Thursday, April 30, 2009

This Side of Thunderdome

If you want to make the gods laugh, an old proverb suggests, tell them your plans. The three years since I first started posting these essays online make a tolerably good case for that claim. When I launched The Archdruid Report three years ago, I had no great expectations for the project, and I certainly never expected to end up facing the business end of a video camera on a Los Angeles sound stage, talking about Mad Max.

Still, that’s exactly where I was yesterday, doing my peak oil talking head routine while the camera rolled and the time I usually spend writing my weekly post here went elsewhere (which is why this post is a day later than usual). Warner Home Video is gearing up for a 30th anniversary DVD rerelease of Mad Max, with the usual assortment of bonus tracks, and one of the bonuses will be a documentary feature looking at the dystopian future portrayed in the Mad Max movies. When the producers started looking for – what do you call experts on dismal visions of the future? Doomologists? – my name came up; the result, after a flurry of emails, was a quick flight down to Los Angeles.

It’s popular these days to despise Los Angeles, and certainly there’s a lot about it to dislike; the gray smoky soup that passes for air comes to mind, not to mention the relentless rush and clamor of seven million people or so crammed into a modestly sized coastal valley between the desert and the deep blue sea. Still, I have a grudging fondness for the place. Though it often seems as though every single one of those seven million people are there for one purpose – to make a fast buck or, rather, as many fast bucks as possible – it’s almost refreshing to see that fact so nakedly on display, free of the bulky garments of hypocrisy that so often bundle them up elsewhere.

It’s also not too hard, while strolling along Promenade Park in Santa Monica or peering through the smog at the harsh brown slopes of the mountains all around, to glimpse what the area was like before it became Exhibit A in any study of metastatic urban sprawl. Nor is it too hard to imagine what the same region will be like a few centuries from now, when the inevitable dieoff is a matter of fading memory and salvage from all that sprawl will most likely be the economic mainstay of the small population that remains. If you want to talk about apocalyptic futures, in other words, greater Los Angeles is not a bad place to do it.

Nor is it an inappropriate place to talk about the way that our collective imagination of the future is shaped by the most unlikely influences. If you asked people to put together lists of believable sources for visions of the future, low-budget action films would probably not appear very often. Yet Mad Max and its two sequels have had an extraordinary impact on the contemporary imagination. Suggest that the near future will look like the settings of Zardoz or Logan’s Run, to name two other dystopian-future films of the same decade, and you’ll likely get blank looks from those who’ve forgotten the movies in question, and horse laughs from those who do. By contrast, if you suggest that we’re likely headed toward a “Mad Max future,” you can be tolerably sure that everyone present will understand what you are saying, and at least a few of them will agree with you.

Now of course this is partly because the story lines of Mad Max and its sequels are old hat to anybody who hasn’t been hiding under a rock for the last four decades or so. Mad Max is simply another 1970s good-cop-gone-rogue action film set in a vaguely defined future instead of the present; the title character is a member of an elite highway patrol whose running fight with a motorcycle gang ends up costing his wife and son their lives, sending him on a quest for vengeance. The Road Warrior maps the plot of a thousand and one Westerns – the lone gunslinger seeking redemption by rescuing a community threatened by bandits – onto a more detailed future of social collapse and brutal violence. Even Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome, which strayed a little further from this sort of formulaic plot, is pieced together from a dozen or so reliable Hollywood themes.

As a framework for thinking about the future, a reliance on familiar plot formulas has some severe and predictable problems. Think of the way that the late and unlamented Bush administration based its foreign policy on a storyline that was essentially borrowed from superhero comics. We’re the good guys, therefore anything we do to the bad guys is justified; they’re the bad guys, therefore their behavior is motivated solely by their own badness, nothing need be done about the abuses they claim to be avenging, and everyone can be expected to cheer when the good guys clobber them. It’s a familiar story line. Apply it to war and politics in the real world, though, and it turns into an epic source of failure.

The same risk faces attempts to use the formulaic framework of the Mad Max movies in any simplistic way to make sense of the future. Still, certain themes in the movies are at least worth some reflection. The collapse of civilization over the course of the series, in particular, is not a sudden thing. In the first movie, some semblance of government and ordinary society still exists, though both are fraying catastrophically; in the second, civil order has broken down temporarily in a mad scramble for resources; in the third, new social structures with their own laws have begun to emerge, and alternative energy resources have come into their own – I can’t think of another attempt to portray a deindustrial future that has achieved the gritty realism of Beyond Thunderdome’s Bartertown, with its methane energy economy driven by fermenting pig feces.

