to get a message to someone you will meet beneath the statue of Nelson in Trafalgar Square in London at midnight on New Year’s Eve. If you succeed, Earth will be saved and you will get 100 million Euros. Since you know where you are, where you have to be, and how much time you have – the clock by the bed says 10 am – you can easily make plans and carry them out.

Now imagine the same scenario, except that the hotel room could be anywhere and you have no idea what day or time it is. Until you know where you are and how much time you have, planning is impossible. When the mysterious woman leaves, rather than heading for the door, the first thing you might logically do is to throw open the curtains. The results determine your next step. If you see the familiar skyline of Edinburgh, you can proceed at once to make and implement plans; if the vista before you is the clutter and bustle of an industrial town in Asia, you may need to learn more before planning becomes possible; if you see two moons setting in a pink sky above a cityscape of glittering domes, and the beings walking alongside the canal nearby have pointed ears and green skin, the one thing you know for certain is that the trip to Trafalgar Square is going to be interesting!

Now imagine the same scenario, except that the landscape outside has the pink sky, two moons, and alien promenaders, and the mysterious woman tells you that you have to get to the local equivalent of Trafalgar Square by the local equivalent of New Year’s Eve. All hope of planning has just gone out the window. Your only option is to improvise as you go, try as many options as possible, collect tidbits of information, and attempt to piece together what you learn into a workable mental model. Nor will you have any way of knowing whether your model is right or wrong until you fling yourself out of an ornate airboat, sprint up to the giant bas-relief of Gresh the Omnivorous at Roong Thisdara right at the purple of the high red of twelfth Isbil past Eshrey of the rising calendar, and find the person you need to meet waiting there for you.

Conventional ideas of planning tend to assume situations like the first scenario I’ve just outlined, where the problem and the potential solutions are both clearly visible and the only issue is how to connect them. More innovative ideas of planning – and it’s to the credit of the peak oil scene that these latter have been very well represented there – tend to assume situations like the second scenario, where investigation must precede planning, and then follow along the planning process to keep it on track, rather like a herdsman’s dog trotting alongside a flock of sheep. As I see it, though, the situation we face at the end of the petroleum age most resembles the third scenario, where all we have to go on is a relatively vague idea of what a solution might be like, success or failure can be known only in retrospect, and improvisation is the order of the day.

The core fact of the matter, after all, is that what we are trying to invent here – a society that can support some approximation of modern technology on a sustainable basis – has never existed on Earth. We have no working models to go by; all we have, again, is a mix of agrarian practices that seem to have been sustainable, on the one hand, and some experiments that seem to be working so far on a very small scale, on the other. Our job is to piece something together using these, and other things that don’t exist yet, to cope with future challenges we can only foresee in the most general terms. That leaves us, in terms of the metaphor, looking for Roong Thisdara when the only thing we know about it is that it’s roughly equivalent to Trafalgar Square.

Now of course it’s quite possible to imagine post-industrial communities and societies in a fair amount of detail, and several imagined futures of this sort have found enthusiastic followings. The fact that something can be imagined, though, does nothing to prove that it will work. It’s not too hard to envisage a perpetual motion machine, say, or an investment that keeps on gaining value forever, and as we’ve seen, it’s quite possible to build a substantial social movement around belief in the latter, only to find out the hard way that attractive visions and passionate beliefs can rest on foundations of empty air. I recognize that many people find belief in such visions a powerful source of hope in a difficult time, and I sympathize with their feelings, but if we allow the desire for emotional comfort to trump the need to face unwelcome realities, we are in very deep trouble indeed.

There is actually a third irony to all this. As mentioned above, the last round of energy crises in the 1970s saw a great deal of energy go into making plans. A great deal of energy also went into improvisation, in a wide range of fields – notably alternative agriculture, renewable energy, and home design and construction. The plans have been forgotten; I don’t know of a single one that was still in force a decade down the road. The improvisations, on the other hand, have not; they include today’s organic intensive gardening, permaculture, most of today’s arsenal of solar energy methods, a range of alternative homebuilding methods, and much more.