Nor, I am sorry to say, is the violence central to the film’s storyline entirely out of place. My inflight reading on the trips down to Los Angeles and back again was an old favorite, John Morris’ The Age of Arthur, the only really comprehensive attempt so far to use the tools of history to make sense of the original context of the Arthurian legend – the collapse, partial recovery, and final defeat of Roman Britain in the fifth century. It’s a hefty volume, but worth reading for anyone who hopes to get a sense of what the collapse of a civilization actually looks like. The collapse of social order was a lived reality at that time; Lord Humongous, the hockey-masked leader of the raiders in The Road Warrior, had a close equivalent in the canny Saxon pirate Hengist, who took advantage of civil war among British magnates to ravage Britain and lay the foundations for the later ascendancy of the English; the fragmentary records of that time, with their references to unchecked violence and the collapse of civilized life, find ample confirmation from archeologists.

What makes so much current talk about a “Mad Max future” problematic, it seems to me, is simply the assumption that this sort of catastrophic unraveling will be a universal experience. This is a little like suggesting that anyone who lived during the twentieth century must have spent time huddling in an air raid shelter or been interned in a concentration camp. In any future we are at all likely to face, the collapse of social order will be a significant fact in some regions, and the raids and mass migrations that swept away most of Roman Britain and built the kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy on its ruins will likely have equivalents in certain places; this is the sort of thing that happens when civilizations break down. Other places, however, will follow very different trajectories, because another thing that happens when civilizations break down is that historical events downshift to a more local scale. To borrow Thomas Friedman’s metaphor, civilizations flatten out the Earth, but this is a temporary effect; when civilizations decline and fall, roundness returns, and communities once bound into a sprawling whole find themselves cut loose to shape their own histories.

It may be possible to anticipate at least some of the regional differences that will take shape as the industrial age comes to an end, and next week’s post will suggest some of the issues involved. In the meantime, it might be a useful exercise for those of my readers interested in exploring the subject to sort through their own images of the future, to get some sense of how many of those images come from media of the Mad Max variety, and to compare them with the way some tolerably well documented example of collapse actually occurred – the fall of Roman Britain is only one of many possibilities, though libraries in the English-speaking world tend to be tolerably well stocked with books on that particular example. Though the Mad Max movies went zooming off beyond Thunderdome, most of us will likely end up a good deal this side of it as the industrial age creaks and clatters toward its end.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Struggle of Paradigms

Perhaps the most fascinating factor shaping today’s debates about the future of industrial society, and certainly among the most frustrating, is the rapidity with which any such debate plunges into territory outside the reach of rational argument. Watch a conversation about the subject, and nearly always one of two things will happen: either the participants will find they share basic assumptions in common, and will proceed to build a conversation on that firm ground, or their assumptions will differ and they’ll spend the rest of the conversation talking past one another.

Any number of examples could be cited, but the one that comes to mind just now is the way that communications break down over the subject of environmental limits. It’s no exaggeration to say that either you believe in limits or you don’t. If you do, it seems glaringly obvious that modern industrial civilization, which depends on ever-increasing exploitation of finite and nonrenewable resources, is in deep trouble, and the only viable options are those that jettison the fantasy of perpetual economic growth and aim at a controlled descent to a level of energy and resource use per capita that can be sustained over the long run.

If you don’t believe in limits, by contrast, such notions are the height of folly. Since, according to this way of thinking, progress can by definition overcome any limit nature might impose on human beings, it seems glaringly obvious that modern industrial civilization needs to push progress into overdrive so that it can find and deploy the innovations that will get us past today’s problems and launch our species onward toward its glorious future, whatever that happens to be.

Readers of this blog will have little trouble guessing the side of this division on which I can be found. As a student of ecology, I’ve learned that environmental limits play a dominant role in shaping the destiny of every species, ours included; as a student of history, I’ve reviewed the fate of any number of civilizations that believed themselves to be destiny’s darlings, and proceeded to pave the road to collapse with their own ecological mistakes. From my perspective, the insistence that limits don’t apply to us is as good a case study as one might wish of that useful Greek word hubris, otherwise defined as the overweening pride of the doomed. Still, the fact that these things seem so self-evident to me makes it all the more intriguing that they are anything but self-evident to most people in the industrial world today.

This same territory was mapped out the year I was born, from a different perspective, by Thomas Kuhn, whose famous book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is as influential as it is rarely read. Kuhn was among the first historians of science to put the popular image of scientific progress to the test of history, and find it wanting. In place of the notion that science advances toward objective truth by the steady accumulation of proven facts – a notion that continues to shape histories of science written for popular consumption – he showed that scientific beliefs are profoundly shaped by social and cultural forces, and that the relation between scientific theory and the facts on the ground is a great deal more complex than conventional ideas allow.

Kuhn’s take on things has been misstated often enough that it probably needs a summary here. During a period of what he calls “normal science,” scientists model their work on a paradigm. This isn’t some sort of vague worldview, in the sense too often given to the word recently; rather, it’s a specific example of science at work, an investigation by an exemplary scientist and the successful and popular theory resulting from that research. In bacteriology, for example, Louis Pasteur’s research program in the 1870s and 1880s, which led to the first successful artificial vaccines, became the paradigm that later researchers followed; good bacteriological research – in Kuhn’s terms, normal science – was research that followed Pasteur’s lead, worked at fine-tuning his theories, and asked the same kinds of questions about the same kinds of phenomena that he asked and answered.

Sooner or later, though, a mismatch opens up between the paradigm and the facts on the ground; the research methods drawn from the paradigm stop yielding good answers, and the paradigmatic theory no longer allows for successful prediction of phenomena. Scientists respond by making the theory more elaborate, the way that Ptolemy’s earth-centered cosmology had to be padded out with epicycle after epicycle to make it fit the vagaries of planetary motion. Crisis comes when the theory becomes so cumbersome that even its stoutest believers come to realize that something is irreducibly wrong, or when data emerges that no reworking of the paradigmatic theory can explain. Sooner or later the crisis resolves when a researcher propounds a new theory that makes sense of the confusion. That theory, and the research program that created it, then becomes the new paradigm in the field.

So far, so good. Kuhn pointed out, though, that while the new paradigm solves questions the old one could not, the reverse is often true as well: the old paradigm does things the new paradigm cannot. (Sailors who navigate by the stars still use Ptolemaic astronomy, for example, because one of the questions it answers elegantly – what does the movement of the heavens look like from Earth? – is awkward to work out using the Copernican system.) It’s standard practice for the new paradigm to include the value judgment that the questions the new paradigm answers are the ones that matter, and the ones the old paradigm does better don’t count. Nor is this judgment pure propaganda; since the questions the new paradigm answers are generally the ones that researchers have been wrestling with for decades or centuries, they look more important than details that have been comfortably settled since time out of mind. They may also be more important, in every meaningful sense, if they allow practical problems to be solved that the old paradigm left insoluble.

Yet the result of that value judgment, Kuhn argued, is the false impression that science progresses, replacing relatively false beliefs with relatively more true ones, and thus gradually advances on the truth. He argued that different paradigms are not attempts to answer the same questions, differing in their level of accuracy, but attempts to answer entirely different questions – or, to put it another way, they are models that highlight different features of a complex reality, and cannot be reduced to one another. Thus, for example, Ptolemaic astronomy isn’t wrong, just useful for different purposes than Copernican astronomy. (From the standpoint of relativity theory, please note, this is quite correct: since there are no fixed points in the cosmos, only frames of reference, it’s as meaningful to take an earth-centered frame of reference and calculate the movements of the planets from there as it is to take a sun-centered frame of reference and do the same thing.)

All these same considerations sprawl outside the limits of the sciences to define the rise and fall of paradigms in the entire range of human social phenomena. This brings us back around to the irreconcilable differences that introduced this post, for the difference between the believers and the disbelievers in limits is, at root, a difference in paradigms. Those who believe that modern industrial society is destined for, or even capable of, unlimited economic expansion have drawn their paradigm from the industrial revolution and its three-century aftermath, with James Watt and his steam engine playing roughly the same role that Louis Pasteur played in the old paradigm of bacteriology, say, or Isaac Newton still plays in some aspects of physics. Like any other paradigm, the industrial revolution defines certain questions and issues as important, and dismisses others from serious consideration.

This is where the problems arise, because a solid case can be made – and this blog has tried in various ways to make it – that some of the questions dismissed from consideration by the “normal culture” of industrial expansion are among those our species most needs to face just now, as the depletion of fossil fuel reserves and the soaring costs of environmental damage become central facts of our contemporary experience. The industrial paradigm can only interpret running out of one resource as a call to begin exploiting some even richer one. If there is no richer one, and even the poorer ones are rapidly being depleted as well, what then? From within the industrial paradigm, that question cannot even be formulated; the assumption that there is always some new and better resource to be had is hardwired into the ways of thinking that the industrial paradigm makes inevitable.

Thus a change of paradigms is necessary. The belief in limits discussed earlier in this post derives from a different model of this kind – the model of ecology, which is still sorting out its historical vision and has not yet quite found its paradigmatic theory, researcher, and discovery. (Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, and Charles Darwin are among the current contenders.) From within this paradigm, the models that provide the most insight into our contemporary situation are those found in nonhuman nature – specifically, the cycles of increase, overshoot, and dieoff which afflict so many other species that rely on outside forces to control their numbers. Unless we take that model and its implications into account, the ecological paradigm suggests, some of the most important factors shaping our future are completely out of sight.