Nobody drew up plans to develop these things, after all; the developers simply developed them, working things out as circumstances demanded, and shared what they learned with others as they went. Thus nearly all the ingredients being inserted into the current crop of plans for the deindustrial future were themselves the product of improvisation. It might be worth suggesting on this basis that our best option would be to skip the plans altogether and get to work on more improvisations.

All the points made here can be phrased in another way: a society is more like an organism than an artifact, and while artifacts can be planned and manufactured, organisms must evolve. This last point, though, presupposes an understanding of the difference between evolution and the ideologies that have sometimes been dressed up in evolution’s cast-off clothing – an issue that will be central to next week’s post.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Premature Triumphalism

In last week’s post, I mentioned in passing that a presentation at the 5th Annual Peak Oil and Community Solutions Conference at the beginning of the month had left me with hard questions about the Transition Town movement. A good fraction of the comments I received in response to that post centered on that one brief reference. This probably shouldn’t have surprised me; these days, the Transition Town movement has become one of the more popular responses to the emerging crisis of the industrial world, and its spread has generated both a great deal of enthusiasm and a rather smaller amount of criticism.

I think both of those are merited. So far, at least, the Transition Town movement has done more and gotten further than most other responses to the crisis of the industrial age, and by any measure, some of its achievements are worth celebrating. The core idea of the movement is that a small geographical area – a town, a village, an urban neighborhood, or the like – can make the transition to a postpetroleum world by harnessing the ideas and efforts of local people. The plan, now available in book form, starts with a small steering group of activists who raise public awareness, forge alliances with local activists and governmental bodies, manage the process of putting together a consensus vision for a sustainable future, and finally midwife the birth of a plan, modeled on that vision, that can be adopted by the community and put to work.

It’s an engaging project; still, two things give me pause. The first, frankly, was the presentation I watched, a slick sales pitch that started by proclaiming its subject “the most inspiring movement in the world” and went on from there. If you’ve seen talks put on by well-funded activist groups any time in the last few decades, you know how this one went: the global problem painted in black and white, the implied failure of all other responses, the inspiring story, the appealingly described plan, the clever double binds that give it emotional conviction, and the slow drift toward hard sell at the end. I’d been reading Gregory Bateson on the flight out, so the double binds were hard to miss – “The Transition Town process doesn’t tell you what to do, and we’re telling you to do the Transition Town process” was one of the better examples.

For all that, the presentation did what it was supposed to do. The presenter had a crowd of people around him after the lights went up, though there were also plenty who left shaking their heads, and I heard blistering comments in the back of the meeting room and in conversations out in the lobby. Still, it’s one thing to generate enthusiasm and harness it, and quite another to be sure that the resulting energy is going somewhere useful. The Transition Town movement seems to have done a fine job of the first; it’s the latter that concerns me, and informs the second of my two concerns about the movement.

That concern unfolds from the basic assumption underlying the project: that a contemporary community can imagine a better future and then successfully plan out the route there in advance. That’s a popular assumption nowadays, and of course it’s been basic to most ways of thinking about social change since the heyday of the Enlightenment more than two centuries ago. Most of the French philosophes whose ideas lit the fuse of the French Revolution claimed that a better world could be planned out in advance and then put in place by the collective will. Note, though, that this isn’t how things turned out; what replaced Louis XVI’s feeble monarchy was not the happy republic of reason so many people expected, but rather a parade of tumbrils hauling victims to Madame Guillotine and the cannon and musketry of the Napoleonic Wars.