The change from one paradigm to another, however, is not an overnight thing. Kuhn points out that in the sciences, it usually has to wait until most of the older generation of scientists, who have been trained in the old paradigm, have been removed from the debate by old age and death. The same thing is too often true in other fields. Thus it’s uncomfortably likely that even as the industrial paradigm fails to explain an increasingly challenging world, a great many people will cling to the faith that progress will bail us out. Meanwhile, those of us who have made the Copernican leap to a universe in which human beings are no longer central will have to accomplish what we can on the smaller scales available to us.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Some Advice for Distributists

One of the pitfalls that lies in the path of those who try to gauge the outlines of the future in advance, and swallows no small number of them, is the assumption that today’s popular beliefs and assumptions are a good guide to tomorrow’s. Sometimes, to be sure, this turns out to be the case, and some widespread opinion or other remains glued in place for decades or centuries – though this usually happens to opinions that most sensible people think will soon be abandoned. More often, though, there’s no belief less popular at any given time than the most firmly held convictions of the recent past.

A reminder of this landed in my inbox a few days back, in an article about a recent survey of American opinion. According to the article, only 53% of the people who responded to the survey agreed that capitalism was better than socialism; 20% thought that socialism was better, while 27% weren’t sure which way to call it. The article caused a brief flutter in the dovecotes of the Left, and a somewhat larger one in the hawk-cotes of the Right, but I’m not at all sure that either side caught the wider implications of the shift this survey documented.

Some history needs to be surveyed to make sense of those implications. Ever since the rubble stopped bouncing in 1945, what used to be called political economy – that is, the way that human societies organize and direct their economic activities – has been defined by a choice between two unpromising alternatives. Calling them simply “capitalism” and “socialism,” popular as this habit is, misstates the matter, because they were much more specific than that.

The first might better be called corporate capitalism, as it recycled older forms of capitalism in the service of the weird social fiction of the corporation, a “legal person” that has more rights and fewer responsibilities than the rest of us, and serves today’s well-to-do in roughly the same role that the image of Oz the Great and Powerful did for the little man behind the curtain. The second might with equal justice be called bureaucratic socialism, as it translated the grand promises and stirring rhetoric of generations of radicals into dour totalitarian states that guaranteed every citizen an equal share of deprivation and repression.

In retrospect, it might seem obvious that there are many other ways to run a free market economy than relying on an arrangement that Adam Smith himself considered the worst possible way to run a business. (I wonder how many of today’s cheerleaders for corporatist capitalism have read Smith’s scathing comments about joint-stock companies, the proto-corporations of his own time.) It might seem equally obvious that there are plenty of ways to manage an economy of collective ownership that do not require vast sclerotic bureaucracies governed by dogmatic ideologies. Nor are some form of free market or some form of collective ownership the only ways to manage a society’s production and distribution of goods and services.

The fact remains, though, that since 1945 nearly everyone in the industrial world, and most of the nonindustrial world as well, has behaved as though corporate capitalism, bureaucratic socialism, or some awkward hybrid such as social democracy composed of spare parts from both, were the only possible forms of political economy. This is problematic now, because both corporate capitalism and bureaucratic socialism have not only failed abjectly to make good on their promises, but have turned out to be catastrophically failure-prone into the bargain.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and its client states, the massed failures of bureaucratic socialism are hard to miss. Still, corporate capitalism has demonstrated not once but twice that its results are just as bad. From 1896 to 1929, and then again from 1980 to 2008, corporate capitalism was allowed to take the bit in its teeth and run, and in each case the result was an accelerating cycle of disastrous booms and busts and the emergence of a culture of corporate kleptocracy that, between them, ended up devastating the global economy. Meanwhile the faith that a rising tide would lift all boats turned out, in both cases, to be completely misplaced; the benefits that were supposed to trickle down trickled up instead, beggaring the working classes and driving much of the middle class into relative poverty while funneling most of society’s wealth into the unproductive hands of speculators and financiers.

Neither system, in other words, works worth a tinker’s expletive at the basic job of keeping an economy productive and functioning, and both thus might reasonably be chucked into history’s recycle bin. The one difficulty is that very few people nowadays realize that there are other alternatives – and this, in turn, is a function of our collective blindness to our own history.

Until the Second World War, in point of fact, corporate capitalism and bureaucratic socialism were only the most successful of a dizzying range of systems of political economy that had a substantial public presence. Distributism, syndicalism, synarchism, guild socialism, and many others were discussed in a lively literature of books and periodicals, and each had its enthusiastic followers. Nor were these simply slight variations on the two systems left standing; some tended toward the free market end of the spectrum, others toward the collective ownership end, and some occupied positions in the middle, assigning some fields of economic activity to the free market while putting others in the public sphere, but each offered a distinctive system for managing the realities of human economic life.

What squeezed these alternative systems out of collective consciousness was the long era of the Cold War, when both sides turned their respective systems of political economy into ideological battle flags in the struggle over which of two empires – American or Russian – would dominate the world in the wake of the British Empire’s long retreat. (Yes, I know it’s unpopular these days to suggest that America is an empire, but given that we station troops in 140 countries just now, backing up a state of affairs in which the 5% of humanity that lives in the United States uses around a third of the world’s resources and industrial output, the term is hard to avoid.) The United States won that struggle, only to find – as every other empire in history has found – that getting to the top of the heap simply makes you target number one for an endless series of fresh challengers, one of whom will eventually win.

The disastrous narrowing of vision that was driven by the bitter rivalries of the Cold War years remains fixed in place, though, not only in the United States but – in large part due to America’s current role as the main manufacturer and exporter of the global culture industry – throughout most of the world. The problem with this state of affairs is not limited to the massive failures that afflict both corporate capitalism and bureaucratic socialism; neither system has shown the least trace of an ability to deal with the challenge of making human economics work within the fragile ecology and finite resource base of our planet, for example. Still, at a time when the world’s industrial societies are facing severe problems due to the steady depletion of fossil fuel reserves, relying on systems of political economy that have a proven track record of catastrophic dysfunction anyway is not exactly a good idea.

What the survey mentioned at the beginning of this post shows, in turn, is that a growing number of Americans have become aware of this last point. That opens up options that have been closed for the last two generations or so. Thus I’d like to offer a bit of advice to distributists – yes, there are still some out there – and proponents of any other alternative systems of political economy that may still be around after all these years: now’s your chance. If, as the survey suggests, 27% of Americans have already reached the point where neither capitalism nor socialism has any particular appeal, there’s a large audience waiting to hear what you have to say, if you make an effort to get the word out to them.

Now of course there’s also a place for newly minted alternatives, provided that those don’t start from the assumption that people can consume more goods and services than they produce, or that the Earth’s remaining resource base can support – two little difficulties that have been all too common in recent schemes of this sort. Even the most determined prophet of some new system, though, might benefit from taking a good close look at what has been done in the past; if you’re going to reinvent the wheel, it might be useful to make sure that your version is actually better than the last century or two of attempts at the same thing. Anything that can pop our collective imaginations out of the current and hopelessly sterile fixation on the relative merits of two abjectly failed systems is likely to be a good thing.

Will it be enough of a good thing to stave off the decline and fall this blog has been discussing for the last three years? At this stage of the game, with petroleum production already sliding and so many opportunities gone by the boards, that seems hopelessly unlikely. Still, the adoption of some less wildly inefficient and failure-prone approach to political economy would be a very sensible move as we begin to deal with the challenges of the long era of contraction and readjustment that is taking shape around us right now. Utopian schemes remain as useless as they have ever been, but efforts at thoughtful, constructive, and realistic change are quite another matter, and in the wake of corporate capitalism’s latest round of failure, there might just be an opportunity to accomplish a bit of the latter.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Peak Oil Advice from German Poets

Fairly often, during the three years or so since these essays first started trying to map out the topography of the deindustrial future ahead of us, people have responded with a straightforward question: what do you think we should do about it? Even when it’s posed rhetorically, as it so often is, this question strikes me as a good sign.

It’s one thing, after all, to treat the twilight of the industrial age as an abstract possibility, or a dumping ground for Utopian or apocalyptic fantasies, as so often happens these days. It’s quite another to grapple with it as a reality that can be expected to shape the rest of our lives. Those who make the subtle transition from one to the other tolerably often find themselves confronted with some form of the same message the German poet Rainier Maria Rilke received from the statue of Apollo: Du musst dein Leben aendern, “you must change your life.”

Still, figuring out exactly what sort of change is needed is a more complex matter. As often as not the people who ask for my suggestions are at that second stage of the process, sure that they have to take action but far from sure what they ought to do. Last week’s Archdruid Report fielded a question from a reader who has reached that point in his confrontation with the future looming up before us. To judge by the recent contents of my inbox, it’s a fairly common place to be just now, and this week’s essay will try to respond to it, not just for the people who asked it directly, but also for others who may be facing the same issues just now.

It’s probably necessary to make a few points to begin with. These will be familiar to longtime readers of this blog, but they remain effectively absent from our collective conversation around the future, outside a narrow slice of the peak oil movement, and thus bear repeating.