To judge by recent history, we are no better at guessing the future than the philosophes were. We do know a few things about the most likely future ahead of us. We have good reason to think that the decades to come will bring sharp decreases in the energy per capita available to people in the industrial world, and in all the products and services provided by energy – which, in an industrial economy, means every product and service there is. We have good reason to think that the current human population is more than the world can support once fossil fuels run short. We have some reason to think – at least this is the point of view that makes sense to me – that these processes will bring the decline and fall of industrial civilization, along a trajectory like those of other civilizations that outran their resource bases. How these broad patterns will work out in the microhistory of a town or a region, though, is anyone’s guess, and history seems to take an impish delight in frustrating our expectations.

Planning for the future becomes especially risky when, rather than starting from present realities and trying to figure out what can be done, it starts from a vision of a desirable future and tries to figure out how to get there. The gap between the futures we imagine and the realities that replace them, after all, tends to be embarrassingly vast. Many of my readers may recall, as I do, what the year 2000 was supposed to be like, according to accounts in the 1960s: manned bases on the Moon, undersea cities dotting the continental shelf, fusion plants turning out limitless cheap power, geodesic domes everywhere, and commuters traveling by helicopter instead of by car. One forward-thinking builder in Seattle during those years topped his new parking garage with a helipad and control tower in hopes of getting a jump on the competition. As far as I know, no helicopter ever landed there, and the garage with its forlorn tower was torn down to make room for condos a few years ago. How many of today’s plans will face the same sort of disappointment? I doubt the number will be small.

Proponents of the Transition Town movement are gambling that their case is different – that this time, at least, it’s possible to for a community to imagine a desirable future, put together a plan to get there, and have the plan succeed in what promises to be an uncommonly difficult historical period. An old proverb reminds us that a camel is a tiger designed by a committee, but Transition Town proponents are again gambling that their case is different – that the sort of group process that usually fosters bland compromises based on conventional wisdom will manage this time to pick strategies that will cope successfully with the turmoil of a challenging future. They are also gambling, of course, that the effort put into making Transition Plans will create something more useful than the dozens of progressive energy plans that were adopted by American municipalities in the 1970s, and have been sedulously ignored ever since.

Is that gamble worthwhile? In many cases, actually, I think it is. Even if the broader agenda of the movement fails, some of its elements – such as encouraging people to relearn practical skills, and fostering local food production – will likely prove helpful in almost any future we’re likely to encounter. What’s crucial, though, is that the gamble be recognized as a gamble: as a venture into unknown territory that carries no guarantee of success. The value of the movement can’t be known for sure until we see how Transition Towns weather the end of the industrial age. Since that process promises to unfold over decades or even centuries, any conclusions based on today’s experiences are tentative at best, and it also needs to be remembered that a monoculture of paradigms is just as deadening as any other kind.

Back in the heyday of the New Left, seasoned radicals used to warn their juniors of the dangers of “premature triumphalism” – the notion, as popular as it was mistaken, that revolution was right around the corner and we would all soon be eating strawberries and cream in the people’s paradise. The temptation of premature triumphalism seems to afflict any movement that attempts to bring about social change; the neoconservatives who are now stumbling toward the exit doors of American public life had a thumping case of it and, in the usual way, got thumped. Like so many others, they are finding out that announcing victory too soon is a great way to gain followers in the short term, and an even better way to lose them all in the longer term when events don’t live up to artificially heightened expectations.

I hope the Transition Town movement manages to dodge that bullet. People in that movement have put together a toolkit that may well have broad uses as we get ready for the end of the industrial age; they are conducting an intriguing experiment, and early results look promising; they are understandably enthusiastic about their project. All this is welcome, but I’m still reminded of the old shopman’s rule that you don’t actually know how to use a tool until you are ready to name at least three ways it can be abused and at least three situations where it’s the wrong tool for the job.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Facing Peak Oil in Motown

The weekend before the election, as I mentioned in last week’s post here, I went to Michigan to attend a peak oil conference: the Fifth Annual Conference on Peak Oil and Community Solutions, to give it its full moniker. In more ways than one, it provided me with a wide-angle snapshot of one end of the peak oil movement; since the peak oil story is as much about human responses to geological realities as it is about the realities themselves, the trip – and it was a trip, in several senses of the word – may be worth recounting here.