First, it’s crucial to remember that our predicament is anything but unique. The fantasy that today’s industrial societies are destiny’s darlings, and therefore exempt from the common fate of civilizations, needs to be set aside; so does the equally misleading fantasy that today’s industrial societies is the worst of all possible worlds and are getting the cataclysmic fate they deserve. The societies of the industrial world are human cultures, no better or worse than most; for a variety of reasons, they happened to stumble onto the reserves of stored carbon hidden in the Earth, and used most of them in three centuries of reckless exploitation; now, having overshot their resource base like so many other societies, they're following the familiar trajectory of decline and fall. Letting go of the delusion of our own uniqueness enables us to learn from the past, and also makes it easier to set aside some of the unproductive cultural narratives that hamstring so many attempts to respond to our predicament.

Second, one of the lessons the past offers is that the fall of civilizations is a slow, uneven process. None of us are going to wake up one morning a few weeks, or months, or years from now and find ourselves living in the Dark Ages, much less the Stone Age. Thus trying to leap in a single bound to some imagined future is unlikely to work very well; rather, the most effective strategy will be a matter of muddling through, trying to deal with each stage of the descent as it comes into sight, and being prepared to make plenty of midcourse corrections. Flexibility will be more useful than ideology, and making do will be an essential survival skill.

Third, another of the lessons offered by the past is that the long road down is not going to be easy. Like every human society in every age, the future ahead of us will have opportunities for happiness and achievement, of course, and there will doubtless be significant gains to set in the balance against the inevitable losses, especially for those who long for simpler lives at a slower pace. Still, the losses will be terrible; it’s crucial not to sugar-coat them, despite the very real temptation to do so, or to ignore the immense human tragedy that is an inevitable part of the slow death of any civilization.

Fourth, the harsh dimensions of the future can be mitigated, and the positive aspects fostered, by preparations and actions that are well within the reach of individuals, families, and communities. Not all declines and falls are created equal; in many failed civilizations of the past, a relatively small number of people willing to commit themselves to constructive action have made a huge difference in the outcome, and not only in the short term. The same option is wide open today; the one question is whether there will be those willing to take up the challenge.

Fifth, we can only guess at many of the details of the future ahead of us. Drawing up detailed plans for the future may be a source of comfort in the face of a relentlessly unpredictable future, but that same unpredictability makes any plan, no matter how clever or popular, a dubious source of guidance at best. Nor is consensus a useful guide; one further lesson of history is that in every age, the consensus view of the future is consistently wrong. Instead, the deliberate cultivation of diverse and even conflicting approaches by groups and individuals maximizes the likelihood that the broadest possible toolkit will reach the waiting hands of the future.

These points, and especially the last, make it a waste of time to offer some fixed list of steps that those who want to change their lives ought to do. (In fact, making or following such a list is one thing that those who want to change their lives may well find it better not to do.) What’s needed is not a list but a template for taking those first basic steps. Any template will do, but the one suggested here is likely as good as any.

It’s simple enough, really: learn one thing, give up one thing, save one thing.

Learn one thing. One of the greatest challenges we face collectively just now is that the skills relevant to the abstract global economy of paper wealth that has dominated the last few decades, which are also the skills that most of us have accordingly learned, will rapidly become useless in the far less abstract economy of the fairly near future. Our capacity to farm out the production of necessary goods and services to sweatshop laborers on distant continents is in the beginning stages of a drastic decline, while many of the job categories that have kept people in the industrial world employed are in the process of going away.

This does not mean that each of us will have to provide all of life’s necessities for ourselves on an individual basis. It does mean that each of us who can provide one of life’s necessities for ourselves, our family, our neighbors, and our community will have a highly marketable skill in the local economies of the deindustrializing future. Getting some such skill is thus the first critical step in your personal transition to that future. It probably has to be said that this doesn’t mean reading a few books on such a skill; it means providing yourself with tools and materials and getting to work here and now, growing vegetables, making soap, raising chickens, brewing beer, or doing whatever else it is that you decide to learn how to do, until you can do it well enough, and reliably enough, that your neighbors are willing to barter whatever it is that they know how to do for a share of your produce. Whatever you learn, learn it inside and out; in ten years you may be depending on your knowledge for survival.

Give up one thing. Unless you’re a rare bird indeed, many of the things that make up your lifestyle right now are only there because a baroquely complex industrial system fueled with unimaginable amounts of nonrenewable energy makes them available to you. Unless you can come up with alternative sources that lack that dependence, all of them will go away at some point in the future. Choose one of those things, get rid of it now, and make the necessary changes in the rest of your life so that you can function gracefully without it.

It can certainly be something big – I know a growing number of people who have gotten rid of their cars, for example – but it doesn’t have to be. Whatever the scale, though, choose something that will take some effort and planning to give up, but also something with an immediate payback – if you give up your car, for example, you’ll have to make other arrangements for transportation, but you’ll also find yourself with hundreds of unspent dollars each month from the payments you don’t have to make, the gas you don’t have to buy, and so on. Choose it, give it up, and don’t look back; every dependence on the industrial system you can abandon is a vulnerability you won’t have as that system comes apart at the seams.

Save one thing. One of the common consequences of the fall of civilizations is that cultures get shredded, and many things of value that aren’t needed for immediate survival get lost. Arts, crafts, music, literature, sciences, technologies, religious and philosophical traditions – none of them are invulnerable. When they make it through the dark age that follows the breakdown of a civilization, nearly always it’s because someone cared enough to keep them going as living traditions. Between the immense cultural legacies of our present civilization, and the extreme vulnerability of most of those legacies to the effects of decline and fall, such people will be desperately needed in the years to come.

Choosing what you will save is easier than it might seem. Sort through the cultural legacies that matter to you, then, until you can find something that satisfies two criteria: first, the idea that people in the future might have to do without it forever should be intolerable to you; second, you should be willing and able to do something significant to keep that from happening. What you do will depend on what you’re trying to save; the steps you’ll need to take to help keep amateur radio going will not be the same as those you’ll need to help preserve the Appalachian dulcimer and its distinctive music for the long term, and vice versa. Make your choice, and be ready to share what you’re doing with others who share your passion.

These are first steps, of course, and for some people they will doubtless be baby steps, though it’s by no means a given that they will always be. Any one of them done thoroughly will give you a significant advantage in facing the difficult future ahead of us. Other changes will follow in their own time, chosen willingly or imposed by events; the sooner you begin to deal with the need to embrace the necessary, to change your life, the less overwhelming the changes further on are likely to be. As another German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, said: “Whatever you can do, or believe you can, begin it. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it. Begin it now.”

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Facing Decline, Facing Ourselves

Of all the fallacies that surround the contemporary crisis of industrial civilization, and have done so much to bring that crisis down on us, the most seductive is the assumption that it’s a technical problem that can be solved by technical means. That’s an easy assumption to make, for a variety of reasons, but it puts us in the situation of the drunkard in the old joke who looks for his keys under the streetlight half a block from the dark sidewalk where he dropped them, since under the streetlight he can at least see what he’s doing.

The technical aspects of our predicament, though challenging, are the least of our worries; it’s the other aspects that have proven intractable. Consider the project of cutting US per capita energy consumption to a third of its present level. Given that the average European uses a third as much energy each year as the average American, and in many ways gets a better standard of living out of it, this is far from impossible; a great deal of the technology is sitting on the shelf only one continent away, in effect, and simply needs to be put to work.

Now of course such a project would require a great deal of investment in railways, mass transit, urban redevelopment, and the like, but what’s been spent on recent military adventures in the Middle East would cover much of it – and let’s not even talk about what could be done with the funds being wasted right now to prop up Wall Street banks looted by their own executives in the final blowoff of an epoch of corporate kleptocracy. The return on the investment needed to cut our energy use to European levels, in turn, would be immense. Since the US still produces more than a third of the oil it uses, to name only one result, we would no longer be sending billions of dollars a year to line the pockets of Middle Eastern despots; we’d be a net exporter of oil – even, quite conceivably, a member of OPEC.

So why isn’t so sensible a project being debated right now in the halls of Congress? Why, more broadly, has energy conservation through lifestyle change – arguably the single easiest and most cost effective option we have on hand in dealing with the end of the age of cheap oil – been entirely off the political and cultural radar screens since the end of the 1970s, so much so that most of those who have noticed that we’re running out of cheap abundant energy have framed the issue entirely in terms of finding some technical gimmick that will let us keep on living the way we live now?

This is where the technical dimension of our predicament gives way to a region where the forces that matter are not the cut-and-dried facts of physics and engineering, but murkier factors – political, cultural, psychological, and (let’s whisper the word) spiritual – and what’s theoretically possible matters a great deal less than what’s culturally and emotionally acceptable. Most writers on peak oil, though not all, have tended to shy away from this unsettled and unsettling territory. This is quite understandable; industrial culture privileges technical knowledge and rewards those who can (or say they can) make the machinery of our daily life purr more smoothly and profitably, and shuts its ears against those who ask questions about the purposes the machines serve and the emotional drives that make those purposes seem to make sense. Still, this leaves us scrabbling around with the drunkard under the streetlight, searching for keys that are lying in the dark half a block away.