Archdruids are a bit thin on the ground these days, and so the five years since my election to that office have made air travel a larger part of my life than I’d prefer. (My carbon offset consists of not owning a car.) The drill is almost second nature at this point: pack light and fast, reach the tiny local airport well before sunrise, down a cup of tea and try to ignore the blaring television in the lobby while people going elsewhere file out onto the tarmac and head for turboprops and small jets. For entertainment, I had a volume of Gregory Bateson to read and a volume of thirteenth-century Latin sorcery to translate – in case you were wondering, yes, there are indeed species of geek other than the computer variety, and I plead guilty.

I spent the flight staring out the window at half a continent’s worth of scenery while trying to fit my head around Bateson’s take on systems theory or the tangled syntax of some scrap of atrocious medieval Latin, and spent the ride from the airport to the hotel in suburban Auburn Hills taking in glimpses of Detroit: long-abandoned factory buildings in ruins, gritty slums with colorfully named churches and every third house boarded up, posh suburban neighborhoods with ostentatious yards, huge office buildings breaking the skyline, and then the huge mass of Chrysler’s headquarters complex looming up beside the freeway like a pharaoh’s tomb. I half-expected to see an inscription out of Shelley’s Ozymandias there:

My name is Iacocca, CEO of CEOs;
Look on my works, ye bankers, and despair!

Then we arrived in Auburn Hills. It was the sort of suburb built for cars rather than people, where strip malls crouch back from six-lane boulevards as though hoping that their vast parking lots will shield them from the traffic, city hall looks like one more corporate office building, and reader boards on the same restaurants you’d find a thousand miles away struggle to project a pallid imitation of bonhomie into empty space. The sidewalks – where there were sidewalks – had been there long enough that grass poked up here and there through cracks in the edges, but I never saw anyone using them but me. Drivers on their way into parking lots gave me goggle-eyed looks, as though they’d thought pedestrians were as mythical as hippogriffs. It was a strange place for a peak oil conference; given the equally surreal luxury-hotel setting of this year’s ASPO-USA conference, I started to wonder if some hidden cosmic law requires the biggest possible contrast between the subjects of these conferences and their physical setting.

Still, Oakland University, where the conference actually took place, was pleasant enough, with buildings in late 20th century academic brickwork separated by wide grassy lawns that will make good vegetable gardens in another decade or two. By Friday lunchtime, attendees had started to gather, conversations sprang up, and a curious sort of temporary community took shape, centered on the challenges and possibilities of a world that doesn’t exist yet: the world on the far side of peak oil.

If I recall correctly, it was Randy Udall who pointed out some time ago that the peak oil community divides along a fault line between “suits” and “sandals” – that is, the people who come to peak oil from a background in business, government, and the academy, on the one hand, and the people who come to it from a background in activism and alternative culture, on the other. The annual ASPO conferences are for the suits, while the Peak Oil and Community Solutions conference caters to the sandals; at the latter, community organizers, permaculture designers, and ecovillage residents greatly outnumbered university professors, petroleum engineers, and investment advisers.

One of the things I took away from the conference, oddly enough, is that the divide is a source of strength rather than a sign of weakness. None of the presentations at either conference would have been well suited to the other, which meant that between them, the conferences offered a much broader image of the state of the world’s energy predicament and the options for dealing with it. In the space between the number crunching of the geologists and the visions and strategies of the activists, something useful takes shape. I think the peak oil movement needs both, for much the same reasons that vertebrates have two eyes instead of just one.

By nearly any calculation, though, archdruids fall well into sandal territory, and so it will probably not surprise any of my readers that I found the weekend in Michigan more congenial than that earlier weekend in Sacramento. High points included Dmitry Orlov’s progress report, delivered with his trademark dry wit, on the stages of collapse; a slide show by Shane Snell on ecovillages he’d visited while touring North America in a biodiesel-powered camper; lively conversations with a couple of solar energy techs at the Green Living expo; and three trips to local green hotspots – a charter school’s environmental classroom, a sustainable restaurant in a nearby town, and the Upland Hills Ecological Awareness Center, one of those classic Seventies earth-bermed passive solar structures with big round PV cells above the flat-plate collectors and a wind turbine turning lazily overhead.

This last was particularly welcome, because I came of age in the years when this latter sort of structure counted as cutting-edge tech, and I still have the same sort of nostalgic regard for it other people have for their high school football team or the music that was playing on the radio during their first date. If our society had made the right collective choices at the end of the Seventies, buildings and programs like Upland Hills might be as common as, well, shuttered car plants in Michigan are today; even after the mistakes of the last thirty years, the survivors of the species still have quite a bit to teach.

I don’t propose to claim that all the presentations at the conference were useful or all the speakers inspiring; there were inevitably some slow moments and some ground familiar to everyone present rehashed for the dozenth time, and a few glaring false notes – in particular, a presentation on the Transition Town movement that was as glib and pushy as a pyramid scheme sales pitch, and succeeded mostly in replacing my generally positive take on that movement with hard questions I haven’t yet been able to resolve to my own satisfaction. Still, questions are at least as worth taking home as answers, and often more so.

The night after the conference closed, as I packed for the flight home, I certainly had plenty of questions to take with me. Some of them – the next moves in oil production, the outcome of the upcoming election, the future course of the financial crisis on Wall Street and Main Street – had been buzzing through the conference all weekend. I’m not sure that others got asked at all, but they were implicit in everything we had been doing. From beginnings in a handful of internet sites and email lists a decade ago, the peak oil movement has grown and diversified dramatically, and has begun to find an audience beyond the small circles of worried professionals, green activists, and eccentrics who formed its backbone for so many of its formative years.

At this point nearly all the near-term predictions central to the movement in its early years have proved themselves, while the conventional wisdom that dismissed those predictions out of hand is much the worse for wear. As peak oil proponents claimed, petroleum production worldwide hit a plateau in the first few years of the century, and has never been able to break above it; oil prices have spiked well up into three digits; and the raw impact of energy costs has been implicated by more than one scholar as a trigger for the financial unraveling still going on around the world. The words “peak oil” are starting to find their way more and more often into the mainstream media and the wider public dialogue about our future.

The possibility of opening a window of opportunity for significant change, the theme of my main talk at the conference, can’t be rejected out of hand any more. The question that I couldn’t shake that night is whether any part of the peak oil movement – suits, sandals, or any combination thereof – is ready to deal with the possibilities and problems that will have to be faced if that happens. That question, too, I have not yet been able to answer to my own satisfaction. I hope other peak oil proponents are thinking about it too, because we may all have to confront its implications in the fairly near future.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

History and Hope

I’d meant to talk in this week’s Archdruid Report post about the peak oil conference I attended last weekend in suburban Detroit. Still, that will have to wait for next time, as last night’s election results deserve a comment of their own.

Mind you, I intend to leave the political implications for others to discuss. The separation of church and state has been denounced by far too many people, on the left as well as the right, who have forgotten that it was originally put there to protect churches from political interference, not vice versa. It is nonetheless one of the essential foundations of the religious liberty that enables me to practice my Druid faith; one of the lessons I draw from this is that, as the head of a religious organization, I have the civic duty to keep my mouth shut about matters of partisan politics. There will no doubt be a banquet of political discussion in the months ahead of us lavish enough to satisfy even the most eager palate.