It’s for this reason, among others, that I was pleased to get a copy of Carolyn Baker’s new book, Sacred Demise: Walking the Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse. Those of my readers who are familiar with Baker’s blog and mine will probably be able to imagine, if they don’t happen to have followed, some of the lively disagreements we’ve had, and it will doubtless come as no surprise that some of the arguments made in Sacred Demise seem problematic to me. Still, those issues of detail are less important than what Baker has tried, with quite some success, to accomplish with this book. What Sacred Demise represents is the first really sustained effort to pull the debate over the future of industrial civilization out of the comfortable realm of technical questions, and force it to confront the deeper and fundamentally nonrational factors that have done so much to keep effective solutions out of reach.

The title of the book may need some explanation, because Sacred Demise deals at least as much with psychology as with religion. Admittedly the line between these two has become blurred in recent years; as the modern West has redefined religion wholly in terms of personal relationships with the transcendent, and made its collective aspects increasingly hard to sustain, psychology has come to play the role in modern religious movements that theology still plays in their more traditional sisters. While this shift has had its share of dubious results, it has allowed some crucial religious themes – the imminence of death, the quest for meaning in human existence, and the challenge both these level at individuals and societies alike, among others – to remain live issues in a passionately secular age.

These themes, in turn, frame Baker’s approach. She argues that we are long past the point at which the unraveling of the industrial age can be prevented, and our options at this point are limited to facing the difficult future ahead of us, on the one hand, or pretending it isn’t there until it overwhelms us, on the other. She dissects the logic of those who only want to hear about solutions, tracing it back into its deep roots in the fear of death and the attempt to cling to familiar patterns of meaning even when those no longer make sense of our experience, and she tackles the awkward but necessary issues all of us have to confront as decline and fall sets in: the need to mourn, to confront the reality of death, to find new narratives to make sense of a rapidly changing world. .

For Baker, then, the core task of our time is not how to prevent collapse; decades of mishandled opportunities have put that hope out of reach. Nor does she embrace the futile strategy of trying to hide out in survivalist enclaves until the rubble stops bouncing. Instead, she calls us to face collapse squarely and personally, as a reality that is already shaping our lives, and will do so ever more forcefully in the years to come. Facing collapse, in turn, requires us to deal with the whole realm of personal baggage we each bring to the experience of decline and fall. That’s a crucial issue, for the unstated psychological and religious subtexts of the crisis of industrial civilization have played a huge role in confusing the already complex issues facing the world just now.

Thus it’s vital to realize, when somebody insists that technological progress will inevitably lead our species to immortality among the stars, or when somebody else insists that contemporary civilization has become the ultimate incarnation of everything evil and will shortly be destroyed so that the righteous remnant can inhabit a perfect world, that what they’re saying has very little to do with the facts on the ground. Rather, these are statements of religious belief that coat mythic themes millennia old in a single coat of secular spraypaint. If, dear reader, one or the other of these is your religion, that’s fine – you have as much right to your faith as I have to mine – but please, for the love of Darwin, could you at least admit that it’s a religious belief, an act of faith in a particular constellation of numinous experience, rather than a self-evident truth that any sane and moral person must automatically accept?

This last point, I have to admit, goes a little beyond what Baker has to say, and in fact my central criticism of Sacred Demise is precisely that it doesn’t quite manage to apply its sharpest insights to Baker’s own point of view. That view is perilously close to the latter of the religious viewpoints mentioned above; for Baker, the diverse and morally complex reality of the industrial world is flattened into a single vast and terrible abstraction labeled by turns Civilization and Empire, the exact equivalent of Babylon and the kingdom of Satan in her historical mythology. Psychologically, this might best be described in Jungian terms as a bad case of projecting the shadow; in religious terms, it represents a drastic confusion between the realms of being, mistakenly mapping one of the great themes of myth and religious vision onto the messy and prosaic realities of everyday existence.

For all that, Sacred Demise is a crucially important book. It is not the last word on the subject, nor do I think Baker would want it to be; rather, it’s the first word in a conversation that we desperately need to start, as the high notes of economic crisis mingle with the basso-profundo of declining energy reserves, pushing us further and further away from the world of business-as-usual fantasy we have tried to inhabit for the last quarter century. We need to start talking about how we can hold onto our humanity in bitter times; about how we can find reasons for hope and sources of necessary joy as so many of our former certainties crumble to dust; about what stories we can use to bring meaning to the world when so many of our familiar meanings no longer make sense of anything. In order to face the realities of decline, in other words, we have to face ourselves, and Baker’s book is a significant contribution to that vital task.