What I want to discuss just now, though, has less to do with the candidates in the presidential election now ended, than with the millions of ordinary people who filed into polling places yesterday and decided between them. All through the last two years or so, since Barack Obama began what seemed at the time like an improbable quest for the US presidency, one concern expressed repeatedly by the media and ordinary people alike was the possibility that the election would end up being about the issue of race. In a certain sense, that was indeed what happened – but in a very unexpected sense.

Some four decades after the assassination of Martin Luther King, the American people had the chance to judge an African-American candidate, in King’s words, not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character – and by and large, they rose to that not inconsiderable challenge. There may well have been some who voted for Obama because of his ethnic background, just as there were doubtless some who voted against him for that reason; but even among those who voted for his opponent, there were many who did so not because of Obama’s race, but simply because they disagreed with his policy proposals, just as if he were any other candidate.

That is an achievement of immense scope. It may just turn out that this nation has at long last begun to heal the old wound of racial hatred that has riven America right down to its core since the first days of European settlement. So deep a wound will not close at once; as Wendell Berry pointed out some years ago in a book too rarely read, the scar tissue of the racial divide reaches all through our national psyche, on all sides of the various color lines that still wall us away from each other – and from ourselves. Still, it’s no little thing that a majority of voters in Virginia, the heart of the old Confederacy; in Indiana, where a quarter of all adult males belonged to the Ku Klux Klan a mere seventy years ago; and in this nation as a whole, voted for the first time in history to send a black man to the White House.

We have no way of knowing in advance what kind of president Barack Obama will turn out to be, or how history will regard his tenure. He’s proven himself in a difficult campaign to be resourceful, energetic, thoughtful, and almost superhumanly cool under pressure, but many people have arrived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with abilities like these, and some of them have crashed and burned. Many of the cards in the hand he’ll have to play will be dealt him by decisions made months and years beforehand, or by circumstances nobody can control.

Still, a door has been opened, and I can’t help but think that America will be better off from the simple fact that the highest levels of its political system are no longer exclusively reserved to the fraction of its population that happens to be white. Nor is yesterday’s impact limited to issues of race; I think it almost certain that America’s first woman president will be inaugurated within a decade, and it’s even odds which of the two major parties will nominate her.

The broadening of the pool of potential talent this implies will be desperately needed in the years to come. It’s unfortunate, though it was probably inevitable, that the major issues of this moment in history were barely mentioned by any party, major or minor, in the presidential campaign. Over the next decade or so, the United States will have to work out a way to stand down from a global military-economic empire it can no longer afford to maintain; it will have to find the money and the means to replace a mostly fictive economy based on the manipulation of baroque financial instruments with a real economy based on the production of goods and services for people; it will have to make good on decades of malign neglect inflicted on the national infrastructure on nearly every level, even as it struggles to convert a suburban landcape viable only in an age of cheap abundant fossil fuels to something that makes sense in the world of scarce and expensive energy ahead of us.

Few of the changes that will be imposed by these necessities will be popular. Many, in fact, will be bitterly resented, and none of them will come cheaply. We have wasted so many opportunities and poured so many of our once-abundant resources into a decades-long joyride that the next few years will almost certainly impose one wrenching challenge after another on a society that the recent past has left very poorly equipped to face them. Our history is among the heaviest burdens we face, because the habits we learned during America’s imperial zenith are among the things that are most necessary to unlearn in the new and far more multipolar world dawning around us.

Still, I find myself feeling a bit more hopeful than before, for the burden of racial hatred was also profoundly rooted in American history and identity, and the verdict of last night’s election suggests that it has turned out to be subject to change. I think of the difference forty years has made, from 1968, when an assassin’s bullet cut down Martin Luther King and inner cities across America exploded in violence, to 2008, when a nation’s ballot sent Barack Obama to the presidency and many of those same inner cities celebrated straight through the night. We live in a different country now, and the possibility that Americans might be able to rise to the massive challenge of the deindustrial transition has become just slightly harder for me to dismiss out of hand. Still, that turn of history’s wheel is still ahead of us, and we will have to wait and see.